Monthly Archives: August 2009

This poem is one of the forms that my obsession with the threshold has taken over the years.  It began with a file of quotations on the idea of the threshold.  It then became a sort of experimental prose piece that was comprised more of these quotations than my own words.  Both of these pieces still exist, and I am still working on them, more or less, but neither will see a finished form any time soon.

I only began working on this current form of the project when my brother Andrew asked me to write a spoken word piece to be read over some music for a concept album that he is writing.  I have never written for music or for a specific time length before, and I have seldom tried to turn prose into poetry either.  I am still not entirely happy with the result, and I still have to reduce it by something like thirty seconds, so any suggestions would be welcomed.

Also, because of how it came to be, this particular poem borrows, even plagiarizes, from any number of authors.  It has gone through so many iterations that I am no longer even able to list them all with any certainty, but I know at least that I am drawing text from Alexandre Dumas, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Hiedegger, Annie Dillard, Jacques Derrida, Leon Rooke, Emmanuel Levinas, Robert Graves, and Maurice Blanchot.  If there are others I have missed, they have my sincere apologies.

On the Scaffold

Where I have fallen, my eyes can feel the bruises in the door,
and the flecks of paint that have escaped the remover,
and the grain,
and the varnish,
and deeper too, to its cutting edge,
the edge that has cut me from myself like a guillotine cuts a head from a body.

I am waiting,
waiting for the blade to be hoisted again,
to fall again,
to cut me again,
through skin and muscle and vein and throat and bone,
to spill my blood again on the scaffold,
again on the threshold.

I am bleeding myself empty,
covering the floor,
the threshold,
all of it,
in my blood.

This door,
with the bruises and the flecks of paint,
my door,
its blow is true.
It bereaves me of myself.
There is no escaping it.
It is always a guillotine,
a mandaia,
a sharpened and a dividing blade.
It makes the threshold an altar stone.

I am there
on the altar, the scaffold,
before the blow I cannot escape,
seeing everything with extraordinary distinctness,
passing through the moments as if they were an infinite time,
a vast wealth of time,
an endless time left to live,
an infinity on the scaffold,
on the doorstep,
where every moment is an age,
where I feel the obligation of counting,
every minute,
as it passes,
of not missing

Surely this is the place of epiphany,
this infinite moment.
I wait,
and tremble,
and know,
stretched on the block,
and suddenly hear above me the clang of the iron,
the clang that I must hear,
that I am sure to hear,
the clang for which I will listen purposefully,
though it takes only the tenth part of a second.

I am face down,
tasting the earth,
eavesdropping on the blade and the whetstone whispering to one another.
This waiting,
this moment,
this minute,
is forever real,
as real as death and eternity,
a moment and a sound that no longer belong to their time.

It is this sound for which I listen continually,
again and again,
with the closing of each door behind me,
because it bears the consolation
of no longer having to live in the shadow of death,
in the infinite time that approaches death.

It consoles,
because my greatest fear is not that I will die,
but that I will live,
that I will be reprieved,
that I will endure the agony of a falling blade that will never fall,
that I will be condemned,
not to death,
but to life,
one infinite moment following another,
in the shadow of the death that never came,
the blade that never fell,
the door that never closed.

It is not death that is intolerable.
What is intolerable is that I might be robbed of death,
that I might not take it in my arms,
savour a last breath on its lips.

Yet, there is a greater fear,
that the blade will fall,
but that I will nevertheless survive it,
even if only for a moment,
to know that it has fallen,
to know,
for a second,
or for five seconds,
or for an eternity,
cut from life and from self,
but counting out the moments of eternity,
counting the beats,
the bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
and to know that living with the living is no longer enough,
that now it is also necessary to live with the dead,
to know that death that will not let me die,
but will leave me waiting always for a further death,
where drops of blood count the passing of time,
until I must die once more,
and again,
for the door always remains to be entered,
and the threshold always remains to be crossed,
and the death always remains to be suffered,
however often it is suffered.

I will always be among the poor dying that are going from threshold to threshold,
because nobody goes beyond the threshold,
except by madness.

