Monday, February 13, 2012

Queer Arts of Forgetting: Absent Objects in Emaré

"Taken from here to where it came from
And taken to a place
And used in such a manner that can only remain as
A representation of what it was where it came from"
Art Institute of Chicago, Modern Art Wing

"Syr Tergaunte, that nobyll knyght,   
He presented the Emperour ryght,
   And sette hym on hys kne,
Wyth that cloth rychyly dyght,
Full of stones ther hyt was pyght,
   As thykke as hyt myght be:
Off topaze and rubyes   
And othur stones of myche prys,
   That semely wer to se;
Of crapowtes and nakette,   
As thykke ar they sette,
   For sothe, as y say the."
Emaré, Lines 85-97

Art is an act of forgetting. We attend to a text-object and in doing so retreat everything else connected to it or "below the surface" into the background. The Art becomes a representation of what has become forgotten, discarded, and removed. And yet there is no escape from networks and there is no word outside of the whole field of signification; in fact what brings the Art to life and sustains it is the abjected processes in the background. It is the specters in and outside the text which we do not attend to that produces the Art as excess. We only ever actively see a sliver of reality, but in recognizing the passive queer specters at work, we may become tuned into the object's unknown reality.

In the Medieval Breton lay Emaré, a master-crafted dress is made and remade using a variety of rare gemstones to narrate a variety of scenes alluding to the diverse histories of the garment before being remade again and given to Emare who wears it and becomes, the text tells us, an object of such beauty that others struggle to look at her directly. These gems, the garment and its wearer, all become text-objects and works of art which are pulled from their original networks, which are then forgotten in the background, but which serve to spectrally animate the objects from within and without; alluring us with hints of sublime or retreating objective interiority.

The cloth was dysplayed sone;
The Emperour lokede therupone
   And myght hyt not se,
For glysteryng of the ryche ston;
Redy syght had he non,
   And sayde, "How may thys be?"
The Emperour sayde on hygh,
"Sertes, thys ys a fayry,   
   Or ellys a vanyté!"
The Kyng of Cysyle answered than,
"So ryche a jwell ys ther non
   In all Crystyanté."
Emaré, Lines 98-108

I. The Text-Object

Art is an act of Framing, and Framing is an act of Forgetting. In a previous post on Romeo + Juliet, I discussed how naming serves to draw our attention to a specific area (place in time and space; and intensity) of a network while not necessarily removing this named-network-part from interacting ecologies.  What is called naming there, could very well be considered a general practice of art forming (if we think in terms of the Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing). An object becomes removed from its environment, if only in our minds, by becoming drawn to our attention. Like Heidegger's distinction between the ready-at-hand and the present-at-hand objects, this stepping forth of the object by being framed as significant, brings it life for us in new ways. It may not even be a human actant that frames the object for us, it may be the objects own enticing qualities or other mediators which cause us to attend.

In  Emaré the gem stones are unearthed by workers and are purchased by dealers, by craftsmen, then finally changes hands several times as the garment which it is ebedded in changes time and time again. In becoming Gem, the stones of the earth along with all the workers are forgotten. In becoming a part of the Garment, the gem is forgotten until it is momentarily made a representation of its type and history. The Garment itself is framed by its use and re-use, until it is eventually framed as part of Emaré's person. Of course, Emaré herself becomes framed as Art by wearing the garment as well. As we move out attention from person, to human, to clothes, the scenes, to gems, to workers, to stones, to lands of origin certain things are brought forth while the others fade into the background, still at work.

The Emerayle dowghter of hethenes   
Made thys cloth wythouten lees,
   And wrowghte hyt all wyth pryde;   
And purtreyed hyt wyth gret honour,
Wyth ryche golde and asowr   
   And stones on ylke a syde.
And, as the story telles in honde,
The stones that yn thys cloth stonde,
   Sowghte they wer full wyde.
Seven wynter hyt was yn makynge,
Or hyt was browght to endynge,
   In herte ys not to hyde.
Emaré, Lines 109-120    

II. The Art of Forgetting

Having been so pulled forward as a wonder to our senses, we may then physically remove the object from its current network or create an imitation of the object in order to represent our experience of a particular framing of the world. Thus what art "is" in this sense, is a manner of observation which allows us to see more in a specific way/place while causing us to forget other things. The other things do not totally disappear, but become background, marginal, distant, and in a sense spectral. They exist but not as a priority. We may begin to assume that they don't matter or even interfere with our experience of text/art/object which we have framed. Like listening to the recording of an opera at home, mounting a photograph of a landscape, going to a zoo, eating only the green M&Ms, reading a book, throwing away the wrapper of a candy bar, stereotyping a stranger, or moving the homeless to other cities, we "clean up" what we see by picking out what we want and disposing of the rest.

