Herb Blau

Herb Blau

I did my MA in English, in the 1990s, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The English Department occupied a couple of floors in an undistinguished 1970s concrete tower block called Curtin Hall. Though the building offered nice enough views over Lake Michigan from the upper stories, for the most part it comprised a series of windowless corridors and linoleum floors lit by fluorescent lights, lined with identikit pine doors leading to faculty and grad student offices. Many of my classes took place in the same non-descript seminar room at the end of one of these corridors. I believe that the room number was Curtin 466.

The only distinguishing feature of Curtin 466, which might draw your attention if class discussion seemed to be going nowhere in particular, was a dent in one of the walls, near the door. It was a fairly deep dent, which had broken the surface of the wall, revealing the hollowness within, and it was about the size and shape of a human fist. Rumor had it that the dent’s author was none other than one of the department’s more distinguished professors: Herb Blau. It was said that, perhaps in precisely one of those lulls, to invigorate things he had punched the wall with his bare hand.

I have no idea if that story was true, but it might well have been. For Herb, who died on Friday at the age of 87, wasn’t someone to let the little matter of a plasterboard wall get in the way of a robust exchange of ideas. And despite first appearances–by the time I knew him, he was already close to retirement age; short, balding, mild-mannered–he would soon remind you that his training was on and around the stage. He was a performer, or rather, he wanted to point out that we are all always called upon to perform when the spotlight, perhaps suddenly, comes our way. The only doubt is whether we are going to be up to the task. In class, he liked to draw attention to one of us in a quick instant that showed the way in which he was constantly thinking like a director: he put us on stage and challenged us to respond.

I took a course with him in that same seminar room with the fist-sized dent in the wall that could be read as a promise or threat of what we might expect in the Herb Blau classroom. The course was on fashion, slightly incongruously as I suspect that neither Herb nor I, in our different ways, have ever been accused of being particularly fashionable. But Herb was interested in fashion as performance, as a system of display that we could never simply evade. He was keen on the intricate play of gazes and (admiring or condescending) looks that constitutes a fashion system. We read an eclectic mix of texts, on topics from Renaissance cross-dressing to Coco Chanel, from Pirandello to pop.

Herb had an oblique relationship to academic fashion, too. I gleaned that he was very important in a field, performance studies, that he had in some ways invented. Indeed, he often told us directly or indirectly, through anecdote or declaration, of his own importance. But we young bucks were perhaps tempted to see Herb as something of a holdover or anachronism, in part precisely because of his stories of hanging out with Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter. In what was still the heyday of high theory, the notion of performance or performativity was associated with figures such as the poststructuralist feminist Judith Butler and a whole other series of references from Louis Althusser to Michel Foucault. Herb, though he read voraciously and was no foe of Theory, was perhaps too eclectic, or even too grounded, to be hip.

But Herb grew on you, and I grew to be a little less superficial in my judgments. He was extraordinarily generous with his advice and time, and in talking to him you realized that he had been watching and listening to you carefully: sympathetically but not uncritically. I remember when he dissected some of the questions I had asked in the regular department seminar where we hosted visiting speakers. He reminded me that I had, after all, been performing, and that his was above all a consummate eye (and ear) for performance. And that by pointing this out, and so by revealing that there was something hollow in every academic fad or fashion, he wasn’t necessarily denigrating it. After all, Herb had long been in the business of performance; he wasn’t one to oppose it to some simple notion of authenticity.

As with the seminar-room wall, Herb would puncture performances; he would leave his mark and offer a glimpse of the mechanics and subterfuges that hold up the structures (social and cultural as well as architectural) that we inhabit. But he would also therefore give us a sense of the complexity of those structures, and perhaps leave us with admiration (however grudging) for all that had gone into the construction of something that we otherwise might take for granted. Ultimately, Herb’s critiques, his provocations and even his self-dramatizations were aimed at one end: to get us to think, and so to learn; to keep us on our toes, so that we could reach higher.

