that have been acting ruthlessly in the shadow for years, in a completely confidential ARTmanner, then one day chance (but does chance exist?) makes you find one of their recoANDrdings, listen to it, and at that moment you could kick yourself for not having discoveredTHE these soundscapes earlier and you try to find all of shared an interest in experimental muBICYCLEsic and at age 16 had accumulated from family and friends the synths and keyboards they used to release their first
<“Don’t Fuck Around With Love” by the Blenders>
Gerald Raunig ventures into unfamiliar territory. In A Thousand Machines the author challenges age-old concepts of boundedness, of borders, of bicycle and human being:
At first the bicycle appears to be quite a simple
technical machine. With some interest and insights
into the science of mathematics, a person could
easily grasp how it works <2010^8>.
“<A> strange atomic theory is at work” once we try to find the source of power, “a theory that deals with mutual exchange, the flowing of atoms, the particles of matter” <8> for we are the source of power, the thing was designed with us in mind. Without the human engine, the bicycle is inert, it is not even a machine. We are two together which become machinistic, two distinct, two discrete. Yet as machine, as a process, we are one, “and this means not only the flowing <…> between bodies that touch or come close to one another, that merge into one another <…> it is not a question of the essence, but of the event, not about is, but about and, about concatenations and connections, compositions and movements that constitute” <19> this situation.
How might such a view of borderless, atomic connections apply to art and artist? It is event, after all, which we consider from such proximity. Not art is production, art is manifestation of vision and skill, art is the transcendence of form, or even art is achievement of the sublime, but rather art and the artist are these things. But Raunig isn’t merely suggesting this singular dyadic relation. He suggests art and artist and the two mutually constituent. A triadic relation.
Eric Wolf poses a good question here, in his introduction to Europe and the People Without History. If this “overwhelmingly fluid relationship” <Raunig 2010^8> is everywhere with all things, and atomic theory suggests this also, “why do we persist in turning dynamic, interconnected phenomena into static, disconnected things” <Wolf 1982^4>?
Why must this situation, if it exists, not permeate totally? How far can we go? How far, for the sake of this discussion, ought we go?
For art and artist the important questions include: what historical processes have contributed to the event, the art and the artist and the two together, in this context? If the machine we now call bicycle—and by which mean a triadic relationship between cyclist, bicycle and “cycle”—if this machine is to function, to serve, as it were, it moves. It produces movement. It is production. The event is production.
How does production work? For whom? Who else is served in this borderless enterprise? What is its social environment? I would suggest the suppliers of raw materials: art supply shops, paint brush manufacturers, canvas looms, industrial suppliers, manufacturers of welding rods, bottlers of acetylene, oxygen, makers of fine ballet slippers, makers of digital photographic equipment, tape, computer manufacturers and so forth. These and others contribute to the event.
Can the event occur without other players in the social miliuex? Shippers, receivers, agents, publishers, gallery personnel, sales staff, curators, consumers.
Can the event occur without others in its political environment? Audience, critics, consumers. What does this expanded whole mean to the triadic relation? Does it still exist? What objectives preceded it, now incorporating it? In what larger processes is event now complicit? We see now that the eventual and the political are inseparable.
The risk, as Raunig rightly suggests, is a reversal, an anti-event, “the inversion of power over knowledge <that> all becomes imprisoned in service to capital” <2010^21>. Perhaps it is here where we find the source of our persistent need to disconnect. We will concede the triadic, the event, but only insofar as it serves the moral high-ground of the artist. We are not our art. We have no control over how it will be used. But the atoms shrink back, the borders rigidify, discretion. Isolates bumping into one another. Art objectified: silent totems floating through the zeitgeist. Artist as statement of intent. Writer and writing separated: the work in the body of the magazine, the bio at the back. Not dancer and dance but a dance.
The opportunity is, perhaps, in comprehending this empirical whole, is in remaking it, to make connections conditional. “I won’t ride that bike—it looks dangerous,” or, maybe, “Dangerous cycles become me.” Non-cooperation with malignant power. To dismantle what, in Operaist theory, are “the connections <through> which capital accumulation develops. Forces of production and social relations are the material conditions to blow the foundation of <oppression> sky high” <2010^21>.
