Monday, November 30, 2009

In the Shadow of No Towers

Art Spiegelman

Although it didn’t happen entirely by design, there was a thread that ran through the last few posts on this blog. It had to do with a commitment to memory and truth, truth in memory - as exemplified by the writings of Primo Levi - versus some of its opposites, in the form of defective histories, literary plagiarism, conspiracy theories. And it all culminated last week in a discussion of 9/11 Truther Richard Gage’s presentation at Te Papa, which had an interesting by-product: my first ever bag of hate mail.

I’ve struggled to process that. I don’t want to tar all of Gage’s supporters with that particular brush - indeed, the handful who showed up in the comments kept it perfectly civil, and I thank them for it - but what the few emails I received seemed to have in common, aside from the hate part, was a sense of ownership of History (with a capital aitch to go along with the tee in Truth): who was I to question the motives of the Truthers, or even dare to mention 9/11, non-American, non-affected person that I am?

And it’s not an entirely unreasonable point. There are victims’ families who belong to the Truther movement: isn’t their desire to pursue an alternative interpretation of the events enough to legitimise it, and defuse all (my) objections, including those based on logic and reason? But then if one were to concede that point, History would immediately dissolve into several histories, and Truth would break down into many truths, because naturally there are victims’ families who side with the official explanation of what happened on 9/11, as well as others pursuing different investigations into the responsibilities of government. Truthers would have difficulties with this, for their notion of history is predicated not on complexity and plurality, but on exclusion: of logic, of evidence to the contrary, of the right of certain others to speak.

Beyond that, the idea that you can claim ownership of your own history and your own truth remains very contentious. After all, the Holocaust either did or did not happen, 9/11 either was an inside job or it wasn’t, we either put a man on the moon or we didn’t. Observe however how it all changes if we substitute the word memory for the word history: you can so own your memory. And bearing testimony, what Carl referred to in the comments to last week’s post as the heroism of witness, is precisely the role that the Truthers seek to fulfil. To testify - the religious overtones are not casual - signals that you possess the truth within yourself and your desire to convince others of it. Then comes the verdict, which again is of a binary nature: either X committed crime Y or they didn’t.

And so it happens that the word memory has colonised the debate concerning history and the social. Notions like postmemory (Marianne Hirsch), prosthetic memory (Alison Landsberg) or the ethics of memory (Avishai Margalit) seek to account for how personal memory is transmitted within a society, constituting its own political subjects, and they paint a predominantly positive picture: they say that yes, we can meaningfully access the experience of others, and use that secondary memory (with its attendant empathy) to forge a better sense of justice. Take the television series Roots (1977), for example, says Landsberg: did it not reconnect present-day America with a past that could not otherwise be accessed except through documents frozen in the historical archive? And isn’t there profound value in this? I suppose so. But she doesn’t make the counter-example. How about DW Griffith’s enormously successful The Birth of a Nation (1915)? Did it not glorify the KKK, which used it for several decades as a recruiting tool, and did it not lead in the years following its release to a boom in the Klan’s membership?

So the more fundamental problem remains of how to discriminate between authentic and inauthentic memory, therefore - due to the semantic slippage that I described - between true and false history. Here postmodernity leaves us in a lurch of our own making, forced to deal with complexity and plurality, to abhor simplification, universalisations and those dastardly metanarratives that just refuse to die, all the while steering clear of the pitfalls of Denial or Truthering.

And how do we do that?

I don’t think the answer lies in rejecting postmodernity, or in going all in and choosing your illusions. It seems to me that you could usefully deconstruct each and every human attempt to make history, showing how it is a product of its linguistic and disciplinary framework, of the epoch and the society in which it took place, and at the same time look at the state of our knowledge of a certain historical event and conclude (if it is indeed the case) that as of this day we know enough. Enough to say that the Holocaust and the Killing Fields happened, or that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, or that the Twin Towers fell because they were hit by fucking planes. We shall never cease to want to know more about these events, to seek to understand them better, and indeed I think one could make a case that the historical record too needs to be curated, maintained, so that the documents and the testimonies can continue to speak to us and inform our relationship with the past.

