Monday, April 06, 2015

Withdrawals: Occult Poetics & Sociopolitical Practice

I'm super excited to announce that in the fall I will be teaching a graduate course at Parsons that looks at writers and artists who use occult/spiritual/mystical techniques as a means of vitalizing/mediating their sociopolitical engagements/activisms. Some of the writers we will look at include Bhanu Jacasta Kapil, Robert Kocik, Fred Moten, Jalal Toufic, Etel Adnan, Rob Halpern, Eleni Stecopoulos, Brandon Shimoda, Melissa Buzzeo, Nathaniel Mackey, and CA Conrad. The full course description is in the link below:

Withdrawals: Occult Poetics & Sociopolitical Practice             

This course will look at a broad range of contemporary writing practices that use both metaphors of the occult and occult techniques to mediate the writer’s sociopolitical practices. I am interested in exploring how recourse to the occult often proceeds from cultural impasse, as a means of producing political and social transformation through the remediation of traditional, yet often submerged, unofficial, or heretical, cultural knowledge. I would also like to consider the relationship between “occlusion” (a withdrawal of the sensible) and the non-representability and/or unavailability of certain events and subjects. Lastly, this course will consider recourse to the occult as a means of world-making and symbolic action, often performed under duress, at a threshold of tangibility. Some related issues that we will explore include: how an “ensemble of the senses” (Fred Moten) enacts an aesthetic politics; the way fiction and radical conceptions of the imaginary operate in relation to trauma; the appropriation of ritual in order to democratize sociopolitical practice; and the potentialization of embodiment through spiritual and occult techniques. The texts we will look at include Michel de Certeau’s Heterologies, Nathaniel Mackey’s From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, Fred Moten’s In the Break, Robert Kocik’s Supple Science, Etel Adnan’s To Look at the Sea is to Become What One Is, Jalal Toufic’s Forthcoming, Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieu, Rob Halpern’s Commonplace, and Eleni Stecopoulos’ Visceral Poetics, as well as shorter selections from a variety of contemporary writers.