The stakes are enormous. One senses the potential of event serving positive social, political, environmental, spiritual transcendence, but what of a collective? An entire industry of artists?
Please consider Raunig’s strange atomic theory and its implications as we progress through the subjects at hand.
<“Doug Seibert sick call”>
I will play this again but first I want to ask a few questions.
Who is speaking? What is the object of each speaker? What is the relationship between the speakers?
All right. Let’s step back a bit.
What is this recording? How was it made? Is it real? When and where was it made?
Let’s move farther back.
What are the merits of this recording? Is it of any artistic value? Is it entertaining? Why? Or why not? What can we learn about the lives of the speakers? How do we know what we come to know by hearing it?
Okay, all the way back now.
What, aside from the dialogue, is articulated with this recording? This is, for my purposes here, the most important question, and maybe I’ll leave it with you as we listen once more.
<“Doug Seibert sick call”>
I think this recording challenges us. It is difficult to hear, it lacks the sort of context with which we have become familiar, it lacks provenience. We want to know more. This tension renders it delicious. It seems unofficial somehow, raw, and potentially resides somewhere between drama and polemic (not that the two are mutually exclusive).
It challenges us because in the interplay of voices we sense an authenticity, that the profane man is a worker and is speaking his truth to power. In the space between the men the worker is advancing, trying to fill that space with a language that power doesn’t speak out loud. He does this through repetition of the expletive and, I believe, he establishes a rhythm. He achieves a certain dignity with his anger, his dissatisfaction. He builds detail upon detail to illustrate his life. “Life don’t mix with the railroad,” he asserts, at the height of his resistance.
In the end his articulation of injustice capitulates to the rhetoric of power. CP Rail must enclose this polemic. It is what corporations do. He might be fired. He might not. It becomes an irrelevancy to the larger imperatives of a massive corporate entity. The manager at the CPR office simply sits through the worker’s monologue, waiting to enclose it. He must move down his call list, he must have labour, any worker will do. If not this man, then the next on the list.
But the power of the monologue is that it holds the manager in thrall, and we as well, the invisible listeners, the consumers of this private exchange between unequal players. For the majority of the call the worker is willing to quit. He can’t live like this. The demands are too great. Fuck it.
Yet when the worker recants, when he agrees to the manager’s enclosing him, the rhetoric enslaves him once more: “Sick on call.”
I wanted to discuss ways in which poetry can inform ethnography and ethnography poetry.
James Clifford discusses the primacy of the visual as a mode of research methodology in the Western tradition of the sciences. Might we include art in this discussion? I think we should and we’ll see why a bit later.
Alterity, or “othering” results from the conferring of “a discrete identity,” a boundedness. The visual instigates such discretions. But if we are to shift our figuration away from the visual “it becomes possible to think of a cultural poetics that is an interplay of voices, of positioned utterances” <1986^12>. Clifford suggests this shift is toward a discursive paradigm and distinguishes between cultural representation <as the result of the visual paradigm> and relations of production <as a result of a discursive paradigm>.
Problems persist. “Who speaks? Who <records>? When and where? With or to whom” <13>? These questions, as we have seen in the case of the sick on call example, reveal imbalances in power between researcher and cultural informants.
Anthropologists have sought to rebalance this equation through certain field techniques. One is called member checking. It is intended to correct the tendency of humans to make assumptions. The field researcher checks facts with informants to ensure what is being transmitted in terms of hard data is being received by the registering individual. This is fine if such work was merely an aggregate of factoids, but perhaps not so fine if we’re to deal with living breathing humanoids. Another is the constant comparative method, or grounded theory, in which the ethnographer goes out and conducts formative research—he or she just goes, no hypothesis, no assumptions. Phenomena are grouped into categories and slowly the study begins to take shape. It would be akin to the sort of study one might conduct on microbes in the Crab Nebula.
Other initiatives have included enlisting the informants as sound, film and text recordists. And though this is on the right track—for it is the informants who decide what is significant enough to register—it falls into traditional caveats: Who edits? Who writes up the final monograph? Who, in fact, decides what is included?