The work of memory is central to this, and direct witness accounts such as Levi’s will always be a key to understanding the Holocaust in a broader and deeper sense than its mechanics and its accounting alone. But so too will the Truthers record speak to us, as it already does, of our struggle to make sense of the present as it unfolded, and of the full extent of our shortcomings. Hopefully the historian/curator of the future will turn and say yes, but look, they also came up with this:

Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a second-generation Holocaust memoir, hence a classic work of postmemory according to Hirsch’s definition; not so In the Shadow of No Towers, where the trauma is entirely his own. And if the earlier work had already been a stroke of formal genius, beginning with the choice of representing the Jews as mice, the Poles as pigs and the Germans as cats, In the Shadow goes farther, employing a wide range of different styles and pulling the characters from the early history of the genre that were already an overt influence of Maus into the comic itself. Indeed the book version of the series of ten large-scale pages published between 2002 and 2003 in Die Zeit includes reproductions of those original sources - ranging from Lyonel Feininger's Kin-derKids (1906) to George McManus’ Bringing Up Father (1921) - and an essay by Spiegelman on the influence that they had on his work.

Interestingly, Spiegelman reveals - both in the introduction and in one of the instalments of the series - that for a time he too had been obsessed with various theories pointing to the attacks having been an inside job. And I say interestingly, because In the Shadow is also an implicit refutation of the Truther movement, and it starts with form: a chaotic jumble of anachronistic and idiosyncratic styles competing to tell their own version of the story, a single Truth - if only concerning the author’s state of mind - each bursting into the frame of the other, failing to stabilise into a coherent picture. There is no clarity, no finality, and not just because the end of the story had yet to be written. The last page in the series fades nearly to black, accompanied by the reflection that the image seared in Spiegelman’s mind of ‘the looming North Tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized’ (which he had observed first-hand on the day) is getting ‘smaller every day’, and with a sardonic farewell: ‘Happy Anniversary’. There is no consolation prize of owning your own Truth.

By the time Spiegelman concluded his series, 9/11 had been successfully warped into an engine of political consensus and colonial expansion - the War in Iraq was not yet one year old. No doubt In the Shadow's bleakness was accentuated by its being deprived of a voice at home, having to reside in exile on the newspapers and magazines of old Europe - Spiegelman was effectively at this time a Pulitzer Prize-winning political dissident - but the invective has deeper meaning. It leverages the author’s personal experience and trauma to question how American society allowed itself to be manipulated and deprived of agency, and poses again the imperative of Maus, but also of Levi: you must be true to memory.

Art Spiegelman. In The Shadow of No Towers. London: Viking, 2004.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Truth Comes to Aotearoa

But now the Falling Man is falling through more than the blank blue sky. He is falling through the vast spaces of memory and picking up speed.

Tom Junod, 'The Falling Man'

I had some misgivings about attending the presentation given at Te Papa last Saturday by Richard Gage, founder of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. In the first instance I was reluctant to engage, to be counted amongst those present. I also doubted that a live performance by a Truther would be much more revealing or informative than the materials regularly dumped on the Web by the movement. But Matthew Dentith was going, so at least I might get to meet him, and at the last minute curiosity got the better of me. What would it be like to see Richard Gage in action? Would he maintain in front of a large and receptive audience the patina of reasonableness of his media performances, or would he crack at least a little bit and give us a glimpse of the seething madness within?

If anything, I was the one who cracked: I simply wasn't prepared for how genuinely upsetting the experience would turn out to be. My half-formed thoughts were that these weren't Holocaust deniers, and that I could handle a two-hour slideshow on the 'controlled demolition hypothesis' just fine. It would be all about the manner in which the buildings came down, nothing to get terribly worked up about. But of course I didn't get into my topic because I enjoy seeing memory being torn to shreds, and moreover this particular story had plenty of people still in it: quite literally embedded in the buildings, scattered amongst the evidence that Mr. Gage rattled at us in order to prove his theory: namely, that the Twin Towers and World Trace Centre Building 7 didn't come down as a result of the attacks and the subsequent fires, but rather by means of controlled demolition, with bombs that had been planted months in advance at the behest of the US government.

In an important respect, what I witnessed on the day was a most interesting - if decidedly chilling - experiment in the psychology of mass persuasion. At the beginning of his presentation, Gage took an informal poll of where his audience stood on the issue, and besides the undecideds and those who agreed with him already, 29 people in the theatre (out of about 300) sided with the official explanation of the cause of the collapses. A far smaller sample than in the population at large, one hopes, but still amounting to a sizeable percentage of individuals not yet convinced by the Truthers’ argument. At the end of the presentation, this number had gone down to three, and that’s including Matthew and myself. So what happened during those two hours?

