Friday, October 26, 2007

Pointless Milestone the Fifth

The first person to view my blog this morning was my 10,000th hit according to my site counter.

Well, well, and it only took me a year and nine months. (The blog's been around for longer, but I got my site counter in January 2006.) My only goal was to hit 10,000 before January 2008, so, hey, rock.

I'm still a grievously obscure corner of the internet, but I never aspired to do much else with this blog. So coming in two and a half months before deadline will suit me just fine.

Friday Poetry: Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde
Symphony in Yellow

An omnibus across the bridge
Crawls like a yellow butterfly,
And, here and there, a passer-by
Shows like a little restless midge.

Big barges full of yellow hay
Are moored against the shadowy wharf,
And, like a yellow silken scarf,
The thick fog hangs along the quay.

The yellow leaves begin to fade
And flutter from the Temple elms,
And at my feet the pale green Thames
Lies like a rod of rippled jade.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

And Let It All Out

For a long time I've been taken in by but tentative about Augusto Boal's theory that Aristotelian catharsis in art is socially damaging. Boal, creator of the Theatre of the Oppressed and author of a book of the same title, among others, claims that catharsis is damaging because it makes you as an audience think you're done. You may get deeply involved in a story, a play, a film—a plot, in other words—deeply invested in the outcome, but once you know the outcome for the particular situation in question, it's over. You feel no need to consider the further implications of the story on your social world—that, for example, the injustice portrayed onstage might in fact be part of your own society, and something that you could change—because in having a cathartic experience, you have purged your emotions about such situations, and therefore no longer have any stake in them, even though the art you saw was fictional and these circumstances or characters also exist in reality.

There's something to that, certainly. In most simplistic terms, how else to explain the preponderance of fairly popular political Hollywood films and the comparatively small amounts of political action or change in the United States? That's not the only explanation for the minor political action, of course, but it is one of the better existing explanations for the connection between arts and relative apathy. It explains, also, the American ability to relegate art to something cute, superfluous, enriching. I've spent a couple of years arguing, if not particularly well, against catharsis as a result of reading Boal.

After spending three weeks in August and September watching Six Feet Under, this view—mine and Boal's—feels incredibly limited to me. It's a strange reaction, not least because I watched Six Feet Under entirely on my own, not part of any collective audience when I'm certainly confident it requires a collective to create real social change. But the depth at which the show changed me, attacked and reformed my thoughts and assumptions, took me very much by surprise. My immediate action to the artistic aspect of it, which is pure evidence of how weird i am: the first power I was able to identify was its power to effect me, before I'd made sense of the way in which it effected me. But beyond that, it has changed the way I think about family, about maturity, about social worlds, and about several other things I am probably not capable of identifying at this time. It opened me to ways of looking at those things that I had not even considered until I watched the show.

I'd probably seen any number of movies or television episodes that tried to make similar points, but i honestly don't remember. That, I suppose, would be what I mean. I've cried, for example, over books, even really bad books, in which people lose siblings. Being a person with a sibling I love very much, the very thought can honestly reduce me to tears (why the hell is that a reduction, anyway?) if I'm in the right mood. To see the concept rendered concrete, however poorly, can then, reasonably, be ever more difficult. But Six Feet Under forced me to engage with, to truly know, some of the ideas associated with it that I couldn't have found in a lesser work—the attendant isolation, for example, the threat of truly going it alone, and the wrenching way in which grief has to be a selfish act. That's going to change the way I live in the world. It already has.

Even those are only the most concrete aspects of what I'm talking about, but they are far and away the easiest to write about. The conclusion to which it's led me, simply, is that it depends on how you let it out.

Which is to say that for me and most of my friends, growing up as Americans, we've been trained to have certain alleys and routes for processing our reaction to things we see. To continue to process things through those channels isn't going to make much change, either within or without us. But it's possible for new channels to open, and that's when art has the potential to create social change. It's not automatic, because it requires a number of factors for it to do so: in addition to the art being good enough to truly open the channels (and I think I'm referring to Daddy Day Camp as much as anything else here, though I'm not sure), the audience member of members have to be open to it, and there has to be information enough available, whether included in the piece itself or presented/offered in conjunction with it, for the audience to take another step. But art is capable of readying you for it.

