Encounters

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encounters

This book is the catalogue attached to this exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. I felt rather grim as I read about how many of the objects in the exhibition were ‘collected’ by British invaders and colonisers. It just feels terribly sad to me that so many objects that are significant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultural heritage are claimed as being ‘owned’ by the British Museum, and they won’t give them back to their rightful owners, or failing that, to the Australian Museum, where people could at least gain access to them. I think it’s wrong that over 6,000 objects originating in Australia but declared ‘owned’ by the British Museum, many of them sacred, are locked away from the people who have family and cultural ties to them.

I’m finding it highly ironic that many British people are squawking loudly about unwanted immigrants in the UK, but they don’t spare a thought for the fact that the British colonised a great many countries, and did their very best to destroy the cultures of a great many peoples all over the world in the process. In Australia, Aboriginal people were not even counted as people until 1967. They have been subjected to the most horrific acts of racism and attempted genocide. It’s a wonder Aboriginal language and culture still exist, but they do. Aboriginal people are amazingly resilient, and they keep on fighting for their rights as the first owners of this country.

So, I knew I would have some ethical problems with this exhibition. Some of the Indigenous people interviewed as part of the exhibition say they’re glad that the objects were collected, because at least they were saved from destruction by the colonisers. Other people express their sadness that the stories and songs attached to the objects are lost. Some people are disgusted that the objects were only ‘loaned’ to Australia.

Viewing an object in a glass case is not the same as touching it, of being in its presence.  I’m not qualified to speak for Aboriginal people, but it seems to me that common decency demands that white people return collected artefacts to Indigenous peoples all over the world. Just give them back.

At least there is progress being made on the question of the British Museum returning human remains that were ‘collected’ in the nineteenth century. Some of the heads and skulls and bones of Aboriginal people which were taken as ‘souvenirs’ or ‘objects of interest’ have been returned to their families, but there are many more ‘specimens’ dispersed throughout the museums of the world.

As for the objects depicted in the book, I was impressed and moved by the beautiful bags and baskets woven from various materials, including plant fibre, kelp, and human hair. They look so delicate and fragile, but they’ve endured for a very long time.

Comradely Greetings

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comradely

Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Žižek, tr. Ian Dreiblatt, Verso, 2014.

I enjoyed reading this short correspondence between Tolokonnikova, a member of Pussy Riot who was sentenced to two years in a Russian prison camp, and Žižek, the famous philosopher who was asked to write to her.

The pair did not know each other before they began corresponding. Apparently, Tolokonnikova was reading one of Žižek’s essays while she was being held in detention in Moscow and expressed a desire to meet him, but before arrangements could be made she was sent away to prison in Mordovia. They did, however, begin a correspondence, although the letters were subject to translation, and her letters were censored by the prison authorities.

I was immediately struck by Tolokonnikova’s courage in her defiance of Putin’s regime, and I was also impressed by her fierce and steely intelligence. Of course, she was writing with an audience in mind, but she comes across as determined and resolute in her political activism. She is very forthright about her opinions and I thought she was incredibly brave in what she said in her letters, considering the fact that she was locked up in a hell-hole prison and things could always be made a lot worse for her.

