Category: Essay

Report: Seven Thousand Songs

Victoria Adukwei Bulley for The Poetry Review
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Victoria Adukwei Bulley on the making of her intergenerational poetry, translation and film project, MOTHER TONGUES, for The Poetry Review

On a normal evening in January, a year and a half ago, I lay beside my mother on her bed. Although the television was on across the room, probably tuned to the news, we were on YouTube watching music videos by a singer named Anbuley. Anbuley, a stunning, lithe-limbed Ghanaian singer, has hair long enough for her to look like an African rendering of Eve. But this was not the reason for our watching. Rather, I had brought her to my mother for translation. She sings each of her songs in vibrant, forceful Ga, the language of my parents. Even now, she is the only contemporary artist I know of who does this and, since I don’t understand a word, my mother began to interpret for me.

My inability to speak or comprehend Ga is both surprising and unremarkable. Surprising, because my parents share this ethnic group, and have spoken the language to each other all my life. Surprising, also, because while I don’t understand it at all, I know its signature intimately. I’ve overheard it spoken between strangers on the street and guessed – with their confirmation – that what they were speaking was Ga. What, then, could be unremarkable about this? Nothing other than the fact that it is a very common experience. Wade Davis, Canadian anthropologist and writer, uses a daunting comparison to make this clear. “No biologist,” he warns in his essay collection The Wayfinders (2009), “would suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund. Yet this, the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity.” Davis goes on to summarise in more frank terms: “Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children. Effectively, unless something changes, they will disappear within our lifetimes.”

When I let these words sink in, I hear a forest full of birds. An orchestra of seven thousand songs that combine and sometimes clash to form a living, organic, polyrhythmic heartbeat of life. For whatever reason, some of the songs rise over the others. Forget, for this moment, about history; about colonialism or conquest. These louder songs carry the overall melody – perhaps they are the strings section. Other songs, in the meantime, are audible only rarely, and mostly not at all. They are the triangle that dings subtle-bright in the background, easily missed. As time goes by, these quieter songs disappear, or join the winning tune. The overall melody becomes homogenous and weighted, too heavy for itself to carry that sense of lightness that great music can invoke. It grows boring, first, then unbearable, then oppressive. It is without joy, or surprise, and is all that can be heard.

As I lay beside my mum in conversation that evening, a thought came to me. If, as had long been happening, I could approach my mother to translate Ga songs into English for me, why, then, couldn’t I ask her to translate my own work into Ga? If, as a poet who performs regularly, I knew my own work deeply, surely the access to Ga translations would enable me to become more familiar with the language as a step towards learning it. Then, another thought, or rather, a remembering: my situation is unremarkable. I don’t have enough fingers – and possibly not even enough toes – to count the individuals I know who do not speak the language of their parents. Knowing that a number of them are poets too, it occurred to me to think bigger about this small idea. Even where the language had survived the generational distance, was there not still something of value in the act of sharing and translation alone? That night, back in my own room, I scribbled everything down in a new notebook. I named each of my motivations and fears, then noted the names of the poets I had in mind. I wrote continuously for about five pages, and headed it all with the title MOTHER TONGUES.

A year and a half on, at the time of my writing this, MOTHER TONGUES is an intergenerational poetry, translation, and film project that sees four celebrated young, female poets in collaboration with their mother-figures. Each poet invites her mother to translate a poem into her native language. Later, the poet and mother visit a studio where the mother is filmed reciting her translation, followed by the poet reciting the original. A conversation is then captured between the two, prompted by questions (from myself) that aren’t heard in the final cut. Each ten-minute film features one poet-daughter and her mother, the poets being Belinda Zhawi, Theresa Lola, Tania Nwachukwu, and myself. The films debuted at Rivington Place Gallery in Shoreditch, London on Wednesday 26 July; tickets sold out within 48 hours.

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The Neuroscience of Pain

Nicola Twilley for the New Yorker
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Nicola Twilley looks at current research into the neural patterns behind pain in the New Yorker:

On a foggy February morning in Oxford, England, I arrived at the John Radcliffe Hospital, a shiplike nineteen-seventies complex moored on a hill east of the city center, for the express purpose of being hurt. I had an appointment with a scientist named Irene Tracey, a brisk woman in her early fifties who directs Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences and has become known as the Queen of Pain. “We might have a problem with you being a ginger,” she warned when we met. Redheads typically perceive pain differently from those with other hair colors; many also flinch at the use of the G-word. “I’m sorry, a lovely auburn,” she quickly said, while a doctoral student used a ruler and a purple Sharpie to draw the outline of a one-inch square on my right shin.