My job as an artist and educator, then, at least one of the many, is to create things that open new channels. It isn't my only job; it's certainly true that sometimes I just want good-lookin' cheap shoes. But the overall goals of my work are to create real change, and working on and with this kind of catharsis is the best way I can currently see to do so.

Theater, films, television in which I have not been a participant have changed me. I've been involved with the experience of creating and navigating a lot of art, and that effect is obvious, but I have borne witness (with the weight of bearing it that I discussed earlier) to some, from Six Feet Under back to seeing Romeo and Juliet on the streets of Manhattan when I was four, that has reformed, by means of necessity, the way I thought about and lived in the world. I know that even for audiences art has the power to do that, and while I think Boal's caveat is worth keeping in mind—that kind of catharsis can certainly happen, and for me it certainly makes me think less of the work of art in question—it cannot be all there is to catharsis or to our perception of it. We can let these things out through existing channels and never think of them again, or we can let them out through a new channel into our world.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday Poetry: Derek Walcott

Searching for Friday Poetry tonight, I opened the scrapbook my mother created for my high school graduation; she asked all our family friends to send or write poems to contribute to the scrapbook, to honor what was then my accomplishment and love as a poet myself. This is a poem that my downstairs neighbor offered. It sounds like a truly wonderful way to be.

Derek Walcott
Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

How It Begins

How had I never heard of this until now?

National Security Presidential Directive 51, otherwise known as NSPD-51 (original, that), is a measure to provide for "the continuity of Federal Government" in the case of a catastrophic emergency. In this directive, the term "catastrophic emergency" is defined as "any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions." I would say that those two "or"s are a pretty big deal; if I didn't think this was all being done on purpose, I'd say it was a huge mistake or oversight, but I don't believe this government makes huge oversights any longer. I used to, but I can't. Catastrophic emergency would lead to a state of emergency, which, as far as I can see, it's pretty much the President's role to declare. Nor does anything in this document provide for the cessation of said state of emergency. Which is a little bit too Handmaid's Tale for my liking. Not to mention that we're seeing only the slightest bit of it, as the rest is classified. Given how prone this administration is to shrouding things in secrecy, I can only imagine the number of annexes actually in existence, and how select the number of people permitted to view them.

I came upon the directive through this article, which everyone should read, immediately. I am grateful for its presence now and nevertheless feel a minor tremor of alarm at the fact that this mothafuckah has been around since MAY and this is the first I, a person fairly politically well-informed, have heard of it. It's October. Obviously there's been an entry on Wikipedia since a couple of weeks after the bit of it that we can see was released, but it got caught up in everything else that people are thinking about.

And thereby hangs a tale. We hear about problems, like extraordinary rendition, and we hear about victories, like the precipitous decline of Bush's approval rating ("we" here would be members of the public whose views have some general overlap with mine), but we have not taken the time to connect problems into a system. And I'm becoming more and more convinced that there are minds deep in the administration making these connections, and that when we view incidents as isolated—such views arising both from our own nature and from media manipulation—or even treat them as isolated without consciously viewing them as such, we're making about the gravest mistake that we as independent political actors can make.

That's where Boal's right about catharsis. He's also wrong in a number of ways, which I realized through Six Feet Under and which I intend to write about soon, but the way he's right is that we think—we both are trained to think, and genuinely end up thinking—that one spurt of anger, one anti-war march, one stump speech, one victory in debate, one miniscule activist gesture or donation, is enough if it Makes Us Feel Better. If we've shaken out the anger through an established route, we figure it must be okay. Now NSPD-51 may not be as not okay as it feels to me right now, but it is definitely not okay. And writing this essay about it is not going to purge that.

The fact is, I don't think it's relevant to me whether this is a conspiracy theory or not anymore. If nothing comes of this, awesome. I'll be happy, and grateful if nothing comes of any of this (I admit, because T-bone would point it out, that the novelist in me will also be disappointed, but I also know I am not capable of writing the novel to truly compete with or even reflect the possible reality, so that's not a trail worth pursuing), but I really can't find the logic for making some of these changes if there weren't a few plans underway, and even if somebody else can find that logic, I want to have plans of my own. I don't want to be led to do anything I wouldn't otherwise do or care about, but I want to make plans, coordinations and central meeting places, with the people I love. I want to know where my stronghold or strongholds are going to be in the case of such a disaster; I want to know that I could find my way out of the country if I needed to, and that if I chose to stay within, I could have a center from which I could make real efforts to change things.

