Please join Fitzcarraldo Editions and ArtReview in celebrating the launch of Arkady by Patrick Langley from 6.30-8.30pm on 21 March 2018 at the ArtReview bar, 1-5 Honduras Street, London EC1Y 0TH. There will be a short reading. There will be drinks. The event is free to attend but please RSVP to email@example.com.
“What truth, what mystical awareness can be lived,” Joan Murray wrote in a letter to her mother. Like the young Rimbaud, Murray intended to make herself a seer—what she calls, among other figures, the “Unemployed or universal Architect.” She became this architect-seer not, as Rimbaud proposed, by a total derangement of the senses but by building “the firm reality of a consciousness, consciousness in the never-ending, the great wideness that one must blend withal.” Like Emily Dickinson and Laura Riding before her, Murray belongs to a radical arc of American metaphysical women poets, most of whom still remain unsung. Her untimely death from a congenital heart condition in 1942, at age twenty-four, marked the loss of an extraordinary poet; yet Murray’s poems recalibrate the notion of a life’s work. The tragic facts only underscore the epic achievement of her vision.
Five years after her death, out of the blue woodwork of 1947, her first book of poetry was published as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition with the title Poems by Joan Murray: 1917–1942. W. H. Auden, who had been dissatisfied with the manuscripts he had received as a first-year judge, had reached out to Murray’s mother to inquire about the possibility of publishing her daughter’s work posthumously for the prize. Murray had been a student in Auden’s Poetry and Culture course at the New School in 1940, and her mother countered Auden’s invitation with the accusation that he had killed her daughter by inspiring her “poetry fever.” But she was devoted to her daughter’s work and eager to see it published, so agreed to the Yale edition with the condition that her friend Grant Code—a poet, Harvard lecturer, and dance and theater critic—edit the collection.
While Murray’s Poems received mostly laudatory reviews in Poetry, the Saturday Review, the New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker, it soon fell into obscurity and remained out of print for more than fifty years. I first learned about the collection in 2006, thanks to the poet Shanna Compton, who posted an invaluable pdf of it on the PhillySound blog’s Neglectorino Project, a series on neglected writers started by the poet CAConrad. In a note to the pdf, Compton writes, “Despite the untimely death of the author, the flawed editorial work, and the fact that the book has been out of print for decades, Murray has managed to earn something of an underground reputation.” How was it possible that Murray’s poems—with their wild and unwavering authority, their singular metaphysics of a migratory American psyche, one unburdened by any formal or aesthetic “schooling” and the clearest evidence we’ve ever had of the visionary nature of youth, what George Eliot averred of the young Teresa of Ávila whose “passionate nature demanded an epic life” and who found her epos in poetry—how could these poems be so totally unknown?
Featured in the New Yorker, David Grann’s longform piece on British explorer Henry Worsley, who successfully retraced Ernest Shackleton’s expedition in the Antarctic in 2009, and sadly died in 2016 during an attempt to cross the Antarctic unaided.
At 10 a.m.—the hour that Shackleton had set out—Worsley and his men leaned into their harnesses and began their trek. This was the moment that he’d been waiting for nearly all his life, Worsley thought. Yet, as he strained with his arms and his legs to propel himself forward and drag the heavy sled, he was gnawed by doubts: “I was nervous about lots of things; of failing the team; of getting injured; of letting down all those people who had supported us; of plainly not being physically up for it—put simply, I feared failure.”
The surface was generally flat and smooth, and as he and the other men headed south, toward the Ross Ice Shelf, they began to gather some momentum. Worsley made sure that they followed the advice of Matty McNair, who had instructed them on Baffin Island: “Stay together, never separate.” She had drummed into them one other rule: “If you get wet, you die.”
After several miles, they came upon another desolate wooden hut. Robert Falcon Scott and his men had built it in 1911, on their fateful South Pole expedition. Ice crept over the timbered walls and glazed the windowpanes like jungle vines. Inside the hut, Worsley and his companions found the chart table where Scott had studied his maps, and the bunk belonging to Captain Lawrence Oates, who had left the party’s tent on the return journey from the Pole, saying, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He was never seen again.
As Worsley inspected the objects, he felt uneasy: “I couldn’t shake the sense of pathetic sadness from my mind.” The men quickly resumed tracing the path of their forebears, which had long since been obliterated by the windswept ice. The fresh tracks made by Worsley and his companions gradually vanished as well; tiny granules of ice swirled in the wind like ash. The men used a compass to maintain a southward trajectory. Their breath smoked and their bodies sweated in the arid cold. After slogging for seven hours, Worsley gave the order to stop for the day. They had covered nearly eight nautical miles. In order to reach the ninety-seven-mile mark on January 9th, the men would need to average between ten and twelve nautical miles per day. But it was a promising start.
