Another beautifully thought-provoking post takes the spotlight for today’s Vintage DB. Coming to you from DB 6, Spring 2004, Eddy Seesing’s carefully staged portraits compare and contrast six different Chairman of the Board of Directors of the top 100 largest Dutch companies in his collection “Top Managers.”
“My experience as a tax consultant led me to this subject. During my two year career as a tax consultant I was strongly confronted with the strict hierarchy and the elements of status that were used to confirm your position in the organization. The size of your office, your chair, the list-price of your company car, the sort of suit you wear…….
By photographing these different people in exactly the same way I give the viewer the opportunity to compare these men with one another and to carefully study similarities and differences.”
Eddy Seesing is a Netherlands-born photographer, audiovisual portraitist, and also runs the video production company Steddy. He has put more than twenty years into a multitude of projects and has been working on expanding his “Religion Today” project since 2012. To see more of his amazing work, visit his website at steddy.com.
This spring I’m still in the shadow of a book read this winter, Sarah Blackman’s Hex, which is capacious and wondrous in how it combines the heat and trouble of everyday living with cold, intricate structures of storytelling. It’s not published yet; someone lucky will publish it. More immediately, Blackman’s terrific Mother Box.
For the past year I’ve been rereading Christian TeBordo’s Toughlahoma, out soon from Rescue Press, where I’m an editor. I’ve been living those months when you’re very close to a book but you can’t just talk about it with anyone. Now, soon, it will be out there, in others’ hands. Does everyone like to be this scared when they laugh? Do you, too, feel real nice and uneasy? Tell me.
I’ve been reading and rereading Mahmoud Darwish’s Mural—in Fady Joudah’s translation; in Rema Hammami and John Berger’s translation; in Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché’s translation. It’s as though, having known of Darwish’s work for many years, I was frightened to immerse myself. Perhaps I still am, and rightly, given this extraordinary “lyric epic,” in which Darwish addresses his own death, faces the whiteness beyond the green land of the poem. “One day I will become what I want,” a refrain that returns again and anew.
A companion, perhaps, is Derrida’s final interview, Learning to Live Finally, in which he fluidly and passionately reflects on the breadth of his work, now in the terms of his approaching death. “To philosophize is to learn to die. I believe in this truth without being able to resign myself to it. And less and less so.” This book is more moving than I can say.
Soon the seasons will change and new friends will appear (in the garden the tulips are opening, the arugula is getting ideas): I’m looking forward especially to Robin McLean’s Reptile House. I’ve read a few of Robin’s stories through the years, and increasingly it’s clear that her voice is quite distinct, a bold and funny and unyielding approach to storytelling: I want her to lead me into the summer, into the next thing.
This Thursday, our vintage selection hails from the nonfiction category of one of our more recent issues, DB 17, Summer 2013. Travel with writer Beth Malone as she unravels a story of her own experiences with motherhood, friendship, culture and the complex relationships between them in “Tide Pool.”
“As the night went on, she’d put on music videos and bring scarves from her room to tie around our hips. “I don’t know how to belly dance!” I’d protest.
“I don’t either!” she’d laugh, so we mimicked the women on-screen, moving our hips in figure eights, our arms spiraling above our heads. It was then I saw how beautiful she really was, her dark hair whirling around her as she tossed it from side to side, her hips undulating to a beat that seemed to live in her bones. Her kids would try to join in and she’d rebuke them, laughing—this was a dance for women, not boys. But then she’d only laugh along with them as they carried on with impish smiles. We collapsed in heaps on the floor, her fingers touching mine.”
Beth Malone is a writer, blogger, poet and essayist with a knack for beautiful metaphors. She often writes about culture, spirituality, social issues, and motherhood, but is inspired by a wide range of subjects. She currently lives in Colorado, where she works with Burmese refugees. To read more of her work and check out what she’s working on next, visit her website at bethmalonewrites.com.
