Entry 7

Poetics Diplomacy II

Beachfront apartment, Tel Aviv, 1997. Photo: author

Writing on the debate over Israel/Palestine and BDS, while reflecting on the poetics conference I attended at Tel Aviv University in 1997, I am aware of the limits of discussion in public and academic spheres. The boycott itself has occasioned acts of recrimination, but at the same time there is a lack of more general discussion lest prior, fixed commitments be unveiled. While ASA's call for suspending contacts with Israel was put forward along with a claim for the right to argue for the boycott itself, the immediate response was unconcerned with any such subtlety as freedom of speech. This was in part due to the proposal itself, which divided the issue into boycott or not—as a result, the proposal was easily characterized as an attack. In return, the National Lawyers Guild has issued a resolution that defends the right to boycott, citing the First Amendment and a statement by the AAUP on the rights of faculty "not to cooperate" with persons or institutions "with whom or with which they disagree" (one wonders about the scope of that pronouncement, however). Meanwhile, in an article for the Chronicle for Higher Education, MLA President Marianne Hirsch describes the distorted, hate-mongering responses to its session on BDS and its resolution to protest travel restrictions to occupied Palestine. The conduct of the debate indicates the real limits on "speech" in public contexts, and these are worth interrogating: how did they come about? What forms of self- and group censorship are in force in our communities, including poetics, over what may be said? In academia, disciplinary structures work to keep controversy within micromanaged limits, but a similar result obtains, often without any perceptible leverage applied, in arts communites.

That said, I want to continue my discussion of the 1997 conference. My theme image, above, is precisely the kind of material I encountered outside the institutional context but which made it so valuable to be there. On one of my many walks from the hotel down the November beach front of Tel Aviv, I came across a series of hotels or apartments with seemingly futuristic design. Our conference on the avant-garde might have found a reference to Tatlin, Sant'Elia, or Lebbeus Woods in these deconstructed towers, which appeared to strip away the quotidian reality of everyday living, with its holiday balconies, to their infrastructural or militarized core. Seeing the above example as a dialectical image, I could not help associate it with the burning towers of Beirut during the siege of 1982—a psychic object to be reenacted in 2001. Condensing that occasion with the founding of Israel, the building seemed to encompass its own destruction as a traumatized horizon continuous with everyday life. When I travel, I like to scan—my cultural transcoder is looking for evidence of whatever kind—and the tower struck me as a site for questioning where I might find out something about where I was. There were a number of such moments in my travels after the conference; the tear-streaked face of the bald mannikin in the previous post, in a Tel Aviv boutique, was another. 

As conferences go, this was a fine one: there was every reason to discuss contemporary poetics under the auspices of the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics. The results, as I have said, have been published in two volumes by Poetics Today (20:4 and 21:1); the conference proceeded with professional standards and quite a lot of added excitement in impromptu discussions. The usual celebratory occasions—welcome by the dean; readings by poets—could easily have been staged at MLA or MSA. There were moments, however, where the external context broke through; the first that I recall was a lunch held, I was told, in the confiscated manor of the former owner of the land on which the university had been built in 1948. The building was shown off as a cultural trophy in the otherwise cement-cast, modernist university buildings. At the reading, I recall the dean was by no means copacetic about the humanities in a time of crisis; he likened the work of poets to that proverbial dwarf standing on the giant's shoulders of history. I riled at this a bit, countering with a reference to our 1989 poetics conference in Leningrad—truly a twilight moment where poetry and history coincided for a flicker of an instant. Not wanting to bypass a present occasion, I included in my texts for the evening reading this section of Bad History on the first Gulf War:

Iraqi: various scenarious for wearers of a mark of distinction and/or shame. "My husband was a driver on the Iraq-Amman highway, transporting food. On the way back, there was an air raid at the al-Rutbah area, at the 106-kilometer mark from Baghdad to Amman. The air raid took place, and he was killed. He was driving with another man sitting beside him. My husband jumped out of the cab after the bombing and ran about 25 meters from the truck. The planes came back and strafed him; he was hit with machine gun fire." Thus the consequences of appearing to be Iraqi at a particular moment in time. "I was walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley after an embarrassing lunch with J— M—, during which I had been very conscious of the Iraqi pin on my shirt. Guys would loom out of the crowd saying, "Hey, an Iraqi!" This was some time about the beginning of February. But I always remembered to take my pin off for official meetings at my work. (Bad History, 16–17)

I read this poem at Tel Aviv University, which I would not have been able to do had I not been there. The response was immediate; after a round of congratulatory back-slapping for my daring act of speech, I learned about the first Gulf War from the perspective of people in Tel Aviv who had to seal their windows in anticipation of missile attacks, along with details of the landing of the few that got through (and the inaccuracy of the Patriot missiles said to intercept them) and with deep vilification of Saddam Hussein. My exercise in testing the limits of speech, I think, was as much a continuation of the shame of not having an adequate political response to the first Gulf War, except to wear the Iraqi pin (on the Iraqi pin project, see Constructivist Moment, chapter 5). This was the true beginning of the conference; I had come there to find out, not just to assume the adequacy of prior knowledge.

The next revelation occurred with a group dinner at an Arab restaurant in Jaffa, not far from the Gaza Strip. We were taken, in what amounted to a convoy, to a tourist restaurant atop a defensible hilltop that was otherwise stripped of any obstructions, its parking lot lit by security lights. Orientalism IA identified this establishment with many other bordertown establishments serving colonial cuisine: an Israeli version of Tijuana. Finally, there was the chartered bus up the coast to the Roman ruins of Caesaria and the port of Haifa, which at the last moment I agreed to join. A half hour at the ruins was more than enough, in part due to the American evangelists who were staging a revival meeting, with country and western band, in its amphiteater (Christians had been sacrified there, it was said). It seemed equally historical how the sand dunes, like those we were seeing, had been turned into flowering gardens. Counter to these ideological moments, I had an informative conversation with a Russian-born scholar on the benefits of the surge in post-Soviet immigration for the Israeli Right. On the way to Haifa, I jumped out of the minivan and hailed a cross-country bus back to the Tel Aviv Museum, where I had scheduled an appointment with the poet Rony Someck, who had recorded for John Zorn's Masada project. On the bus itself I had a lengthy literary discussion with an Israeli novelist and noticed the social space created around a black Ethiopian Jew, who stood alone at the front. 

[At this point, the organized part of conference was over and I was left free to explore on my own. I went on to visit Jaffa alone and Jerusalem in the company of M—, T—, and C—. Further perspectives will be described in my concluding post.]