What follows is the text of a talk presented in honor of Jerome Rothenberg on the occasion of his 80th birthday, at an event held at CUNY Graduate Center in New York, on December 9, 2011.
If you were looking one way for new Americans in 1960, they would of course be found in Allen’s The New American Poetry. But there was another way. Jerome Rothenberg’s first book, New Young German Poets, published by City Lights in 1959, introduced American readers to a postfascist antifascist avant-garde that successfully “oppose[ed] the inherited dead world with a modern visionary language,” crucially among them, Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. Jerry’s translations 51 years ago of Celan’s “Night of the Word” and of Bachmann’s “Psalm” offer themselves to us now as illuminating discernible influences on the poems of Jerry’s own first published book of poems, the Hawk’s Well Press White Sun Black Sun (1960). It’s not just Bachmann’s “Psalm” but Rothenberg’s first poems too that (in her words as Jerry rendered them) are inscribed “in the afterbirth of our terror.” “Seeing Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, San Francisco 1959,” a White Sun Black Sun poem, figures the speaker as Jerry’s very first burning babe: “I am the child in the furnace.” And: “We love and we die in dark rooms.” This was a real new American poetry if we were able to discern its specific cold-war-era Euro-American context, its remnant derivation from a modernism that had had its language robbed, its mother tongue cut off in its mouth — drawn from a Celanesque long fifteen-year night of the word, 1945 to 1960, at the dawn after which American poetry too must itself show “the scar of time / open[ed] up” — to quote Jerry’s Celan as a direct anticipation of what I take to be Jerry’s greatest contribution: that in unsuccessful societies, it becomes impossible for language to change commensurately, and a common language breaks down, and we no longer understand each other. “This breakdown,” he later writes, “is first articulated by a poet,” by “the poet see[ing] the breakdown in communication as a condition of health, as an opening-up of a closed world.” Or as Jerry’s Jandl gets to lament in a much later poem about European fascism and artists: “Ka Ka the only music left us.”
So why embrace modernism in particular in 1960? Not primarily because “supreme Yiddish surrealist vaudeville” can and would become in the 1960s and early 1970s one of the efficacious heretical counter-styles, though certainly in Poland 1931 such a mode helped carry the message — but because modernism after 1945 becomes a way of reckoning specifically with “the anti-modernism of the Nazi genocide of European intellectuals” (“Vienna Blood”) and so, as Jerry quotes Dennis Tedlock, “To tell these words is to happen the beginning again.” Or, through dada or alternatively through ancient sacred technicians, to enact “reversals in the history of language.” In Jerry’s “Holy Words of Tristan Tzara” we read that “logic is a complication – logic is always wrong!” but then at the same time we are reminded of the question: “How can a moral person live in an immoral world?” — a question, posed as such, in which the immorality is described in a language long and widely accepted as making sense; and we come to know that it is a question posed not by Tzara or Jandl or Schwitters, but by Mordecai Anielewicz, that barely postadolescent burning babe. Auschwitz, Jerry has written, is “an enormity that had robbed language of the power to meaningfully respond, had thus created a crisis of expression, for which a poetics must be devised if we were to rise, again, beyond the level of the scream or of a silence more terrible than any scream.”
So if you put together Jerome Rothenberg's very first impulses toward archaic materials, manifested in White Sun Black Sun and New Young German Poets as (after total destruction) “telling words as a way of happening the beginning again” — as new burning-babe baby words (DA DA – KA KA) post-scream; and merge that tendency with the “supreme Yiddish surrealist vaudeville” as a means of Oral Torah, where “stabilization of the text would hinder and destroy the infintely moving, unfolding element within it” — that is to say, if you put those two tendencies together, you get the remarkable convergence of modernism and radicalism — of Euro-modernism and American radicalism — that we celebrate tonight.
The real revolution is tragic. “The Real Revolution is Tragic.” It’s the title of a poem in that very first book, White Sun Black Sun. On the night of the poem, the poet “face[s]…my secret America,” asking: “Why are the eyes of it burning”? Here was, and is, the new American poet calling for “the real revolution” of the word “in the days without hope, in the years that are falling.”
I was thirty-three years old when Emma was born. I had been friends with her parents, Charles and Susan, for more than five years.
When Emma got to be about three or four we became friends in our own right. We simply liked each other a lot. I had never had children of my own / so that undoubtedly played some part. But the reality is that I felt some kind of kinship between us that went beyond any of the available clichés / even those of friendship.
When I would go to their apartment at 464 Amsterdam Avenue for a visit / perhaps prior to having dinner there / perhaps just to occupy and to enjoy a part of the afternoon / Emma would invariably (and as soon as it were possible (ok / before (before) it were really decently possible (socially speaking))) take my left hand in her right hand and lead me into her small bedroom.
And that (then) is what it was all about. Emma had her own space / but it was Emma’s space. Already / by the age of three / Emma had contrived a room of her own — and she may well have been conscious of having (done) that (of owning that) before she began showing it to me (I don’t know).
The walls were a matte white color / not at all bright / and there was room also for a small chest of three or four drawers. Already / in that tiny room / were all of those things that Emma would become (really (really) really become). From my first visit onwards the walls were covered with images cut from magazines. I don’t know where she got those pictures / but she got a lot of them. Most of them were of people — it didn’t seem to matter whether they were well known or not / but it was tacitly apparent that it certainly did (did (that it certainly did)) matter to Emma what they looked like / and what they were wearing / and (although their organization on the wall defied easy categorization) also (I think) how they went together. I have a sense of wildness / not only of the collage as a whole / but of the individual pieces of image that fed into that collage and came out of it as something else — the parts created the whole so that it could transform the parts / and in that way there was a unity of form and material that was unassailable. It was easy to tell that this organization of her most intimate physical space constituted a large portion of her confidence.