They began the cumbersome process of making camp: pitching their tent, which was roughly fourteen feet long and seven feet wide; gathering provisions from the sled; squeezing inside the shelter and removing their ski boots and sweaty socks, which they hung on a clothesline above their heads, along with any other damp items; checking their bodies for frostbite and putting on dry socks and tent “booties”; and firing up a gas cooker, melting snow in a kettle, and pouring hot water into packets of freeze-dried meals.
As the men ate, they talked about the relatively warm weather—the temperature had reached fourteen degrees. Adams delivered the evening broadcast, reporting that they had been blessed with “beautiful sunshine, exactly as Shackleton had a hundred years ago on his first day.” Privately, though, Adams confessed to Worsley and Gow that he felt like an amateur hauling his sled, and had a deep sense of unease. “He was right and honest,” Worsley wrote. “None of us knew what the next two months were going to be like.”
Following supper, the men dipped their toothbrushes in the snow and cleaned their teeth, which Worsley believed was essential to maintaining a sense of humanity. Then, jostling for space, they spread out their sleeping bags. Worsley, however, didn’t climb into his. In spite of his aching muscles and the dropping temperature—the sun was now hugging the horizon—he went for an evening walk. He decided to make this a daily ritual, like a mystic who pursues enlightenment through self-abnegation. The harsh reality of Antarctica had seemed only to deepen his entrancement with it. Outside, he often picked up objects—a fragment of a penguin skull, a small rock—and put them in a pocket, despite the extra weight. “We used to take the Mickey out of him for taking all this rubbish,” Gow recalled.
After Worsley’s stroll, which lasted about twenty minutes, he returned to the tent and settled into his sleeping bag. They all kept plastic bottles nearby, in case they had to respond to what Adams referred to as a “call of nature.” Before falling asleep, Worsley wrote briefly in his diary, ending with a quote from Shackleton: “I pray that we may be successful, for my heart had been so much in this.”
Within eight days, they had covered more than seventy-five nautical miles. The scale of the Ross Ice Shelf was dawning on Worsley: it was bigger than France. Shackleton described it as a “dead, smooth, white plain, weird beyond description.” Worsley and his men moved in single file and rarely spoke, hearing only the thumping of their sleds or the soundtracks on their iPods. Adams loved to listen to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers; Gow sometimes trudged along to an audiobook of Lansing’s “Endurance.” Worsley’s playlist included Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band playing “Eyes on the Prize” (“I got my hand on the gospel plow / Won’t take nothing for my journey now”) and “We Shall Overcome” (“We are not afraid, we are not afraid”).
‘A racist society can’t but fight a racist war,’ James Baldwin wrote in 1967, ‘the assumptions acted on at home are also acted on abroad.’ During the war on terror the traffic between the US and various shithole countries wasn’t only in assumptions: there was also a wholesale exporting of equipment, technologies of torture and bad lieutenants. To take one instance, Richard Zuley, a specialist at Guantánamo, had become reassuringly ruthless while working for a Chicago police unit that for decades interrogated predominantly African-Americans at so-called black sites. It’s only now, with a white supremacist ensconced in the White House, that those same hardheaded liberals – who did so much to create a climate of opinion and a legal regime in which black and brown bodies could be seized, broken and destroyed outside all norms and laws of war – are coming to grips with ‘America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy’ (an unlikely recent headline in Foreign Affairs). Back in the early 2000s the liberal universalists seemed unaware that their project might be fatally flawed, and that America’s own democracy had been secured by mass bondage, colonial dispossession and wars of aggression; they still hadn’t fully reckoned with the historical legacy of institutionalised racial cruelty, inequality and division – what Coates has come to describe.
‘In America,’ Coates writes, ‘it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.’ ‘To be black’ is to be perpetually ‘naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease’. The liberal freedoms of propertied men were always defined against omnipresent threats: mutinous natives, rebellious slaves. The white man, Tocqueville wrote as he observed race relations in America, ‘is to the men of other races what man himself is to the animals’, in the sense that he ‘makes them serve his purposes, and when he cannot make them bend, he destroys them.’ A social order built on systemic violence made the black man, Tocqueville recognised, an ever present menace in his white master’s imagination. This proximity to a nemesis made a culture of fear central to American politics, entailing a continuous investment in the machinery of coercion, surveillance and control, along with pre-emptive brutality against internal and external enemies.