What happened is that a man took the stage, unopposed. And make no mistake, Richard Gage is not a brilliant man, nor is he especially well spoken; besides, his arguments are dishonest, logically flawed and more often than not downright laughable. But he had our attention, a compelling story to tell and visual aids, and that was enough. This should really make us question the role of our national museum in providing that pulpit, but that’s an issue that I’ll get to at the end. That substantial and measurable swing in opinion in however small a sample - in effect a manipulation of memory and understanding - needs to be accounted for.

So, is it possible that people were convinced because there is merit in Gage’s argument? Not really. His contention rests on two main tenets: that the collapse of the three buildings exhibits all the characteristics of a controlled demolition (this is also the only area in which Gage can claim any expertise), and the discovery in some of the materials in the rubble of 'nanothermite', a highly explosive material supposedly developed by the Pentagon at the end of the last century. This nanothermite is in fact the only piece of ostensibly hard evidence provided during the presentation, and we might as well deal with it first: in fact, no such material was found. Some minuscule paint chips handed in by the public almost six years after the event and tested by a, shall we say, less-than-independent group of scientists were found to include traces that reminded the researchers themselves of nanothermite thought to have been produced at the Livermore Labs and elsewhere. So, no real evidence that the stuff was there. What we do have in fact is some pretty strong evidence that it wasn’t: seismographs that didn’t register the explosions claimed by Gage immediately prior to the buildings collapsing, and the rather elementary observation that the several tonnes of highly explosive powder that supposedly laced the buildings weren’t set off in the massive fires that followed the plane hits.

What about the fact that the buildings crumbled the way that they did? Again, I can think of steel-reinforced buildings that collapsed upon their footprint in a matter of seconds no later than last April. Should it make us conclude that the earthquake at L’Aquila was a massive insurance fraud perpetrated with high-tech explosives? Hardly. But to the extent that I’m willing to give Gage some due, it is this: if in fact the Twin Towers weren’t supposed to come down in that manner, not even after a plane hit them - just like the building at Via Campo di Fossa 6 b in L’Aquila that the Italian authorities are investigating wasn’t supposed to implode during an earthquake of that magnitude - and there are deficiencies in the design and responsibilities that the official reports haven’t adequately pursued, it sounds just like the thing that a concerned group of architects and engineers might want to publicly address.

But clearly this is not the case here. While earlier that day Gage had done his level best to engage Kim Hill in a radio interview on the 'evidence' alone, claiming ‘we don’t speculate, we’re technical building professionals,’ most of his presentation consisted in fact of a broad range of wild speculations. And the pieces of evidence thus accumulated - in a process of painstaking selection to suit the hypothesis that would be familiar to anybody who’s read Foucault’s Pendulum - collectively implicate in the conspiracy and the subsequent cover-up the following organizations (at my own and likely very incomplete count): the CIA, the Pentagon, the United States Government, all major media as far afield as the BBC, the owner and insurer of the WTC, ACE elevators and the security company responsible for monitoring the coming and goings at the buildings, plus - in an accessory capacity - the boards of the major banks, military contractors, oil firms and really anybody who stood to make money and gain influence from the economic destabilisation that occurred and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There’s a question here that I don’t hear enough from the debunkers, who in the main tend to engage the Truthers, as I just have, on their so-called evidence. And the question is: why? Why would the conspirators bother to demolish the three buildings - thereby multiplying exponentially the number of co-conspirators, and the chances of getting caught - instead of just leaving them ravaged and unsalvageable, to be finished off by the municipality at a later stage? Or, if they felt that they had to in order to perfect their shock and awe design, why demolish them in a controlled manner? Why not plant explosives designed to make them fall more like a structural engineer would expect them to, slowly and ungracefully, not to mention no doubt more destructively?

To understand what might be going on here, and get to the part where I describe the effect that Gage’s presentation had on me, I have to reproduce the image below, and engage in a questionable act of manipulation of my own. If you saw this photograph in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, you're unlikely to have forgotten it, even though it was subsequently banished from the media in America and overseas under circumstances explored by Tom Junod in a remarkable piece for The Esquire and then by Henry Singer in his documentary The Falling Man