I die continually.
I die always, and every time alone,
because no one can die this death with me,
because there will never be anyone who can bear my lonely death with me,
because my death is in every case mine.

Yet even so,
my own death is not only for myself,
but also for those who are witnesses to it.
It is for the crowd who will see it only as a carnival,
for those few who will see it for the first time in horror,
for those fewer who saw it once with horror,
then with indifference,
and now with curiosity.

My death is for these others.
I am responsible to them
and for the deaths that they will die,
though each of us dies alone,
and so I will endure the aloneness
of the scaffold and the falling blade,
of the threshold and the closing door,
because the spectacle of my death,
of the blow that I cannot escape,
do not wish to escape,
which I anticipate,
am always anticipating again,
this spectacle makes me responsible for those who witness it.

In this moment,
only in this moment,
death tears off the mask of life,
and the true face is revealed,
and the severed head is held above the gathered crowd,
still warm,
so that they may recognize themselves in it,
my see their death in mine,
bloody and severed,
held before them.

This is the only place where the fear of death becomes a salvation.

This place,
this threshold,
is always hard,
always stony,
because it bears the doorway,
because it sustains the middle in which the two,
the outside and the inside,
penetrate each other.
This threshold bears the between,
and pain has petrified it.
Pain has made the threshold stone,
and I must cross this place,
pass and surpass it,
the last instant of my own life,
a life that will have been,
in any case,
so short.

I wrote a post recently on the way that I read, but I have been reflecting since then that this description of my reading practise is grossly misrepresentative without a similar account of the way that I also misread.  If it is true, as my earlier post suggests, that reading well demands the discipline to read properly, it also true, to precisely the same degree, that reading well demands the desire to read improperly.  So, though I have already written about this desire in passing on earlier occasions, let me dwell on it now a little more fully.

To read according to desire is to read without regard for anything but the pleasure of the text.  It is to approach the text like a lover, to seek it out wherever it is and wherever it might be.  Those who read like this, who desire like this, who love like this, are always looking, through libraries and bookstores, through the bookshelves of friends, through the recommendations of others, through yardsales and thrift stores and fleamarkets.  When they find what they are seeking, they hunger and lust for it, seize and possess it.  They do not read it, but throw themselves into it, immerse themselves in it, like a madness or a desperation, and they find that they themselves have becomes seized and possessed.

This kind of reading does not remain distinct from the reader, does not leave the reader unaltered.  It permeates the reader’s being, marks it and changes it, leaves the signs of love on it, leaves the scratches and bites of a ferocious love.  The reader bears these scars with a wild and terrified joy, with a fearful pride, hoping and dreading that others will see the wounds and guess what has made them.

At night, lying in bed, the one who desires reading, the one who loves reading, wakes, haunted by the dream of the text, and rises and goes about the house, through the city, into the streets, and seeks, though it does not always find, and yet finds and embraces and does not let go and returns to the house and to the room and to the bed.  The reader who desires is always going and seeking and finding and returning.  The reader who loves is always loving again, and once more, and yet another time, but is never satisfied.  This is the desire without which any practise of reading, any discipline of reading, will be empty and void.

The pipe tobacco was stale and dry, quick to light, quick to burn, acrid on my tongue, and I could take no pleasure in it, though I filled my mouth with its burning until I could feel the nicotine at the base of my skull, and then I tamped the still glowing dottle onto the stone of the stairway, bright embers, like red and angry stars, and I tamped them out, one by one, with the bowl of the pipe, and I let the scotch cover the smoke’s bitterness, for a moment, and when I could taste it again, it was mixed with peat and oak and alcohol and something I could not name, like a face in a dream that has filled the whole of the night and left it resting on my tongue.

Mike Hoye wrote yesterday about four essays that have caused him to reconsider his writing practise.  These essays themselves are quite interesting, but I am more intrigued by the reaction that they caused in Mike.  He quotes each essay at length to show how they model a more purposeful approach to writing and being, and then he concludes by saying,

“The world needs changing and my work and my writing frankly suck, because good enough sucks. Adequate sucks. Merely competent sucks, and don’t think I’m willing to set the bar at contentedness with anything that isn’t the best I’ve got on offer anymore.”

