Detroit in Ruins (Again)

Detroit is in ruins again. Here’s Juan Cole on the recent petition for bankruptcy, on the relationship between the city and the country as a whole, and on the fact that Detroit’s crisis is contemporary, not merely historical:

The 1% did a special number on southeast Michigan with its derivatives and unregulated mortgage markets; the 2008 crash hit the region hard, and it had already been being hit hard. The Detroit area is a prime example of the blight that comes from having extreme wealth (Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe) and extreme poverty (most of Detroit) co-existing in an urban metropolitan area. It doesn’t work. The wealthy have no city to play in, and the city does not have the ability to tax or benefit from the local wealthy in the suburbs. These problems are exacerbated by de facto racial segregation, such that African-Americans are many times more likely to be unemployed than are whites, and to live in urban blight rather than in nice suburbs.

Meanwhile, the Guardian took this as the opportunity to publish yet another slideshow of the city’s fabulous ruins. Their aesthetic appeal is meant, I think, as some kind of compensation for the devastation that they document. But it’s not insignificant that these images are depopulated, empty of all but material detritus: the human toll of this ruination is registered and elided at the same time. Here’s “the ballroom of the 15-floor art-deco Lee Plaza Hotel, an apartment building with hotel services built in 1929 and derelict since the early 1990s”:

Detroit ballroom

A Non-Eyewitness Account of a Plane Crash

SFO Crash“Being there” doesn’t help you to decipher an event. If anything, quite the contrary. I just slept through a plane crash. And, waking up, I probably have a much less clear view of what has happened (and what is happening) than someone halfway around the world with a decent Internet connection.

I’m flying from Vancouver to Madrid by a rather circuitous route (via San Francisco and Frankfurt). My plane left Vancouver at 6am, which meant a 4am taxi from my house. As last night I was at a friend’s birthday party, and I didn’t start packing until around 2am, I’d hardly had much sleep. No problem: all the easier to sleep on the plane.

So I dozed for most of the flight to California. And then, on arrival with six hours to kill in SFO, I settled into a chair in the terminal to sleep some more. A little later, I woke briefly to overhear two airport employees striding rapidly nearby, one asking the other if he’d heard about the crash. I took little notice and closed my eyes again.

A while later, I woke up, gathered my things and headed to grab a sandwich and find my gate. Once there, I was sitting by a power outlet and plugging in my computer when another passenger nearby asked me if I’d heard about the crash. I looked at him (still) a little groggily and he went on to say that it hadn’t been announced here at the airport, but it was on the news already. The wi-fi was unreliable where I was, so I found a seat elsewhere in the terminal and went online.

Now, a few hours later, I’m getting a sense of what’s going on. On the Internet, I’m told that an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777, coming in from Seoul, crashed on arrival, catching fire and losing its tail. Amazingly enough, the news reports suggest no fatalities. Which is all the more extraordinary as the pictures on the websites suggest one rather broken plane.

Inside the terminal, we see and hear very little of this. There’s only one television in the vicinity, and while it’s drawn quite a crowd, most people are sitting at their gates, lining up at the bars and restaurants, and/or drifting aimlessly around. Aimless because nobody has a flight to catch, as the airport is shut down, with no aircraft movements in or out. (I’m told that my own plane was diverted to Oakland.) There are periodic announcements on the public address system. Our next update is in fifteen minutes.

SFO International Terminal

For several hours, the announcements were very vague indeed. They told us of an incident, and apologized for the inconvenience. It was a while before the word “crash” was used, and it was used only once. We’ve been informed that the first-class lounge is closed, because of the “viewing possibilities” that it offered. For otherwise, from the terminal itself nothing can be seen. Supposedly the accident led to a plume of smoke, but it’s hard to distinguish where that might be given the low cloud that has been hovering on the hills surrounding much of the airport.

There’s no panic, little conversation, not even much in the way of increased cellphone traffic that one would expect to tell friends and relatives that flights have been cancelled, connections missed, delays inevitable. There are occasional groups of airport or airline workers with security badges murmuring into walkie talkies.

A voice on the PA has admitted that “many of you will be learning more from CNN than we know ourselves.”

For a while, the only, almost subliminal, indication of something out of the ordinary seemed to be the constant sound of an alarm, never answered, somewhere nearby. It was a minor irritation more than anything else, like a car alarm going off unattended on a neighbouring street. Eventually I realized that it was merely the warning marking the approaching end of the moving walkway. Now even that sound has been turned off.

In the meantime, we wait, and try to get information over a frustratingly patchy wi-fi connection. All United wide-body flights have just been cancelled. I hear that there are refreshments available by Gate 95. Here in the terminal at least, that’s the main event right now.

Update: The BBC is now reporting that at least one person died.

The Wandering Signifier

The Wandering SignifierWhat happens when difference and otherness become subject to literary and cultural representation? What roles is otherness made to play, and what functions are found for the depiction of difference? These are some of the questions Erin Graff Zivin sets out to answer in The Wandering Signifier, where her focus is the “Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary.” There are of course plenty of other more obvious social divides in Latin America than that between Jew and non-Jew. There are, in other words, plenty of “other others,” not least the indigenous peoples who were displaced by the arrival of the Europeans, and who have been oppressed ever since, but remain a significant proportion of the population in countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Guatemala. Or one might think of the African presence, legacy of the slave trade, that has had such an impact in the Caribbean, Brazil, and elsewhere. By contrast, the number of Jews in the region has always been small–albeit significant in pockets such as Buenos Aires and the River Plate region–and their place in Latin America’s often rigid social hierarchies has been much more ambivalent and ambiguous. But Graff Zivin argues that it is in part precisely because of its ambivalences (and perhaps even because of the relative scarcity of “real” Jews) that Jewishness comes strangely to the fore when it comes time for Latin American authors to define their culture’s identity and their own role in shaping it.