In his letters, Žižek starts out by being solicitous and asking if Tolokonnikova is alright and expressing his empathy and solidarity, but then he moves into full lecture mode and begins to theorise about the whys and wherefores of political activism, seemingly oblivious to the fact that political activism is not at all theoretical for her: she is living her political activism and suffering in prison as a direct result of it, whereas he is living safely in the West and merely philosophising about hypothetical situations. He says that he hopes she has time to read and write, and I got the sense that he was imagining her living in a spartan but clean prison cell somewhere, idling away the long hours in not too much discomfort. I found his questions about her physical conditions quite jarring to read, because the book includes an open letter Tolokonnikova wrote a year after she and Žižek began corresponding, in which she details why she was going on a hunger strike. She tells how she is being forced to live in disgusting and appallingly unsanitary conditions, without proper food, subjected to brutality, violence and bullying, and made to slave for seventeen hours a day sewing clothes for the Russian market. She wants people to know what she and the other inmates are being made to experience at the hands of the massively corrupt Putin regime. I doubt that Žižek knew about the reality of her existence and it sounds as though he was genuinely interested in her wellbeing, but there is an obvious disconnect between her reality and his perception of it.  As the letters progress, it seemed to me that although she appears grateful for his public interest in the Pussy Riot case, she isn’t very impressed with being lectured to and being discounted as an intellectual lightweight who needs to have to have various philosophical theories explained to her. (I thought that some of what he wrote fell into the category of mansplaining, although that may be a bit harsh. Aware that the letters would be published and that he was writing for a wider audience, his theorising was probably very deliberate. However, Tolokonnikova is clever enough to match his big-brain thinking, and although her style of discourse differs from his, I found her letters to be far the more interesting from a philosophical point of view. Also, it seemed to me that although Žižek tried to be kind and offer her comfort, Tolokonnikova made it clear that she was no damsel in distress: she wasn’t looking for personal sympathy, but for a political ally.)

Žižek:

“The Deleuzian philosopher Brian Massumi clearly formulated how today’s capitalism  has already overcome the logic of totalising normality and adopts instead a logic of erratic excess: the more varied, and even erratic, the better. Normalcy starts to lose its hold. The regularities start to loosen. This loosening of normalcy is part of capitalism’s dynamic. It not a simple liberation. It’s capitalism’s form of power. It’s no longer disciplinary institutional power that defines everything, it’s capitalism’s power to produce variety – because markets get saturated. Produce variety and you produce a niche market. The oddest of affective tendencies are okay – as long as they pay. Capitalism starts intensifying or diversifying affect, but only in order to extract surplus-value. It hijacks affect in order to intensify profit value. It literally valorises affect. The capitalist logic of surplus-value production starts to take over the relational field that is also the domain of political ecology, the ethical field of resistance to identity and predictable paths. It’s very troubling and confusing, because it seems to me that there’s been a certain kind of convergence between the dynamic of capitalist power and the dynamic of resistance.”

Tolokonnikova:

“You really think ‘today’s capitalism has already overcome the logic of totalising normality?’ I say maybe it hasn’t – maybe it just really wants us to believe it has, to accept that hierarchisation and normalisation have been exceeded…

Late capitalism’s anti-hieratic and rhizomatic posture amounts to good advertising. You and Brian Massumi are right to point out that capitalism today has to appear loose, even erratic. That’s how it captures affect – the affect of the consumer. When it comes to manufacturers (especially the ones who aren’t located in high-tech business parks) this ‘velvet’ capitalism can afford to change its stripes. But the logic of totalising normality still has to continue its work in those places whose industrial bases are used to shore up everything dynamic, adaptable, incipient in late capitalism. And here, in this other world hidden from view, the governing logic is one of absolutely rigid standards, of stability reinforced with steel. Erratic behaviour is not tolerated from workers here; homogeneity and stagnation rule.”

Tolokonnikova is as forthright as she is brave and lets Žižek know that she’s not feeling sorry for herself and she doesn’t want his pity. Pretty soon, in fact, Žižek realises that she’s a whole lot smarter than he gave her credit for and that she doesn’t need him to ‘explain’ or ‘theorise’ about anything. What she needs is to discuss things on equal terms. She needs him to be a comrade in epistolary arms against the brutal and oppressive regime she is standing up to. At least, that’s how I interpreted it. I don’t know if they ended up being friends in real life when she was released from prison. Somehow, I don’t think they have much in common. He came across as living entirely in his head, whereas she was willing (literally) to put her body on the line in her fight against Putin’s regime. Anyway, I came away from reading what Tolokonnikova wrote with great respect for her integrity and a renewed interest in her political activism.