(written spring 2010)
Dear Brandon :
One of the fundamental facts about kairos, which I feel I was able to discover & realize only in interlocution with you, is that it is a species of rhetorical time. That is, it does not belong to the lexicon of technical terms describing time that are proper to the main line of antique speculation on this theme (from, say, Anaximander through Plato to Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine & thence into the patristic & scholastic tradition, which does innovate but always with recourse to the authority of Aristotle & the church fathers). It is the kind of time best known to us through the use made of it by Gorgias of Leontini, who made a metaphor of the poetic uses we find in Homer, Hesiod & Pindar (in whom already there is a segue from a moment (to let the arrow fly) to a measure (kairos is already the fit time in Hesiod, who writes apropos of the perils of getting wealth by sea. (And proportion is best in all things, is how my Loeb translates it.))) There’s a similar sense in Pindar, who says at one point that “time (kairos) holds a harsh measure for men,” as I recall. (I don’t have the passage to hand.) In context, this gnome basically means something like “time and tide wait for no man.” And thus the sense we eventually get in Gorgias, to wit that there is a kind of time which befalls one which is unsubstitutable — certainly an epistemic crisis in a culture which is adapting to the recoding wrought both by writing & by money, both of which depend for their function on our imagination of a general equivalent, & therefore of a universal substitutability, fungibility, of which we are of course the inheritors & which inventions have gone on to colonize our experience of time entirely, as Benjamin analyzes in the theses on the philosophy of history.
Into conjunction with this sense of kairos as rhetorical time I’d like to put Rob Halpern’s observation, from Imaginary Politics, “Time appears as though it were a thing we didn’t make.” (I’ve written this line before in a letter, to Dana Ward, about the Arcades Project, after that marvelous weekend when he was here to read with Stephanie & Alli, & which was followed by the amazing read with Carol & with Bob Gluck on mourning, when they both assigned Benjamin to their Spicer diagram; a weekend which was a dense bolus of signs which it is our subsequent hermeneutic task to try to comb out — a way I feel about any signal fugue, which is to say an instance in which there is a convergence of semiotic density, whose product is almost excess of signs, from which we can read auspices — social auspices (“the urban vatic” said Bruce Boone about Bev Dahlen) — the most recent example of which was the visit of Bruce Andrews & Sally Silvers, in the immediate aftermath of which I am writing this letter to you. We may say, what a crazy weekend, but in truth it’s always more than that, there’s always something legible later — the immediate use, and the subsequent meaning or fate. (I think about writing itself this way a lot as the result of a chance remark by Brenda Iijima, when she was publishing my book called The Book Called Spring.)(This connects also with my thoughts about use following (acutely) a conversation with Lisa Robertson & (diffusely) the discourse on use from Rob & also Thom Donovan & Robert Kocik, deriving finally from the Pauline letters & from Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, though perhaps via some intermediate source (to them) that I don’t know.) (Interesting to reflect on the possibility of an ethical ecological life they feel the need to resort to an account that is in its final analysis theological … a point to which I hope to return.)
But returning to Rob’s line, “Time appears as if it were a thing we didn’t make.” Of all of what is socially produced by human beings, and therefore becomes part of the series of quanta whose exchanges we can name “economy” (and there are many different kinds of economy) — the economy of time is the most enigmatic, & the most susceptible to the fundamental ideological mode of naturalization, because the representation seems to collapse directly into the thing itself — they appear inseparable — & this collapsing of the made into the “natural” is ideology in a nutshell. We have no “raw” experience of time, and so we can be deluded into conceiving that our socialized grammar of time is itself something like that raw experience. Or, again, raw time has no proper, we can allude to it only via a catachresis. It’s hard to be very clear about this & my ideas are still underway & will be for a long time, as this is one of my most basic interests & concerns.
The problem seems helpfully illuminated by a comparison with spoken language. We have all been socialized into language so thoroughly, & from such an early age, that the use of it can seem merely natural, and that we cannot conceive of being outside its regime. Nonetheless we know quite well that infants are born without speech — with, however, a potentiality for speech — not for any particular (ethnic) speech, but for speech in general. I would say likewise that humans, perhaps from a similar underlying potentiality (in fact, I feel sure that it is the same underlying potentiality, one basic libidinal disaster in our nature, which I am attempting to trace in the course of a separate work), have a potentiality for time, but not for any particular kind of time … rather for whatever kind of time it is into which they happen to be born. (The “syntax of time” which is one way to translate the close of the Anaximander fragment.)