Image by Richard Drew.
What is it that is so arresting about this photograph, what does it capture that we didn't already know, that we couldn't process solely through the horrific reports that some of the victims - believed to be as many as two hundred - were driven to jump off the towers? I think it is its impossibly orderly, self-contained narrative, that cries against the furious anguish of that moment, producing a dissonance that is both aesthetic and affective: we see beauty where we cannot bear to see it, defiance where there was none. For the image isn't real. Writes Junod:
Photographs lie. Even great photographs. Especially great photographs. The Falling Man in Richard Drew's picture fell in the manner suggested by the photograph for only a fraction of a second, and then kept falling. The photograph functioned as a study of doomed verticality, a fantasia of straight lines, with a human being slivered at the center, like a spike. In truth, however, the Falling Man fell with neither the precision of an arrow nor the grace of an Olympic diver. He fell like everyone else, like all the other jumpers -- trying to hold on to the life he was leaving, which is to say that he fell desperately, inelegantly. In Drew's famous photograph, his humanity is in accord with the lines of the buildings. In the rest of the sequence -- the eleven outtakes -- his humanity stands apart. He is not augmented by aesthetics; he is merely human, and his humanity, startled and in some cases horizontal, obliterates everything else in the frame.

This is the breakdown of the Baudrillardian hyperreality: where a society develops instruments of representation that are just too powerful, and in that excess, in that surplus capacity for knowledge and understanding, finds itself unable to formulate definitive statements about the real.

Naomi Mandel has called the Holocaust ‘the most thoroughly documented atrocity in human history’, but the extent of this documentation hasn’t thwarted the Deniers, and neither has the picture-perfect record of that September morning of eight years ago prevented the Truthers from exercising their right to construct their own reality - a reality that the vast majority of the people in the room at Te Papa found compelling enough to say yes, this is what actually happened. For there is always an interstice, a space of dissonance, like the unbearably graceful pose of the man in freefall, or the far too orderly manner in which the buildings came down: just like in a controlled demolition, as if it had been staged.

That is the area - is it even gray? - occupied by the Truthers. And here I am, engaging with it, dissecting it, but I can tell you that my reaction on the day was of revulsion, and to be perfectly honest I left the museum quite shaken. There was a point, perhaps halfway through the talk, when Gage’s arguments ceased to be just grotesque and stupid, and struck me as something altogether darker. Weren’t they after all human remains, fragments of bone propelled onto the roofs of buildings several hundred meters away, which he was talking about with scarcely concealed glee, adding them to the ledger of his ‘incontrovertible truths’?

The activism of the Truthers is supposed to be motivated by a sense of justice denied, a monstrous crime gone unpunished, but there was no compassion in Gage’s voice and gestures. I compared it in my head to Marco Paolini’s impassioned ‘civil oration’ dedicated to the victims of the Vajont Dam tragedy, another crime with a similar human toll but far more mundane causes - incompetence and greed. Paolini’s too is an indictment, it too relies on data and numbers and argumentation, but it is also capable of conveying pity and a profound sense of human pain and loss. In his harrowing reconstruction of those final moments, in the tearful description of the wall of wind that preceded the arrival of the water, tearing the clothes off the people madly attempting to flee, is the naked commitment of the chronicler who undertakes to tell the whole story and be a servant to memory.

At quite the opposite pole stands Richard Gage, in whom I saw another Friedrich Sieburg: a technician who taught himself to ignore anyone’s truth but his own, another pseudo-historian with an agenda. I have no doubt that if he had come to New Zealand to argue that the Holocaust never happened, the doors of our national museum would have remained firmly shut. But are the Truthers all that different? Isn’t theirs too in fact a logic of hatred - for what else but hatred can lead to such dazzling incomprehension? If I am right - and even as I write these last few lines I struggle to make my mind up conclusively on this - then it would explain how I felt on the day that sense of being party to something so insidious, dangerous and wrong. And if you agree, perhaps you’ll join me in letting the museum know how you feel.

Tom Junod. 'The Falling Man'. The Esquire, September 2003.
Naomi Mandel, ‘Rethinking ‘‘After Auschwitz’’: Against a Rhetoric of the Unspeakable in Holocaust Writing.’ In
boundary 2 (2001), pp. 203-228. The quotation in the post is from page 205.
The Falling Man (dir. Henry Singer, USA 2006).

With thanks to Matthew Dentith who helped me confirm some of the details of the presentation.

To lodge a complaint with Te Papa about this event, you can email events manager Mere Boynton or write to her at

Te Papa Tongarewa
PO Box 467

Monday, November 16, 2009


I'm not nearly as pessimistic as you seem to be. I reckon we'll continue generating fresh content for millennia to come. Ideas are plentiful, and new combinations thereof even more so. Leave them alone, and they will come home, wagging their footnotes behind them.