Emma’s confidence was her identity. I don’t mean to suggest / or to try to convince you / that that was all that there was to her — but I believe that it was that confidence that made all other aspects of her personality (all other aspects of what she was) cohere. And I will say that it was completely formed / and completely in evidence / from the time during which I first knew her.
The collage of images on the walls changed considerably from visit to visit — I can’t say in what way / I hadn’t trained myself to see that — but I could see that different parts of the space were covered / that some pieces of paper had been unstuck and others stuck. In this sense it would probably be more accurate to speak of a montage (the motion supplied by the viewer’s eyes / the looking) than of a collage — the latter term seems adequate to something that someone makes on a smallish piece of paper / but Emma’s project was so manifestly much larger than that. I couldn’t (for that matter) determine how such a small person had gotten those pictures all the way up toward the top of the walls — some seem in recollection to have been growing up from the walls and onto the ceiling / making of it the bottom of the fish tank one would be in when lying in bed. If we accept this suggestion that the considerable changes in lexicon over time made of the work more a montage than a collage / we can see the project as having been akin to the making of a film / but one (certainly) in which the people (the persons) were foregrounded as both actors (and / in that way / over time) as the actions also. People were the actions that occupied her mind / and the space beyond her mind that was also her mind.
It was hard not to see that space / more-or-less-white and more full of than cluttered with images / as the inside of the skull in which Emma lived (in which she had chosen to live / and which she had made to live within). So that she herself was the mind in the skull of her room (a room of her own). It is tempting to think what it might have been like for her to be in bed and to be going to sleep in that room / to be going to sleep inside the extensive precincts of her own mind — and where else? / where else indeed? / except that in her case that mind was so made to be seen (seen (so made to be seen)) / and except that in her case that mind was so made to be lived within. I doubt that Emma ever experienced the kind of tranquility before repose that I’ve suggested — she was far too active (always) for that / she was that always active mind. I doubt very much that she experienced the difference between dream and waking that gives the rest of us occasional pause — if your mind is always external to yourself / something that you live in (in (that you live in (in))) / then it doesn’t much matter what goes on in it as long as it is productive of the active generation and continuous regeneration of that space in which that mind has chosen to reside (in which that mind has chosen to live that life).
And / in the back on the right / pushed almost against the foot of the bed / and itself white (or once white) as well — the small chest of drawers. The home of Emma’s wardrobe / the exoskeleton of its being / that other (analogous) way in which the mind manifested the mind to itself. The fact that wardrobe-within-seeing-mind shared space with images-of-things (of people (people (of people))) seen also within (and spilling into) that space — here also was already the work that she would always make — people / in-clothing / in-space / seen (and pictured) in the seeing mind / as (as) mind (as mind seeing mind). What she saw she saw always face-to-face.
When her brother Felix got a little older I more than once settled down to a game of chess with him when I got there / but it never lasted beyond a few moves — Emma needed to have her world seen / and (perhaps) to have it be seen that her mind and her world were in no way (and in no part) separate (or separable). Again / the tugs on the hand / giving way quickly to laughter mixed with willing acquiescence — her mood was always impossible to refuse. How would you say no to someone who is saying to you — Come with me / I want to show you my mind / I love it / and I know you will too? How would you say no to an artist (who is saying all of that to you)? / especially with you yourself being some sort of one of them too?
Emma seemed most always to be a pure immanence of enthusiasm.
When Emma was perhaps nine or ten / my lover and I visited Charles and Susan / and Emma and Felix / where they had rented an upstate house for some part of their summer vacation. When we arrived Emma was playing part of the time in-and-around an inflatable wading pool. As soon as we had alighted from our car / before we had sat down in the yard with our hosts / midway through greetings — Emma took me by the hand and led me into the house (entirely strange to me) / and up to the second floor / to see the current version of where-she-lived. Here there were a few toys in place of the collaged walls / but for some reason (was there a reason?) the usual had to be repeated even though if in its present incarnation it couldn’t offer much more than the form of what we usually experienced. Perhaps to Emma it was the form of the occasion that mattered (most) / but somehow I don’t think that that’s quite it — it seems more likely to me that in the absence of the absolute-unity-of-form-with-content that this experience offered her at home (and me) / she would accept (in this instance) a formal reminder that that other experience was available (that it could (could (that it could)) be had / again).
Alan Davies in 1990, around the time he first met Emma Bee Bernstein (© Laurie Leber).
We stayed overnight / had a good dinner together / lots of friendship and talk. And after a great breakfast at the local diner (with its Ollie North T-shirts for sale) we left for home.
Charles has from-time-to-time-over-the-years reminded me of something that happened at a poetry reading that I gave at the Ear Inn. Emma was perhaps five or six at the time. After I had given my reading Emma turned to Charles and said — I think I understand Alan Davies.
She evidently said this in seeming earnestness / and it was doubtless in response to what I had just read. So it was a considered and a serious response.
Perhaps it offers (at least) a clue to our friendship / begun already a couple of years earlier. She did (did (she did)) understand me / and I did (did (I did)) understand her.
The last time I saw Emma was at a Segue reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in the winter of 2008. I was co-curating the series for a couple of months / and standing in the back of the room / when Charles approached me and said — There’s Emma … with some of her friends … Why don’t you go and say hi to her? — at the same time pointing out the several people sitting around a table near the stage. I felt under just enough additional pressure with needing to make sure the reading went moderately smoothly / that I didn’t take his suggestion. While introducing one of the two readers / I saw Emma sitting quietly with her friends / and had time only to note that she looked as though she were charged-with-energy / while at the same time I saw that there was darkness around her eyes.