Coates, who was born in 1975, came of age just as a new Jim Crow was emerging domestically to accompany Bush Sr’s new world order. ‘By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!’ So Bush Sr said in a euphoric victory statement at the end of the Gulf War. The kicking of the Vietnam Syndrome and ‘Saddam Hussein’s ass’ signalled the removal of all restraints on American power imposed by dogged gooks and their traitorous allies on the American left. With America free to police the world, old legal and moral barriers were also dismantled at home. Just as Coates entered Howard University and began his harsh education in American history, the stage was set for a pitiless imposition of market discipline and evisceration of welfare-state protections. Such drastic socioeconomic re-engineering required a fresh public consensus, and a racialised view of crime and national security came in handy in separating the deserving from the undeserving. Under Reagan, the police had started to resemble the military with its special weapons and bellicose posturing. The prison-industrial complex burgeoned under Bill Clinton: an incarcerated population of 300,000 in 1970 expanded to 2.1 million in 2000 – the majority black and brown, and poor. Liberals did not simply inherit Republican schemes of harsh policing and extreme punishment. They took the initiative. Clinton, hailed as the ‘first black president’ by Toni Morrison, ended what he called ‘welfare as we know it’ and deregulated financial markets. Amid a national panic about ‘street terrorists’, he signed the most draconian crime bill in US history in 1994, following it up two years later with an anti-terrorism bill that laid the foundation for the Patriot Act of 2001.
The intimate relationship between America’s internal and external wars, established by its original sin, has long been clear. The question was always how long mainstream intellectuals could continue to offer fig-leaf euphemisms for shock-and-awe racism, and suppress an entwined history of white supremacism and militarisation with fables about American exceptionalism, liberalism’s long battle with totalitarianism, and that sort of thing. Hurricane Katrina, coming after the non-discovery of WMDs in Iraq, undermined liberal faith in Bush’s heavily racialised war. American claims to global moral leadership since the 1960s had depended greatly on the apparent breakthrough of the civil rights movement, and the sidelining of the bigots who screamed: ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever’. In New Orleans, black bodies naked before the elements of the world – elements which included trigger-happy Blackwater mercenaries guarding the rich – made it clear that old-style racial separation had been replaced by sharply defined zones of prosperity and destitution: segregation for ever. But the apparent successes of social liberalism, culminating in Obama’s election, managed to obscure the new regimes of racial sequester for a while longer. Since the 1990s, the bonanzas of free trade and financial deregulation had helped breed greater tolerance for racial and sexual variety, primarily among the privileged – the CIA under Obama set up a recruiting office at the Miami Beach Gay Pride parade. Overt racism and homophobia had become taboo, even as imprisonment or premature death removed 1.5 million black men from public life. Diversification and multiculturalism among upwardly mobile, college-educated elites went together with mass incarceration at home and endless military interventions abroad.
In many ways, Coates’s career manifests these collateral trends of progress and regress in American society. He grew up in Baltimore at the height of the crack epidemic. One of his own friends at Howard University in the 1990s was murdered by the police. Coates didn’t finish college and had been working and writing for small magazines when in 2008 he was commissioned by the Atlantic to write a blog during Obama’s campaign for president. Three books and many blog posts and tweets later, Coates is, in Packer’s words, ‘the most influential writer in America today’ – an elevation that no writer of colour could previously have achieved. Toni Morrison claims he has filled ‘the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died’. Philip Roth has been led to histories of American racism by Coates’s books. David Brooks credits him for advancing an ‘education for white people’ that evidently began after ‘Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings’. Even USA Today thinks that ‘to have such a voice, in such a moment, is a ray of light.’ Coates seems genuinely embarrassed by his swift celebrity: by the fact that, as he writes in his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays published in the Atlantic between 2008 and 2016, ‘I, who’d begun in failure, who held no degrees or credentials, had become such a person.’ He also visibly struggles with the question ‘Why do white people like what I write?’ This is a fraught issue for the very few writers from formerly colonised countries or historically disadvantaged minorities in the West who are embraced by ‘legacy’ periodicals, and then tasked with representing their people – or country, religion, race, and even continent (as in the New York Times’s praise for Salman Rushdie: ‘A continent finding its voice’). Relations between the anointed ‘representative’ writer and those who are denied this privilege by white gatekeepers are notoriously prickly. Coates, a self-made writer, is particularly vulnerable to the charge that he is popular among white liberals since he assuages their guilt about racism.
An excerpt from Brian Dillon’s In the Dark Room, published today.