So. If time is not natural, but rather social, we must explain the slight of hand by which we do not realize, are made to forget, or are kept from understanding, that we are its producers, that it is part of our social body, the interstice between us, like language & the symbolic in general. (The power of the ruling class in class society largely depends on the claim of ownership to the means of symbolic production — a condition in which we are patently still living.) To explain this phenomenon we can resort to the discourse inaugurated by Feuerbach, coming out of Hegel & continued by the young Marx, through the 20th century discourses of false consciousness, hegemony, reification, ideology, etc. In particular, Feuerbach, in his Essence of Christianity, explains the concept of God as the human hypostatization of our conception of all the best qualities, imagined as existing externally & through the imaginative alienation coming to have therefore a power over us which seems external. (This has clear affinities with Marx’s account of money etc. in the 1844 manuscripts — & with the analysis of the commodity in the first volume of Capital.) To some degree Feuerbach may be seen as a modern Euhemerus, demystifying divinity by ascribing it to human invention, but I continue to return to his thought precisely because he seems to put his finger on a fundamental mystery of human social being — that is, how something contingent can come to seem, by the act of collective social determination of value (usually, as I mentioned, coordinated by apparatuses of symbolic production which are in the hands of the ruling class), how these contingent things can come to seem, not just socially, but even objectively real. This is an enigma at the heart of human social collective existence, and points again to something among us which if not transcendent may at least be described as super-personal — the collective symbolic existence — which the language of theology often seems of value to describe — or, I should say, to understand, since that collective existence is materially inextricable from the histories of which have formed its basis, all of which have been explicitly Christian for millennia, and which even now, secularized, bear their theologic traces, as we have often discussed.
So. Time, collectively produced, takes up an existence against its makers in the same way that value, collectively produced, congeals into the capital that is antagonistic to its makers (after, again, being routed through the symbolic transform that leaves it in the hands of the ruling classes: in our case, the right of private property & the right of hereditary inheritance). “Time appears as if it were a thing we didn’t make.” In large part because we are dressaged into the subjectivation of atomized economic actors, with no valid social language for the way in which our collective action has world-historical effects. The law that sucks up (by right) all the value that we make into the hands of those we’ve naturalized into desert of it (and which we by our actions (heart remaining unsworn notwithstanding) continually validate & reinscribe) leaves us with no place to understand or claim a productivity that is collective & belongs to a different grammar — one that’s hardly unimaginable but is, however, irreconcilable with present axioms — the axioms that structure our form of life & the antagonism of class society, the axioms that are not going anywhere without a fight. (Once more, the right of private property & the right of inheritance — both guaranteed of course by the state, without whose infrastructure of enforcement thse things would be impossible to maintain, especially given the present severity of the gradients.)
All this is a long way of getting back to kairos, conceived as a type of rhetorical time. To understand even what appears in the human world as natural and given, to have been made by humans, and subject to a reading therefore (in the sense of Vico, for example), is also to understand that one intervenes in a world arranged in symbols (& in subjects arranged by symbols — mankind has its mooring in the signifier, says Lacan in the Rome Discourse), by means of effective signals — signals deployed at the right time. Althusser calls this “entering the conjuncture”. Austin calls it the performative. Diverse theorists have discussed it as the revolutionary moment. To understand the science (art?) of when something can be made to happen via speech (or via symbolic action) — this is the kind of time that kairos gives us to think.
In his critique of Austin, Benveniste writes “In any case, a performative utterance has no reality except as it is authenticated as an act. Outside the circumstances that make it performative, such an utterance is nothing at all. Anybody can shout in the public square, “I declare a general mobilization,” and as it cannot be an act because the requisite authority is lacking, such an utterance is no more than words…”.
The enigma of the moment of kairos, which is connected to rhetorical problems like persuasion and seduction, is exactly that it takes place at a molten moment of the symbolic, when what had ossified is permitted dynamically to flow — quite against the norms of those mineral regimes all of whose work consists in installing, authorizing, and continually reaffirming their natural & proper claim to existence. When one is on the ground in dynamic & volatile protest situations one really sees a form of social dialectics, usually between protestors and police, that plays itself out from moment to moment, & consists mostly in the ability of the police to continually inspire the fear that is their necessary symbolic garment. Signs fly thick & fast on these occasions & they are almost inevitably awaiting the symbolic act that will serve as performative to cause a shift in the attitude of the crowd.