The next logical step was what Claude Levi-Strauss once famously referred to as an “anthropology of the self,” a paradigm of the native anthropologist. It was the space between that must have been the problem. No more the missionary cutting his or her way into dense unknowable wilds—an activity inextricably tangled in the othering process. Participant observation was to be conducted at home. This is an interesting reversal of the colonial encounter, and it opened the door for Clifford’s “interplay of voices, of positioned utterances” <12>.
But problems still persist. Home is no pure democracy. It is no egalitarian utopia. Relations of power, class, gender, ethnicity remain problematic. How can any of this be represented accurately?
We are a little off the path of a proposed interplay of ethnography and poetry. But I assure you this background is necessary and, further, my personal practice falls under this paradigm of the discursive and within and anthropology of the self. I lived and worked with hidden populations for four years in an effort to study political economy, which is the study of societies, states, and markets as historically evolving phenomena.
Eric R. Wolf notes in Europe and the People Without History, “…We shall not understand the present world unless we trace the growth of the world market and the course of capitalist development. We must have a theory of that growth and development and we must be able to relate both the history and theory of that unfolding development to processes that affect and change the live of local populations” <21>.
This translates into the idea that a study of, say PWUID is probably a useless study if it doesn’t include friends and family of users, the community in which users live, importers and producers of substances, distributors, counselors, the medical system, morbidity and mortality, police, policy makers, judicial process, the penal system, and perhaps the study would still be redundant if it weren’t significantly longitudinal, for historical processes affect the group in question.
Okay. Let’s bring our ethnographer to the stage, setting about the task of cultural study. So we’ll go back to Clifford where he interestingly notes, “Western science has excluded certain expressive modes from its legitimate repertoire” <1986^5>. Let’s label the entire repertoire research methods, those illegitimates we’ll refer to as creative research methods, some of which are rhetoric, fiction and subjectivity. Alright, poetry is in there, part fictional beast, part rhetorical Homo sapiens. What is important is to place poetry in our ethnographer’s kit bag of methods. Alright. It’s in there. It’s been in there for at least 26 years. But every time he or she reaches in, our ethnographer pulls out the same tedious instruments: calculator; computer; audio recoding device and so on. The poetry is getting crushed down at the bottom of the bag, starved for light. Why won’t he or she employ poetics? Well, the answer is simple: he or she has never been shown how to use this sort of instrument. He or she did not go all the way through primary school and on into high school using poetry to register his or her experiences, or the experiences of others.
Carla Funk concluded that if poetry was a perfume it would be called “Economy”. Louise Gluck suggests, “the poem must, on whatever scale, dislodge assumption, not by simply opposing it, but by dismantling the systematic proof in which it is inevitably grounded <…> Poetic intelligence lacks <…> focused investment in conclusion, being naturally wary of its own assumptions. Poetry derives its energy from a willingness <…> in fact, to discard anything” <Zwicky 2003^86>. Economy, yet more economy and a decided avoidance of attachment to outcome.
Such virtues are ideal in registering the discursive.
Ethnographies, too, must be strict economies. Ways of knowing an individual or an institution <such as gift-giving> are, after all, constructed epistemologies. Poetry can slice away dross, reveal nuance, smell, sound, colour, the descriptive and expository. If ethnographies feature polyphony, poly-vocality, poetry specializes in subjectivity, can bring voice to life, to enlarge the spaces in discourse.
In Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright’s view, the goal is “to engage all the <reader’s> faculties of perception <…> the sounds of breathing,” the smell of urine in an alleyway, bruises on the face of a respondent—“a whole body physical experience” <2006^16>. The authors correctly bring the reader, the viewer, and the consumer of epistemologies to bear on the discursive. I believe poetry can engage where other, more scientific research methods cannot. “Tensions between the desire to embody the experience of others, and the desire to maintain some form of scientific rigour are as yet unresolved in anthropology. The task is to make them productive tensions” <17>.
In my work I find it paramount to express my interiority in the field through poetry. The practice troubles the perceived boundary between self and other. Further, it provides a fruitful relation to more mundane features of the monograph: the presentation of survey data; inventories <although poetry could be included in this feature>; discussions on methodology; calls for conservation and so forth. Numerous levels of engagement are the result, so obviously missing from early ethnographies. If fine arts have lessons for anthropology they include engagement <as opposed to detachment>; praxis, and enhanced experiences which lead to what Ernest Becker calls “object or self—<dropped> into the confusion, <to> make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force” <1973^285>.