The story of Emaré is in many senses a story about abjection. By the bejeweled cloth's arrival we are already encouraged to have forgotten the geological and human labor (not to mention the animal labor) that went into this brilliant piece of art's production. The unearthing of this past is in a sense one of Marx's central methods. The cloth's position as object mediator for the "Sultan of Emir" from whom it is taken as booty in war, is forgotten and further erased by its reconstruction into a dress from Emaré. When the impenetrable beauty of Emaré is combined with the dazzling surface of the dress, she becomes an Art object which while desired cannot be easily looked at. She becomes (as a psychoanalytic reading may suggest) the Sublime Object of Ideology. She is the Other which is searched for and desired, but is ever out of reach. While she is the central figure of the story, Emaré herself seems to exist as a specter which haunts the text. For all the action she incites, she can be forgotten as a live agent.

In that on korner made was   
Ydoyne and Amadas,   
   Wyth love that was so trewe;
For they loveden hem wyth honour,   
Portrayed they wer wyth trewe-love-flour,
   Of stones bryght of hewe:
Wyth carbunkull and safere,   
Kassydonys and onyx so clere   
   Sette in golde newe,
Deamondes and rubyes,   
And othur stones of mychyll pryse,
   And menstrellys wyth her glewe.   
Emaré, Lines 121-133 

III. Creating Specters

For students of language, particularly of deconstruction, this distinguishing of one object, or text, as different logically requires the deferral of meaning onto a whole field of signifiers which the word marks the absence. This play of signification/association among the peripheries carries the force of meaning into and out from the text-object invoked. Thus while all other signifiers are forgotten, they not only remain active in the background but like the strings of a puppet, animate the attended text and bring it to life.

Carla Freccero in Queer/Early/Modern makes a similar argument regarding the abjected bodies of queers. The specters of the forgotten haunt the attended, normified bodies, pass through and around them, marking these bodies attempts at stable forms with failure and excess. Even in our attempts to see and identify the queer, we fail (as discussed in the previous post on Punk) because the queer can only ever disturb identity. Thus we cannot ever actively "attend" to queerness, but we may be aware of its presence, passively, as it moves through the peripheries of our vision, moving, disturbing, and transforming the text-object; bringing it perpetually to new life, like its breath moving in and out and around its body. She employs Foucault extensively in her argument, and presence may in fact here be linked with Foucault's concepts of power and knowledge which can only ever be enacted but not contained in totality likes facts or possessions in a secure vault somewhere, waiting to be opened and used. The reality of Art objects, like persons, is queer in our ability to encounter it. It perpetually disturbs what we can see and remains active beyond our powers to attend to it and thus stabilize it into coherent, readable knowledge. Of course, to do so, would be to entomb the text-objects, yet another manner of abjection, forgetting, and covering-over.

Thus we may see Emaré's wandering voyage, as a manner of perpetually moving just as others begin to approach her, gestures to her position as the queer spectral object of the text; arriving at her as a destination is an encounter which is ever differed/disturbed from its totality. Recasting her identity, having lies told about her, working perpetually through servants, kings, suitors, and even enemies Emaré's agency is active through her powers of slipping around in and altering networks of signification, objects, and power. Whether seen as an object of desire or a death-threat, Emaré's presence exceeds what she reveals. Why she is so sign-ificant is never fully evident even for the reader and perhaps for this reason the text begs to be read as somehow being representational. The specters of significance reveal their presence through the mystery of the art.