¶ A haunted house
In the autumn of 2004, a few months after I had begun trying to picture once again my own family home as it stood empty on that morning eleven years earlier, I travelled to see a work of art which I suspected might have something to say about the relationship between houses and memory. The work, by the English artist Tacita Dean, is a film – or rather, three related and subtly different films – entitled Boots. On the day in question, I arrived at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, where the film was to be installed for the next month, to discover that I had mistaken the date of the exhibition’s opening: it was not due to begin for another four days. The security guard who informed me of my mistake, however, was sympathetic, and I was directed upstairs to three adjacent rooms, where two technicians were busily preparing a trio of ancient and recalcitrant 16mm projectors. I explained my error, and they agreed that as soon as they had got the first version of the film running (focus was so far proving difficult), I could enter the first darkened room and watch a still slightly shaky back-up print of Dean’s film.
Boots is a meditation on architecture and memory, shot in a vast Art Deco villa in Portugal that is now used as exhibition space by a nearby museum. The film takes its title from the nickname of an old family friend of the artist’s, so named for his orthopaedic boot, the sound of which, as it strikes the gleaming wooden floors of the villa, echoes through the twenty minutes of the first of the film’s three versions. The octogenarian Boots, his frail body supported by two walking sticks, wanders through the house alone, apparently recalling as he goes the building’s former, now deceased, inhabitant: a woman, Blanche, with whom, many years ago, he had an affair.
In fact, the story he fashions out of the odd muttered reminiscence or sudden exclamation is at least partly fictional. Boots, unscripted, invents his own memories to fill rooms that are brilliantly sunlit and quite empty. He improvises his own character, while Dean’s camera gives the house itself a grandly melancholy personality, composed of cool shadows and sudden, blazing expanses of light. As the old man moves through the villa, the viewer realizes that the figure on screen is seeing a quite different film: a series of tableaux made, perhaps, out of his own past, now projected on to the pristine surfaces of an empty house.
I watched Dean’s film with a growing sense that I was seeing something very familiar: the moment when one moves through a space both intimately known and at the same time utterly alien. The artist’s frail collaborator conjures the most moving images out of the tiniest details of the house: details which, for all the historical resonance of the house itself, and the ravishing cinematography which revives it, were invisible to the viewer. Boots, it seems, is seeing ghosts. ‘One has the feeling, or I have the feeling,’ he sighs at one point, ‘that they are still here, but in another dimension … and that this whole house is in another dimension … it’s not … of the moment, if you know what I’m trying to say.’ Not only is the house, as Boots negotiates its remarkable rooms, overpopulated by mid-century ghosts, but the space itself seems to have dropped out of history, drifted off (like the massive ocean liner it resembles) into unchartable seas of memory.
As this huge, convoluted theatre of memory opened itself up before me on the screen, I was reminded of another, more tangible artistic reflection on the house as an image of recollection and nostalgia. In 1993, the sculptor Rachel Whiteread made a work simply entitled House. The sculpture (if that is what it was: various civic dignitaries rushed to condemn it as an inartistic monstrosity) was a cast of the interior of a Victorian house, ‘exhibited’ in situ at 135 Grove Road, Bow, East London. Whiteread had garnered a certain amount of celebrity from her previous works, in which the interior volume of a single room was cast in blocks, later reassembled in the gallery to form an eerie white ghost of the original space. House was a good deal more ambitious and resonant: an entire phantom building was revealed once the outer shell (which was, after all, the house itself) had been removed and the specially formulated concrete beneath revealed. The sculpture unearthed an impossible volume: the solid replica of an empty interior, the image of a void once enclosed and supported by real bricks, real plaster.
I have never seen Whiteread’s House: after months of controversy, it was finally demolished, and even the fact that the artist had won that year’s Turner Prize could not save it (might, indeed, have hastened its end). But photographs of it suggest that for a time it must have soaked up the memory of its environs: the surrounding streets which, pocked with derelict houses, had eventually been demolished. Stranded at the edge of the empty park that had replaced them, the sculpture gave the impression of having solidified memory itself. This was an illusion: it was not a solid mass at all, but a collection of vacant concrete boxes, held together by an invisible interior armature. You could have broken through its surface – some local squatters attempted to do just this – but you would not have found a habitable space, just a mass of wooden and metal supports. To the viewer on the outside, however, House made manifest a feeling that only occasionally overtakes one at home: that the substance of the house – the layers of brick, plaster, paint and wallpaper – is quite unreal, that the true house is the space in which we move. It is the empty volume that we get used to, that makes our bodies move in particular ways, that forms habits and physical attitudes which persist, awkwardly, after we have left.