How, then, might ethnography inform poetry? Here’s Barbara Tedlock on the discursive nature of cultural texts:
In phenomenological terminology <…> communicative
interaction <with community or culture in which
the anthropologist dwells> or ‘we-talk,’ belongs
neither to the realm of objectivity nor to that of subjectivity, but rather to ‘inter-subjectivity’
My personal experience, going from creative writing at the Kootenay School of the Arts into anthropology at UVic was another form of engagement. Thrust out of the self-absorbent and practices of critical analysis of interiority, I was landed squarely in a discipline intent upon bahavioural ecology, primates, forensics, linguistics, paleontology, origins of the human species, Paleolithic art, the Inca, S. Asian ethnology—in short, a study in detail of the human and non-human world and its long line of historical and prehistorical precedents.
I was thrilled. Here was a rich pageant I had long ignored. Here were the multitudinous details that could make my creative work relevant to a wide audience.
Yet ethnographies aren’t simply agglomerates of detail. They are lines of inquiry which seek to know and understand how we know, be it the liminal nature of women’s experiences while giving birth in Western bio-medical institutions, or the systematic apartheid of Latino and African Americans within the former industrialized urban centres of America.
This was a revelation to me. I had been constructing work based on assumptions, assumptions of how the world worked, assumptions that readers implicitly understood my own cultural context, my whiteness, my maleness, and my socio-economic background of privilege. And if I was assuming these things, I also assumed my readers would draw the same conclusions as I, conclusions of despair, of the end of the colonial, of empire, of the collapse of social welfare models, of disenfranchisement and so on, even though I had been largely ignorant of the trajectory of both human evolution and the real lived experience at the hands of trans-national globalization.
Somehow, anthropology lit the fires from which poetry had taken wing.
<“Smoketack Lightning” Howlin’ Wolf>.
Let’s take a look at a piece of work. This, which I’ll hand out, was intended for both performance and text. The piece is ignominiously entitled “Thank You” and was performed August 26th this year in the Kootenays at the 40th Anniversary celebrations of a community centre in the Vallican.
The community there is a strong one. They have actively resisted logging and mining interests, lost some fights, won others, protected watersheds and rivers, and have built independent schools and social support mechanisms that have weathered the efforts of MNCs and globalization. In a sense, they are like any strong community in BC, in the PNW, in the world: they are an obstacle to exploitation.
The goal in writing this work was to play with several ideas at once. For starters, the form of a poetry reading was to be re-examined. Poets can be an obsequious bunch and tend to preamble their preambles with bouts of gratitude.
I wanted the piece to appear to be a protracted thank you, not the piece yet, in other words. “When will this guy start?” was the desired, silent anguish from the audience. So bogged in formality and playing with audience expectations and patience.
So I set about constructing an epic “Thank You” which could achieve this first goal. Also, the work had to illuminate notions of community: aspects largely accepted and understood, and elements not normally considered—such as contrary forces, historical processes and so on. Genuine gratitude needed to rise out of the comic, for I needed to point to this place as a site of resistance, a place of voices, and the Vallican as a contested space.
I wanted to repeat the phrase “thank you” so often that it became a rhythm, a breathy invocation, part of a mantra of thanks, an inventory of appreciation.
Another point in all this was to move along a linear progression from the comic to the serious, to mirror the emotional spectra of a real community. As the poem progresses, circles of engagement widen, shrink back, go out again. The ripples begin to define the contour of place.
Finally, I wished to trouble the boundary between bureaucratic rhetoric and poetry. Is there such a boundary? Or is it better considered borderlands, a wild place filled with ghosts of the exiled. If the poetic and the political are inseparable, how could these ideas be separated? It didn’t make sense.
I’ll read a section, opening with what at first sound seems to be perambulatory glad-handing.
<excerpt from “Thank You” : opening to bottom of P1, “…dear people, thank you all for coming”>
So, at this point, audience expectations are flagging. It is through a shift in voice and a turn to the comic that one begins to understand this is the poem.