It is usually the birth of a child that begins to put parents-who-so-choose in the role of the stage mother and/or the stage father. In this case / the opposite of that has happened — it is the death of Emma that has motivated Charles and Susan to do everything within their power to promote the artistic works that Emma produced within her relatively short life.
I don’t remember (the adolescent) Emma ever being still / at rest. Normally we think of even a moving object as moving between two points / at each of which there is some form of stillness — we know that the perpetual motion machine is a fancy and not a reality / we’ve been taught to expect even the-universe-as-a-whole to slow down. Counter that / we’re told that children are the greatest athletes / and with that comes the expectation of at least considerable (considerable) motion. But Emma never (never) stopped — I never saw her not-moving.
Here there is a realization that contains the kernel of a contradiction — the still photographer slows down completely (completely) what it is she captures (captures) on her film / and even objects in motion (Muybridge) are stilled so that they can be apprehended (apprehended) as such. This plausibly-unexpected shift in Emma’s being (in Emma’s being Emma to Emma) is punctuated by the fact that for a good many of her photographs it was she who sat (who “sat”) for herself.
A collage or a montage would differ from other kinds of sensible statement in the sense that (or in the extent to which) it is composed of pieces that have been intentionally (and intently) prefigured for that purpose. In this way it would resemble (it might most resemble) those of the plastic arts the making of which is preceded by the making of the-materials-of-which. Most artists work with materials which they bring to hand for that purpose / but they do not for the most part actually make those individual things which are then to be the materials of their constructions — Emma’s constructions made it seem that she did.
It seems probable to me that having this as the origin of her senses of the ways of making things / would then influence Emma in the way that she went about making her photographs. And it is certain that this way of prefiguring her most immediate world about her (the room where she lived (as a child)) would then devolve into her ways of presenting her photographs to the world — in such a way that the photographs become the elements of the collage/montage / and a wall is found (somewhere) for their mingling and elucidation.
Emma Bee Bernstein, Senior thesis show, installation shot, University of Chicago, June 2007.
We all have ways of externalizing what we are where we live. We bring home to our own hole in the coral those things that make us feel at (at (that make us feel at)) home. For me those things are mostly books and CDs and clothing. For most of us they are objects that we get elsewhere and transport to where we live. This is an indication of the extent to which we are not bounded by our bodies / the extent to which we not only live but are (are (not only live but are)) beyond our constantly-changing skin.
What has been unique in Emma’s case is not only the extent to which she was aware of this as a child / not only the extent to which as a child she participated in this externalization-of-self (this externalization as (as) self) — but the fact that her choice of imagery-as-extension-of-self prefigured her career as an artist. The images were images of humans / and in this way too we could already see the intensity of vision (of self (self) of self-vision) / of self-visioning / that marked her attention to the emotional details of her life. This particular sort of externalization is reflective — it shows the visioner seeing back at herself (as a self / as a choice of selves) / and that too is unique — the self that is externalized (as living (living) as living-place (space)) is the self looking back (in guises) at the self that is externalizing itself / there / where it (most) lives.
Now / Emma is not here.
At times like these it is by managing our grief that we live. Otherwise.
Is it worth mentioning that / at-times-like-these / are endless?
* * *
The notes that follow were made with specific reference to a show of Emma Bee Bernstein’s portraits / at the Janet Kurnatowski gallery / in Greenpoint / in the spring of 2011 / curated by Phong Bui and Linnea Kniaz.
The photographs were not titled by Emma. Titles were added by her family / for the purpose of identification.
I’m getting really fond of the room in spite of the wall-paper. Perhaps because of the wall-paper.
— Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1899)
Emma photographed herself and friends of her own age / women in their early twenties. The women are not smiling — this does not mean that the atmosphere is one of dour contemplation — but something is being asserted that is staid and solid — it is that they are who they are / that that is that / and that nothing will change that (except change-itself?). Most of the photographs are frontal / some showing the subject in a landscape or room / some from the waist up (none closer). The subject is always alone — even when the portrait is of two women / they are alone. [ at right: Self-portrait with yellow wall (2007)]
Except for you (of course) / you the viewer.
Are you / then / the subject?
Frequently the costume of the subject (a dress or a nightgown) blends in (in some marked deliberate way) with the background. In “Self-portrait with yellow wall” Emma wears a dress with a paisley print that features yellow — even the cigarette hanging from her hand has been made yellow by the preponderance of yellow light — her golden shoes reflect yellow. Emma herself is backed into a vibrant yellow corner.
(from left): Jill against the brown door (2006), Marianna and floral wallpaper (2006), and Antonia in clown suit (2006).
Flowered dresses frequently find themselves in a-yard-of-flowers. Marianna wears a flowered gown against flowered wallpaper. Jill wears brown when photographed against a brown door. Antonia wears a blue clown suit (which manages to look not-at-all-clownish) in a blue room. Anat wears a dress with autumnal colors / when seen against a groundscape of fallen leaves / and a background that also somehow contrives to be largely brown.
This kind of placement makes a number of statements. The figure is a figure in a ground of which it is naturally (if not exactly seamlessly) a part. The figure is as-if-produced-by-the-ground against which it is seen. In nature / this kind of coloring-matching-its-surroundings is known as camouflage — and that is (in part) what it has to be seen as here — the women / while posing / to be photographed / are at-the-same-time hiding (they are blending in) — and this structure (a motif) is a contrivance of the photographer herself / of Emma. [at left: Anat, Autumn reflection (2006)]
There is a striking photograph entitled “Self-portrait in red rose dress in green garden” / in which Emma becomes a red blossom among blossoming plants.
