Invisible

Baco, Invisible

The Foreword to Jérôme Baco’s elegant new book, Invisible, tells us that what follows will be split: between “deliberately propagandistic imagery [and] texts of absurd realism”; between “portraits of revolutionaries [. . .] disembodied and dehumanized” and “the human, simple, obvious the one we glance furtively at each morning in the mirror and hasten to make disappear” (17). One might add that it is also split, for instance, between languages, as each individual text is offered successively in French, Spanish, and English. Moreover, the book offers us nothing like a linear, coherent narrative. What we get are fragments, chronologically and spatially unmoored, from what appear to be many positions, a multitude of perspectives, albeit all cast in terms of a shifting first-person subject: a “moi confundu” or “confused I”; a “confusión pronominal” or a “mistaken pronoun” (19, 20). So if this is what we see when we glance in the mirror, then it’s a cracked glass indeed, and perhaps the result is less “simple” or “obvious” (even less “human”?) than it may seem.

First, the images. These are forty-one black-and-white portraits of revolutionaries or radicals, who range from the familiar (Che Guevara; Nelson Mandela) to the relatively obscure (Mélida Anaya Montes; Ali Shariati). Almost always these figures are portrayed head and shoulders, from the front or very slightly to one side. They are abstracted from any social context or interaction: there is no visual background, and the only information provided about them–in two indexes, at the back of the book–is their names (“qui/quien/who” [183]) and their countries of origin (“où/dónde/where” [185]). Otherwise they are, almost quite literarily, icons: both in the sense that they are images that are to stand in for and simplify a much more complex reality; and in that they acquire a quasi-religious aura, inviting a kind of supplication. This feeling is only enhanced by the fact that every image is in some way distressed, as though many hands (or lips) had already touched their surface and worn them down. In sum, though the figures they portray end up appearing distant, even inaccessible, the pictures themselves remain tactile and convey a sense of their own materiality. We are never led to confuse the signifier with the signified, the icon with the saint. As with (say) Andy Warhol’s screenprints, what comes to the fore is the iconography, the ways in which the image ultimately acquires a life of its own.

But what the book’s title suggests is that the hyper-visibility of these images, precisely the ways in which they call attention to themselves, obscures something else. And perhaps that something else surfaces in the texts that surround them, texts whose connection to the portraits is seldom if ever obvious, though may do make us think in new ways about the icons they accompany. Opposite Che’s image, for instance, is a reflection on “the immortal” that becomes a meditation on suicide (64). And the portrait of Mother Teresa follows what is effectively a miniature story or micronarrative entitled “The Little Thief of the Poor,” in which the discovery of a “vaccine against poverty” enrages the average Leftist: “How could they do this, to him! He who never stopped talking about social justice!” (88). And in the end it is unclear how much this is a critique of those who venerate charity, or just as much of those who work for charity themselves. Equally, the brief fable that goes with the picture of Martin Luther King plays on the notion of kingship (“the king of the what” who wants “the what to be king”) and ends “speechless” (160). Is this an alternative King to the one who looks out on the facing page, or just another way to tell the same story of the charismatic leader who goes “to the mountaintop” but is denied the promised land?

So it is not exactly as though the texts render visible in any precise way what is obscured in and through the icons. Rather, perhaps, it is in the fractures and folds themselves–between propaganda and realism, between languages, between word and image, between times and places–that the invisible can be not so much seen as dimly perceived, viscerally sensed, irredeemably insurgent.

Advertisements

David’s Dirty Diaper

It turns out that I am an artist. Who knew? And this is my art:

David's Dirty Diaper

It is currently exhibited as part of a “Dirt Museum” temporarily on view at the Lobby Gallery of UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues.

The genesis of the Dirt Museum is a visit by anthropologist Diane Nelson, who was invited here a couple of months ago by a working group that I help run on “Latin America and the Global.” As part of her visit, she facilitated a rather interesting workshop, “Playing with Dirt”, whose aim was to “focus on the language and imagery of dirt as both a thing (soil, earth, what feeds us) and a metaphor of a person or a communities’ subjective positioning. We will ask participants (faculty and students) to bring a thing and/or image from their own field sites for the ‘dirt museum,’ and use it to create a critical dialogue on the usage of dirt.” The item I suggested for the workshop, and now for the subsequent exhibition, was a dirty diaper from my son.