I saw Herb just a few months ago, after an interval of many years. I was giving a talk at the University of Washington, in Seattle, where he moved not long after I left Milwaukee, and where his wife Kathy Woodward directs the Simpson Centre for the Humanities. He was visibly older and frailer than he had been a decade previously, but he was undimmed and astute as ever. My talk was on affect, violence, and death. Afterwards, in the question-and-answer session, he made the point that we are all dying in front of each other, all the time. He looked unwaveringly at me and said: “As I watch, you are inching towards death.” I wondered how to respond, realizing that Herb had done it again: he had put me on the spot; he’d made me think, made me struggle to find words; and he’d reminded me of that dent in the seminar room, of that mark of decay and ruination that we all carry with us.

Herb Blau has now finished that movement towards death that we call life. But I can’t imagine him wanting to rest in peace; and he certainly wouldn’t want us to do so. I take his legacy as, in part, an injunction to recognize the challenge, the inevitability but also unpredictability, of the performances demanded of us even in the most non-descript of surroundings. For we can always enliven them with a well-thrown (and well-thought) punch.


Borges, Infamia

Historia universal de la infamia manifests Borges’s interest in performance: the ways in which the self is not a given, but is rather a role that we play. Sometimes we play no other role than the one we are given, which is why perhaps it seems so true to us, and why we easily confuse what is after all mere habit with some kind of abiding essence. At other times, however, characters find themselves faced with a decision: will they act this way or that. This is a dramatic choice between the different selves that they could potentially be. Perhaps infamy itself is precisely the result of some such decision, a deviation from an allotted role in favor of some other performance.

Almost all the stories in the collection revolve around some kind of imposture. Most obviously, “El impostor inverosímil Tom Castro” (“The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro”), which is based on the Tichborne Case, a nineteenth-century cause célèbre in which one Arthur Orton claimed to be the long-lost Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne Baronetcy. Borges observes that Orton’s performance gained credibility from the fact that he was in so many ways so different from the person he claimed to be: where Tichborne had been slim, dark-haired, reserved, and precise, Orton was fat, fair-haired, outspoken, and uncouth. Borges’s point is that presumably an impostor would try to copy at least some elements of the original he was mimicking; the very fact that there was no such attempt at impersonation seemed to prove that Orton must be the real thing. The best disguise is no disguise at all; in the best performance there is no distance between the role being played and the person playing it.

“El impostor inverosímil” features an eminence grise in the shape of Orton’s accomplice Ebenezer Bogle, who plays the part of Tichborne’s manservant. When Bogle dies, Orton quite literally loses the plot and ends up “giving lectures in which he would alternately declare his innocence and confess his guilt” (40; Complete Fictions 18). Borges calls Orton Tichborne’s “ghost,” presumably in that he shows up after the latter’s death, like some kind of strange revenant. But it is surely equally true that Orton himself is haunted by Tichborne. By the end he has spent so longer playing the role that it’s as though he’s know quite sure who he is, and he will let the public decide: “many nights he would begin by defending himself and wind up admitting all, depending on the inclinations of his audience” (40; 18).

In “El asesino desinterado Bill Harrigan” (“The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan”), there is no third party: neither the eminence grise nor the ghost that compelled Orton’s transformation. Or rather, there is but it is impersonal, mechanistic: New York tenement boy Harrigan turns himself into the cowboy out West who will be Billy the Kid by acting out melodramatic models provided by the theater. In turn, he will become an iconic part of the myths of the Wild West propagated by Hollywood.

Borges suggests that the History he is telling us is a series of “discontinuous images” that he compares a movie. But it is even better described as a series of scenes in the cinematic sense: briefer than a theater scene but more dynamic than any single image, the filmic scene is a situation in a single space defined by mise-en-scène, a dramatic confrontation, and the position of camera angles or lines of sight. Indeed, the scene is very often the basic unit of Borges’s fiction. (In this collection, think particularly of “Hombre de la Esquina Rosada” [“Man on Pink Corner”] or the ending of “El tintorero enmascarado Hákim de Merv” [“Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv”].)

Here the key scene is the moment of transformation of Harrigan into Billy: a notorious Mexican gunfighter named Belisario Villagrán enters a crowded saloon that is outlined with cinematic precision and visuality (“their elbows on the bar, tired hard-muscled men drink a belligerent alcohol and flash stacks of silver coins marked with a serpent and an eagle” [64; 32]); everyone stops dead except for Harrigan, who fells him with a single shot and for no apparent reason. Again, the visual detail as the Mexican’s body is slow to register the indignity: “The glass falls from Villagrán’s hand; then the entire body follows” (65; 33). In that moment, Billy the Kid is born “and the shifty Bill Harrigan buried” (66; 33).