From a Discussion of “the occult” for SHIFTER Magazine

Karl Marx writes in his “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1848,” that the “senses therefore become theoreticians in their immediate practice.” While it is a phrase that has been repeated countless times, is it worth dwelling with again. What, I wonder, becomes the sense of theory (or a theory of the senses) when one becomes synaesthesiac in the wake of the disaster; when what we see also makes us hear (or touch, or smell, or taste)? Where hearing in fact supercedes seeing, overcoming the hegemony of the ocular? I think of Marx’s proposition as an essentially aesthetic one—one of the few in his work. Likewise, we may think of latter Marxists, Antonio Gramsci in particular, for problematizing a discourse of the senses through his privileging of “common sense” as the basis for revolutionary practice. What, too, if our common sense involves a negation of the senses? A withdrawal into the eidetic, the subtle; into non-representational modes of meaning-making (such are sound and gesture and movement)? At what point does language, as that upon which our common sense largely depends, become non-meaningful, does it refuse the reduction of “nonmeaning” and “phonic substance” for a “universal grammar” (to quote some key phrases from Fred Moten’s In the Break). Music and sound performance, in Moten’s book, examine the ways that meaning-making becomes irreducible to forms of life marked by the struggle for autonomy and impropriety. That which is musical and/or sonorous (i.e., noisy) in the visual mark the place where the visual is “cut” (another Moten term) in order to mark a differentiation within the otherwise present and self-same (ipseity), a differentiation (alterity) which, after Derrida, Moten poses as a necessary condition of possibility for a universalism, a universal freedom to which the Black Radical Aesthetic Tradition in particular strives. In the passage I chose to look at today, Moten bears witness to the occlusion of the visual faced with the photograph of Emmett Till’s casket. The visual is occluded not just because one must look away, but because the face ruptured and wounded withdraws its essence (or pictorial sense?) from the looker. In its excess of materiality, in its excess of nonmeaningful significance, the onlooker is silenced, and in that silence hears something else: the call to revolutionary action which led to the decisive events of the Civil Rights Era/emergence of Black Nationalism; the call to triumph over death; the call, too, of a lost maternity upon which African-American culture is forged after the Middle Passage, “an insistent previousness evading each and every natal occasion,” to quote Moten quoting Nathaniel Mackey. Similarly, in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), the filmmaker chooses to represent survivors of the camps through extreme close-ups of the face. I believe he does so to privilege an aural-affective content of the face that is in excruciating excess to the stories the survivors attempt to, but often cannot, tell. The face withdraws, in this case, because it is too present, because it says (or remembers) too much; in this way it embodies the concept of “trace” in Derrida’s and Levinas’ thought. As Jalal Toufic has written of the face in Lanzmann’s Shoah, the extreme close-up makes present the “over”; that which is in the diegetic image-track that would seem occulted, occluded, as though of another world. The otherworldly, in Toufic, is constituted through trauma; the breakdown of cultural production, and of empirical and historical reality, in the face of a incalculable collective trauma. There is a passage in Toufic’s Vampires (2nd Edition) sublime becomes it articulates concisely the status of haunting in relation to trauma; that in the throes of such deep trauma, the ghosts do not yet haunt a place because they have yet to even return. The point of much of Toufic’s work, as he says in Vampires, is to recall those ghosts, to provide for them (as he puns on the plight of Palestinians) a “right of return” through literature, art, and other modes of cultural production. The text that I chose to look at today, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster, collects a number of texts from across Toufic’s many books, as well as from uncollected texts such as Toufic’s introduction to Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse. In brief, a surpassing disaster marks a cultural trauma so intensive that the traditions of that culture can no longer be sustained. Among his many examples, Toufic sites the Jewish Frankists of 18th Century Poland/Eastern Europe, who faced with extreme persecution declared a practice of “redemption through sin,” a negative messianic condition in which Jacob Frank and his followers enacted their belief that the messiah’s coming could be expedited through transgression. In other poignant examples, Jewish students kick-down and deface tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in Berlin; and Native Americans prohibit that a traditional dance any longer be performed. The “occult” here marks a withdrawal of the objects and practices of a culture—their subtlization—after disaster. Withdrawal necessitates negation—negation through occultation—but also an affirmation through innovation—new forms of cultural production. By addressing a negative condition of one’s senses, that a culture’s commonsense can no longer access or invest belief in a object or ritual—Toufic calls upon his contemporaries to “deserve” their culture (and I am thinking here of the eponymous essay in his book Deserving Lebanon). Which is to say, make culture in the rubble that will tarry with the event in order to transcend it, a dice throw within eternal recurrence that inaugurates new life, or a resurrection of those withdrawn cultural traditions that would not be “counterfeit” (a demonic doubling; a return only in appearance). The problem of the surpassing disaster is to know that we are in one. It is the artist who discerns this through their work. The senses therefore become theoreticians in their immediate praxis, yet through the withdrawal of the senses—in the turn of the senses towards the subtle, virtual, eternally recurrent, eidetic—one grasps a crucial spiritual response to collective trauma. One of Toufic’s principal examples of surpassing disaster is the book-length poem by Etel Adnan, The Arab Apocalypse (1989), regarding the oppression and genocide of itinerant Palestinians during the first days of the Lebanese Civil War. One of the most curious aspects of Adnan’s poem, much of which otherwise reads life an Expressionist hymn a la Aime Cesaire’s “Notebook of return to my native land” or Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” is her inclusion of drawings, many which resemble a kind of writing—hieroglyphs, petroglyphs, calligraphy—that disrupt the poem’s lines. Cultural trauma is registered here by a writing the status of which is neither image, sound, gesture, or text, but all and none of the above. Drawing as writing and writing as drawing; writing-drawing-writing as intense aural-acoustic gesture saying saying saying (Levinas). Similarly, Adnan’s insistent naming of colors throughout the poem marks the beginning of a world-forming, the names for the colors being possibly the closest one can come to the non-discursive (or non-existent) through the nominal-descriptive—a Peircian “firstness” before relation. I have called the colors in Adnan’s paintings “angel colors” because they seem to erupt from a realm of non-being, a plenum of pure potential—and physically this may be attributed to Adnan’s painting with tubes of paint directly onto canvases with a palette knife. The result of this unique practice are overtones that affect one much less visually than aurally, acting directly—like sound vibrations—on the central nervous system.