The interesting thing is that, even though the diaper is presented in a sealed jar, it was felt by the curators to be altogether too insalubrious to be placed on a table with other exhibits. So it was put on the floor, under the table. A little too dirty even for a “Dirt Museum.”

What is Philosophy?

Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s What is Philosophy? is in many ways quite a departure from their previous joint-signed books. I say “joint-signed,” rather than “joint-authored” because François Dosse in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives (which I reviewed for H-Madness) makes it clear that the book “was manifestly written by Deleuze alone”; he included Guattari’s name “as a tribute to their exceptionally intense friendship” (456). But even considered within the lineage of Deleuze’s solo output, it is somewhat anomalous. If anything, it hearkens back to his seminal texts of the late 1960s, Difference and Repetition and Logic of Sense, not least because it is not dedicated to any particular individual (unlike his books on Foucault, Bacon, or Leibniz) or any particular genre (unlike his books on the cinema). It is, almost, pure philosophy.

I say that it is “almost” pure philosophy because, first, as the title indicates What is Philosophy? is better classified as meta-philosophy. Deleuze is as interested in the “prephilosophical” or even the “nonphilosophical” that subtends philosophy. Regarding the latter there are a couple of interesting references to the work of François Laruelle, who is right now somewhat in vogue. Deleuze tells us that “Laruelle is engaged in one of the most interesting undertakings of contemporary philosophy. He invokes a One-All that he qualifies as ‘nonphilosophical’ and, oddly as ‘scientific,’ on which the ‘philosophical decision’ takes root” (220n5). The fact, however, that he finds Laruelle’s equation of the nonphilosophical with science “odd” indicates the second reason why Deleuze’s book is only “almost” pure philosophy: it is as much concerned with answering the questions “What is Science?” and “What is Art?” Indeed, the book as a whole might have been better titled “What is Thought?” For Deleuze is above all concerned to delineate the nature and specific domains of what he calls “thought in its three great forms–art, science, and philosophy” (197). And while it would therefore be tempting to say that the book therefore develops a philosophy of science and a philosophy of art (as well as a philosophy of philosophy), Deleuze is careful to warn that these three practices are very different and can only intervene in or interfere with each other in particular ways and within certain limits. Of the relation between philosophy and science, for instance, he claims that “The two lines are therefore inseparable but independent, each complete in itself [. . .] Philosophy can speak of science only by allusion, and science can speak of philosophy only as of a cloud” (161). Perhaps it would be best to describe Deleuze’s intent as an attempt to think about thought.

In most concentrated, telegraphic terms, Deleuze sums up the differences he discerns between the three forms of thought:

plane of immanence of philosophy, plane of composition of art, plane of reference or coordination of science; form of concept, force of sensation, function of knowledge; concepts and conceptual personae, sensations and aesthetic figures, figures and partial observers. (216)

Essentially (and still more telegraphically), these differences revolve around modalities of multiplicity: different forms of multiplicity, different means of organizing or navigating multiplicity, and different operations performed on multiplicity. What they have in common is that they each constitute a particular relation to chaos. On the one hand, they “want us to tear open the firmament and plunge into the chaos. [. . .] The philosopher, the scientist, the artist seem to return from the land of the dead” (202). On the other hand, they “struggle against chaos (203) and work to extract something from it: respectively, variations, variables, and varieties. As Deleuze puts is of art: “Painters go through a catastrophe, or through a conflagration, and leave the trace of this passage on the canvas, as of the leap that leads them from chaos to composition” (203). Chaos itself is unbearable. But the passage to or through chaos is (quite literally) vital, as it arms us in the still more important “struggle against opinion, which claims to protect us from chaos itself” (203).