I agree with Mike entirely, not that his work sucks, because I have been enjoying his writing very much, but that any work sucks, and any writing sucks, as soon as it has become good enough.  Writing that has become satisfied with itself, that sees itself as adequate, that no longer strives to be more than it is, can only ever be poor writing.  Good writing is always trying to be better writing, and it should therefore provoke better writing in its readers.

This returns me to the opening phrase of Mike’s post, where he compares the four essays he is discussing to a “swarm of intellectual candiru” that have “lodged themselves in his apparatus.”  This is a wonderful and appalling image.  It likens the reader to someone standing thigh high in the river of writing, in the place where the Amazon and the Rio Negro meet, pissing into the passing water, when these four essays, these four small, bloodsucking, parasitic catfish, jump from the river and into the reader’s urethra to gorge themselves on his blood.

The violence and the repugnance of this image describe, at least for me, what good writing needs to do.  It needs to violate the reader somehow, to pain and discomfit, to provoke.  It needs to get under the reader’s most sensitive skin and incite a different and better reading, a different and better writing, a dissatisfaction with what has so far been read and written.  This dissatisfaction, this refusal to be merely adequate, is what produces writing worth reading.

I planted three apple tree last summer: an Empire, a Red Courtland, and a Honeycrisp.  They all bloomed well this spring, but they were still too small to carry much weight, so I thinned the young fruit quite heavily until there was only a single apple per branch.  This means that I was always going to have a small crop anyway, but the squirrels soon reduced it even further, which was especially frustrating because they seemed to eat less of the apple than they left littered under the tree.  So efficient were the squirrels at harvesting that by midsummer there was only a single apple remaining, dangling from the end of the longest branch of the Red Courtland tree.

Then, yesterday, as I was sitting on the porch reading Roberto Bolano, I looked up to see a squirrel dragging an apple up the Maple tree in my front yard.  Without even checking, I knew that this was the Red Courtland’s last apple.  I watched as the squirrel dropped and retrieved it twice, then finally managed to hoist it onto a branch.  It was, I reflected, only one apple more or less, but I still would have liked to eat it myself, to have tasted it, that last apple.

I have not had the time to write about many of the films that I have been watching lately, and I will not try to write about each of them separately now, but a few do deserve mention for one reason or another, so I will just list them here and offer a paragraph or two about why they interested me.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye, directed by Benton Bailey
I was either too young or too sheltered to remember the scandal around Jim and Tammy Baker, so Tammy Faye had never been more than a caricature for me. Her name evoked only hair and mascara, and I never had any reason to wonder if she was anything more than her cosmetics.  Bailey’s film is concerned to address precisely this stereotype, so it is unabashedly sympathetic to her, but Tammy Faye herself is such an immense personality that the viewer, even one as cynical as I am, discovers some sympathy for her as well.  To this degree, at least, the documentary accomplishes its aim.

O Brother, Where Art Thou, directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
This film may seem at first to contradict my tendency to watch mostly documentary on the one hand or fantasy on the other, but I would in fact include this film in the category of the fantastical and recommend it as an admittedly flawed attempt at the sort of film that I think should be made more often.  I am constantly frustrated by our culture’s relation to its mythological and literary past.  We either regard it as being irrelevant and ignore it, or we regard it as being sacred and idolize it.  O Brother, Where Art Thou, however, does neither, choosing instead to take the themes of Homer’s Odyssey and to reinterpret them.  The result is a very good film in many respects, and one that provides a commentary on American culture on several levels, even if it is also one that too often falls prey to the cliches of Hollywood.

Sita Sings the Blues, directed by Nina Paley
This animated film does what O Brother, Where Art Thou could have done if it had not been limited by the need to sell theatre tickets . Sita Sings the Blues mixes South Asian mythology with a contemporary love story and with classic blues and jazz music to create a whimsical but moving story.  The music is used superbly.  The art is wonderful.  I can hardly recommend this film highly enough, and it has even been released free through a Creative Commons license, so you have no excuse not to watch it tonight.