Self-portrait in red rose dress in green garden (2007)
The general mood is staid / a mood that sometimes verges on the solemn. No one told these subjects to “Say cheese.” They are addressing us / where we are. Where are we?
The fact that some of the women are photographed wearing nightgowns or bathrobes lends a momentary instance-of-the-casual to what is being photographed / to what-is-being-shown. But this is deceptive — none of the photographs appear to have been taken impromptu / everyone is busy being very-much-who-they-are (who-they-are-seen-to-be (who-they-are-made-to-be-seen-to-be)). This means that each instance of each individual is an instance of integrity (of meaning-meaning-itself).
What we choose to put with what / is a statement about who we are. Emma knew this / as she placed her friends in land- and room-scapes that she knew would help define them.
Those photographed do not (in this sense) stand out — they are very much a-part-of-the-photographic-rectangle / they do not stand out from it — the plane is relatively flat. In this / the photographs resemble snapshots / a-thing-taken-on-the-run.
But this lives in-a-kind-of-tension with the certainty we have that each photo has been posed.
What does it mean that the photographic images have been staged / contrived / that they are not in-that-sense candid? Candor is what we look for from another person / one of those things we most value in someone. But here what-is-candid is not the photograph-as-object — what stands in (instead) for candor / is the solidity of the subjects / their outward-staring-look / and the feeling that it-is-that which they are about-to-speak (such that it is that about-to (about-to) that is candid / in these instances).
There is a kind of sadness about the-stillness-of-the-perceptions / the-women-perceiving-out-to-the-photographer / the-view-(and-the-viewer)-perceiving-in-to-the-women. The looker-at-a-wall-mounted-photograph stands (roughly) in-the-space-the-photographer-inhabited — in that way / the view (the viewer) obliterates the photographer / makes her be out-of-the-way / so that the-view-(the-viewer)-can-essay-(assay)-the-view. This is particularly-the-case when the subject of the photograph is a (another) human subject / on some levels an equal to the viewer. So that then there are three of us — the photographer most absent / because not seen (not-there) — the subject of the photograph / absent as-living-body / but still seen — and the viewer / present / but absent insofar as not being a part of that permanent-instance-of-the-once-photographed. Is anything really there / after all?
This kind of mirroring / is mirrored in some of the photos. “Jill with Art Nouveau print and mirror” [(2007), shown at right] shows Jill in an easy chair / wrapped in a green towel / with a mirror on her lap (she is looking at it) / and with an Art Nouveau poster wrapped in plastic occupying-the-lower-left-part-of-the-frame — there is a-window-streaming-full-of-light behind-and-above her. The poster is of a young woman / which Jill then mirrors — at the same time we know that she is undergoing-a-kind-of-mirroring in the open lens (that word leaps-to-mind) of the mirror into which she gazes. Where / in this instance / are we? — in a more uncommon relationship to the photograph than otherwise / not only because of the presence of the mirror / but because it is a source of light / and (in-that-way) can be seen to see / because light is the-substance-of-seeing (it makes seeing possible — it makes the-taking-of-photographs possible — it mediates between us (the viewer) and the-thing-seen (in this case a photograph (its subject seen because of-light — the-taking-of-it made possible by light — the viewing of it likewise))).
There are mirrors in other of the photographs. It is hard to say which mimics which / the mirror the photograph? / or the photograph the mirror? I suppose the answer to that question inevitably takes us into the realm of narrative. [We might mention the book Girldrive / co-made with her friend Nona Willis Aronowitz / and for which Emma made photographs of many women. The book is about young feminism.]
There is a photograph taken by a window (a-kind-of-absent-(or-potential)-mirror) [at left: Jill with glass (2006)].
And there is a photograph / “Gabi and Antonia on couch” / in which a large heavily-framed painted portrait (wall-hung) divides the two sitters / each of whom leans-away-from the painting in-a-different-direction / so that the painting separates them / while (at-the-same-time) the two brown-haired-women wear identical nightgowns / and share the same posture although in-mirror-image. It is interesting that the-top-half-or-so-of-the-painting is not included in the photograph / but there is still enough (just-enough) to let us know that it is a painting of a person. The women’s clothing and their posture twins the two sitters — the painting separates them / holding them apart. Is this a statement about the meaning (the function) of art? If it is / it says that in-some-way art divides the person / but that in-doing-so it still leaves her intact as divided instance of that-one-self. Perhaps art splits us off from our self / while (at-the-same-time) bringing us face to face with (with (face to face with)) that-self — but the question then remains / is the-self-to-which-it-returns-us the whole self (before the confrontation of the-work-of-art) / or the divided self (after that confrontation)?
Gabi and Antonia on couch (2006).
Emma also made some strained self-portraits / all featuring partial nudity. In one Emma reclines in a contorted posture — she has just added the fourth lipsticked-kiss to her own leg / which has been bent toward her mouth — but these kisses look like nothing-so-much-as-wounds.
Self-portrait licking knee (2006-2007).
In one / lying down on the floor / Emma has written I WANT U across the lower part of her naked ribcage — her posture / and the-look-on-her-face / says that-isn’t-so. And in another / also lying-down-on-the-floor / the word HUSBAND has been written on a piece of paper that hides her breasts — she has a cigarette in her mouth. In both of these photographs her skirt has been pushed up / exposing part of her pantied crotch above knee-high-socks — the sign feels like a weight / an insolent burden.