Don’t waste your time worrying about giving in to theoretical fabrications while I supposedly suffer ’empirical deprivations’. There’s value to me in these inviolable limits, in my being tested this way. I’m fascinated to see how I’ll cope with all this, how I’ll channel it into something productive for my comrades and myself. I’m finding inspiration in here, ways of evolving. Not because but in spite of the system. Your thoughts and anecdotes are a help to me as I negotiate this conundrum. I’m glad we’re in touch.

[I’m sure this was written as much for the censors as for herself, but I admire how she remains strong and refuses to give in or give up.]

 

Image #: 16998901 ITAR-TASS: MOSCOW, RUSSIA. FEBRUARY 21, 2012. Masked members of Pussy Riot feminist punk group perform during their 'flashmob'-style protest inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The girls were marched by guards out of the cathedral. ITAR-TASS /Landov

Margaret The First

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margaretMargaret the First, Danielle Dutton, Catapult, 2016.

I was so impressed with this wonderfully inventive re-imagining of the life and times of Margaret Cavendish. The book includes a bibliography of the sources Dutton used in her research, and she also includes an author’s note in which she acknowledges Virginia Woolf’s influence on her writing about Margaret. [Woolf’s short essay ‘The Duchess of Newcastle’ is here. Margaret also appears in A Room of One’s Own.] (I haven’t read ARoOO for ages, but having just idled over some of chapter 4, I kind of want to read the whole thing again right now. Isn’t this the way it always goes? I’m such a rhizomatic reader (is there such a thing?) – one text sparks my interest and leads to another and another and another, and on and on. I seem to have an inexplicable curiosity about everything and I’m constantly following trails and buying books about my current area of interest and then that particular trail goes cold and I’m on to another. I’m sure this is how I ended up with such a disaster of book accumulation.)

Ahem.

Dutton’s vision of Margaret echoes that of Woolf: both portray her as having the kindest and most indulgent of husbands who encouraged and supported her writing in a time when men usually repressed clever women, with an iron fist if need be. Margaret had no children, but she did have leisure and a room of her own in which to write. She also had a wild imagination that was not much tamed or shaped by formal education, and she had a high opinion of her own ability to think and write as well as a man. Except, her lack of  education rather hampered her in the early years and rendered her spelling and grammar risible, but she didn’t let any of that stop her. Margaret had thoughts she wanted to share with the world at large: for instance, she didn’t like the way women were treated and railed that ‘Women live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts, and die like Worms.’ In her day, his was rather an unpopular opinion to hold, but Margaret had a powerful and well-connected husband, so she could write outrageous things and get away with it. The intellectuals of her day (all men, of course), scorned her at first, but her grammar and her  ability to express herself improved and she continued to write prose, poetry and plays. As she grew more confident, she took on various philosophers and argued her variety of Natural Philosophy with passion and determination. Margaret didn’t have much success with book sales during her lifetime, but she dreamed that her precious Paper Bodies would be read and appreciated by people long after she was dead, and so it has come to pass.