It’s difficult for me to try to put all these thoughts on paper to you because I think about them all the time & yet all the formulations I am capable of advancing seem inadequate to my thought and to the theme. Nonetheless, as I wrote in a letter to another friend earlier this week, it is necessary to take the risk of perforating the ideality in which the thing you cannot venture to do lives, and open up into the inadequacy which is the means by which anything is actually communicated to an interlocutor who may need it, and who it is one’s responsibility to aid. (This puts me in line of a line I found by sortes Vergiliana in Arendt’s book on Augustine last night: “This is why a flight into solitude is sinful. It robs the other of the opportunity to change.”)
Thinking of Augustine & of the Pauline use of kairos in the locution “the time of the now,” I want to advance toward a question tha may form the basis for a response to my letter. In contract to the smooth time of the Empire, which Benjamin calls “empty homogenous time,” and which for us is the time of the commodity, in which time, money and labor are all mutually translatable articles, Paul describes the Christian community (ecclesia) as organized around “the time of the now,” with the ethical & social imperatives that derive from this kind of being-toward-time — a time structured around the prospect of a kind of volatility that will explode the present, disastrous order (“the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule” — Benjamin again). A collective has, therefore, a basis for politically effective action, dependent upon this notion of time. But this depends on a preexisting understanding of oneself as a Christian subject — as one who is, in other words, a meaningful part of a social collectivity by dint of profession of faith & participation in rite. Pistis here organizes subjects into a collectivity that understands itself as such.
So. Is it possible for us (the collective us, the us of the “multitude” of Hardt & Negri, drawing on Spinoza) to understand ourselves as a collectivity, in the absence of the form of subjective stabilization offered by Christian religion, a collectivity that would be able to have an understanding of our collective production of time & would be able to orient itself towards a moment of kairos in which the present temporal (& not only temporal) order of things would be undone? Is this possible, lacking religion? Is it possible, I guess my question would be, to make an ecclesia, that is not yet a church? Is this, in fact, in some kind of way, what is happening in what we call, usually with a sense of bad conscience for letting the phrase go unanalyzed, “the poetry community”? (These issues are far larger than “the poetry community” but since we live there it is only right & proper that we talk about our own polis, n’est-ce pas?)
This letter is among other things my attempt to furnish a preliminary answer to the question: why study kairos? I would love to read your thoughts on answering the same question.
But to be honest, I’d love to read about whatever you are thinking about & want to write about. I have no doubt but that I’ll benefit from it, as I hope you have derived some use from reading this.
I’m so glad to be embarked upon another project with you (as subset of our open-ended joint inquiry-without-intention, which comes to seem more & more important to me as we proceed, & to be linked to the questions of use to which I alluded earlier), and, as always, so glad to be your friend.
Hoping this finds you very well today —
Love — David
– DAVID BRAZIL
David Brazil was born in New York and lives in California. His first full-length book was The Ordinary. Chapbook publications include Spy Wednesday and Meet Me Beneath The War Angels. With Sara Larsen, he published over sixty issues of the xerox periodical TRY! He organizes free education through the Bay Area Public School, attends church at Taylor Memorial United Methodist in West Oakland, and makes his living as a bookseller.
With Thursday well upon us, it’s time to commemorate another deserving vintage selection. This week’s pick is of a more serious nature and one that asks us to reflect on a darker, but important, part of American history. Spend a few minutes today with Eric LeMay’s audiovisual recollection of the AIDS epidemic and discover what it was like through the eyes of an adolescent in “Gaetan Dugas, A Personal History.” LeMay’s piece first appeared in our journal in DB 15, Spring 2012.
Eric LeMay is the creator of many digital art pieces like the one featured here, and the author of three books: Immortal Milk: Adventures in Cheese, The One in the Many, and In Praise of Nothing: Essays, Memoir, and Other Experiments. He has taught writing at several universities including Ohio University, where he is currently on the faculty of the writing program. He also serves as an associate editor for the New Ohio Review and the web editor for Alimentum: The Literature of Food. He is also a host on the New Books Network. To view more of his work, visit his website at ericlemay.org.