Thought continually risks catastrophe–as Deleuze says, “what would thinking be it if did not constantly confront chaos?” (208). It even risks death, or a form of death, as the brain becomes “a set of little deaths that puts constant death within us” (216). But this is the risk we must take, for in fact there is nothing more deadening than opinion, with all its vapid discussion and dreary clichés: “the struggle with chaos is only the instrument of a more profound struggle against opinion, for the misfortune of people comes from opinion” (206). Opinion is the death of thought, but it will also be the death of us: a suffocating, weary, anticlimactic demise. Deleuze claims at the outset of the book that the very question “what is philosophy? can perhaps be posed only late in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely” (1). Faced with the possibility of death as a life-sapping “weary thought” incarnated in “those weary old ones who pursue slow-moving opinions and engage in stagnant discussions [. . .] like a distant memory of their old concepts to which they remain attached so as not to fall back completely into chaos” (214), it is as though Deleuze were striving instead for what Jorge Luis Borges describes as “The Other Death”: a passionate death willed upon the past that negates the present. For Deleuze, far better than unthinking cliché is the “nonthinking thought” that plunges the brain in chaos so as to extract “the shadow of the ‘people to come’ [. . .] mass-people, world-people, brain-people, chaos-people” (218). This sounds like a Nietzschean gesture to something like the Overman; perhaps it’s the particular utopianism of (non)thought, “revolution” as the “absolute deterritorialization even to the point where this calls for a new earth, a new people” (101). Still, it’s a reminder of the dangers of this line, or a certain ambivalence in Deleuze, that this book should end with a discussion of the negative, of “the three Nos” of nonphilosophy, nonart, and nonscience, described as collectively constituting “the same shadow that extends across [philosophy, art, and science] and constantly accompanies them” (218). Here Deleuze almost seems to be affirming the power of negation in quasi-dialectical manner. Almost.

Nikkei

Unlike the cathedral, Nikkei Place, the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre, is a rather impressive building, set in an attractive garden on a quiet suburban Burnaby street. Yet what’s inside is something of a disappointment.

Beyond the nice garden, elegant façade, and airy foyer, the building is essentially little more than a souped-up community centre, with the usual array of rooms to rent at prices we are assured give excellent value for money.

The museum itself is simply a small room off the foyer, and apparently there’s no permanent collection. The exhibition when we visited was “Tenugui: Design Excellence in Japanese Daily Life,” a display of Japanese cotton hand towels accompanied by a short video, some prints in which these towels feature, and a couple of other bits and bobs.


The exhibition is pretty and informative enough, don’t get me wrong. It takes an everyday object that can no doubt easily get overlooked, and shows both the multitude of its uses (hand towel, headscarf, glass cleaner, handkerchief…) and the way in which its simple but elegant motifs, usually either abstract (dots, circles, lines) or drawn from nature (flowers, grasses, seeds, suns), always exceed its utilitarian functions. This is a design philosophy of unobtrusive adornment: an apparent contradiction in terms that structures everyday life in Japan.

But the strange thing is that this is indeed an exhibition about Japan. Given that we are at the Japanese Canadian National Museum, it’s odd that there’s no attempt to address the Canadianness of the Japanese Canadian experience. What new uses or meaning accrete around tenugui outside of Japan? What new motifs appear as the cloth is transculturated or appropriated into other visual traditions? (There was at least one design with penguins; are there any with polar bears, beavers, or hockey pucks?)

In short, instead of providing a window into “the history of Japanese Canadians” (as the museum’s mission statement has it), we have instead a dehistoricized celebration of one small remnant of the Japanese motherland. It’s as though the hand towels themselves, with their ordered repetitions, were a synecdoche for a vision of Japanese culture in its entirety as always the same, intact in all its incarnations.

It’s not surprising that a diasporic community should have such a nostalgic and idealized vision of its cultural roots. But I’m not sure why it should be enshrined so uncritically in an institution that has at other times had so much more interesting things to say.

Audain

A very quick visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery this afternoon only gave us time to zip around some of the current exhibit “Shore, Forest, and Beyond”.