Jolisa Gracewood

Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research.

Wilson Mizner

The French poet and critic Pierre Menard (d. 1939) has left us a small and largely unremarkable body of works, save for one that is of peculiar but enduring interest - a contemporary critic called it in fact ‘perhaps the most significant writing of our time’: his fragments from Don Quixote. In this undertaking, Menard set out not to update or revise Cervantes’ source, that is to say write a contemporary Quixote, but rather compose the Quixote itself, and not simply by copying it, either, but rather by producing a number of pages which coincided word for word and line for line with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

Initially, Menard's method was to be relatively simple: Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or the Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 onwards - in other words be Miguel de Cervantes, but he discarded it as too easy. Being somehow Cervantes and arriving thereby at the Quixote: that looked to Menard less challenging (and therefore less interesting) than continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.

The result, while verbally identical to the Cervantes text, is almost infinitely richer. Cervantes, for instance, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):
...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.
Written in the seventeenth century by the “ingenious layman” Miguel de Cervantes, this strikes us as a merely rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes the following:
...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.
History, the mother of truth: the idea is exceptional. Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as a delving into reality but as the very foundation of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not “what happened”; it is what we believe happened. The final phrases - exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor - are brazenly pragmatic, and yet so richly suggestive for those who seek to understand what came after, the postmodern and our most troubled dealings with history and the past.

But Menard’s example says a thing or two about authorship, as well. The news media and a fair chunk of the blogosphere in New Zealand have been preoccupied over the last ten days or so by the discovery by Jolisa Gracewood of a number of unacknowledged quotations from various sources in Witi Ihimaera’s latest novel, The Trowenna Sea. When put in front of the list of correspondences found by Dr. Gracewood, Ihimaera swiftly apologised and volunteered to submit himself to arbitration with his employer, the University of Auckland. Yet he was adamant in his contention to the New Zealand Listener that he hadn’t committed plagiarism, but merely a series of ‘oversights’, and the University quickly reached the same conclusion, as did his publisher. We look forward to the second edition - which will no doubt rectify these lapses - and move on, for there is nothing to see here.

Or is there?

The discussion at Public Address following Jolisa’s two successive blog posts on the subject (here and here) was decidedly and in some respects surprisingly lively, as were the interjections of some who wished to reflect more broadly on contemporary notions of authorship and originality across different media. More particularly, David Cauchi made a case for painting and Philip Matthews another for film, inviting the rest of the commenters to ponder the following question: are the domains of literature, criticism and journalism clinging to antiquated notions of what constitutes creativity, and how originality should be measured and understood?

Consider what my alma mater has to say on the subject of plagiarism:
Plagiarism undermines academic integrity simply because it is a form of lying, stealing and mistreating others. Plagiarism involves stealing other people’s intellectual property and lying about whose work it is. This is why plagiarism is prohibited at Victoria.
Intellectual property, that is to say the private ownership of words and ideas: it doesn’t sound like the kind of relationship with knowledge that a place of higher learning ought to foster, does it? Besides, how do you even steal words, or ideas? They are hardly gone after you have taken them. How about ‘lying about whose work it is,’ then? Perhaps that’s the crux of the matter. Producing knowledge requires an effort, is work. If anybody could simply claim the credit for the work of anybody else then the knowledge industry - which is regulated by market relations that monetise this credit in various ways - would cease to function. But surely the social good lies in the knowledge itself, not in its attribution, and besides the example of the anonymous authors of so much oral poetry, traditional music and contemporary street art, it is quite possible to imagine a utopian socialist knowledge industry where ideas circulate freely, thus facilitating and accelerating the production of more knowledge.

Because in truth, how can you locate the point of origin of an idea or a certain sequence of words except in the culture itself? Roland Barthes, circa 1968, in 'The Death of the Author':
The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. […] [T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.
The following year, Michel Foucault began his essay 'What is an author?' by posing a question originally formulated by Samuel Beckett: 'What does it matter who is speaking?' to which Barthes had replied in advance:
writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

Now I don't want to reduce these two essays and their peculiar conversation to a couple of easy-to-digest snippets, nor ignore the specific historical and cultural conditions in which they were produced, at a time when what Foucault dubbed 'the-man-and-his-work-criticism' held full sway. But one could legitimately ask: if an understanding of intertextuality and the ideas of the death of the author and the author-function have been around for so long, why haven't they changed the way the publishing industry operates, or forced a rethinking of what constitutes plagiarism in publishing and academia? Is it simply a case of those critics and those ideas having been cast aside?