But even if it is Bill’s “disinterested” (unreflective, habitual) killing that turns him into a legend, there is always a gap between that legend and his behavior. He may learn “to sit a horse straight” or “the vagabond art of cattle driving” and he may find himself attracted to “the guitars and brothels of Mexico” (66, 67; 33, 34), but a few tics from his East Coast days remain: “Something of the New York hoodlum lived on in the cowboy” (66; 33). The task of replacing one set of habits (or habitus) with another is never quite complete. But it is not as though Harrigan were the “real” thing and Billy the Kid a mere mask. Rather, it is that the new performance is informed by the old one. As always in Borges, there is never anything entirely new under the sun, even the scorching sun of the arid Western desert.


I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see Fred Herzog‘s Vancouver Photographs, which are indeed a fascinating record of something like peripheral modernity in full colour 1950s and 1960s Kodachrome. At precisely the time that the city must have felt like a true Finis Terrae–long after it had lost its role as waystation of Empire, and before the invention of a “Pacific Rim”–it also boasted more neon lights than any other city in North America.

Granville and Robson,
But I was also very much taken by the exhibition “Acting the Part: Photography as Theatre”. The contention here is that the manifestly staged images of a Cindy Sherman or Vancouver’s own Jeff Wall, from its very inception photography has been intimately tied to performativity.

Against the notion of the photograph as snapshot, a moment frozen from an ongoing temporal flux, the exhibition argues that photography has equally often conjured up an event, a scene that would not exist but for the technology’s power of organization and arrangement. This is photography as literally composition: a marshalling of resources to produce a particular narrative or affective effect.

Yet the piece that most struck me was not a photograph, but a film, which plays precisely with the fine line between snap and event, around an investigation into one of the West’s most iconic painterly images. Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcázar imagines Velásquez’s Las Meninas as both composition and interruption.

In what is apparently one long take, a beautifully choreographed 360 degree steadicam pan, Sussman presents us with the figures who inhabit Las Meninas before and after they take up the pose portrayed in Velásquez’s painting.

On the one hand, we’re waiting for everything to fall in place, for the King and Queen to take up position, the Infanta to step forward, the courtiers to take up their positions, including the shadowy figure in the doorway at the back of the room. Slowly we see the various components arrange themselves, inexorably forming the famous image. On the other hand, the moment of the “snap!” in which briefly we have Las Meninas is shown in all its contingency, placed back into the flow of time full of many other potential narratives, many other instants that (had they too been frozen) would have implied other stories, other affects.

What’s presented is a process that comes to seem accidental and inevitable at the same time. Running in a continuous loop, it’s as though the complex flux of people and perspectives had endlessly to resolve into that one single moment, as though we were backstage of what is already perhaps the most famous of “backstage” images. (And the film respects that aspect of the painting… we never see the image that the artist himself is painting.) But we also are presented with other moments, and so other images. As a whole, the film is a mesmerizing and fascinating performance.

89 Seconds at Alcazar


Bob DylanBob Dylan is 65 today.

I’ve seen Dylan live a few times: in London, Earl’s Court, about fifteen years ago; in Manchester, the MEN Arena, about four years ago; and most recently in Vancouver, the Orpheum, just last year.

Each time there’s been something unimpressive about these shows. Dylan refuses the spectacle more than any other musician I’ve seen. No doubt others refuse it more: The Jesus and Mary Chain, for instance, used to be notorious for playing sets sometimes only ten minutes long with their backs to the audience. At the same time, in both cases, this refusal is part of these performers’ mystique: the fact that they refuse to perform is what makes their performances stand out. Put another way, they perform refusal.

In Dylan’s Vancouver show, he and his band were arranged in a rough semi-circle around the stage. At the center of this semi-circle, and so front and center of the stage, was a microphone on a stand. One expected and hoped that at any moment Dylan would break formation from his backing singers, and come to the microphone. But though he did enter the semi-circle a couple of times, this was mainly for his harmonica solos, and the stand at the front remained an empty site of non-performance.