Ballet Russes, directed by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine
I have seen only a single ballet in my life, and it was the ballet that everyone will have seen if they have seen only one: The Nutcracker.  I was young, and my only real memory of the performance is of my even younger brother asking my mother, “When are they were going to start talking in this movie.” Even so, I found Ballet Russes a very interesting documentary.  Though many of its interviews drag, and though the accounts of the interminable politics of the ballet become a little tedious, the story is remarkable, and it made the film well worth the evening I gave to it.

Outlander, directed by Howard McCain
I have an obsession with Beowulf. I confess it.  This means that I end up having to see every new adaptation of the story, even when it is horrible, and many of them are.  McCain’s version begins well, despite the obligatory Hollywoodisms, but the more that it tries to explain itself and the more that it tries to develop its characters, the worse it becomes.  The lengthy flashback sequence, which tries to explain and humanize the outlander, is a case in point.  It is mostly pointless and entirely tedious, and it destroys the pacing of the film besides.  The romantic element of the film is poorly acted and trite in the extreme.  The final action sequence is predictable and unconvincing.  In short, though it may not be the worst adaptation of Beowulf, I will stop well short of recommending it.

District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp
I was very pleasantly surprised by District 9.  When I heard that it was an alien film, my expectations were low.  When I heard that it was the director’s debut film, they sunk even lower.  When the reviews were mostly favourable, they sunk so low that I almost decided to see something else.  I was, however, as I said, very pleasantly surprised.  Now, make no mistake, it is a Hollywood action film produced by Peter Jackson, and it has all the violence and special effects that you would expect, but it also has a complexity of storyline and character that is entirely surprising in a film of this kind, particularly from a rookie writer and director.  It may even be worth your ten bucks to see it in the theatre.

A tweet is like a sonnet, or should be.  Follow my reasoning here.

A tweet, in order to be compatible with the length of a standard text message, is actually 160 characters long, but it reserves 20 characters for user information, which leaves only 140 characters for the body of the tweet.  This is common enough information, I know, but it also makes for one of the more interesting parallels in the history of literary form, because it just so happens that a sonnet standardly consists of 14 lines of 10 syllables each, for a grand total of 140 syllables.  A tweet – 140 characters / A sonnet – 140 syllables: could this really be mere coincidence?

Unfortunately, yes, it can be mere coincidence, but it is still, I would suggest, a meaningful coincidence, since it serves as a reminder of what can be done through literary forms that are tightly defined by their brevity and by their formal structure.  The sonnet, though limited formally, has been one of the enduring modes of poetic expression, from the 13th century until the present day.  This should refute the assumption that something as brief as a tweet cannot be capable of performing a literary as well as a communicational function.

It should also cause us to examine the extent to which most twitter is actually concerned with the question of literary value.  If it is possible to write literarily through the form, and I think it is, and I have heard of examples of this kind of writing, it is certainly the case that most twitter has very little concern at all to be literary.  Like much of our modern media, it has been dominated by a concern for communication at the expense of a concern for expression, though it contains the possibility for such expression, as the sonnet demonstrates.

So, I think that a tweet should be like a sonnet.  I think that its limited form should give rise to a greater rather than a lesser attention to its literary and asethetic expression.  I think twitter should be a poetry, not just for poets, but for all of us.

I know, I know, I have already posted once today, and at length, but I promise that this will be short.  I began reading Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives this afternoon, and came across a phrase that encapsulates my understanding of the world so simply and so truly that I felt compelled to share it.  “Every book in the world,” Bolano says, “is out there waiting to be read by me.”  I can hardly think of a more beautiful sentence.

I went for coffee with Dave Humphrey last night, and we both came away with homework.  Part of mine was to clarify what I wrote yesterday about the idea of the face to face.  I was not entirely satisfied with what I had written, and I was unsure how to address the concerns I had with it, but Dave was able to work through these things with me, so I will now do my best to rectify some of them.