In that othur corner was dyght
Trystram and Isowde so bryght,   
   That semely wer to se;
And for they loved hem ryght,
As full of stones ar they dyght,
   As thykke as they may be:
Of topase and of rubyes,   
And othur stones of myche pryse,
   That semely wer to se;
Wyth crapawtes and nakette,
Thykke of stones ar they sette,
   For sothe, as y say the.
Emaré, Lines 134-144  

IV. Ghosts in the Machine

Of course the spectral queerness is not simply external to the attended text/art/object but are a key element of its interiority. Like the Other located inside the Subject, or the Trace located inside the signifier, there is a Blank located inside Text as articulated by Iser Wolfgang in his article on the "Interaction Between Text and Reader." What this amounts to is that in attending to the object, we come to recognize that we cannot see "beyond the surface," and this ambiguity of the text allows for it to have many potential trajectories, thus freeing it from deterministic frames which we might like to place on it. It is the fact that the fork that picks up food may also be a back-scratcher, or the word fork which may also be split in the road, and that this interiority is what frees it from the straight metonymic chain of meaning, cause and effect. It is this interior queer spirit of metaphor that allows it transform like Stockton's Queer Child, to grow sideways, potentially rescuing it from a strict adherence to Lee Edelman's Reproductive Futurism, in which things must always grow up or not at all. For the reason that specters, metaphor, and ambiguity does not necessarily mean something is void or nothing (in fact nothingness is starkly definite) I would suggest that mystery might be a better word than blank; even better than secret, which supposes a point in which the totality of the object would be revealed.

The mystery (or in psychoanalysis the essential lack) of Emaré gestures to an interiority which retreats beyond the view of the reader and transcends beyond the bounds of hegemonic structures of reading. She is ambiguous in her qualities and her intents. We can gleam various readings about her by reading the effects she has on the things around her, but even when we attend to them, make them significant in the art, we then lose sight of Emaré. Her character, as well as the other objects which exist with her, possess a power to do many things, draw us in without revealing a nessisary cause, and to transform through metaphor, allegory and other readings because of this ambiguity. If we could ever reduce Emaré to simple cause and effect, to simple allegory, and if these could be isolated and understood completely themselves, we would in fact have a very dead text. We could observe what is useful to us and leave the rest unknown. We would make the Art abject and forget about it. Of course, an "event" could still cause it to gleam and catch our attention and perhaps a few specters could escape their entombment to resurrect the text.

In the thyrdde korner, wyth gret honour,
Was Florys and Dam Blawncheflour,   
   As love was hem betwene;
For they loved wyth honour,
Purtrayed they wer wyth trewe-love-flour,
   Wyth stones bryght and shene:
Ther wer knyghtus and senatowres,   
Emerawdes of gret vertues,   
   To wyte wythouten wene;
Deamoundes and koralle,   
Perydotes and crystall,   
   And gode garnettes bytwene.   
Emaré, Lines 145-156    

V. The Allure of Tomb Stones

What comes of this queer spectrality is not only that which brings the text-object to life but may in fact gesture to the real interiority of things as articulate by Graham Harman. Working through Husserl and Heidegger, Harman proposes a Fourfold dimension to Objective being: the real object, the real qualities, the sensual object and the sensual qualities. In attending to the object as art, we are "confronted" by the objects sensual qualities and touch the sensual object. By "theorizing" this art-text-object we can come to discern real qualities about the object (there is a chance for us to access real information on objects, even if we do not know them in their totality). What concerns us most here is that Harman also suggests that there is an "allure" which the sensual qualities which we contact by attending to an art object allows us to feel/sense/touch through mediation the real object. We cannot directly know or touch objects (we may only engage with sensual objects) but, through the queer specters of passively engaging with the unknown, we may be given a glimpse at access to the objects hard kernel of reality.  In this way "art" and especially a "queer method of attending to art" may be the most sound way to engage with the reality of an objective world. Perhaps?