My faith in the Constitution as a document of leadership is unbridled; to say that would, I hope, make clear that in general I know the limitations of documents. Which is to say, the Constitution has been part of American history for two-hundred-odd years and there's still been a whole lotta fuckin' injustice in American history. It means that NSPD-51 is not the be-all and end-all, either. But in its vague wording, whether deliberate or stupid, it allows for the indefinite suspension of the Constitution (again, not explicitly, but as Rosenbaum and Corsi and Cohn point out, should the "Enduring Constitutional Government" come into existence, the President will have coordinating oversight over the other two branches, which makes it possible for him to, oh, do whatever he wants), and that was always what was really required for any dystopia involving the United States to make sense.

The above paragraph was extreme. I don't feel confident in my ability to determine whether the extreme is likely right now. But again, I'm also not sure it's relevant.

I also know that I really, really want to be able to cast a Patronus that can send messages to my loved ones. An inevitable truth, one that I do feel confident in my ability to consider and express, is that Americans are so spoiled as to be incredibly vulnerable, from within and without. We've already had the without exploited by September 11, and we've all seen the reports making clear that the specific vulnerabilities exploited by September 11 haven't gotten any better; from within, it occurs to me now that, for example, there's a whooooole lotta personal information about me easily within reach in my apartment, should a trumped-up search warrant ever come my way. There are many objects and documents in the room where I'm currently sitting that make clear who I love, where they live, what they mean to me, what intimacies I share with them and only them. It's all there in Harry Potter: loving people is an incredible strength and an incredible vulnerability. Should I be seen as any threat to a military dictatorship, which obviously would take a lot more than I'm doing now, I would be really bloody easy to manipulate. I love enough that there would be a lot of routes for keeping myself safe and a lot of leverage against me.

And could I live any other way and still be happy with it? Not now, not when I can't convince myself I have to. But it means there are possibilities I should probably spend a little time bracing myself for.

Conspiracy theory, as I'm feeling it right now, is only a problem when it takes over aspects of your life it doesn't have to. In other words, I don't mind having a conspiracy theory right now, as long as I do not make myself into a conspiracy theorist. I see enough of a risk, if not outright threat, that I want to make plans, and I want to be thinking about possibilities, and I also want to be living the life I'm living right now, which happens to be one that I like quite a bit.

So in that life, this is something interesting and important—not the only interesting or important thing, but one of many—and it's one that people should be talking about more. Please, please disseminate the links I posted above. Please have conversations about NSPD-51 with the people in your life, especially people who might not have heard of it, even if you don't agree with a word I've said about it here. Please send balls to Congress encouraging them to overturn it, encouraging them to demand that they take an equal role with the president in "coordinating" the government in a state of emergency, demanding better legislative definitions of catastrophe. Make plans, and if we're in one another's analog lives, include me in them. The worst that can happen as a result of such actions is that a Democrat will take office in 2008 and we will have clarified and prioritized our needs.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Friday Poetry: Louise Glück

Louise Glück

The world was very large. Then
the world was small. O
very small, small enough
to fit in a brain.

It had no color, it was all
interior space: nothing
got in or out. But time
seeped in anyway, that
was the tragic dimension.

I took time veyr seriously in those years,
if I remember accurately.

A room with a chair, a window.
A smallwindow, filled with the patterns light makes.
In its emptiness the world

was whole always, not
a chip of something, with
the self at the center.

And at the center of the self,
grief I thought I couldn't survive.

A room with a bed, a table. Flashes
of light on the naked surfaces.

I had two desires: desire
to be safe and desire to feel. As though

the world were making
a decision against white
because it disdained potential
and wanted in its place substance:

of gold where the light struck.
In the window, reddish
leaves of the cooper beech tree.

Out of the stasis, facts, objects
blurred or knitted together: somewhere
time stirring, time
crying to be touched, to be

the polished wood
shimmering with distincitions—

and then I was once more
a child in the presence of riches
and I didn't know what the riches were made of.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

We've Got So Many Issues, We Need a Magazine Rack

The title is cited from a high school classmate, though I'm sure she took it from somewhere herself. Not to mention, she was referring at the time to Juno in The Aeneid. Such is life.