One evening someone asked what modern scheme would replace the Aristotelian system, the Middle Ages with their air, wind, earth, and fire, their Ptolemaic structure of the heavens. Soon, beside empty glasses and snuffboxes, strange homemade instruments materialised on our tables: telescopes, compasses, captoptics, more. They spoke of new philosophies, in English or French, of bustling worlds in microscopes, the human mind and body, atomic operations and mechanical arrangement. It was all perfectly new to my thinking. I’d never seen a barometer, or cupped a lens in my palm. I sat in the corner, pretending to read or sew.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction and/or literary biography. The narrative has a cinematic quality that brings scenes to life and immerses the reader in a rather wonderful and colourful world. Although, life was cheap back then, and it wasn’t unusual to see severed limbs hanging from the bridge railings when you went for a drive in your carriage. The environment was unhygienic in all sorts of ghastly ways, and the atmosphere in London was horribly polluted. The streets ran with filth and stank, (it’s no wonder people died of contagious diseases and infection) and Dutton brings all this glorious muddle to life. [Look, there goes Margaret, wearing one of the outlandish dresses she confected herself, trailing yards of silk and tulle and wearing an enormous, preposterous, hat.] Shy and quiet in company, Margaret also had a hunger for fame that drove her to do outrageous things, such as attend the opera in a topless gown. (They gossip about me? Well, here’s something for them to really gossip about!) I think some of Margaret’s behaviour was a seventeenth century version of one of those Miley Cyrus inspired ‘in-your-face’ acts of social defiance: a kind of ‘give them what they want, but give them more than they can handle’ middle finger to being told how you should act and who you should be.) Pepys once joined the crowds waiting for a glimpse of Margaret as she drove down the street in her carriage, but there was such a crush that he only managed to glimpse a slice of her hat and part of her face. Ah well. I think that reading this lovely novel is a good substitute for queuing up with the masses to watch a celebrity pass by: here is Margaret in all her fey and fanciful and sparkling glory, and in her sadness and dark despair, too. I would have quite gladly stayed perched on the chair in the corner of Margaret’s writing room for another several hundred pages and watched proceedings, but the book ended. This is definitely one of those books I wanted never to end.

Alone again in semi-darkness, Margaret stands in the corner and fancies herself a statue, with silken robes and a crown of topaz, erected in a garden, atop a pedestal, at the centre of a circle divided into four parts, with lines drawn, points laid, in the service of some abtruse mathematical thought, and covers her eyes with her palms. She can see her Blazing World before her: the emperor’s bed is made of diamonds. The walls of his room are jet. His penis is made of silver. She opens her eyes. No, it’s just a penis. But there are his horse stables of gold, cornelian, amber, and turquoise. There are his horses. This is his golden city, his flickering canal, his woodsy archipelago stretching all the way to the granite cave where Bear-men sleep on the cool dirt floor. She imagines the salty musk. She imagines the cave steaming, drenched, covered in moss and crystals.

The binding cracks. She sniffs it. Her book smells like a shoe.

Then as if she’s been struck by an alien star-stone, she’s suddenly struck by doubt. Is it ridiculous? Is she a joke? Not that these doubts are new, only here, again, and racing in the dark. And where moments ago she saw a golden city, now there is only this. The fallen snow. This dread. She places the book in a shallow drawer, scans the room to fill her eyes and so to fill her mind: the bed, the mirrors, the tapestries, a portrait of herself. But even with the curtains drawn she finds her eyes are burning, a headache coming fast, and she calls again to Lucy to assist her in retiring to a sofa of pillows embroidered with garden scenes. Off come her skirts and petticoats, her lace cuffs and collar, her shoes and whalebone stays, until she lies on her side in nothing but a cotton shift and endless strands of pearls. Dust hangs in a crack of light between red velvet drapes, like stars.

margaretcavendish

Zero K

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zero-k

Zero K, Don DeLillo, Pan MacMillan, 2016.

If I had to sum up what Zero K is about, I’d say that it poses questions about life and death: about how to live and how to die, and about life after death. It’s about consciousness and the sub-conscious; love, loss and grief; relationships and family dysfunction; sadness, bleakness, despair, and about the apocalyptic world we seem to be increasingly living in. Of course, being a DeLillo novel, it’s also about how technology is blighting our lives and making our experiences of the world smaller and weaker and less meaningful, and all this occurs in only the first 100 pages or so!

I enjoyed reading the book, although I found it very chilly and disengaged. I don’t think there was any joy or warmth at all, and what satire there is was of the “ouch’ rather than the “haha” variety. There was, however, a great deal of mirroring: the text itself mirrored the labyrinth underground structure of the Convergence headquarters (this cult-like organisation provides cryogenic services), with its many passages, and many-hued doors that may or may not open into a room/scene, or be a faux door/dead end.