 Graham Harman's Quadruple Object

In Emaré we might very well see this quadruple object at work in Emaré's inscrutability.  While she is physically encountered by the Emperor and his court, and we may say that there are real objects and real qualities present, her identity can still be misread and information about her can still be manipulated by the King's mother. This evidences that while the encounter with Emaré as a text (both as the text of the Breton Lay and as the person in the story) with all manner of sensual qualities and presence, we must theorize the real qualities and can only feel inclined towards the allure of real presence without ever directly touching or being assured of its reality. This is Harman's move which runs counter to a physchoanlytic or certain phenomenological readings of Emaré which would insist that we are so bound to our subjective reality that we can only ever be materialists, interacting with the world as symbolic reality. Harman would promote an encountering of Emaré, like all Art, and objects with as much of an active as a passive sense of wonder on understanding beyond subjective oriented, epistemological certainty, which he calls Speculative Realism.

In the fowrthe korner was oon,
Of Babylone the Sowdan sonne,   
   The Amerayles dowghtyr hym by.
For hys sake the cloth was wrowght;
She loved hym in hert and thowght,
   As testymoyeth thys storye.
The fayr mayden her byforn
Was portrayed an unykorn,   
   Wyth hys horn so hye;
Flowres and bryddes on ylke a syde,
Wyth stones that wer sowght wyde,
   Stuffed wyth ymagerye.   
Emaré, Lines 157-168

Monday, February 6, 2012

Losers, Runaways & Idiots for the Jesus of Suburbia

"And there's nothing wrong with me
This is how I'm supposed to be
In a land of make believe
That don't believe in me"

Green Day, Jesus of Suburbia
Part 1: the Jesus of Suburbia


In 2008, punk rock band Green Day released American Idiot, an album that revitalized their career and brought their music in a new direction. Called a "rock opera" the album followed a protagonist, sometimes called "the Jesus of Suburbia" as he becomes disillusioned with the failures of the American culture of middle class life: 7/11's, drugs, an inarticulate Christianity, war, and the end of the nuclear family. On his journey, beginning in the second track "Jesus of Suburbia," he encounters the persona "Saint Jimmy" and "Whatshername," as he finds space to redefine himself. 

Middle // Class Jesus

"Home is where your heart is
But what a shame
Cause everyone's heart
Doesn't beat the same
It's beating out of time"

Green Day, Jesus of Suburbia
Part 2: City of the Damned

What does Queer sound like? Of course the question is performatively self-defeating, but also productive because it can get us somewhere. For me it has landed me in recent years listening to Danger Days: the True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys by My Chemical Romance as well as American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. The former gets us closer to Rock-Pop, and Lady GaGa, among contemporary music that has some pretty promising queer developments (and may be the topic of other posts), while the latter occupies a contestable spot in Rock-Punk (or Pop-Rock or Pop-Punk, as 90's Punk Rockers might quibble). 

Sticking with Green Day's early 2000 album, American Idiot, specifically its first track in the formal storyline of the rock-opera (the 1st actual track just sets the theme/problem of the album) where the protagonist asks the question "how do I not be an American Idiot?" In the first version of this question, he means the straight, normal, middle class American dream-system which seems to have gotten him clogged in the works. Over the course of the track the answer seems to be the introduction of another question: "how do I become an American Idiot?" wherein he can pull the signature Punk/Queer move of aggressively deforming the normative into something...else, with questionable success.

This project mirrors what Green Day as a band was also looking to do with the album: something else. In early interviews and remembered in later ones, they offer the justification for the album as it arrived as something that would get them out of where they were and either towards doom (& retirement) or a less doom-filled place than they were currently. The success of the album in fact revitalized the band's popularity, spurred another decade of tours, a second album, a Broadway musical (now touring), and soon a movie produced by Tom Hanks. But isn't this just the same old system of normative success? Can we ever get away? If so, how? It's a good question. It is also a central question of Punk.

Middle // Class Losers

"I don't care if you don't
I don't care if you don't
I don't care if you don't care"

Green Day, Jesus of Suburbia
Part 3: I Don't Care

Punk, like Queer, operates like an anti-identity. It self-consciously cannot exist as a category, because while reflecting many neo-liberal dreams by promoting "originality" and "individuality" in a community where all are "equal" or at least "equally different" it admits that failure is inherent in the project. Contrary to the industry punk of Hot-Topic general message of selling an identity, or perhaps as the ironic result of the failure of this message, Punk cannot create its own clothing, music, culture, or creed separate from industries of normativity. Punk can only antagonize, bastardize, and repossess.