I would say yes, and no. On the one hand, yes, the publishing industry has changed its ways not a jot, nor did Barthes or Foucault themselves to my knowledge ever renounce their name on the cover or the customary protections and moral rights afforded to a published author. Ditto Ihimaera. Hell, even Bansky has claimed these, albeit 'against his better judgment'. But I think more profoundly the idea that authorship and its integrity matter has proved equally as resilient. Pierre Menard himself tell us that we can’t quite dispense completely with it - even as he goes about turning it upside down - by showing how differently we would have to read Don Quixote if we knew it to have been written by a 20th century Frenchman as opposed to a 17th century Spaniard.

Of course, you say? Well, yes. But consider how electronic writing and the Internet were meant to change all this, further unsettling traditional ideas concerning just who it is who does the writing and possibly killing the author all over again by circulating near-infinite variations on a near-infinite number of texts without a discernible point of origin, or a shred of attribution. This remains a source of anxiety, but I would argue it really hasn't happened yet. If anything, people who write on the Web have developed a whole new and highly sophisticated sensitivity towards issues of textual attribution and historicity. I've touched in the past by way of example upon the edit history of Wikipedia entries, which shows an attention to intricate philological issues on the part of a writing community that consists largely - and I mean this in the most non-derogatory way possible - of amateurs.

The vast majority of bloggers are also very careful to credit their sources, and the manner in which they do so is interesting, for the hyperlinks provided often point to the pages where each discovery took place. It’s only by means of further jumps, following an Ariadne’s thread of sorts, that one is likely to get to the source proper, the location where that particular text came to be. Or not, of course, there’s always the possibility that one or more of the pages might have expired by then, but that for once doesn’t matter: it’s in that pattern of connections, however provisional and unstable, that one can glimpse a new way of mapping the space where authorship and readership come to coexist.

I want to talk about this again, and to discuss what the author-function of a blogger, amongst others, might be. I suspect we’ll find it is highly plastic and I’ll go as far as to reserve a word to describe this, authoriety, an empty and extremely-unlikely-to-be-of-any-use-to-anybody term that perhaps some of you might help me fill - I have but vaguest of ideas at present, save for the fact that I think it would be an interesting question to explore.

But in the meantime, what of Ihimaera’s indiscretions? Would it even matter that he neglected to credit those sources, were it not for the legal framework within which the publishing industry operates, or the possibly antiquated notions of originality and individuality that we choose to entertain in this particular medium? I think that even under those conditions it does, it would. For crediting a source, the site where some particular words came together in the way that they did, means also preserving a trace of the text’s place within the culture that produced it, of its genealogy.

Consider a remote and fanciful future where Menard’s Quixote survived while Cervantes’ didn’t, and furthermore there was no knowledge that the earlier of the two books had even been written. This is the kind of loss - of metadata, of history, of memory - that you would be measuring every day.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, tr. Andrew Hurley. In Collected Fictions (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 88-95. I hardly need to point out that the contents of the post until the cover of Ihimaera’s novel are heavily plagiar… oh shut up it’s a mash up, okay? Anyhow, it’s all from Borges’ story, and it’s only seven pages long, so it’s not hard to figure out which words are mine and which are his (the good ones are his). Go read it. The young man in the picture at the top is JLB in 1921. He wrote Pierre Menard in 1939.

Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, tr. Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday, 1977), pp. 142-148. The text is available online here.

Michel Foucault, ‘What is An Author?’, tr. Josué V. Harari. In The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 101-120). Both quotations in the post are from p. 101.

Jolisa Gracewood, ‘Keeping It Real’, in The New Zealand Listener of November 14-20, 2009, pp. 18-19.

Guy Somerset, ‘The Incredible Likeness of Being’, in The New Zealand Listener of November 14-20, 2009, pp. 15-19.

Service announcement: I have uploaded on YouTube a video of the ending of The Truce covered in last week's post, followed by the lines that were left out in the film. But more importantly, you really should read the poem that Harvest Bird contributed last night.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Canto of Ulysses

When I hear people talk about virtual reality I sometimes cast my mind back to a Friday night in the winter of 1997 and a train trip from Vicenza to Milan. I was alone in the carriage, reading Primo Levi's If This Is a Man, and by the time we arrived at destination I must have been nearly in a trance because when I raised my eyes from the book it truly felt like I had been brought back from somewhere else. Not from Levi's prison camp, let me be clear - there is no representation that could approximate that experience, and it would be obscene of me to claim otherwise - but from a place other than that train carriage at that time, somewhere in between; a place of sadness and consternation, of suffocating moral pain. Nothing before or since, including my earlier readings of the book, has had quite the same effect, or has transported me as far.