This is the private collection of a local property developer (turned cultural philanthropist) and his wife, and it focusses on British Columbian art from nineteenth-century indigenous masks and carved wooden chests to contemporary conceptual photography. Rather incongruously, it also includes a significant number of works on canvas by the Mexican muralists (Rivera, Siquieros, Orozco, Tamayo). The fact that these pieces sit very uneasily with the rest of the collection was highlighted by the fact that several of the labels were quite blatantly wrong: the title of Tamayo’s “Figura de pie,” for instance, was translated as “Pious Figure” rather than “Standing Figure,” which gives rather a different impression of what that picture is all about.

As for the British Columbian art, there were a large number (over twenty) of Emily Carrs, from different stages of her career. Which only served to remind me how little I like this most iconic of West Coast artists. In the catalogue Audain himself writes that originally he didn’t think much of Carr, but that he came round to her by way of a comparison with Gauguin: “what Gauguin had done for the landscape and people of Tahiti, Emily Carr had done for the Northwest Coast” (24). But this is a back-handed compliment at best. It only underlines both artists’ exoticization of difference, and the way in which they frame the cultural and racial other within a vision of a lush natural habitat. And the viewer knows (but the artists never show) that this habitat is shortly disappearing thanks to modernization and indeed the early stages of the development that will subsequently give Audain the cash to buy up the pious inscription of what that development supposedly destroys.

Of the BC modernists, I rather preferred Edward Hughes’s depictions of maritime activity–ferries, fishing vessels, and the small ports that dot the province’s coast and outlying islands. They are painted with an apparent naiveté, but it is precisely the somewhat naive attention to detail (the baby’s pram on the wharf, the boat’s name “Imperial Nanaimo”) that makes them rather more reliable records of the process by which indigenous culture was edged out in the Pacific Northwest.

And when it comes to the painting of nature, I was pleasantly surprised by Jack Shadbolt’s “Butterfly Transformation Theme 1981,” a large canvas in six panels that revisits the butterfly motif and transforms it into something between an exuberant celebration of natural vitality and an almost pop art revelry in artifice and abstraction.

Tanabe

Today to Burnaby Art Gallery, which has a show of works on paper by Takao Tanabe.


I’d never heard of Tanabe, but I liked what I saw. The pictures were mainly landscapes, mostly of Canadian scenes (the West Coast, the Rockies, the Prairies), often verging into abstraction.

I liked best the series of pictures of the Prairies, which were on the cusp between landscape and abstract: graphite on dark paper, a thick line roughly outlining the horizon and maybe rain above or grass below.

Burnaby Art Gallery was interesting too: occupying an old mansion house that has more than its fair share of history; the building was previously used variously as a monastery, a cult’s headquarters, and a fraternity house.

aimless

It is perhaps too easy to call Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled “Kafkaesque,” and yet from the Central European setting to the befuddled narrator trying to make sense of a vaguely nightmarish world in which there seem to be hidden connections that he can’t quite discern, it is Kafka who is surely the reference point here.

One major difference, however, between The Unconsoled and (say) The Trial is that the problems besetting Ishiguro’s narrator and protagonist, a pianist by the name of Ryder, come because he is celebrated, rather than persecuted. But as time goes on, the line between celebration and persecution becomes increasingly blurred, and what begins as mere befuddlement approaches closer to nightmare.

Ryder has been invited to give some kind of recital in an un-named town that features a hotel in which Frederick the Great may once have stayed, run by a manager who is a little too eager to be of service; a historic Old Town with a Hungarian Café at which the hotel’s porters relax, gossip, and give rousing displays of their bag-handling prowess; a more modern, windswept housing estate a bus-ride away in which a committee of busy-body housewives rule the social roost; and a series of other more or less shadowy locales and colourful but slightly creepy characters.