These photographs / and there are others that are not-unlike-them / resonate with the one called “Self-portrait crouching with plaster wall.” Emma crouches / her bodice is partly exposed to the viewer / as are her black-nylon-clad legs / she has a long cigarillo between her lips / and her arms are bent behind her back. We are looking down on her — she is looking up to (?) / at / us. It is the classic posture of the submissive — further / it is a photograph of a submissive who does not speak (because-of / and signified-by / the cigarillo-between-her-lips). She looks up / mascara or other makeup lending a look of fear to her demeanor — a red band binds her hair. Reaching out from-each-side-of-her-head there are patches of wall-damage that look like either the molting antlers of an elk or moose / or the frayed wings of an angel. [at right: Self-portrait crouching with plaster wall (2006)]
In a way / the desperation expressed in these particular photographs makes them the most hopeful. In the feminist context that Emma espoused (in the way that she lived / in the things that she made) / they represent that point of rupture with what-is-otherwise-culturally-acceptable / but what to Emma was so manifestly unacceptable — they enact a scream (of rage / not terror) / and out-of-that-scream (if anything exact can be articulated there) / the word NO!
In the overall context of Emma’s work / the photographs of two-women-shown-together are reassuring — and the fact that the photographs which are not self-portraits are of her friends / reminds us that friendship is to be valued / that it stands for something-in-this-world (regardless the social and psychological ambience).
The rawness of some of the self-portraits is also offset by (balanced-by) such a photograph as “Self-portrait in pink bathrobe” / where her right arm resting-on-a-rod-holding-pure-white-fringed-towels becomes the wing of an angel / about to take flight.
from left: Self-portrait in pink bathroom (2006), Marianna with chandelier (2006).
Or / “Marianna with chandelier” shows the subject looking-up-at and reaching-toward a bright chandelier that takes up slightly more than the top half of the photo — clearly (and I mean that literally) / she is about to transcend (if not to ascend) / and the-fact-that-she-is-about-to-transcend is made more manifest by the fact that-we-know-not-from-what(-from-what).
The photographs leave me feeling taken-aback — backed into the wall behind me / which I am not aware of as-image / but that never-the-less prevents me from being other-than-where-I-am (e.g. (alternatively) out-there).
Five people have entered the gallery — they’re moving slowly about / and talking — but it is the young women in the photographs on the-gallery-walls that are alive (alive (that are alive)).
Why is this?
It is because they have come here to be (and to-remain) who-they-are. While those few people in the gallery (myself included) are temporary phenomena (at most)
And what does it mean / later / now / that these photographs / that these women / are all-together (in-this-room)? It is a kind of litany really / a statement about friendship that is slow-and-steadied / numerous instances of that one thing (a-young-woman’s-way-of-looking-(of-appearing)-when-being- in-the-world).
The photographs / in-the-room / communicate with-one-another. The subjects / the young women / look outward / at us / and do not communicate (with-each-other) — but (still) there is perhaps something being whispered from-photo-to-photo / and that something has-something-to-do-with-the-meaning-of-life / with why we value it / with what it might (it might) be for.
Seeing the photographs grouped on the walls / the relative strength or weakness of the figure relative to (with) the ground / varies. These variations represent (they stand-in-for) the range of emotions that the women are being said to feel — and / the range of their-relative-nearness-to-or-distance-from-the-world. It is not that they (the women) are in-or-out-of-focus — it is (rather) they that are focusing (they are the-focusing) / and (in-this- way) they focus us (in-and-relative-to-that-world (their-world) and (as conscious viewers) to our-own-world (the one we inhabit / as viewers / viewing)).
The focal point of Emma’s camera is a woman’s face. Her body. Her being.
Photographer / photographed — face to face.
9Feb10 / 25Apr11
Early modern social lyric
Published in 1905, when Jules Romains was twenty years old, “Poetry and Unanimous Feelings” launches one of his dominant themes: “unanimous,” or, as will be seen, “unanimistic” feelings. He will expand on the theme (theme-assemblage, really) over a lifetime, in poems, novels, plays, essays. To name, today, his articulation of the social and the aesthetic is a bit like trying to name a constellation’s mythological shape. The terms composing the constellation come from various discourses and have distinctly differentiated meanings and references: the crowd, sociality, the social, class, lumpen, group, mass, multitude, people, folk, gathering, audience, community, public, commune.… Connections between them can be made into more than one configuration. To favor one or even two would be to risk missing the fabled synonymy unifying them all. Is that Monoceros the unicorn in the sky there? A shape does emerge out of this heterogeneity when the terms are juxtaposed by one opposing phrase: nineteenth-century individual lyrical expression. Romains’s “doctrine” (as detractors called it) intended to unzip “the individual” into the social relations that compose it.
Crowds against death!
I repeat, it’s time.
Romains considered a momentous twentieth-century discovery to be that society constitutes the individual through collectivities — a discovery on the order of nature to that of the eighteenth century. Evidently, Romains likes to make lucid statements out of generalities (centuries); to continue in this spirit, his premise in this respect is a neoclassical one, that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The whole in fact is so much greater than its parts that Romains coined a word for it, unanimism, and unanimism is optimistic about a quality perceived in group behavior, unanimity. Every group acquires, consciously or not, a contingent but determinate identity which he calls its specific unanim.
It will be a group of profound things welding together at once, a crescendo of ideas, each spontaneous and all of them moving in the same direction, like the spectacular rise of smoke that city factories deploy at the same hour.