By stressing the role or function of otherness, Graff Zivin wants to steer clear of the mundane debates about ethnic or cultural stereotypes. She is not, for instance, all that concerned about the distance between the literary representations of “Jewishness” (a term she consistently places in quotation marks, to signal its constructedness) and the “real” attributes of flesh-and-blood, historical Jews. This distance is undeniable: “real” Jews do not fit well their stereotypical representations, not least because those representations are so contradictory. Jews are portrayed simultaneously as marginal outcasts and as sinisterly powerful; they are reviled for their supposed ugliness and at the same time feared (or desired) for their seductiveness; they are portrayed as both inescapably different and uncannily similar to the white, Western ideal. But while it is no doubt useful to point out the gap between rhetoric (whether racist or idealizing) and reality, Graff Zivin is more interested in the “rhetorical malleability” itself, and in the uses to which it is put in discourses that are often, ostensibly, not about Jews or “Jewishness” at all. Indeed, “Jews” frequently stand in for the “other others” (indigenous peoples, Afro-Latins, and so on) that may impinge more on the project of constructing a sense of Latin American identity, but that for that very reason may be less versatile or less amenable to cultural representation.

The book presents three “scenes” in which “Jewishness” commonly figures: diagnosis, transaction, and conversion. In the first case, “Jews” are often presented as sick or unhealthy; but they are also equally associated with the medical profession. So the figure of the “Jew” can play either role (or both) in the scene of diagnosis. Likewise, in the scenes of transaction, which involve sexuality and money or even the two together, as in the figure of Jewish prostitution, “Jews” are portrayed as both traders and traded. And conversion scenes focus on the figure of the “converso,” the “Jew” (and now the quotation marks take on extra weight) who may or may not be “Jewish” at all, who may provide the model either of successful assimilation or of its utter impossibility. In each case, the book provides deft and convincing (if sometimes strangely truncated) readings of a range of literary texts, canonical and otherwise, from a variety of eras and from Brazil as well as from Spanish America. New light is shed on (for instance) Jorge Isaacs’s classic María and Jorge Luis Borges’s “Emma Zunz” and “Deutches Requiem,” as well as on a Brazilian Samba and more recent stories by Fogwill and Sergio Chefjec. Consistently, Graff Zivin highlights that the diagnoses, transactions, and conversions are not merely thematic objects of representation, but also performatively enacted by the texts themselves:

The diagnosis is thus not merely written about, but enacted as well; the financial or sexual transaction is not just narrated, but the negotiation also happens on the level of discourse; conversion not only appears as a motif, but the narrative itself realizes a textual conversion: it converts its object by assimilating it into the order of representation. (26)

Ultimately, Graff Zivin is most interested in the last of these functions (and she devotes her final chapter to the topic): whether any representation of the other is inevitably also a form of assimilation. Is the other, in short, always and necessarily reduced to a mere rhetorical function or role simply by virtue of its representation? Or is there some resistance or surplus that ensures that something of the other’s otherness survives and even contests its literary representation? Against the claims of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, this book argues–and for its own sake it has to, in that it, too, quite consciously makes “Jewishness” perform a quite particular function, of helping us to delineate the ethics of representation–that rhetoric doesn’t necessarily exhaust or annihilate real difference. What is less clear is whether Graff Zivin believes that this is always the case, whether (in my terms, if not hers), something always escapes. Her preference, it seems, is towards precisely the kind of careful and self-reflexive accounts that she herself also strives to provide: Borges’s short stories; Ricardo Piglia’s Respiración arficial. This is a book about the ethics of writing that wants to make as few claims upon the other as possible.

But perhaps because of its focus on the ethical dilemma inherent in any attempt to write (about) the other, Graff Zivin’s argument tends towards abstraction. For instance, in her eclectic choice of texts, historical or social context tends to blur, often despite her own best efforts. The problematic raised by the representation of “Jewishness” comes to seem rather similar in Brazil as in Colombia, in the late twentieth century as in the nineteenth. This erasure of history is all the more pronounced when the book dwells on elements of the depiction of “Jewishness” that are drawn from a long tradition dating back to the Middle Ages if not earlier still. Of course, we are dealing here with what is effectively a myth–or a series of closely-related mythic symbolizations. But while a myth, by its very nature, is detached from history and may, in practice, also be transhistorical and transcultural, this does not mean that it is ahistorical. Indeed, treating it as such threatens to confirm its mythic power: in this case, to confirm the notion that the “Jew” (the idea of the “Jew,” not actual Jews) inevitably, and perhaps uniquely, is associated with the same unchanging series of attributes, including (no doubt) the attribute of malleability and textual slipperiness. But surely there are particular moments and particular places in which “Jewishness” takes on specific qualities, while others are discarded or downplayed. And are there not particular occasions when anxiety and/or fascination with Jewishness comes to the fore, and others when it fades into the background or is even forgotten entirely? However much Graff Zivin is clear that she has little wish to dismantle the rhetoric of “Jewishness” entirely, it seems odd to place it on the horizon of all representation of otherness in Latin America as a whole.

Further, the more that in this argument “Jewishness” comes to stand in for language as such–or for the inevitable ethical impasse posed in and by any project of representation–the more that all “Jewish” specificity is lost. Or, to put it another way, the more that the question becomes about ethics per se, the more that Graff Zivin (on her own terms) comes to risk the ethical failure to treat “Jewishness” as anything more than an empty cipher, that could be replaced by any other: indigeneity, blackness, femininity, latinidad… It is one of this book’s many virtues that it is consistently aware (and makes us aware) of this danger. But it is a weakness that in the end it falls into a trap constructed in part in and through its own anxiety to do the right thing.