First, though this was perhaps not entirely clear, I included the three examples of the face to face in order to illustrate that turning toward the face of the other always involves turning away from something else.  James Shelley literally turns away from the road toward my house.  Don Moore and John Jantunen and I turn away from the film we were watching.  Tom Able and I turn away from the book that we were reading.  In each case, we were initially turned toward something else and not each other.  We were oriented with respect to one another, but not toward one another.  In each case, therefore, turning toward each other meant turning aside from something else, from the journey, from the film, from the text, from the world, from ourselves.  It is this turning that permits the face to face.

Second, this turning to the face of the other is not unmotivated, though I have perhaps made it appear this way.  My turning is always a response to the other, just as the other’s turning is a response to me.  I become suddenly aware of the other precisely as the other, and I respond by turning toward the face of the other.  This response is instinctual, and it is often involuntary, so it is not yet concerned with an ethics, but my turning to the face of the other makes a space for the possibility of an ethics.

As we were talking last night, Dave suggested that the metaphor of the call or the cry might be useful in explaining what happens in this turning, especially in the context of digital mediation.  Within the logic of this metaphor, the other calls to me, and I look up.  I turn toward the call.  I turn to face the call.  It is the call that turns me and brings me face to face with the other.  I am called out of myself, out of the world, out of the place where I am side by side with the other, and into a place where the other is unavoidable, where I must choose whether or not I will be open to encounter this other.

The call need not be a vocalization, of course.  The other’s gaze may call me just as certainly, as may the other’s condition.  I may see the other’s eyes on me and know that this gaze requires me to return it.  I may see the other beaten by the side of the road and know that the other’s wounds require me to turn aside from my path.  In this sense, the call is inclusive of what I have elsewhere described, following Ivan Illich, as the movement in the belly.  It is what calls to me through the other, what makes me turn to face the other, what makes the other unavoidable, and what therefore clears a space for the moment of encounter, for the moment of ethical decision.

What this metaphor of the call also does is contest the assumption that the face to face depends on visuality or proximity.  Someone may call to me from beyond my sight, from beyond my reach, from far away.  Even still, when I hear the call, I turn instinctively in that direction.  I turn my face toward the sound of the other’s voice.  This turning has no practical meaning or use. It would be more practical by far to turn my ear to the sound, but I turn my face instead.  I orient myself, not to the sound of the other, but to the imagined face of the other whose place is betrayed by this sound.  I am called out of myself and out of the world, and I turn my face to the other’s face, though it remains beyond my sight and beyond my reach.

This bears intimately, I think, on what I was trying to say yesterday about the possibility of turning toward the digitally mediated other.  I cannot see, have never seen, David Eaves or Mike Hoye, these two people whose blogs I will now be reading.  Nevertheless, the email that we all received called us out of ourselves and toward each other.  It called us, and we turned to face the sound of this call.  Our orientation with respect to one another was changed.  It was no longer possible to merely read one another, because our reading had become a part of a decision to open ourselves to each other, to respond to one another.  We had ceased to by anonymously side by side in cyberspace, and had, perhaps, come face to face.

This is the possibility to which I would one day like to speak more certainly.

I have been wanting for some time, at least since the spring of last year, to write something about the nature of what I might call digital encounter, or the possibility of being truly encountered by the digitally mediated other, and I will write this post, I promise, at some point, probably.  I even have a catchy name for it:  “Face to Face in Cyberspace”,  but I have been waiting until I finish Friedrich Kittler’s Literature, Media, Information Systems, Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, and Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool,  though I have not yet started reading any of these books after more than a year, so it might be wise not to expect this post too soon.

I had an email this week, however, that relates to this idea of digital encounter, and and I thought that I would take the opportunity to make some preliminary remarks to which I can return when I do finally take up the problem of the digital other more fully, whenever that might be.  So, let me begin by roughly defining what I mean by the moment of the face to face.

