Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Political Turn

I try to avoid art school people, I really do. With some notable exceptions, they're mostly dull, and have terrible hair. What's more unappealing to me, though, is to watch the constant PR and spin that they engage in on behalf of their creations: I've always thought one should leave criticism and interpretation to one's audience. If you have to say 'It's about...' then the product is horribly muddled or you're traducing its complexity for an audience you consider contemptible. Neither is attractive.

The minefield of 'political' art is the one that really bugs me, though. Not so much sincere, broad-stroke angry political gestures, though I find them wearisome, but the 'ironic' manipulation of political iconography to make statements that can then be disclaimed through the suggestion that 'it's only art, my purpose is only to entertain,' or, worse, 'politics isn't really my thing.' (I think disclaiming these questions in this way can often suggest a desire to escape them: because it would get in the way of selling one's work, or becauseone simply feels unable to answer those questions. Better, in the latter case, to admit the impossibility of answering than to dismiss the questions out of hand, I think.)

It's not that I'm a huge fan of explicitly 'political' art, either of the state-sponsored type, or the work nominally outside institutions of power. Orwell has never done it for me. First world war poetry doesn't either. Guernica perhaps, but little otherwise. Marcus Harvey's iconic treatment of Myra Hindley strikes me as laziness, more than anything else. But to suggest that artists operate in a vacuum outside of politics, in an unmediated relationship with truth, is romantic at best and disgustingly self-serving at worst. It's where this practice of over-determining the meaning of a work comes from, really ('yah, you see, it's really about...') -- a nervousness over interpretability.

Politics is unquestionably present when something is put in the public sphere; everything one does publicly is, by its condition as a public act, necessarily political. One of the things that Thomas Hobbes understood was that by the time we come into selfhood we are always already in a political relationship with power, or the sovereign. That relation can no more be disclaimed than can embodiment. To say 'it isn't there' or 'it isn't relevant' is a political act itself, and a uniquely lame, ignorant one.

One of the things I have always liked about late 20th Century French 'theory' is its ethical turn - I've never been particularly interested in 'deconstruction' as caricatured by the serried Americans who found in it a vapid method for asserting half-baked literary truths - particularly the later writings of Derrida (Of Hospitality, The Gift of Death, Literature in Secret, Politics of Friendship) which are an attempt to bring to the fore an ethical demand that is present in language and the act of reading, one that is very much historically located rather than transcendent. Simon Critchley's theory of ethics, in his great book Infinitely Demanding, which I regard as probably the best articulation of intelligent anarchism around today, speaks of the structure of ethical subjectivity as a meeting with ethical demand; it is this sense of meeting with demand that often runs through much of the work I find moving, in visual or literary art.

In Paul Celan I find one of the most intense engagements with the demand of language. For instance:


Über aller dieser deiner
Trauer: kein
zweiter himmel

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

An einen Mund,
dem es ein Tausendwort war
verlor -
verlor ich ein Wort,
das mir verblieben war:

An die Vielgötterei
verlor ich ein Wort, das mic suchte:

die Schleuse mußt ich,
das Wort in die Salzflut zurück -
und hinaus - und hinüberzuretten:

[Michael Hamburger's translation:


Over all this grief
of yours: no
second heaven.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

To a mouth,
for which it was a thousandword,
lost -
I lost a word,
that had remained to me: sister.

I lost a word that was looking for me:

the sluice I had to go, 
to salvage the word into the saltflood back
and out and across:
Yizkor. ]

What words lost, and what words saved? Celan wrote the poem after visiting Martin Buber, to ask him how it was possible to still write in German. How it was possible, after the catastrophe, to publish in that language. Buber's answer was merely that it was natural to go on, natural to take a forgiving stance. What had Celan hoped for? Perhaps some recognition of the impossibility, the impossible demand placed on him by writing in German. Buber, not understanding, or unwilling, didn't recognise the demand, merely replied that to go on in German was natural.

What words lost? The loss of sister - all of Celan's kin, or from Celan's recent failed visit to Nelly Sachs, mad and in hospital - and the loss of Kaddish, both denoting 'holy' and the Jewish prayer said by te relatives of the dead; the loss of all conventional ways of relating, familial and religious; ontological and somatic. Sundered. Nothing over all this grief.

What remains? No option and no choice, simply the action of the poet, less choice than just a necessary action. What is the action? Through the sluice, not as a choice among other paths but, drowning and nearly lost, searching for a word to grasp at Celan has to go through the sluice, into the salt. What word? Yizkor.

Yizkor is another prayer, a prayer for the dead of a very different character. The Kaddish is a prayer of praise ('yitgadal v'yitqadash...') made in public by a grieving person, who rises despite his grief to offer praise to God despite or even because of his grief. Such affirmation is lost for Celan. Yizkor, however, is a prayer originally for Yom Kippur, which grew more prominent after the crusades as a prayer of memory. A prayer for what is lost. What is this word that is saved for Celan? It is not something that affirms presence but absence, all those lost, for whom accounting and tallying can never be adequate. It is a word of disjuncture that does not affirm but rather calls. It makes absence present. A loose way of saying it, perhaps, but this makes Celan's poem poised on a precipice, never allowing it to dissolve into platitude or affirm a static faith. To me, it speaks demand, says what now?

1 comment:

  1. One thing about the Holocaust is that it seems almost impossible to take in the millions killed. One has to take them in one person at a time, somehow, ad then try to multiply that to a million griefs. When I went to Krakow, I went to the synagogue by the old Jewish cemetery, and there was a memorial plaque on the wall put there by the sole survivor of a family of which all the others died in Auschwitz. That was what finally made me burst into tears. Wandering round the Jewish quarter there was a very weird experience - most of the Jews were visitors on special tours; and one of the synagogues is a museum of Jewish life. It was a presenced absence, a hole in the fabric of the culture.