Monday, November 05, 2007

Context’s Dream

Adam Pendleton *The Revival* Stephan Weiss Studio November 1st

The gospel service can’t exist without complete prior agreement about the nature of the image/vision and its truthfulness. You can’t doubt and sing with abandon. The identification, the location of the singer within the image has to be total. There is no room for the distance of irony.
~ John Taggart

Despite the stunningly gorgeous and accomplished Gospel-style of Adam Pendleton’s *The Revival*—with preaching by Pendleton himself, full two-bandstand Gospel choir, and three-piece band—perhaps the most striking thing about Pendleton’s work was his original recontextualization of performance models rooted in African-American spirituality and cultural history with texts by “experimental” writers such as John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Paolo Javier, Jena Osman and Leslie Scalapino.

Historically there has been a disjunct between (mainly) white, “avant garde” language experiment and Black arts movements. Books such as Nathaniel Mackey’s *Discrepant Engagement* and scholarship by Kamau Braithwaite, Adelaide Morris and Aldon Nielsen have done much recently to reconsider the problem. Likewise an upsurge of radically formal writing by African Americans in the past 30 years have done much to alter the problem by adding new voices to the terrain. Some of these writers include Will Alexander, Tonya Foster, Erica Hunt, C.S. Giscombe, Harryette Mullen, Nathaniel Mackey, Julie Patton, Christopher Stackhouse and Tyrone Williams. In Pendleton’s performance the connections between radical formal experiment and adverse cultural content are not so much explicit, as embodied by an appropriative enunciation of diverse texts.

Such a binary is further complicated by Pendleton’s inclusion of texts from Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, whereby Jackson acknowledges and mourns his loss among supporters, and texts by Gay writer and health activist Leonard Kramer. Through the play of these texts and others, but especially those with a specific political occasion such as Jackson’s and Kramer’s, Pendleton tarries in the most literal (and textual) of ways among various conflicted, if not antagonistic, cultural-political identities.

That Pendleton mediates and reinvents Black Christian “revival” is as much a throw back to the communal forum that *is* African-American religious practice, as much as to the tactical experiments of the Language Writing communities of the 70’s through the present. In the writings of Charles Bernstein (whom Pendleton “lifts”) and Bruce Andrews (who fortuitously was in the audience for Pendleton’s performance) one encounters modes of writing that consistently trouble unified enunciation as they set different subject positions, speech acts and affective registers against one another to ethical, political and amoral ends. Such modes can be witnessed as early as Bernstein’s mid-70’s chapbooks collected in his book *Republics of Reality*— *Parsing*, *Shade*, and *Poetic Justice*—as well as (in)famously in Andrew’s book *I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up*. Before Language Writing one could detect similar tactics in New York School poets such as John Ashbery (also appropriated by Pendleton’s monologue), Barbara Guest and James Schuyler, who interrogated “lyrical subjectivity” through similarly appropriative techniques and ironic modes of address.

The recourse to ironic address in Language Writing and the New York School seem a deliberate and strategic wrinkle in the Gospel revival format. Yet I would never call *The Revival* strictly “ironic”. In Pendleton’s negotiation of the various voices and intertexts he weaves within his monologue, 'an uncommon dream of language’, a critical distance from the emotive thrust of Gospel musical accompaniment was always in play. In this provision the performance felt Brechtian at times, as though Pendleton were preventing sympathetic identification from his audience to affect critical distance. Simultaneously, there was something all the more “moving” in the play between Pendleton’s “remix” and the revival format—as though each complemented one another, or better yet realized the effects of the one through the other.

Such a confusion of effects attests to a larger intention at work in *The Revival*. For one of the things that may truly bind an African-African cultural discourse with ongoing Modernist literary experiment is the sense that Transcendence so-called may only emerge in Immanence itself given to “life” by embodiment, historical complexity and material interconnectedness. In many of the texts Pendleton “remixed” inheres the idea that redemption should not be found in any “beyond”—a world “outside” this one, a Transcendental or fundamental Being—so much as in a force that binds any number of individuals existing within a larger “community” or multiplicity. So the attention is thrown off “God” and “redemption” to the difficulties of the “created”. The following is language I transcribed during the performance:

“it’s almost two years now” “the brightness filled” “it’s as if the war never happened” “not the ghost of the novel” “the memories you ground down” “the shape of a beautiful table remains” “and some day a name day” “will go unrecorded”

“it’s almost two years now and your deliverance is right here” “and your God betrayed you” “no wave of recollection comes gushing back in his love” “and your salvation is inside you” “and the them was articulated” “the brightness filled in” “your glory it is inside you” “it’s over here” “and his salvation is inside you” “and I said his glory”

“the them was” “the brightness filled in” “the war never happened” “not” “no one who saw me” “would ever believe me” “in your God”*

The immanent tendencies of the revival format binds Pendleton’s *The Revival* to 20th century “avant garde” language practices and performance insofar as both geneologies would propose an anti-transcendence, or a transcendence that only may occur as a kind of revival through mediation—the mediation of a socius in embodied linguistic fact. “Our” deliverance “is here” if only because “we” are here and “inside” at the same time. Against the racist political system of the United States government (which Jackson’s speech presences rhetorically), and the neglect of Queer health issues and emergencies by the same government (which Kramer’s text renders pathetic), Pendleton would finally recognize in the writers he has chosen to lift and in *The Revival*’s format a relationship shared by ritualized spirituality (religion), social responsibility and language/expression.

That Pendleton included “testimonies” in his performance highlights yet another relationship between language, performance and ethical behavior. Both the visual artist Liam Gillick and poet-scholar Jena Osman provided “testimony” interrupting Pendleton’s monologue and the music of *The Revival*. Osman’s testimony specifically concerned the poet Charles Reznikoff who in the 30’s wrote two volumes of poems entitled *Testimony* by transforming legal transcripts from the 1890’s throughout the 1910’s into verse. In Reznikoff’s poetry all of the language is “found,” however in its selection and transformation dramatizes real ethical dilemmas and responsibilities as they are given in and by language. A particular phrase Osmon quoted from Reznikoff seemed to comment on Pendleton’s own intentions as a language-based performance artist: “I didn’t invent the world, I felt it”. However “critical” or “analytical” my experience of *The Revival* was and was geared to be, in the end it was all “felt” where feeling becomes its own critique. Where beyond critique and feeling lies the arduous path of meaning itself.

*quotation marks indicate breaks in live transcription.


Anonymous said...

I'm a friend of Adam's. Been thinking how to write about the experience of the performance. This is a wonderful document of it, you've really pointed out the complexities of the piece. Am going to read it again later... and perhaps post some kind of response. But I wanted to thank you for writing about it because I've been looking for something interesting on it...
(bookmarking this site)

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see this too. For the record, it's Osman, not Osmond.