Levi died a likely self-inflicted death on April 11th, 1987. The biographical notes appended to the 1989 Einaudi edition of If This Is a Man abstain from making that determination, stating tersely that he 'died in his home in Turin'. The mere hypothesis of such an epitaph must have seemed so desperately far-fetched to him when he began scribbling the first passages of his account on clandestine bits of paper during his imprisonment at the satellite Auschwitz camp of Monowitz. No sooner did he write those notes that he had to destroy them, for their confiscation would have meant an accusation of espionage and certain death: 'I write what I would not dare tell anyone' (p. 146). And in those words written, then destroyed, but still committed to memory one can find the kernel of the moral imperative that helped sustain him: you must remember, bear witness and make others remember that which they have not experienced.

I say that it was a form of sustenance but in the end, Levi is careful to tell us, his survival was due to a series of fortuitous events, the last of which was his falling ill with scarlet fever on the eve of the forced evacuation of Monowitz and the death march that killed so many of his remaining fellow prisoners. Earlier, he had been chosen due to his professional background to work in a kommando attached to a chemical laboratory of the Buna factory served by the Camp, and the relatively less brutal conditions were also instrumental in enabling him to survive during the final winter of the war.

It is in the early days of this assignment that takes place the chapter in the book known as The Canto of Ulysses, in which Levi is chosen by Jean, the kommando's pikolo (the kapo's assistant), to accompany him to fetch the daily ration of soup. Carrying the pot was tiring but the task involved first of all an unencumbered walk to the kitchens that could be made to last up to an hour and thus constituted a rare and precious moment of rest. During the walk Jean, already fluent in German and French, expresses his desire to learn Italian some day, to which Primo responds - for there might not be another day - with a crash course based on a recitation from memory of the twenty-sixth canto of Dante's Inferno.

…The canto of Ulysses. Who knows how or why it comes into my mind. but we have no time to change, this hour is already less than an hour. If Jean is intelligent he will understand. He will understand – today I feel capable of so much. […] Jean pays great attention and I begin, slowly and accurately:

'Then of that age-old fire the loftier horn

Began to mutter and move, as a wavering flame

Wrestles against the wind and is over-worn;

And, like a speaking tongue vibrant to frame
Language, the tip of it flickering to and fro

Threw out a voice and answered: "When I came…"'
(p. 118)

The following three pages must rate amongst the highest in any literature, and are very dear to me. They are pages filled with surprise and wonder at finding the words of a dead poet so relevant, the plight and punishment of Ulysses so pertinent to his present situation, that fate ‘that pleased Another’ so close to his and theirs. Even more significantly, for a few moments Levi succeeds, in conversation with another, in rescuing culture from the shipwreck of history and in filling that space with memory and meaning, which had been designed to destroy them. The second half of the chapter takes you there, on that walk, its rhythms matching Levi’s growing anxiety to reach the end of the canto and its essential revelations before he and Jean make it to the kitchen. (Or is it in fact the kitchen that draws inexorably closer to them?)
I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this ‘as pleased Another’ before it is too late. Tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today… (p. 121)

But there is no more time for explanations or interpretations, no time except to hurry and get to that last line just in time to reach the soup queue and the ‘sordid, ragged crowd’ of carriers from the other kommandos, in perfect unison with Ulysses and his crew as they plunge under the waves one last time: ‘And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.’ Auschwitz has burst into the conversation, and demands to have the final word.

William Blake, Ulysses and Diomedes in Hell

It is heart-rending to speculate on the circumstances of Levi’s death, on whether that same sea closed up over his head four decades later, claiming him as another victim (as Ferdinando Camon and Elie Wiesel put it), another one of the drowned. His dear friend Natalia Ginzburg phrased it most pithily of all: 'L’ha ucciso il ricordo', it was remembering that killed him, perhaps the same duty to memory that helped to sustain him in his daily struggle at Monowitz. Others suggested at the time that it had been just the opposite, that it was the work of the deniers and the threat it posed to the fundamental integrity of that memory. I suspect Levi himself might counter that it doesn’t matter, in the end, that survival had never been a question of moral fibre, and that his own death wouldn’t count as a defeat. Surely having absolved the obligation to write - that ‘atrocious privilege’ - and the manner in which he did it, afforded him the right to make one final choice, as a free man, neither prisoner nor victim.