But unlike Imagisme, Unanimisme suggests that a whole is expressible not through particulars (the natural object is not quite the adequate symbol, as Pound said it was; ideas are not “in” things, as Williams hoped they were; the universal is not “in” the concrete, as USAmerican particularists — philosophers, poets, theorists, etc. — have variously argued); instead, like an ur-Poundian ideogrammic method, a whole emerges from relations between things, beings, ideas, effects equally.
An early US review characterized Romains’s unanimism as producing “sociological poetry.” More recently, Rosalind Williams conceives of unanimism to be a “poetics of urban systems” of la vie sociale. A “system,” she says, may be comprised of interconnecting (of no longer dichomotized) organic and machinic relations in any environment, such as a street corner that today might consist of electric lights, oil spots, closed-circuit TVs, intersecting roadways, litter, dog poop, crows, storefronts, weeds, automobiles, sewer hole, iPods, and pedestrians. A unanim will show degrees of collective self-consciousness and institutional stability: poetry reading, coffee shop, cultural or political event, company, church, army, city, nation state. Romains writes that “unanims are more unstable, more supple, more capable of metamorphoses, of intermixing, of birth, of death than are our invariable and rigid selves.” The writer’s task is to help create unanims, and group consciousness about existing unanims.
Romains’s booklength poem La vie unanime (1908) creates out of Paris a unanim with an “immortal fluency” its citizens can become aware of and help to articulate:
The city knows its dead are transmissions.
People, tonight, dying in it
simply render, by painful starts
what little they’ve captured of its immortal fluency.
They’ve grasped it as best they could in the knots
of their laryngeal systems; but tonight, they let go.
While they moan, young bodies go electric
with the vibration made by bodies underground.
The dead and the dying are also able to participate in raising collective awareness of the unanimistic vibe.
Unanimism holds a special place in Jean-Michel Rabaté’s argument to historicize globalization through turn-of-the-century imperialisms, the rise of finance capital, and the First World War. Rabaté suggests that unanimism was just as significant to early modernism as was futurism and cubism, and that in French modernist avant-gardes it polarized Apollinaire (for whom the avant-garde must focus solely on the medium of expression) and Romains (for whom the avant-garde also has a role of shocking into awareness). Romains’s widespread influence in European early modernist art, music, and literature is taken up also by Christopher Butler, while still others have examined specific unanimistic effects on texts by Joyce (the “wandering rocks” section in Ulysses), Woolf (The Waves), Pound (who acknowledged Romains’s effort to reinvent Greek epic chorus structure), Toomer (Cane), Waldo Frank (City Block), and Québec poet Jean Aubert Loranger (Les atmosphères), and on paintings by cubists, including Leger and Gleizes, and Italian futurists, including Boccioni (including his technical manifesto) and Carrà, among others. Critics have yet to consider the unanimism at play in other literary texts, such as Melvin B. Tolson’s midcentury Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. Romains’s mythological shape may also be broadly discerned in a constellation of contemporary texts that address social structures and collective identity, such as Renee Gladman’s The Activist, Carla Harryman’s The Gardener of Stars, Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, Allen Fisher’s “crowd-out” texts, as well as in Teresa Brennan’s theory of the psychic transmission of affects, Hardt and Negri’s “social flesh” of “the multitude,” among numerous other theorists branching off from the group-consciousness-think of Freud and Durkheim (whom Romains called the Descartes of unaninism). In popular culture, the French film Delicatessen (1991) might be said to create an apartment building unanim. One unanimistic technique the film uses is a montage of scenes that repeats a rhythm unwittingly orchestrated by the squeaky bedsprings of a love-making couple: in back-and-forth movements of a worker roller-painting a ceiling, in a cello student practicing scales to a metronome, in a tenant manually pumping a bicycle tire, in a woman beating out carpet dust with a paddle, in fingers’ rapid movements with knitting needles.
Paradoxically, Romains wasn’t interested in creating a purely literary school or movement, not least one focused on technological novelty and analogy (to telephone, to radio, to airplane, to machine gun, etc.). By 1911–12, unanimism supporter Georges Duhamel could comment easily that literary schools were being founded every week. While Romains certainly wrote about unanimism as a rallying rubric for French writers of his generation, and was loosely associated with the Abbaye de Créteil group who were experimenting with communal living in order to write and to publish (their first publication was Romains’s La vie unanime), the very nature of unanimism would seem to prevent it becoming a strictly literary endeavour controlled by one platform or by one individual or group. Instead of another manifesto, Romains wanted to articulate all the new forms of social relation in modern city life. In a sense, this included the manifesto itself as a phenomenon. A manifesto, political or aesthetic, is often a performative claim made upon group consciousness (usually a manifesto has more than one signatory). The manifesto is a “crowd” mode of rhetorical address whose goal is to change another crowd-composition to which the status quo has become habituated. Romains takes self-referentially performative aspects of manifesto form and turns them into unanimism’s content: collective identity itself, group formation as such. Romain wanted to create group consciousness and to make others aware of what they were already collectively doing unconsciously, incidentally, expressly.