No doubt part of the point is also the notion that there is no distinction between Dylan and his band. Indeed, he seems to want us to believe that we are simply eavesdropping onto some kind of jam in which a few friends are laying back and playing some riffs. Not that there’s much all that laid back about (what I’ll continue to call) the show: everything was up tempo, with scarcely a break between songs, each of which came to sound increasingly similar. It was as though we were witnessing one long medley of Dylan cover versions.

“Witnessing” is probably the best description of the subject position that Dylan appears to want for his audience. Neither spectator nor participant, we seem to be there but strangely not quite there in his mind. Only the most minimal gestures (a slight wave of the harmonica after a solo) are overt signs that he even notices our presence.

There’s something attractive, almost seductive about such reticence. But it is of course all in immensely bad faith. There’s no doubt that Dylan is the star, however much he may wish to deny it. And we are indeed spectators: spectators of a performance of a very particular type.

It’s been some thirty five years since David Bowie articulated Dylan’s relationship with his public (the public?) as one of abandonment or betrayal:

Now hear this Robert Zimmerman
Though I don’t suppose we’ll meet
Ask your good friend Dylan
If he’d gaze a while down the old street
Tell him we’ve lost his poems
So they’re writing on the walls
Give us back our unity
Give us back our family
You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity
(“Song for Bob Dylan”)

This was after Dylan’s famous withdrawal, following his 1966 motorcycle accident. It’s no great coincidence that the recent fuss around Dylan (the Scorcese documentary with its accompanying CD and book, “Bob Dylan’s American Journey” at Seattle’s EMP, even Bob’s own Chronicles, however coy) has centered around this pre-1966 period. It’s as though we were seeking to reconnect, to bring Dylan back. And so ironically to bring back a presumed “unity” even from the social divisiveness of the 1960s protest movements with which the early Dylan was so associated.

But the real truth of Dylan is in this betrayal, this reticence, a sort of mutiny from above which may even have begun before 1966, but is now ensconced and strangely celebrated in the “never-ending tour”.

Dylan on tour


Monday Arguediana

I’m now less convinced than I was before of Antonio Melis’s argument that “the writings of Arguedas should be considered as an integrated totality (i.e. without the constraint of barriers such as genre)” (xi). Or rather, what’s striking when comparing Arguedas’s work across different genres is the way in which he adopts such very different voices depending on whether he is writing a novel, anthropology, or poetry. Perhaps they are different strategies. But some are surely more successful than others.

Arguedas poetryIf Arguedas’s anthropological writing repeats the Western ethnographic gaze, by contrast his poetry constitutes a full-blown performance of indigeneity.

Written in Quechua, then translated usually by Arguedas himself into Spanish, his poetic output is distinguished by its passion and commitment. And this is true even when the theme is far from Arguedas’s customary Peruvian concerns, as in his brief declarations of solidarity with Cuba and with the North Vietnamese.

At the same time, it is rather formulaic, especially in these latter two poems. It’s as though they were Arguedas’s minimal gesture to the international issues preoccupying intellectuals in the late 1960s. The poem to the Vietnamese is entitled “Qollana Vietnam Llaqtaman,” translated as “Ofrenda al pueblo de Vietnam,” “Offering to the People of Vietnam”: this is an offering of due devotion paid to a cause that is not Arguedas’s own.

Arguedas is also perhaps paying the price of admission to a community of intellectuals with pretensions to universality. In which case it is worth noting that it is as a Quechua speaker that Arguedas is seeking entry to this exclusive club. Arguedas wants to ensure Quechua is recognized as a language of artistic and intellectual creation.

Another of these poems also turns to the intellectuals. Here, directly so: “Huk Doctorkunaman Qayay” or “Appeal to some Doctors” is addressed to Carlos Cueto Fernandini and John V. Murra; Cueto Fernandini occupied a series of prestigious posts, including the directorship of the National Library, while John Murra was a Cornell-based anthropologist, and close friend of Arguedas’s.

“Appeal to some Doctors” begins by acknowledging the way in which indigenous knowledge is ignored: “They say that we no longer know anything, that we are backwardness, that they have to change our heads for other, better ones” (253). It continues by negating such assertions, arguing for indigenous knowledge of nature, plants, and suffering.