We often think of nostalgia – which is nothing more or less, etymologically, than the desire for home – as accruing to objects and images (and so it does, as we shall see later). But there is another sort of ache for the past, which has nothing to do with the visible and tangible world and everything to do with the void that abuts it in the most complex ways. If the photographic evidence is to be believed, visitors to Whiteread’s House must have been startled not only by the obtuse volume of the thing, but also by the way that emptiness was so minutely etched and convoluted. A house is not made of flat surfaces, but of odd protrusions, embossed or striated planes. Each tiny recession of the solid world around us is an extension of our own space, and therefore full of memory: a refined and slow-drying medium which covers everything. Nostalgia is no longer the word to describe the moment when we see the space around us for the complicated void it really is. At that instant – the instant, for me, of seeing the house empty for the first and last time – it becomes properly uncanny (which is to say: unhomely). The house no longer looks like itself, and yet it is reduced to its essence for the first time: recognizably a house from which we have been banished. The brilliance of House lay in the way it depended for its existence on a specific, unrepresentable space, and at the same time recalled all those who saw it (perhaps especially those who rejected it as art) to the vanished chambers of their own pasts. No house could be more comprehensively stocked with the detritus of the past than the empty house.
“Fish for your ideas from your fishmonger,” recommends an old prefabricated sign Sophie Calle saw in an Arles fish market shortly after her father died, then later bought and placed near the entrance of her current Paris exhibition. Writing in chalk on the sign, menu-du-jour style, the artist briefly recounts how, depressed and devoid of ideas, she went to see Sylvain, her fishmonger, to ask him for his help. In a four-minute accompanying video, Sylvain listens sympathetically to her as Calle describes her plight, but he claims to know nothing about art. When pressed, he says he likes paintings and sculptures, especially the kind that are “well executed”; he has no patience for abstraction, much less the kind of conceptual photographs, films, texts, and installations Calle tells him in an uncondescending way that she herself makes (and is at that moment making with his participation). But he does, he notes, think you can do things with salmon; they used to make shoes out of the fish’s skin. Next to the video monitor appears a sculpture with a school of wax-molded and pink- and black-painted “salmons.” On nearby walls are photographs from numerous different American cemeteries of headstones that say, simply, “Father.”
This jarring combination of mourning and humor, collaboration and imposition, intimacy and abjection characterizes much of Calle’s art in the show, which includes both new pieces and reactivated work from earlier in her career. The exhibition venue, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, occupies an imposing seventeenth-century mansion full of taxidermied wild animals, trophies, and bric-a-brac; in 1967 André Malraux (of Le musée imaginaire renown) turned it into a public institution dedicated to investigating the relationship between human beings and animals. The museum was renovated and extended about a decade ago, and since then a couple dozen artists have responded to the space in shows that usually occupy small parts of the capacious mansion; Paris-born Calle was invited by curator Sonia Voss to take over the whole museum. The resulting exhibition, Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!, allures, ensnares, and slays.
The show’s title appropriates a slogan from a 1960s ad campaign for a French bullet company in which a valet congratulates his gentleman employer for being an excellent marksman. In the French hunting lexicon, doubler means to kill two animals with two consecutive, near simultaneous shots—and in the exhibition Calle repeatedly reflects on the deaths, in 2014–15, of both her father, a well-known surgeon and art collector, and her housecat Souris (Mouse). There is a photographic portrait of her father shortly before his death superimposed over a prose poem/lament about him, whose intimacy is astonishing. Nearby are pictures of black-and-white Souris in life and death. In her accompanying writings, Calle notes that Souris was the “name she pronounced most in her life”; she also transcribes the unintentionally callous words her friends and acquaintances used (in notes, voice mails, etc.) in response to the passing of her animal companion of eighteen years. Calle is almost certainly aware of critiques about man-centered ideas of “nature,” and of the dangers of anthropomorphizing animals (not to mention of maudlin sentimentality)—but isn’t interested in them. What she is interested in is mourning and longing; where the exhibition really surprises is by putting mourning and longing in the conceptual frame of la chasse et la nature.
Please join us for the London launches of River by Esther Kinsky (tr. Iain Galbraith).
On Tuesday 20 February, Pages of Hackney will host a launch event at Sutton House, 2 & 4 Homerton High St, London E9 6JQ, from 7-9pm. There will be a short reading and drinks. The event is free and all are welcome. Please RSVP to Pages of Hackney here, or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The current trend in witch infatuation marks an alliance foreclosed. In the early days of America, when accusations of witchcraft were leveled at Indians, Black people, and settlers who strayed from the strict disciplining needed to create a cohesive sovereignty of one dominant nation, it was because witches were a threat. The representations of witches that dominate contemporary American cultural consciousness—the “Surprise, Bitch” meme from American Horror Story, Stevie Nicks, people who talk about healing stones a lot—betray the role witches could have played in undoing the nation.