Wearing thick rubber gloves, the student squeezed a dollop of pale-orange cream into the center of the square and delicately spread it to the edges, as if frosting a cake. The cream contained capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the burn of chili peppers. “We love capsaicin,” Tracey said. “It does two really nice things: it ramps up gradually to become quite intense, and it activates receptors in your skin that we know a lot about.” Thus anointed, I signed my disclaimer forms and was strapped into the scanning bed of a magnetic-resonance-imaging (MRI) machine.

The machine was a 7-Tesla MRI, of which there are fewer than a hundred in the world. The magnetic field it generates (teslas are a unit of magnetic strength) is more than four times as powerful as that of the average hospital MRI machine, resulting in images of much greater detail. As the cryogenic units responsible for cooling the machine’s superconducting magnet clicked on and off in a syncopated rhythm, the imaging technician warned me that, once he slid me inside, I might feel dizzy, see flashing lights, or experience a metallic taste in my mouth. “I always feel like I’m turning a corner,” Tracey said. She explained that the magnetic field would instantly pull the proton in each of the octillions of hydrogen atoms in my body into alignment. Then she vanished into a control room, where a bank of screens would allow her to watch my brain as it experienced pain.

During the next couple of hours, I had needles repeatedly stuck into my ankle and the fleshy part of my calf. A hot-water bottle applied to my capsaicin patch inflicted the perceptual equivalent of a third-degree burn, after which a cooling pack placed on the same spot brought tear-inducing relief. Each time Tracey and her team prepared to observe a new slice of my brain, the machine beeped, and a small screen in front of my face flashed the word “Ready” in white lettering on a black background. After each assault, I was asked to rate my pain on a scale of 0 to 10.

Initially, I was concerned that I was letting the team down. The capsaicin patch hardly tingled, and I scored the first round of pinpricks as a 3, more out of hope than conviction. I needn’t have worried. The patch began to itch, then burn. By the time the hot-water bottle was placed on it, about an hour in, I was surely at an 8. The next set of pinpricks felt as if I were being run through with a hot metal skewer.

“You’re a good responder,” Tracey told me, rubbing her hands together, when I emerged, dazed. “And you’ve got a lovely plump brain—all my postdocs want to sign you up.” As my data were sent off for analysis, she pressed a large cappuccino into my hands and gently removed the capsaicin with an alcohol wipe.

Tracey didn’t need to ask me how it had gone. The imaging-analysis software, designed in her department and now used around the world, employs a color scale that shades from cool to hot, with three-dimensional pixels coded from blue through red to yellow, depending on the level of neural activity in a region. Tracey has analyzed thousands of these “blob maps,” as she calls them—scans produced using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Watching a succession of fiery-orange jellyfish flaring up in my skull, she had seen my pain wax and wane, its outlines shifting as mild discomfort became nearly unbearable agony.

For scientists, pain has long presented an intractable problem: it is a physiological process, just like breathing or digestion, and yet it is inherently, stubbornly subjective—only you feel your pain. It is also a notoriously hard experience to convey accurately to others. Virginia Woolf bemoaned the fact that “the merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” Elaine Scarry, in the 1985 book “The Body in Pain,” wrote, “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”

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On the Farm

Daisy Hildyard for the London Review of Books
Daisy Hildyard credit Barney Jones

For the LRB, Daisy Hildyard’s essay ‘On the Farm’ examines animal behaviour and animal rights in the UK:

In November, the government voted to let go of a European law which declares that animals are sentient beings. At that time of year the cattle on my father’s beef farm in Yorkshire come inside for the winter, and we had recently separated a group of young bullocks from the rest of the herd. The bullocks went into a barn and the others were supposed to stay out for a few more days, but they didn’t like it, and expressed their dislike loudly. We had to move the bullocks’ mothers to a distant field far from the barn. Where we left them, there were several hedges, fences and closed gates between the cows and their offspring.

The following morning the mothers were standing outside the barn, bellowing. During the night they had jumped or broken through every hedge, fence and closed gate to get there. My father hadn’t thought this possible: the same barriers had, for years, kept all the animals in. The escape seemed to reveal that the cattle were able to get out at any time, if only they wanted to badly enough.

There is an argument that domestication is a regime men have imposed on other species to project a human idea of power onto a more-than-human relationship. But what if we thought of farming as an innovation of opportunistic animals? From that point of view, it is people who dedicate themselves to the propagation of cows. Leaving aside the compromises that cattle would be making in the circumstances, the argument isn’t easily disproved. The actions of other living things are cryptic. The farm gates look different to the farmer and to the animals. If a mother cow does not run through the hedge every day, it is not that she lacks the ability to do so, but that she has no cause to do it.