Just about everyone that Ryder meets declares themselves incredibly honoured to make his acquaintance at last, and almost all of them have some little favour to ask–if it is not too much trouble, though they swear that it will surely not take more than a minute or two. The hotel manager, for instance, would like the great pianist to glance at some scrapbooks his wife has put together; the hotel porter hopes that, in the speech that Ryder somewhat belatedly finds he is due to give at the recital, he may spare a moment to mention the work done by porters such as himself; and so on and so forth. All these small favours add up, most of them come to take up much more time and effort than anticipated, and soon Ryder finds he is slowly being suffocated by these small requests for kindness.

At first sight, people are simply being over-familiar. But in fact Ryder starts to realize that some of these new-found acquaintances are familiar, and include old schoolfriends strangely displaced. Others should be rather more familiar to him than they are. Above all there is Sophie, the porter’s daughter, and her son, Boris. She treats the distinguished visitor as though he were her estranged lover, and her son as though he were Ryder’s own offspring, and soon Ryder is almost convinced that she is right. Everything seems to resonate some dim memory somewhere. And if everyone has some small stake in Ryder’s visit–the housewives’ committee, for example, aggrandize themselves with the honour of looking after the musician’s parents–in some cases Ryder slowly realizes that he, too, has some kind of stake even though he can’t fully work out what it is himself.

It is tempting to try to come up with a rational key to this otherwise mysterious story. Is the answer, say, that Ryder is suffering from amnesia, shock, or delusions of some sort? There are certainly hints towards such narrative “solutions,” and there is for instance no doubt that very many characters are in the grip of a variety of delusions–not least concerning the role of art and the way that this obviously much-anticipated visit by a celebrated musician might improve the profile and prospects of the town. And yet, on the one hand, there are a number of strange occurrences that really can’t be fully explained away: space and time both appear warped, as when Ryder finds his childhood car rusting in a field outside a reception given in his honour. We find it hard to discern any hard border between delusion (or dream) and sanity (or consciousness); both are delineated with the same measure of realism. Moreover, on the other hand, it is as in Kafka precisely the search for logical explanation that gives rise to the greatest madness. Here, too, it is a bureaucratic logic (if in the form of making things easy for an honoured guest, rather than difficult for a suspected criminal) that ultimately throws up the “utterly preposterous obstacles everywhere” that are “quite typical of this town” (388).

In the same vein, it is hardly spoiling the plot to reveal that the recital never ultimately goes ahead… and, indeed, that it never particularly matters, either for the plot or for the experience of reading the book. In the end, if there is any logic to the long-anticipated event at all, Ryder slowly discovers that it has less and less to do with him. However much he is told he is the centre of the fuss and activity all around him, he comes to see that really he is only an excuse at best, a vehicle for other people’s desires to play out as they try to position themselves within the community, or to reposition the community itself. The means by which they establish their positions is art, or the (often rather abstruse) discussion of what is apparently defiantly difficult modern art–in some ways The Unconsoled is almost a case study in the (il)logic of Bourdieusian symbolic capital. And finally even the art itself hardly matters.

So Ryder finds himself, as the book ends, a “rider” on a tram whose route is an apparently endless circuit of the town, or perhaps a rhizome that brings everything together. For “you can go anywhere on this tram” and it seems to offer its riders a full breakfast of “eggs, bacon, tomato, sausage” (533). Soon the pianist, now that the time for the recital has come and gone suddenly at a loss if no longer as lost has he once was, is happily eating and chatting, in no hurry to get off or go anywhere in particular. Despite everything, “Things had not, after all, gone so badly,” he muses (534). He might even agree with his new friend: “Oh yes, this is a marvellous tram” (533).

And perhaps The Unconsoled, for all its gloomy title and Kafkaesque ambience–and the title is justified by the fact that everyone here is wounded in some way or another, and consolation would require some portion of the resolution that Ishiguro refuses–resembles somewhat the tram with with which the novel finally and rather arbitrarily ends. Perhaps it’s because we ultimately don’t care enough about the petty squabbles that occupy the townsfolk so, but the book turns out to be a sort of Kafkaesque comedy: rather aimless, and mysterious in its constant circuitous motion, but the journey alone is enjoyable enough for a while, even if it means we miss our stop a few times.