That is not to say the threat of witches to poison the patriarch has completely disappeared. In recent weeks some men have been quick to label the campaigns bringing forth sexual assault and harassment accusations as witch hunts, willfully ignorant that the term refers to a concerted campaign against women. The foolish use of the term has been noted and mocked by women, some of whom have also reappropriated the term to declare themselves the witches doing the hunting (which may very well be what the men were unconsciously getting at in the first place—the feeling of being hunted by witches).
Actual witch hunts of the past such as the Salem witch trials followed from a fear of Indian women and their role in forms of governance alternative to those of the foundling country. Along with genocidal tactics of sexual violence, early settlers also worked through their fear by projecting it elsewhere. The hypervisibility, and necessarily spectacular aspects, of witch trials against white women were an arena to handle physically and politically the threat of Indigenous societies where women were in power. Beyond the events at Salem—a historical spectacle as formative to America as the Thanksgiving myth—unruly women, be they Native, Black, or white, have continuously been posed as savage and placed outside the enclosed boundaries of civilization and nation. In a move toward symbolic enclosure, both witches and Indians have been reduced to accessorized signifiers hawked by Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, available for the carefree to adorn themselves with at Coachella and express their pagan predilections for living ever so briefly outside time.
The work of enclosure is key here: Cultural representations of witches reign in their savagery even as horror movies such as The Witch might give participants a chance to be fearful of it. Enclosure is also the means by which the nation turns Indigenous land into private property, which then must be defended against subjects construed to be savage. Along with witch, savage, and slut, the accusatory title of heathen is also hurled throughout colonial times at those who stand in the way of a cohesive nation. Derived from the word heath, which can mean uncultivated plain or wild forest, heathen in its first uses in Christian contexts meant someone who not only lacked proper religiosity but also inhabited land in a noncivilized manner. To cast aside the heathen through death, incarceration, or rehabilitation has gone hand in hand with clearing the land to be made into property. Heathen is no longer a category of persecution, but the ideology that there are savages—i.e. Indigenous and Black peoples—with no valid claim to land and life certainly persists.
These colonial logics that permit ongoing dispossession and death point to one of the failures of white witches: While they might hex Trump, they do not in any meaningful way extend their lifestyle to stand with those still marked by the history of the heathen. The etymology of heathen helps illuminate an argument put forth by Silvia Federici in her classic feminist text Caliban and the Witch, that the American witch hunts were not just terrorist strategies to silence dissent and demand obedience, but were also importantly a strategy of enclosure. Federici’s theorization of primitive accumulation locates the development of capitalism in three linked processes: The coerced reproductive work of European women, the persecution of Indigenous peoples, and the enslavement of Africans. While white witches once represented a threat to that reproductive order, they have since been sanitized and permitted, even if at the fringes, into civil society.
There are multiple simultaneous nostalgias at work with the current witch obsession. There’s the nostalgia not only for a romanticized premodern time when earth-based practices, like a life structured around seasonal ceremony, were more possible, but also for the ’90s and its earnest invocation of girl power. First uttered by the punk group Bikini Kill, “girl power”—as a phrase, attitude, and position—was brought to wild heights of popularity by the Spice Girls. It is not surprising that in this atmosphere of celebration a fascination with witches would arise. While modern-day witches may seem, at times, aligned with a feminist political critique of capitalist reproduction, the fundamental threat of savagery they could pose to the nation is downplayed in their mainstream and even cult-classic iterations, which tacitly support female empowerment while avoiding the crisis in femininity witches have summoned in their naked fire dances. Of the many witchy movies and TV shows of the ’90s, several have since become millennial classics. The Craft—released in 1996 and centered on a group of four occult-dabbling Catholic schoolgirls—remains the iconic standout of the genre for its ability to brand the female empowerment narrative in the definitive looks of a contemporary coven: black latex, black eyeliner, black chokers. Unfortunately, what begins as a goth feel-good tale of getting revenge on slut-shaming football jerks turns to a jealous girl-on-girl fallout. Released three years earlier than the goth-chic cult classic was the more family-oriented Hocus Pocus, set in Salem, which features Bette Midler playing a genuinely scary and villainous witch but one who is defeated in the end by a teenage boy. Indians are absent from these movies and the lore they invoke. And though there is some passing reference to the violence faced by heathen women of the past, these films are mostly centered on redemptive stories of love: love between friends and sisters, but always more importantly romantic love between men and women.