Because of this, the breakout didn’t make me feel that I understood these cows any better – in fact, the opposite. It was something like the experience, during the days following a birth or a bereavement, of looking out of the window and being surprised to see the neighbours going to work as usual: there is a sense that normal life is supported by a set of assumptions which are necessary, but not necessarily right. Derrida felt ashamed when he was caught naked in his cat’s gaze, and embarrassed, in turn, by this feeling of shame. My father repaired the gates.

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A Poet of the Archives: On Susan Howe

Emily LaBarge for Bookforum
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Emily LaBarge on Susan Howe’s Depths for Bookforum:

“Only art works are capable of transmitting chthonic echo-signals,” writes Susan Howe in the foreword to her new collection, Debths, inspired in part by the Whitney’s 2011 retrospective of American artist Paul Thek.

I have always been interested in folktales, magic, lost languages, riddles, coincidence, and missed connections. What struck me most was the way [Thek’s] later works, often painted swatches of color spread across sheets of newspaper with single words, phrases, or letters scribbled over the already doubled surface, transformed these so-called “art objects,” into the epiphanies, riddles, spells and magical thinking I experienced one afternoon in the old Whitney Marcel Breuer building.

Howe has long been interested in distilling signs and symbols, whether “art objects” or words themselves, into something more revelatory. Considering riddles, lost languages, doubled surfaces, spells, magical thinking, and other elusive forms of expression, Howe sounds the depths. She detects the chthonic—meaning “underworld”—echo signals reflecting off all that dwells beneath the surface. Howe’s work considers the ways in which deep histories collide and overlap in fathomless strata, replete with gaps and fissures where obscure knowledge may be found.

The poet has referred to herself as a “library cormorant,” a phrase borrowed from the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote, “I am deep in all out of the way books, whether of the monkish times, or of the puritanical era.”For Howe, who studied Fine Art at the Boston Museum School and arrived at literature from a non-academic background, libraries and their special collections are “Lethean tributaries of lost sentiments and found philosophies” in which one can feel “the telepathic solicitation of innumerable phantoms.” Lethean is a word of the chthonic family—Greek in origin and related to the afterlife—a reference to the river Lethe in Hades, whose water would cause dead souls to forget their lives on earth. Lethean forgetfulness is oblivion—the complete erasure of an entire world.

Howe’s use of language is particular and idiosyncratic. It snakes and branches through shared etymologies and thematic resemblances. In this Lethean quotation run two strands that are evident across the poet’s oeuvre: the material and the metaphysical. On the one hand, the notion that there are real, material histories that have been overlooked and overwritten, and that, through a sustained encounter with a primary source, one can unlock these narratives and find evidence of a lost world. On the other hand, the sense that there is another place entirely—felt but unseen and unheard—that reading and writing usher us toward. There, we might find another language entirely, one that relies on alternative approaches to making meaning and associations, and is attuned to the logic of the imaginary that eddies beneath the surface of the world we think we know. In Howe’s work, there is the sense that a written document is also an image whose inscriptions can be interpreted beyond the literal sphere. To read and to write is to make and unmake a riddle—to conjure, to speak in tongues.

Howe is a poet of the archives. She perceives and investigates the stutters and absences in the historical record, particularly in the literary artifacts we have deemed worthy to attend to and preserve. “When we move through the positivism of literary canons and master narratives,” she writes in The Birth-mark, her astonishing and incisive 1993 study of early American literature, “we consign ourselves to the legitimation of power, chains of inertia, an apparatus of capture.” In the history of literature, she asks, who and what remains unquantified? What experiences and uses of language have been deemed inexpressible or invalid? Is there another kind of sense, a different mode of narrative, buried within seemingly innocuous documents?

If you are a woman, archives hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself. . . . “The stutter is the plot.” It’s the stutter in American literature that interests me. I hear the stutter as a sounding of uncertainty. What is silenced or not quite silenced. All the broken dreams.

In Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives (2014), a slim volume that traces how a series of documents linked by geographic place speak to each other and reflect interwoven histories, Howe writes of the “deep” text that emerges from beneath the surface of archival materials. The deep text could be read as the secret, esoteric meaning of a document, which can be apprehended in its language, as well as in haphazard markings across the page. The deep text could also be read as central to much of Howe’s own work and writerly methodologies. Moving deftly between literary criticism, historical analysis, essay, text collage, and poetry, Howe conjoins forms, one aspect of exegesis shifting seamlessly into the next. In each case, her method is not to weave together references and arguments, but to place them in proximity: connections are implied or left for the reader to cast; a text is not a straight line, but a web. This is a poetic method that urges the reader backward to the originary source of the text rather than forward toward a delimited meaning. In other words, Howe does not uncover what a text “means,” but instead asks: Where did it come from? What shared sources and affinities? What wild, untrammelled force?