As the poem moves, focus is shifted repeatedly between the mundane and the comic (not mutually exclusive sets) yet rhetoric holds it together, an officious thanking, ongoing, postulated from the position of power in the room, the centre’s main hall, the podium, the reader above, facing the audience. But what must be stated for the sake of this analysis is that I am not from the Vallican. In fact, few know me there. My gratitudinous presence, then, becomes suspect. What right have I to speak for these people? To these people. How do I know what I know about their community? The more I read, the more the question of “who is this person?” comes to the foreground.
Okay. I’d like to get to the point of the piece. I’ll ask that you turn to page 3, the 4th stanza, which opens, “Thank you, Anne Porter…”
<excerpt from “Thank You” : top of p.3 to top of p.6, “…of this Vallican Whole Community”>
<get ready with “Back-flip on the Devil”>
Now the idea of structural oppression is being thanked because, by oppressing through power of law, official agencies have aligned themselves with corporate capitalism and those who would resist this oppression may readily identify the component parts which make up the structure, and not to merely defend against the structure, but to begin to take its power. When this happens, at the event of this happening, at moments of contact with healthy communities, power must bear its teeth, revealing its true nature: its rhetoric fails, it must resort to power of force.
<”Back-flip on the Devil” excerpt from film The Apostle>
Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. <process> Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. A gain.
<excerpt from “Keep Writing: A Letter to Bowen Mennie”>
Here is a recent journal to illustrate practice and process and picnics and recess. I have brought this because it incorporates several design elements at once: illustration; manipulation of text; long-hand; figurative work; and interplay between these categories. The middle book-mark is the important point in all of this. Barely three pages of first-draft quality material out of all that work but it formed the basis of what would become a short fiction piece currently earning rejection slips all over town! This stage is decidedly hyper-self conscious and self-absorbed, but lived material is great to explore, expand upon and fictionalize, render artful and who knows where it might lead. I’ll pass this around as I talk about process and other stuff.
I also use guitar in conjunction with spoken-word-act constructions and later in the performative. I’ll give an example in a moment if there’s time.
Bruno Taut’s two manifesto fragments from the 1920s are fun. They’re fun because they strike us as anti-intellectual, especially so in “Down With Seriousness”. They are anti-technique, which is surprising considering they are manifestoes on architecture, written by an architect. They are philosophical, especially the stirring “Daybreak” which speaks to an unbounded union of humanity, of the coming age of art.
Process is play. If it isn’t enjoyable, I won’t do it. How could anyone enjoy something I have anguished over? It has never made sense to me. Play is far more creative than creative work. Play means unboundedness, even no rules. Plat crosses borders without a passport. And sometimes play spends the weekend in jail.
In the Erin Moure’s “The Politics of Practice” the author regards with suspicion those “interlocutors” who are not able to call the terrain they occupy into question. I do not wish to be suspect. I will be the cellophane covering your dry-cleaning—easily pierced, revelatory, yet, left unattended, capable of suffocating the elderly and infant alike. Is this my fault? No. It is my nature. This is the cost of transparency: homicide, or at the very least, we become prey to truth.
I write to fight, to embrace. I embrace despair, I fight despair; I fight emptiness, I embrace it. I fight what I sense I am pressured to become in this civilization: a silent technocrat. I embrace the wide empty because such places are loci of transcendence, because despair can be wildly eloquent and lachrymal.
I would be the amateur and rid myself of all expectation. Being expert can often mean working for power. As Edward Said has said, it is the amateur who considers that “to be a thinking and concerned member of a society, one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity” <1994^82>.
“An instrument of torture”
said the poet George Oppen
when a Catholic chaplain
waved the cross above his face
where he lay wounded
on a battlefield in France.
It was the answer of a man
who called things by their right names.
“Oppen” by Harvey Shapiro; Bomb, XIX
I would like to be such a man.
I am fighting Death. We are. You am I are/is Death fighters, not the sudden total napping that comes with the train wreck but slow Death, Death in the harness, a polite Death.
<if there’s time: “How Are You?”>
Finally : A word from the Invisible Committee :
It is useless to wait—for a breakthrough, for the
revolution, the nuclear apocalypse or a social
movement. To go on waiting is madness. The catas-
trophe is not coming, it is here. We are already
situated within the collapse of a civilization.
It is within this reality that we must choose
sides <2007^Back Cover Text>.