But to what end, unanims? Unanims must by definition also include socially conservative and reactionary group expressions — those that might emerge from nationalist chauvinism as much as from anti-statism, and so on. The extent to which Romains’s theory and writing could constructively respond to the politics of groups seems limited. Unlike Eliot’s oeuvre — think Prufrock — Romains’s expresses an optimism about socially complex, modern city living. But like Pound (with whom, incidentally, he shares birth and death years, 1885–1972), the crises of the 1930s bring out another side to Romains’s theory. Even as PEN president, Romains’s unanimism racializes European identity as white, in what might be called a spirit of “goodwill racism” (goodwill is key to his conception of unanims as the title of his twenty-seven-volume novel, Les hommes de bonne volonté, makes plain). Without Pound’s enduring emotion in The Cantos of trolling paranoid vituperativeness and literary haughtiness, which repels (and paradoxically shields) his reader from the worst of his text, Romains’s teacherly tone of disarmingly intimate sincerity in the poetry book L’homme blanc (1937) is all the more discomfitting. Aimé Césaire buries (“buries” is his figure) unanimism by noting how in the 1950 French edition of Salsette découvre l’Amérique Romains’s use of a unanimistic technique — that of repeated implication-by-association in order to form a whole — oppresses.
Certainly at other times Romains was aware of the “destructiveness of the crowd,” to use Canetti’s key phrase. During the Great War Romains wrote Europe, a booklength poem lamenting the destructive powers of unanims (army; nation; hero) gone awry — and predictably his response is to appeal to an even larger unanim than that of warring nation-states, indefensible (as Césaire would call it) Europe. The poem’s closing two lines — quoted above — appear groundlessly hopeful in the context of the poem.
To not only articulate a unanim, but talk one down — the witch camps in rural northern Ghana (what are the poets in Ghana doing these days?) — or talk one up — the use of a repeated proceduralism that “unanimizes” a semantic field’s disparate references (something poets in Canada and the US are doing these days) — that is the groundless hope. We are all the martyr Ibrahim Qashoush.
1. Translations mine throughout essay. My translation of Romains’s manifesto appears in the “Manifestos Now!” issue (guest editor Brian Ganter) of The Capilano Review 3, no. 13 (Winter 2011): 46–48. Romains’s “Les sentiments unanimes et la poésie” first appeared in Le Penseur 4 (April 1905): 121–24. Reprinted in Claude Martin’s Correspondance: André Gide — Jules Romains (Paris: Flammarion, 1976), 152–54, and in Bonner Mitchell’s critical edition of selected French manifestos, Les manifestes littéraires de la belle époque, 1866–1914: Anthologie critique (Paris: Seghers, 1966), 81–86.
3. Romains is cited in Rosalind Williams, “Jules Romains, Unanimisme, and the Poetics of Urban Systems,” in Literature and Technology, Research in Technology Studies, vol. 5, ed. Mark L. Greenberg and Lance Schachterle (London: Associated University Presses, 1992), 193–94.
4. Jules Romains, “L’unanimisme et Paul Adam,” Revue littéraire de Paris et de Champagne 2, no. 42 (September 1906): 284.
5. Allan Antliff details the influence of Romains’s “sociological poetry” on the Modern School movement in the U.S., in “Interpellating Modernity: Cubism and ‘La vie unanime’ in America,” in American Modernism Across the Arts, ed. Jay Bochner and Justin D. Edwards (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 53–72.
6. Jules Romains, “La chevelure inextricable,” in Revue littéraire de Paris et de Champagne 2, no. 43 (October 1906), 352–53.
8. Jean-Michael Rabaté, 1913: The Cradle of Modernism (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007); Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music, and Painting in Europe, 1900–1916 (Oxford UP, 1994); Renee Gladman, The Activist (San Francisco, CA: Krupskaya, 2003); Carla Harryman, The Gardener of Stars (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2001; Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2007); Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004). For an introduction to poet-artist Allen Fisher on “decoherence and crowd-out,” see the newsletter and supplement for PhillyTalks 19: Allen Fisher and Karen Mac Cormack (17 October 2001), with responses by Marjorie Welish, Matt Hart, Rob Holloway, housed at Slought Foundation Online.
9. Romains’s essay in Mitchell’s Les manifestes littéraires de la belle époque, 1866–1914: Anthologie critique (see note 1) is productively sandwiched between symbolist, futurist, socialist, humanist, “naturist,” classicist, and other manifestos published in France. Unanimisme is absent, however, from Mary Ann Caws’s international anthology even as it is three times the size of Mitchell’s, Manifesto: A Century of Isms (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001). Unanimisme’s absence might speak to its questionable relationship to the idea of literary language as such — and therefore to the polarization between Apollinaire and Romains that Rabaté conceives as structuring French early modernism. “The limitation of Romains’ work, as of a deal of Browning’s,” Pound writes, “is that, having once understood it, one may not need or care to re-read it. This restriction applies also in a wholly different way to [Keats’s] “Endymion” [… and …] applies to all poetry that is not implicit in its own medium, that is, which is not indissolubly bound in with the actual words, word music, the fineness and firmness of the actual writing, as in Villon […].” See Pound, Instigations (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 74.
12. Like Pound as well, Romains developed an over-inflated sense of his own social importance: in, for instance, the essays of Seven Mysteries of Europe (1940), he narrates himself into imagined key moments of European history before the Second World War, as advisor to French politicians and as a diplomat of peace. In fact, Romains supported the Munich Pact. Aimé Césaire lambastes Romains’s Salsette découvre l’Amérique in Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham, intr. Robin D. G. Kelley (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 51.
A review of 'The Ministry of Walking'
In 2004, The Ministry of Walking rose out of the dust and snow in the conspicuously automobile-centric Calgary, where a group of artists were determined to undermine the car culture and find some cracks and crevices of pleasure/growth in the concrete of the streets. The website was started as a way for members to document the ideas that the group developed through walking.The project hopes to entice commuting Calgarian suburbanites, as well as people in other cities, to take on the slowed-down pleasures of urban exploration on foot.