The paragon of pagan chick flicks Practical Magic, for instance, begins in Puritan times with the scene of a witch about to be hung. This witch is feared for her magic and resented for her homewrecking ways. Ancestor to sisters played by Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, the witch puts “a curse on any man who dares love” any of her female descendents. What ensues is a lifelong quest for the sisters to find un-hexed heterosexual romance. At one point they pull off a spell to reanimate Nicole Kidman’s abusive boyfriend with a pentagram made from a can of reddi whip. And in the end, Sandra Bullock’s character overcomes both the persecution of witches as outsiders and the family curse by falling in true love with a cop, once the violent enforcer of order transformed into a benevolent, handsome man.
Herein lies one of the more sinister revisions at work in the ’90s movie about witches—the strange women who abandon civilized life to live naked with other women in the woods become straight. According to colonial logics, women accused of witchcraft and Indigenous and African-descendent peoples are fundamental threats to the nation state. Their unruly sexualities (and the non-Western societal structures they index) are capable of undoing the binding power of the nuclear family, otherwise known as the power of the father. But the depictions of witches in the ’90s worked hard to repair witches’ reproductive role in the home. Willow, the beloved lesbian witch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is the exception whose status as sapphic icon proves the rule.
Schneemann’s studio burned in 1960 while she was a graduate student in Illinois. There is no readily available documentation of this fire, what it damaged, or what her studio looked like after the flames were extinguished. Two years later Schneemann would create several assemblages in small boxes, filling them with materials, fixing them with resin and paint, then drenching them in turpentine. At this point Schneemann would light a match and quickly close the lid, relinquishing control over the resulting state of the materials. Upon extinguishing the blaze, she was left with chaotic compositions, testaments to her collaboration with the flames. Schneemann furthered her exploration with fire as gesture in her iconic work in 16mm film, Fuses (1964–67). After filming, Schneemann manipulated the celluloid by cutting, painting the surface, dipping it in acid, and setting it ablaze. The presence of fire in the making of Fuses more directly connects the works subject with connotations of fire as a symbol of passion and creation.
In her 1991 performance Ask the Goddess, an audience member asked Schneemann: “What is the meaning of art?” to which Schneemann replied, “The meaning of art is destruction.” In the postwar period painting became an arena for action, as Harold Rosenberg explicated in his essay, “The American Action Painters,” published in ARTnews in December of 1952. Schneemann’s penchant for destruction was not simply in dialogue with other artists around her, the majority of whom were men, but rather came from a desire to dismantle control in an effort to attain liberation. Using fire was one way actively to remove or distort the artist’s hand in her own work, the very part of a painter’s body that is so coveted and admired. In this gesture Schneemann refuses the notion of individual authorship years before Roland Barthes would address similar concerns in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author.”
In the spirit of experimental practices, especially the introduction of low materials into high art, Schneemann turned to an unlikely material, however rich in symbolism. Fire has a duality of associations, both positive and negative. It can be a source of warmth and light, but it can also destroy and bring pain. Ecologically, fire is a source of rebirth: when the earth is scorched, room is made for new growth; this fire often symbolizes purification, resurrection, and productive inspiration. Although we may not know what Schneemann felt upon seeing her singed studio, with the Controlled Burning series she found creative potential in fire’s ability to act as both destroyer and producer. This duality is not dissimilar from Schneemann’s use of her body to challenge fixed notions of the female nude, representing herself as both image and image-maker.
‘Our police are behaving more like American police now,’ I heard last February, at a dinner party in the Sixth Arrondissement. As for the United States, no one’s prognosis was optimistic, but finally the other guests agreed that the Americans had been impressive lately in their protests. They looked at me. Bravo, they said. Certainly, they added, aspects of the Women’s March had been problematic, but overall they had been cheered to read of the assemblies. One only hoped the French, too, would turn out so numerously were Marine Le Pen elected President, as the guests expected she would be.