I've recently concluded that abandonment issues, as a general rule, are stupid. People who claim to have them, and I've certainly been among those people in my time, make the claim as if it were somehow unique, or as if some of the ludicrous behavior that often results were excusable based on the uniqueness or importance or controlling interest of the issues. Somewhere near the end of college, my friend Maddy said to me what would have been obvious to anyone not attached to suffering: "Well, yeah, we've all got 'em, I mean we come out of the womb and we're dependent." That's not exactly what she said—I wish I could quote directly here, as I often can, but it's not happening—but it's the gist of it. Which is to say, abandonment issues are several miles from unique. In Maddy's most practical assessment (which I recognize is itself not unique, but it was the first time anyone had said it to me), abandonment issues are universal.

And we all know how I feel about that word. But if abandonment issues are indeed biological at the level postulated above, it's one of the very, very, very few things in the world for which the word can be reasonably and fairly used.

What crosses my mind is that it's their very universality that makes them stupid, and by stupid in this context I believe I mean negligible. If, indeed, we all have the same abandonment issues, and they all spring from the same fundamental, inevitable source (true inevitability may in fact be as rare as true universality, though calling something inevitable doesn't make me nearly as angry), then it is so relevant, so omnipresent, as to be irrelevant. It strikes me as along the lines of, say, blinking, that only its absence could have any significance, and its absence is likely to involve serious, probably harmful choices that one has made a little too deliberately, while its presence doesn't involve any choices at all, but it is approximately as ridiculous to construct decisions in one's life based upon abandonment issues as it is to make such decisions based upon blinking. It's the same reason I'm impatient with such notions as "our common humanity." It is so bottom a bottom line as to be useful for very little besides walking on.

That, in itself, may in fact resolve my conflict with regards to the word "universal." If what I'm saying here indeed makes sense, I don't need to fight with "universal" anymore. (To be fair, what I'm fighting with is its common usage, not the word in itself; Peter Brook cites Luis Valdez as saying, "'Universal' does not mean pretending to be like everyone else. 'Universal' simply means related to the universe," and if everyone used it like that I would probably be well-contented.) Anything that we so inevitably have in common, in constancy, is so all-encompassing as to be useless to explore. There's nothing to explore, because you can't possibly find anything new about it. If we're to look for true human links, and create from them true systemic changes (I'm assuming by now that we're confident that's what we want), we will gain the most traction from approaching things that can be changed, places where there are differences and choices.

Of course, I cannot but discover the fallacy in there: we certainly can't make changes without being aware of, and somewhat in communication with, the inevitables, the universals. No matter how smart we are, no matter how brilliant the choices we make and the systems we develop, we're still going to have abandonment issues. And they will always make some sense; that is to say, it will always be possible that someone you trust could leave with a piece of you at any time, and though slightly more outlandish it will always be possible that you could be the only person left on earth (or in a room, or in a building, or on a beach, or in a city, whatever works). What I intend to say, then, is while that knowledge is itself useful, it then becomes equally true that you can't make any progress with them alone. They're not useful to fight, because they are so universal that you cannot get rid of them; they are not useful weapons or vehicles, because they are so universal that you cannot change them. Again, we do need bottom lines to walk on, but the point is to be building things on and around and above them; we cannot dig through them and we cannot get below. As long as we know that, it's okay, even productive. We have better things to do with our materials.

Speaking of better things to do with my materials, I ought to be writing a grant application right now, while awaiting the arrival of my houseguests for the weekend. But that thought has been germinating for a while, and the time had come to give it a bit of space.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Friday Poetry: Frank O'Hara

Frank O'Hara
Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather
be a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes; it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters. "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, Ia m a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

Torture to Watch, Part the Third

And of course, there's this.

There were, of course, memos confirming what anyone who really paid attention to the Military Commissions Act knew: none of the violent, degrading acts performed at Abu Ghraib or elsewhere are in fact in violation of the law as it stands. And who honestly thinks the CIA ever stopped with the "black sites"?

I've been drowning in information on this topic for a very long time now, but it honestly doesn't make any fact or any revelation any less disturbing, even if it is less shocking. Connor puts his response well, as well as listing the Democrats who voted for the aforementioned offensive law.

For my more detailed response, you'll have to come see this in January. It's the only way I know how to respond to this anymore.