Thus, there is no contradiction that Punk becomes popular with those who are "haves" in the Middle // Class, even the older professional age groups, despite the initial emergence of the movement among working class youth, or "have nots." The identity politics of Queer theory and the Post-Modern Marxist theories of late capitalism would articulate that the system of material & symbolic production would capture and abject members of the Middle // Class as much as anyone. The "straight" "normal" American capitalist dream is a place where no one can exist. Like the subject lost in the symbolic order or the struggling worker trying to get by in a life-style they can't afford, no one can feel "at home" or a "success" if they hold on that dream of totality. We all become lost, we all lose the human race. But there still may be a way to become good at getting lost, a way to better enjoy the ride to nowhere.

Middle // Class Idiots

"Am I retarded or am I just overjoyed
Nobody's perfect and I stand accused
For lack of a better word, and that's my best excuse"

Green Day, Jesus of Suburbia
Part 4: Dearly Beloved

And yet we cannot blame the system for our problems, at least not a system external to ourselves. A new norm is (re)produced in our failed attempts at producing either the old norm or its alternative. The moment we try to abject the "straight" and say "they don't care about me" we inscribe their position as the specter of our own. If we carefully trace around the norm, we will find it perfectly outlined and placed in a tabernacle inside our identity which would make us forever bound to their existence, eternally outside and inside our bodies like a suppressed addiction or shadowy monster which may come back to police us at any moment. In policing our own borders against the uncaring-other, we attempt a sort of uniform charity which again neutralizes every-one/thing in our network in order to maintain an inversion to the norm. We become exactly what we are accused of being: the inverted, the broken, the perverted versions of the straight. Our antagonism becomes as confining as obedience would be. That is the nightmare if we actually could perfectly be Punk or Queer, but we cannot.

So do we care, if no one cares? Are we happy or angry with the system (or being it's shadow)? Are we perfect or are we accused? Do we have a name, or do we lack a better word?

What seems to be the answer is to play dumb. Post-Modernism promotes the pastiche, but we need not be so humorless. If we cannot escape or resolve the tension between the norm and the queer, the system and the punk which disturbs it, then we have to be on some level indifferent to both. By not trying to be one or the other, we can partially escape the cycle and open ourselves to wandering and discovering new unknown norms and unknown problems. But since we carry the cycle around with us, and it will continue to perpetuate itself (with all its symbolic, material, economic violence) we need be cautious check the game we are subconsciousness playing. Also, there is some fun in the game. The push and pull of wins, losses, and opposition can give us the material and the drive to keep going. It may seem cruel to laugh in the face of a desperate conditions, but if not then, when can we laugh? It's okay to play the idiot, sometimes.

Middle // Class Runaways

"And I walked this line
A million and one fucking times
But not this time"

Green Day, Jesus of Suburbia:
Part 5: Tales from Another Broken Home

Playing is all well and good for those who aren't suffering under the intensity of violence in an unlivable life, but what about those who can't play around anymore?

One issue with theory is that it tends to universalize, because thought and language (which are its principle tools and materials) tend toward universalization, because they work in re-presentation. This is where Things may be useful. Not specific things, like shopping or alcohol, but Things in their logical impenetrability and their ability to launch out and swerve. In other words, screw words or destinations, just get out of here! We've discussed before how depression can cause cyclical thought, and the way out is just to do things regardless of the sense of them. Become a thing in motion, hurtling off into the unknown. Run away. Eventually you will have to look back, or at least look around, but by then you will have (1) gotten some distance from the old problems and (2) worked out your frustration so you can begin to tackle the new problems of wherever you have arrived at.

This is one sense of Dasein of Heidegger or Chesterton's Flag of the World. We discover our world and ourselves as an unknown thing every time we establish a time and place and a self. This may be reason to hope, because the symbolic order cannot possibly keep up with the universe as it tries to colonize it with meaning/representation/sense. If things are too static or the motions to repetitious, make a change, go somewhere else. You will bring things with you, but they will transform along the way. This may just be a flight into the a-logical, into hope, into fairy-land, but regardless of whether or not we seek the night, we may someday may find ourselves moving through it; plus, sometimes stepping on the gas is just damn cathartic.