I noticed the poster which read Respond to a terrorist attack in a doctor’s office, and subsequently, I would see it in libraries. It looks like an in-flight safety guide, but these stick figures flee, push a couch against a door, silence their phones and crouch behind a pillar. Also new since I moved away were the guards who searched purses at the doors to grocery stores. While the 1955 law creating an emergency state authorised house arrest for ‘anyone… whose activity proves dangerous to security and public order,’ the 2015 revision specifies that it may be applied to those for whom exist ‘serious reasons to think their behaviour constitutes a threat to security and public order,’ and, in this way, deemphasises their behaviour in favour of what is thought about them. The law that replaced the emergency state on 1 November 2017 requires a judge’s sign off before searches, though not ‘individual measures of administrative control and surveillance’, the former house arrests, but it preserves this wording. Another criterion must, now, co-present: the list of possibilities includes apologia for terrorism. Defined by the November 2015 law, the house arrests – numbering 400 in the law’s first three months, though at last count on 30 October, only 41 were in effect – might have required suspects to stay someplace other than their home, to stay in place for as many as twelve hours, to check in with authorities as many as three times daily, to wear an ankle bracelet, to turn in a passport or to break off a relationship deemed suspicious. The new law diminishes these impositions, for example by widening the bounds of the detainment to an entire town, and by limiting the frequency with which suspects must check in to once daily. Sensibly, both 1955 and 2015 laws stipulate these house arrests should not ‘take the effect of creating camps’. These laws have been compared with the US PATRIOT Act, passed in October 2001; another American analogue for its near-unanimous passage days after the 9/11 Attack, the Authorisation of Use of Military Force, provides for strikes abroad against the perpetrators as well as anyone understood to be ‘associated forces’. The French emergency state, by contrast, addressed an enemy within. It was developed as temporary, requiring a vote after twelve days, but remained in effect continuously after November 2015, involving six renewals of varying lengths. While politicians including the president touted the new law as a way out of this widely ironised predicament of permanent emergency, they simultaneously insisted the law pass before the emergency state expired, so that protection would be continuous. ‘I’ve decided that in November we will emerge from the rule of law,’ Macron said on 19 September in New York. He corrected himself, having meant to say not état de droit but état d’urgence, emergency state.
More generally visible is the governmental threat metric Vigipirate, with its signs hanging in public buildings, and operations of the police or military, such as Sentinelle, which has stationed soldiers throughout the country since the shooting at CHARLIE HEBDO in January 2015. Sentinelle has elicited censure for its expense as well as the question, after a man drove a car into six of these soldiers in the Parisian suburb Levallois-Perret on 9 August, wounding them, as to whether it creates targets. Also controversial has been the surveillance law developed in 2015, which allows the government to monitor phone and Internet usage automatically. Last January, I stayed with environmentalists who, before meetings, collected phones from those present, placed them in a receptacle, set it down outside the room, and closed the door. I hear that lately, they have used a microwave, figuring that it blocks signals completely. The converted barn where they live in Bure, Meuse is a 21-kilometre drive over fields from the nearest market town. They recalled a period of relentless vehicular searches the previous summer. Then as now police were behaving as ‘cowboys’, they told me, using that English word. One of these activists explained that, after breaking the windshield of a car belonging to police who were, by his account, taunting him, he was considered wanted, and that when he was picked up, protesting a revision to French labour law in Nancy, the physical brutality of his apprehension struck him as disproportionate. He could not be sure of this, but it would come to seem of a piece with the other activists’ experiences. He had required new glasses. His treatment may not have been explicitly permitted by the legislation, but, as another of the activists wrote to me, mimicking gendarmes’ remarks, ‘It’s the emergency state, we do what we want.’ This group of activists has made headlines for a foot injury sustained by one of them while protesting, the effect of a gendarme’s stun grenade, as well as a raid on 20 September resulting in the seizure of some forty computers.
A sense of futility had accompanied me following my move back to the US, as if I had, by leaving, given up on Paris. During the attacks in November 2015, I was concentrating in an apartment where I had moved a few weeks previously, drafting an article about the accents of American presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who are from New York City, where I found I now lived. Such commentary had to be formulated from the posture of an observer. I had adopted it cynically. Only when we’re lucky enough to live comfortably do we regard the geopolitical landscape as if through a window. Sometimes, it breaks. Citing N. H. Julius, the nineteenth-century German physician and writer on prisons, Foucault locates Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon historically, at the advent of the modern state, with which individuals found themselves engaged in a preeminent relationship. Discipline had been achieved by spectacle, a theatre of the scaffold; now, those who had been onlookers were monitored themselves. While the act of watching characterises the panopticon in the popular imagination, essential too to the machinery is the isolation of the watched, their ‘lateral invisibility’, and their inability to verify the watching. Venetian blinds as well as dividing walls conceal any guard in the watchtower, even the guard’s shadow. In the unfamiliar city I fielded messages from distant friends, who thought that I still lived in Paris. Waiting to hear from Parisian friends, I checked Twitter and, scrolling, wondered whether it was required of me to post.