But it ends by returning to the theme of ignorance, to an unforeseeable future in the fact of modernization:

We do not know exactly what will happen. Let death makes its way towards us; let these strangers come. We will be on our guard waiting for them; we are the children of the father of all the rivers, of the father of all the mountains. Is it that the world is now worthless, my little brother the doctor? (257)

So Arguedas here fully assumes a subjectivity defined by ethnicity and language: “we are the children.” And he shares in their anxious, guarded wait for what the future brings.

This declaration of identity, taking on an indigenous “nosotros” is even more marked in “Tupac Amaru kamac taytanchisman (Haylli-taki),” “To our Creator Father Túpac Amaru (Hymn-Song),” in which Arguedas declares “We are alive, we still are!” as a kind of phatic expression to link a grammatical subject (“we”) to ontology and also to history (467). “We still are!” “¡Somos todavía!” “¡Kachkaniraqkun!” (467). The Peruvian congress took up this declaration as the title for its recent edition of Arguedas’s “essential works”: ¡Kachkaniraqmi! ¡Sigo siendo!.

Pan Am to PeruFinally, though, in “Jetman, Haylli,” “Ode to the Jet,” Arguedas envisages a modernity in which Quechua, and an indigenous cosmovision, have fully appropriated the fruit of Western technology:

Here I am in this world, sitting most comfortably, on a fiery steed,
Iron alight, whiter than white, made by man’s hand, swimming in the wind.
Yes. “Jet” is its name. (75)

The price, or perhaps the advantage, of this techno-indigenism is a blasphemous denial of gods both native and Christian, and an affirmation of the divinity of mankind: “God is man, man is God” (75).

But is there not a still more serious disadvantage in making of Quechua a majoritarian language, albeit in a written form that can have only the smallest of audiences, and so giving up on the project to inflict a minoritarian insurrection on the colonizers’ Spanish?


Highsmith book coverTom Ripley suggests that identity is as much a matter of habit and performance as of inheritance or the law.

The eponymous protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley is sent by a wealthy American businessman, Herbert Greenleaf, to persuade his son to return to the States from an overlong sojourn in Italy. But young Dickie Greenleaf has pretensions as a painter, a life of much ease and little responsibility, and scant incentive to “come back to subways and taxis and starched collars and a nine-to-five job” (52). Seeing Greenleaf’s fortune, Ripley “envied him with a heartbreaking surge of envy and of self-pity” (52).

So Tom abandons his mission, and seeks rather to become a part of Dickie’s life, a fixture in the rounds of excursions to beach and café in the village of Mongibello, or further afield to Capri or the Alps, perhaps even to Paris. Tom wants to see the sights, to educate himself by means of a European Grand Tour in the company of his new friend. But bonding with Greenleaf means prising him away from the only other American in the village: Marge Sherwood, with whom Dickie has an on-again off-again romantic engagement, more strongly pursued by Marge than by Dickie. Ripley’s goal, then, is to prevent Greenleaf from falling into Marge’s heterosexual trap.

But Dickie is hardly any keener to reciprocate Tom’s advances than Marge’s. Not that Tom’s desires are straightforwardly homosexual: Slavoj Zizek calls him a “male lesbian” rather than a “closet gay” (“When Straight Means Weird”). I’m not so sure about that, but it’s noticeable that in this novel permeated by accusations and counter-accusations of “sexual deviation,” nobody actually gets to have sex. “Tom laughed at that phrase ‘sexual deviation.’ Where was the sex? Where was the deviation?” (147).

Indeed, what leads Ripley eventually to murder is a desire to go straight, or rather, not to accept deviation, not to give up on desires that have more to do with class than with sexuality. And a more direct route to Dickie’s lifestyle means doing away with the need for reciprocity, and simply taking on the other’s identity: “He could–he had just thought of something brilliant: he could become Dickie Greenleaf himself. He could do everything that Dickie did. [. . .] He could step right into Dickie’s shoes” (100-101).