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Why does literature ignore pregnancy?

Jessie Greengrass for The Guardian
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For The Guardian, Jessie Greengrass explores depictions of pregnancy in literature.

few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in the Wellcome Library, reading. At the time, I wanted both to write a novel and to have a baby and it didn’t occur to me that any connection might be found between the two. As far as the novel went, I knew that I wanted to write about subjectivity and I was interested in medical history – John Hunter, Freud, the early history of the x-ray – but I lacked a device to tie these thoughts together. It took me a surprisingly long time to come up with the idea of a pregnant narrator and when at last the possibility occurred to me, I dismissed it. To write about pregnancy – to try to articulate the desire for it, its uncomfortable realities, its disorientating aftermath – felt transgressive, although at the time I didn’t understand why.

Later, having found the baby easier to realise than the novel, I returned to the idea. In a haze of postnatal exhaustion it seemed easier to contemplate, somehow; I existed in a bubble, and lacked the mental resources to imagine far beyond its boundaries, and so I didn’t try. Instead, at odd hours of the night, I mulled over pregnancy in literature, only to find that my overwhelming impression was of something out of shot, a business of hot water and towels despatched elsewhere while in the centre of things a man paces a carpet. Think of Madame Bovary, whose labour is not only comically abrupt, but confirmed by her husband, as though she had somehow been absent herself:

She was confined on a Sunday at about six o’clock, as the sun was rising.

“It is a girl!” said Charles.

Although a fundamentally female experience, pregnancy exists in literature, when it does so at all, as a male problem. Sometimes it is a problem of trust, as with Hermione, heavy in her prison cell in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Or it is a problem because it doesn’t happen at all: a wife without a child (where a child without a mother is opportunity, a Victorian stalwart of a plot).

Or, conversely, pregnancy is an impediment, freedom’s curtailment – Newland Archer in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, whose fantasies of escape are finally ended by his wife’s announcement of her pregnancy. From the outside, pregnancy might appear a gift: in A Farewell to Arms, Catherine’s pregnancy allows her lover access to an illusion of peace (before her death and that of the child shatters it). But we rarely make it so far. It is taken for granted that birth is attendant on marriage, and so stories stop at the altar. Nothing interesting can come of us afterwards, unless it is as a coda to another’s story: Jane Eyre persists so far as the birth of her first son, only so we might be reassured by the detail that Edward Rochester’s eyesight has returned.

Lately, it is true, there have been a few books on pregnancy: Rachel Cusk, Maggie Nelson, Rivka Galchen. The latter’s Little Labours deals with the transition to motherhood through a series of discrete fragments, adding up to a picture of a time that is disjointed. These are memoirs, though, and memoir is the preserve of the extraordinary, of experiences outside our own. This, I think, is the crux of it: we regard women’s bodies as absolutely strange. They are the mysterious other, going about their peculiar processes. What could we possibly learn from something so alien?

It was only very recently that I read The Argonauts, Nelson’s account of her pregnancy, and afterwards – when it was too late, because my own book was already being printed – I wondered if perhaps she had said all there was to be said. Her work is extraordinary; but still – my second thought – is there really only space for one pregnant body in all of literature? What Nelson does (and I had wanted to find a way to do) is to use pregnancy as a device to examine other things – in her case, queer family-building, embodiment, love. This is what literature offers us: the chance to take the specificities of a particular experience and to use them to articulate that which is universal. I have learned almost all I know about the world, about myself, from books, and it has been a joy, a work of love; but the consequence is that I have learned it from men. Desire, failure, fear, ambition – all have been housed in male bodies. Insofar as I have differed from this standard, I have felt myself to be somewhere between uninteresting and unspeakable.

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Love Poems for the Border Patrol

Amitava Kumar for the New Yorker
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For the New Yorker, Amitava Kumar considers the sense of alienation and loss felt after immigrating from India to the US, the ‘self-conscious construction of an immigrant self’, and of finding refuge and clarity in writing.

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After ten or fifteen years [in the US], the confusion and loss had been replaced by a self-conscious construction of an immigrant self. I’m calling it a construction because it was an aesthetic and a textual idea. I was taking pictures of immigrant life; I was reporting on novels and nonfiction about immigrants; my own words were an edited record of what I was reading. An eclectic mix of writers: Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, June Jordan, Jamaica Kincaid, Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Marguerite Duras, Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Reagan was still President when I came to the U.S. The Iran-Contra hearings were my introduction to televised spectacle. Gap-toothed Ollie North and his proclamations of innocence, the volume of hair on his secretary Fawn Hall, reports I read of Reagan declaring, “I am a Contra.” I had consumed all of this as an innocent—and by writing poems I began issuing my declarations of independence.