The headquarters itself reflects the way in which the Convergence sect espouses seemingly legitimate ideas about life and death, but are these ideas real or just window-dressing, constructed to hide the real ‘behind the scenes’ agenda? In addition to this conundrum, I think the Convergence headquarters is also perhaps meant to mirror the brain, which I imagine as being constructed of long passages with “doors” leading to memories and thoughts – some of which can be accessed, and others which remain locked tight and inaccessible. Another example of mirroring may be seen in the presence of disturbing videos playing on large screens that descend from the ceiling along the vast headquarters’ passageways. These film clips attract everyone’s attention, which seems to mirror the way in which people, in real life, are attracted, like helpless moths, to screens that show us the terrible events happening in the world. Furthermore, the structure of the book itself, which has long sections of text in the beginning, which dwindle to smaller mind-blip size bits in the later stages of the narrative, seems to resemble the thought processes of a person subjected to the cryogenics procedure: are the long passages meant to represent ‘normal’ thoughts, and are the blips akin to what people might be thinking as they’re subjected to suspended animation? I don’t know. It was all quite complex and a bit weird, but I liked the forensically precise prose, which has no fat or fluff, but just stabs to the heart of the matter, time after time after time. Readers are confronted with a great many ideas and scenarios in this book, but you have to work quite hard to figure out what it all might mean.

One of the characters is a dishevelled monk who interacts with the protagonist. When the monk tells a tale about his intention to undertake a temple circumambulation, prostrating himself with each step, I found myself feeling great empathy for him. Although the circumambulation was intended to be a sincere representation of his faith, when he came to do it, he found that he just couldn’t go through with it. His intentions were good, but he couldn’t subject himself to such physical hardship, or perhaps his faith wasn’t strong enough and he couldn’t humble himself enough. Unlike the local people, who undertook such an arduous feat without any real fuss and considered it a privilege to do so, the monk was unable to place himself in the correct head-space. As a Westerner, he had glamorised circumambulation and perhaps thought it would be a grand achievement and a way to show his dedication, but really, it would just be showing off and be about him, rather than about his faith and humility. After all, there is no glory in crawling for miles on your belly across sharp stones and dirt.

And yet, the monk does something rather wonderful when he sits with dying people and comforts them, but he doesn’t seem to realise the importance of this kindness. The dedication inherent in such an act is not as obvious as prostrating oneself many thousands of times, but these acts may be seen as two sides of the same spiritual coin. I think this part of the novel highlights an interesting clash of cultural expectation and experience and I thought that maybe I detected a reflection of HH the Dalai Lama’s observation that people should practice the religious tradition into which they are born, rather than seeking to take on another culture’s ways. I find that concept interesting, seeing as how I have major problems with white Westerners claiming to have acquired the spiritual knowledge of another cultural tradition. I’m not so sure if it’s quite the same thing when people attempt to adhere to the teachings of a philosophy such as Zen Buddhism, though. Personally, I’ve never thought it possible for a Westerner to “become” anything but a practitioner of a western style of Buddhism, because the other sects and schools have so many cultural overlays that practice and culture are completely intertwined. It’s all a bit complex, really, but it’s something that does keep me awake at night.

If I had to rate the book, I would give it 4 stars. I liked the writing, and many of its concepts were vastly interesting. I’m glad DeLillo is still around and throwing out intellectual challenges for the rest of us to ponder.

Favourite Quotes:

“Is it very different at home, or on the street, or waiting at the gate to board a flight? I maintain myself on the puppet drug of personal technology. Every touch of a button brings the neural rush of finding something I never knew and never needed to know until it appears at my anxious fingertips, where it remains for a shaky second before disappearing forever.”

 

“Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving.”

 

“The thinness of contemporary life. I can poke my finger through it.”

