Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dark Waters by Allen C. Shelton

There is no single palace in which memories are stored. Marc Auge uses the image of the shoreline being built up and washed away by the ocean’s currents to capture the dialectics of remembering and forgetting. The waters dissolve everything but the hardest recollections, which are also shaped to its flow. Oblivion, he writes, is a necessary part of remembering.  Freud chooses an architectural metaphor for the way memories cover the past. He calls them screen memories, borrowed from the elaborate dressing screens that were part of middle-class households in the late 19th century, pointing as well to the new cinema of the 20th.

Walter Benjamin’s exile in Paris accentuated his experience of the great hydraulic achievement of the 19th century, the recession of humanness into pools and lakes at the heart of the commodity that Marx described as fetishized; a dreamworld. As Max Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism “...concern for outward possessions should sit lightly on the shoulders of the saints ‘like a thin cloak which can be thrown off at any time. But fate decried that the cloak should become as hard as steel.” [Although this poetic prophesy at the end of The Protestant Ethic is an abnormality within the larger essay.]

Michael Taussig sees what could be considered the dialectical double to a dreamworld in what he calls a “culture of terror, a space of death” around the rubber plantations in Colombia. Here the magical world of the commodity is placid with the psychedelic root yage.  Benjamin’s glass and iron structures   are exchanged for vines, stories, and the women of the forest. However misty either world is, stories, commodities and broken hearts move inside the arcades and what Joseph Conrad called the heart of darkness.

Freud conceptualized this uncanny place as an underground network of rivers and streams looking to come through the surface at soft spots, forming a liquid Rome. The vertigo of the uncanny occurs when the seemingly solid gives way to liquid – what Benjamin described as seasickness on dry land. Benjamin’s phrase refers to what he considered the unstable quality of Kafka’s prose and its effect on the reader. Whether he felt it away from the book is unclear. Freud identified this sensation, this imminent overpowering wetness and the loss of footing, as the dead coming back to life. This was the foundation of the uncanny. But neither he nor Benjamin could quite face it.

In conventional sociology, C. Wright Mill’s famous concept of “the sociological imagination” articulates the domestication of a Kafka-like narrator:

Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. The sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: what ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieus, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and threats, which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.

The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual men and women. When a society is industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or becomes a businessman. When classes rise or fall, a man is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a man takes new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesman becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar man; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father.

For an instant Mills sounds like Poe in one of his stories dealing with claustrophobia and premature burial, or Kafka’s character lamenting the endless series of hallways and doors separating him from the Law. It’s just for a second.

A commodity is there in the foreground or lurking in the background of any memory I conjure up. But commodities cool off, come out of the market, get stranded in space and time,  virtually die and are collected into memory palaces surrounded with a different kind of liquid from that which floats active commodities; Andre Breton projected the story of a young woman against the flea markets and the community commodity networks of Paris. Her name is Nadja. She is the tragic gift that is heated and cooled into a surrealist bloom. She appears and then disappears into an arid sanatorium as if she were secondhand furniture from an estate sale.

There was so much silence around Patrik Keim’s work and so much noise around him. His works made me want to talk and write. That might be most easily attributed to my own anxieties rather than others’ inability to grasp what Patrik was up to. I started  going to his shows equipped with a pencil and a notebook. I made specific measurements, pacing off the spatial dimensions of his work. This was my introduction to the allegories of space outside my own world. His work shared certain qualities with Benjamin’s Arcades. It was too suffocating, unreadable, and nonhuman. The human bits left behind were superfluous. Patrik’s art was a different kind of thinking machine. It was a cerebral dumpsite. There were few complete sentences generated. It seemed more attuned to producing incoherent groans and the low moans that could have been the noise underneath his own suicide. Why I could hear these sounds was never discussed. Patrik liked me. He never corrected my translations of his work. Others saw him as a genius. I didn’t share that view. I saw Patrik as a material ventriloquist, skillfully displacing his own horror into found objects and at other times skillfully letting loose the horror trapped inside his collected pieces. He normally reassembled already decaying pieces into a larger decaying assemblage. His art is hard and scattered like an archipelago of volcanic Islands in the Pacific. There is no single place in which the memories are stored. There was just the tides and sand. He was where the North Sea touched Alabama.

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