The face to face is the moment, not necessarily of encounter wit the other, but of confrontation by the other.  Without this moment of the face to face, the encounter is impossible, but the face to face does not itself guarantee that an encounter will take place.  It is the moment when the other becomes unavoidable to me as an other, but where I have not yet opened myself to the coming of the other, to the approach of the other. It is not a moment that can be measured in time, because the “not yet” of the face to face is ontological rather than temporal.  Since it is ontologically prior to the encounter with the other and to knowledge of the other, it is unconcerned with the other and with encounter and with ethics as such, but it nevertheless makes all of these things possible.

Let me give three examples of what I mean.

James Shelley came to stay with us on Sunday night.  He was biking from London to cottage country, and took the opportunity to stop by our place along the way.  Neither of us have a car any longer, which means that we do not often have the chance to see each other, so it was good to sit on the porch with him and my wife, talking about alternative education and about the potential of charter cities to enable social and ecological change, among other things. Somewhere in the midst of that conversation, Matthew Harrison, a friend and former student, arrived unexpectedly to return a CD, so he joined us for a couple of hours as well.

On Monday night, Don Moore and John Jantunen and I went to see District 9 by Neil Blomkamp, which, incidentally, much exceeded my very low expectations.  We then spent several hours in Don’s backyard, drinking craft beer and talking about film and literature and whatever else.  Our conversation added John Gardner and Roberto Bolano to my list of authors that I really should read and added an interesting chocolate stout to the list of beers that I really should drink more often.

Yesterday afternoon, Tom Able come over for our regular coffee.  We are reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, slowly and distractedly, which is how we generally prefer to do these things.  Our conversation did not remain long on Bonhoeffer, but meandered over Tom’s internship this fall and the course that I am designing for the coming semester.  We mostly talked in the kitchen as I made split pea and ham hock soup.

In each of these cases, there was a moment when I, and those I was with, had to turn from whatever it is that we are doing alongside one another, and we had to face one another, across a table or a porch or a kitchen or a yard, and to become confronted by one another.   We turned from the journey, or the film, or the text, and we saw each other face to face.   We need not have opened ourselves to the others who faced us, need not have made ourselves available to this encounter, but the possibility of encounter could no longer be avoided.  The question of encounter had been posed, and we were made to answer it, in one way or another.

The question is, however, whether this turning toward each other is possible when our faces are mediated, either by the text of a book, or the image of a film, or the code of an application, or the signal of a phone, or some combination of these things.  The answer to this question has traditionally been that no such turning is possible, and certain poststructuralist thinkers have even argued that, since there can be no unmediated knowledge of the other as such, there can be no turning toward the other and no encounter with the other at all.

Though I would myself agree that there is no knowledge of the other that is unmediated, I would affirm another direction in poststructuralist thought that has maintained the possibility of an encounter with the other prior or beyond or otherwise to knowledge and to ontology.  Though this other must therefore remain entirely unknowlable and ungraspable, it nevertheless opens the possibility of an ethical relation with the other.  This implies, at least in my mind, that it must be possible to be encountered in this way, not only by the other in physical proximity to me, by the other who is mediated by my senses and my language and my self, but also by the other who is physically apart from, by the other who is mediated by text and by image and by wavelength and by code, though I do not yet have the language to articulate how this encounter might occur.

This brings me, finally, to the email that I mentioned earlier, in which Dave Humphrey invited David Eaves , Mike Hoye, and myself to join him in an experiment.  He suggested that we read each other’s blogs for a few months and then arrange to meet face to face.  We three invitees do not know each other at all, though we all know Dave, and his invitation certainly creates in me the desire to meet these others face to face, but I wonder whether a moment of the face to face has not occurred already.  It occurred, perhaps, not when I was asked to read two blogs that I had never read before, but when I and three others agreed to read each other for the express purpose of coming to know one another.   Perhaps this decision itself marked a kind of turning toward one another, a kind of looking up into one another’s faces.  It seems to me that this decision causes me to attend to these blogs differently, causes me to be concerned with them in a different way, as if I am no longer side to side with them, as if I am now face to face with them.  I cannot yet speak to this possibility, but perhaps I will be able to do so soon.

Gramophone, Film, Typewrit