 

“How do we stand with others when the things that separate us are imposed at birth, when the separation haunts us and follows us day and night?”

 

“Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point.”

M Train

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m-train

It took me a few weeks to read M Train, not because it was in any way problematic, but because for me it was a “sip and savour” book that I needed to take my time with. I’ve been a big Patti Smith fan ever since I heard her version of Gloria from the Horses album and saw that iconic Mapplethorpe picture of her on the cover. I like the idea of Patti Smith the performance artist; I like the persona she projects into the world – the punk poet artist androgynous bohemian troubadour, the American high priestess of French literature, the champion of Blake’s art (which, actually, has always seemed somewhat phantasmal to me), a female musician who challenged stereotypes and was not all eye makeup and cleavage. And yet. I’ve always sensed something slightly not-right about the projection of that persona, something a tad elusive about the real Ms Smith. I read that she used to smoke a LOT of weed back in the day, which may well account for some of the craptastic too-f***ing-long riffs I’ve heard her indulge in. I just think that, maybe, what you see is not necessarily what you get – there just seems to be a very deliberate sense of “styled-as” about her, a something I can’t quite articulate.

Anyway, I liked M Train. I was surprised when I read that she checked into a London hotel for a week so she could binge watch British crime drama on TV. She could have just bought the box-sets and watched the DVDs at home, but I guess that would have defeated the spontaneity and quirkiness. I felt moved when she described her birthday and how she dressed in one of her dead husband’s old washed-thin flannel shirts and cut the dry ends of her braids. A sense of melancholy, if not moroseness, pervades the entire memoir, but her birthday story felt especially sad to me. I read with one eyebrow raised when she wrote about how she glimpsed a dilapidated house through a crack in its high fence, and although knowing it was uninhabitable, decided on a whim to buy it, sight unseen. She had to pay cash because the house was in such bad condition that it couldn’t be bought via a mortgage, so she embarked on a world tour and earned the money to pay for it. Except, a hurricane devastated the beach-side suburb where it was located and she couldn’t renovate as planned. I could understand that she wanted a place of her own that she didn’t have to share, that had no memories for her of being a shared space, but I can’t imagine buying a house without seeing it properly first. There are many vignettes about sitting in her favourite cafe, reading and writing, and wiling away the hours. There’s not a lot of rock star chic – she wakes up to find her cat has barfed on her pillow, and gropes around amongst the crumbs in her bed to find her reading glasses. I loved the story about how her husband bought a boat and parked it in their yard. The boat was sort of an adult cubby-house where they hung-out and listened to baseball games. Sadly, a bad thunderstorm caused a huge tree branch to fall on the boat and squash it, and that was that. All the stories are metaphorical, of course, and nothing is spelled out for the reader. I guess this is why it took me so long to read the book, because I needed to feel and ponder her words.

I like Smith’s writing: she has a beautiful (wordsmith) way with words, and I felt as though she has given her fans a gift, a little glimpse into her life – her past and present. I felt that maybe she wrote M Train for Fred, her dead husband, as a kind of catch-up on her life for him, as kind of a love letter to him. I don’t know. I’ve read some scuttle-butt that their marriage was not exactly great, that he drank, that her long retreat to the suburbs during their marriage was not voluntary on her part. All that is conjecture and gossip, though, because Smith runs a pretty tight ship as far as controlling her own image goes, and she has loyal friends. M Train reflects the way Smith glides through the world in her own bubble of paradox. She’s an enigma, and if you ask me, that’s way better than being a celebrity.

As I was reading, I kept thinking about the lines in Hopkins’ poem, Pied Beauty:

Whatever is counter, original, spare, strange
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim,
He fathers forth whose beauty is past change.
Praise Him.

It seems to me that Smith is counter, original, spare, and strange. She is probably a bit fickle, too, I suspect. Her beauty (of spirit, of soul), is definitely past change, though. It is what it is. She is what she is, even if I don’t really know what that might be.