Recently, I was reading the lectures that the novelist James Salter delivered at age ninety, at the University of Virginia, shortly before his death. In one of them, he quoted the French writer and critic Paul Léautaud, who wrote, “Your language is your country.” Salter added, “I’ve thought about it a great deal, and I may have it backwards—your country is your language. In either case it has a simple meaning. Either that your true country is not geographical but lingual, or that you are really living in a language, presumably your mother tongue.” When I read those words, I thought of my grandmother, who died a few years after I came to America. She was the only person to whom I wrote letters in my mother tongue, Hindi. On pale blue aerograms, I sent her reports of my new life in an alien land. Although she could sign her own name, my grandmother was otherwise illiterate and would ask the man who brought her the mail in the village or a passing schoolchild to read her the words I had written. And when my grandmother died, I had no reason to write in Hindi again. Now it is a language that I use only in conversations, either on the phone, with my friends and relatives in India, or, on occasion, when I get into cabs in New York City.

At another point in his lectures, Salter told his audience that “style is the entire writer.” He said, “You can be said to have a style when a reader, after reading several lines or part of a page, can recognize who the writer is.” There you have it, another definition of home. In novels such as “A Sport and a Pastime” and “Light Years,” the sentences have a particular air, and the light slants through them in a way that announces Salter’s presence. All the writers I admire, each different from the other, erect structures that offer refuge. Consider Claudia Rankine. You are reading her description of a woman’s visit to a new therapist. The woman has arrived at the door, which is locked. She rings the bell. The therapist opens the door and yells, “Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?” The woman replies that she has an appointment. A pause. Then an apology that confirms that what just happened actually happened. If you have been left trembling by someone yelling racist epithets at you, Rankine’s detached, near-forensic writing provides you the comfort of clarity that the confusion of the therapist in the poem does not.

Thirty years have passed since I left India. I have continued to write journalism about the country of my birth. This has allowed me to cure, to some degree, the malady of distance. I’ve reflected a great deal on the literature that is suited to describing the conditions in the country of my birth. But I have also known for long that I no longer belonged there.

I haven’t reported in grand detail on rituals of American life, road journeys or malls or the death of steel-manufacturing towns. I think this is because I feel a degree of alienation that I cannot combat. I’ve immersed myself in reading more and more of American literature, but no editor has asked me to comment on Jonathan Franzen or Jennifer Egan. It is assumed I’m an expert on writers who need a little less suntan lotion at the beach. I don’t care. Removed from any intimate connection to a community or the long association with a single locale, my engagement with literature is now focussed on style. Do my sentences reveal once again the voice of the outsider, a mere observer?

In a cemetery that is only a few miles away from my home, in the Hudson Valley, is the gravestone of an Indian woman. The inscription reads, “Anandabai Joshee M.D. 1865-1887 First Brahmin Woman to Leave India to Obtain an Education.” Joshee was nine when she was married to a twenty-nine-year-old postal clerk in Maharashtra, and twenty-one when she received a medical degree in Pennsylvania. A few months later, following her return to India, she died, of tuberculosis, at the age of twenty-two. Her ashes were sent to the woman who had been her benefactor in the U.S., and that is how Joshee’s ashes found a place in Poughkeepsie. I’m aware that, when she died, Joshee was younger than I was when I left India for America. Involved in medical studies, and living in a world that must have felt immeasurably more distant than it does now, she probably didn’t have time to write poems or worry about style. I recently read that last year a crater on the planet Venus was named after her. It made me think that brave Anandabai Joshee now has a home that none of us will ever reach.

The White Darkness

David Grann for the New Yorker
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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.

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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”).

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Why do white people like what I write?

Pankaj Mishra for the London Review of Books
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From Pankaj Mishra’s piece on the rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates, featured in the LRB.

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‘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.

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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.

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White Magic

Lou Cornum for The New Inquiry
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For The New Inquiry, Lou Cornum considers the under-examined racial history of witchcraft, the ‘white witch’ phenomenon and the current cultural obsession with witches.

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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.

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Chance and Agency: Carolee Schneemann’s Use of Fire

Olivia Gauthier for BOMB Magazine
Schneemann3

For BOMB Magazine, Olivia Gauthier considers the role of fire in American artist Carolee Schneemann’s works.

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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. 

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