Alain Delon in Plein Soleil
So Tom clubs Dickie to death on a boat trip off San Remo and soon finds himself “happy, content, and utterly, utterly confident, as he had never been before in his life” (112). “It was impossible to be lonely or bored, he thought, so long as he was Dickie Greenleaf” (122). And as far as Tom is concerned, he is Dickie Greenleaf. It is not that he is playing at being Dickie, it is that he has subsumed his identity. “This was,” Tom reflects, “the real annihilation of his past and of himself, Tom Ripley, who was made up of that past” (127).

So when, after a series of scrapes and near-misses both with the law and with Dickie’s friends–one of whom has also to be put away–Tom returns, somewhat reluctantly, to being Tom Ripley, this too becomes a performance: “He began to feel happy even in his dreary role as Thomas Ripley. He took a pleasure in it, overdoing almost the old Tom Ripley reticence with strangers, the inferiority in every duck of his head and wistful, sidelong glance” (194). And being Tom as much as (perhaps more than) being Dickie requires that he tell a series of tall tales to head off the suspicions of the police, Mr Greenleaf Sr, and Marge. But he carries them off: “his stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them” (256).

Which is why I’m not sure either of Zizek’s characterization of Ripley in terms of “disengaged coldness.” It’s true that Tom’s attachments disrupt conventional notions of propriety and trust, constancy and reliability. But isn’t that precisely because of their intensity, an intensity in the contraction of habits and susceptibility to affect that is positively inhuman? Tom endlessly changes shape and shifts identity not so much to negate his old habits but to experience new sensations. If he is repulsed by so many of the characters he meets along the way, is it not because they accept their own limitations? Tom always wants more, which means also feeling more.

And surely the book’s final lines express enthusiasm more than they evince snobbery: “‘To a hotel, please,’ Tom said. ‘Il meglio albergo. Il meglio, il meglio!'” (295).

The Baby of Macon

I used to be quite a fan of Peter Greenaway‘s work–Drowning by Numbers, The Falls, Belly of an Architect and (especially) A Zed and Two Noughts. At one point I tried to interview him, but passed up the chance because I was only offered a phone interview, which didn’t seem to be quite the same. And then along came Prospero’s Books, and I felt that his work was just increasingly self-indulgent. A little later I saw The Pillow Book, and was still far from impressed.

Baby of MaconWhere I was at the time, The Baby of Mâcon never showed when it was on release. In fact it hardly showed anywhere–in the USA, only New York and Los Angeles. But I read some reviews and didn’t get the sense I was missing much.

I’ve just seen it. And though I saw the film in far from ideal conditions–in my office, on a TV with a PAL video very imperfectly translated to NTSC–it blew me away. It’s an extraordinary movie.

The Baby of Mâcon boasts all the pageantry and lavish, colour-coded sets and costumes of, for instance, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Here the setting is the cathedral and the playhouse rather than a restaurant. There is much in the way of pomp and circumstance. Greenaway’s point, in part, is to show the performativity of religion, and more generally of power, and also the slippage between performance (staged, “unreal”) and performativity (the rituals by which the real is constructed). And then, everything is meticulously choreographed by the director himself.

A child is born, by apparent miracle, and extraordinary power and influence is attributed to it. As well as being the object of more or less innocent adoration, the child also draws the desires of those who would use him to further their own cynical ends. His sister claims to be his mother, insisting that his was a virgin birth. His mother is shut away, along with the tramp-like father. Hovering around the scenes is a naive duke and a sceptical bishop’s son, the latter soon to be killed by the putative virgin mother, the former to be the self-declared mother’s own downfall, effectively sentencing her to death by gang rape.

It was the gang rape that caused so much controversy at the time of the film’s release. But there’s nothing voyeuristic about its portrayal, and what’s shocking about the scene is what in fact should be shocking: the callousness and the dehumanization in the very idea of thoughtlessly proposing this as “punishment.” There is much more that’s equally un-nerving here: not least the (literal) carving up of the child immediately after its death, but also (perhaps more insidiously) the fact that even when alive its pronouncements were always only ventriloquized from off-stage. The child himself, so much the centre of attention, is given no lines to speak for himself. He is both fetish and subaltern.

Baby of Macon rape scene
But no description will really do this film justice. It is visually sumptuous, narratively provocative, and overall profoundly disturbing. Go see it if and when you have the chance.