When asked to write something about MOW’s website, I have to admit, I was a bit afraid it would be a set of highly developed plans to enliven the city and empower the populace with maps for a dérive. Happily I found the website was more of an unfinished master plan with only a few links and a downloadable Wander Guide. It comes across as though everyone from the Ministry is off somewhere else and not tied to the computer designing webpages that explain what one might find “out there.” After quickly coming to the ends of each of the pages in the MOW website, I decide to follow the links to the members. From one of them I come to this end:
Writing this now, I attempt to return to the link from which I stumbled on this text/graphic, to quote exactly which member lead me here, but nothing navigates me towards this page any more! I ask myself if the MOW website has been updated or if I had a unique experience? Luckily, I have proof of that journey because at the time I was struck by the absurdity of it and did a screen grab. Knowing this link has been lost to us now, I feel luckier than before somehow. MOW member Donna Akrey explains that the website is pretty much just one shoe. “You need to go find or already have the other shoe somewhere to make it work for you.”
Armed with MOW’s downloadable Wander Guide, “our latest tool in ongoing efforts to develop a meandering urban public (MUP),” I proceed with my research by deciding to take two actions: do a walk as proposed by MOW in each of the five cities I would be passing through in the coming weeks; and wander as a member of the MUP through my stacks and the internet in reaction to MOW’s scant website and what it proposes.
Of the eight suggested walks in the Wander Guide I am particularly drawn to two. The Seeking Silence Excursion recommends we “notice the change in sound throughout the transition between locations”; Stack Maneuver is more of a disruptive, blind negotiation of an urban center at lunchtime, where one is told to carry a stack of empty boxes in front of them. The second of the two makes me think of Samuel Beckett’s stage piece “Quad” where four people continuously navigate a square, never bumping into each other even though they are possessed by haste and their own routine. I go YouTubing to find it and am mesmerized by “Quad” but it makes me think of how my planned travels would also include train, plane, ferry, and shuttle bus. I speculate as to whether I can approach my walks in these terminals in the same MUP way? What constitutes an appropriate site for a walk?
from “City on a Roof – Rules of the Game” a non-copyrighted box-set catalogue of architects' reflection on urban development, during a conference in Groningen, Netherlands, 2006.
Jonas Mekas comes to mind for his reflections on tourists in the city. On Tuesday December 4, 2007, of his series entitled 365 Mekas tells us, “(The) tourist is a perfect example of someone who has reached a zen state of life. It does not matter what kind of food, good or bad, it does not matter, you just eat anything. And you don’t care what will happen to you, you know, so what? You are in a bliss of existence and nothing really matters, including yourself.” I suspect that Mekas’s tourist is already well underway to being a MUP although one is not supposed to want to be a tourist. According to the MOW Wander Guide however, locals can be guilty of the “Point-A-to-B” Syndrome, which is said to cause symptoms such as melancholy, alienation and fatigue and for this reason I decide to ask Corey Frost to go on assignment, and walk over to the Zebulon in Brooklyn, and drop off a copy of “Dwelling for Intervals” for Jonas Mekas. I send JM an email to tell him of the delivery (maybe he too will walk).
I decide to ask MOW members to answer a few questions about the origin of The Ministry of Walking and their role in it. From their varied answers I find discrepancy about exactly when it all began and who was involved. Members are apologetic for the out-of-date state of the website; emphatic about it having no connection to the Ministry of Silly Walks (a Monty Python skit); and several tell me they are suffering from foot ailments but are still walking, albeit with different shoes. Most members continue “the walk” as part of their everyday and artistic practice but proof of this is on their individual websites and blogs rather than back at The Ministry. I want to reassure them that they are really doing enough, but it's too late as suddenly I am privy to a slew of group emails among the members promising each other more shows, auctions, actions, interactions … in short, more paths.
Jorge Luis Borges from “Labyrinths” 1964.
I ask the members of MOW if maps and games are related. Kay Burns answered:
“They can be I suppose, but I would have to say I haven’t experienced any map-related games that enhance my experience of a place in any kind of profound way. Having said that, I think the idea of maps as some kind of “truthful representation” of place is maybe rather game like — in terms of possible deceptions, exaggerations, and disjointedness. Don’t forget, maps spelled backwards is spam – think about what that means!
The five cities and the results of my research are as follows:
Rotterdam — I want to follow the shifting bricks and sand of the mammoth construction projects of the inner-city but instead I am struck by the revolving doors on all corners of every intersection.
Amsterdam — I (happily) find myself lost again — inadvertently on MOW’s Spiral Walk.
New York — With an almost-fifty-year-old dandy and a twin, we give up all recommendations and are absorbed by that elusive other and bridges, simultaneously shooting from three different heights.
Toronto — My travel suitcase drags behind me like a reluctant dog, the streets stretch in front of me like a lapping tongue. Sunshine and a stiff shoulder.
Montreal — Old haunt new ghosts. I buy some new shoes in Little Italy. Day does too.
Two weeks later, back in Rotterdam, Iva Bittova from the Czech Republic is in town performing. I have just bought a ticket when she arrives with her violin in a backpack. She asks at the kiosk where she will be performing and then turns and compliments me on my new shoes. I want to give her one.
What works so well about the MOW website is that it doesn’t really give much. This open project draws you to the ends of a few short routes on the website, only to shove you off with no obligation to call home or check in later. It is a collection of loose beginnings, as though the members met there to discuss how to start and then left the page/site, to be engrossed in their own urban undertakings. Having departed from the original directives so many years ago, a few members lovingly send a postcard home from time to time (a video or still image with some text). The rest happens off the page, underfoot, in our heads, and in the collaborative spaces between.
From Christopher Dewdney’s “Spring Trances in the Control Emerald Night” 1974.