Either way, of the pain that he carried very few of us can speak. But where does that leave our obligation, our duty to memory? Besides the many ways of unbecoming, besides the national amnesties and the sanitised corporate histories, besides the vile work of the deniers - that justly commands our condemnation - I worry about the small gestures, the minute revisions, the seemingly insignificant omissions which yet mean that our rememberance is being diluted, that we are gradually blurring its contours and washing out the atrocities, the complicities, the ambiguities. It can happen so subtly, just by losing an accent, leaving out a scene. Or a few lines of poetry.

My friend Giacomo Lichtner reminded me last week of the epilogue of Francesco Rosi’s 1997 film adaptation of The Truce (La tregua), the book that documents Levi’s arduous nine-month journey back to Italy after the liberation of Monowitz. Here Levi, played by John Turturro, returns to his apartment in Turin and sits down facing the camera to recite the titular poem of his earlier memoir, reproduced here in Stuart Woolf’s translation (I've uploaded the film segment here, and you can listen to the poem in Italian here):

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.

Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,

Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.

Except in the film the poem is truncated, leaving out that curse and blunting the sheer force of that challenge to us: remember this, or else your families will crumble and your society will cease to exist. It is a singular indignity, for a man who had once staked his whole being on his capacity to get to the end of somebody else’s poetry, and would have given his lunch, his daily sustenance, in exchange for some of the missing lines he had forgotten. And all this for what? To end a film perhaps half a minute sooner, and on a less uncomfortable note.

Primo Levi. If This Is a Man and The Truce, tr. by Stuart Woolf. London: Abacus, 1987.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Reshaping the Invisible

'Success and guilt are inseparable. Men of action cannot achieve great things without shadows falling across their path.' Thus the very first line of Reshaping the Invisible, a book published by the Board of Management of Farbenfabriken Bayer AG of Leverkusen, Germany, on the occasion of the centenary of the firm on 1st August 1963, and from such an explosive start one might expect the rest of the text to grapple with or account for that darkness. This is after all a company that had been part of the industrial arm of the Nazi machine - the IG Farben conglomerate, makers of Zyklon B - and whose board had seen fit in 1955 to appoint as chairman Fritz ter Meer, a former executive who had just finished serving a seven year sentence handed down to him at Nuremberg for his involvement in the planning of the Monowitz camp - where Primo Levi, amongst countless others, had been imprisoned.

Ter Meer had in fact just retired from the post the year before, at the ripe old age of 77. Surely the time had come at such a symbolic juncture for his leadership and the company’s involvement in the Nazi war machine to be acknowledged, but the book does nothing of the sort. Here is in fact the remainder of that opening paragraph:
No one can help his neighbour without lessening the love he owes to another person. But from time immemorial it has been thought sinful to be happy. Our conscience will both spur us and check us. We hear its voice in our greatest moments, when we are about to interfere not only with moral laws but also with the order of nature to make our life easier and happier.

A most grotesque pivot, to be sure. The shadows evoked here by the author - journalist and historian Friedrich Sieburg - have got nothing to do with the role of the industrial concern in medical experiments, extermination or warfare. They are moral shadows of a higher order: the twinge that the conscience feels when the natural order of things is interfered with; a sense of Promethean hubris that grips the scientist, guilty, if he’s guilty of anything, of daring, of loving too much.

Liberation through chemical research: that is the stated business of Bayer AG. If there is any history in play, it’s condensed in that stupendously elliptical phrase. We owe whatever freedom, equality and prosperity we enjoy to the merchants of technoscience, and tragically misguided were the French revolutionaries who arrested Count Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and guillotined him on the same day, when all he asked was to be allowed to complete the experiment he was working on when the commissaries showed up at his door. In Sieburg’s story, Lavoisier is the father figure, the man who before any other understood how to reshape the invisible, that is to say comprehend the nature of matter and how substances can be transformed into other substances, thus unlocking the earth’s ‘inexhaustible riches’ for the benefit of humankind.

There is no other history that matters to the historian Sieburg, no narrative that is allowed to interfere with the linear advance of science and research, measured in the ever-increasing number and usefulness of new products deriving from chemical research, except insofar as a condensed account of the birth of the chemical industry will inevitably intersect with that of the modern nation state. Here Sieburg lets slip an interesting observation on what constitutes the inherent nature not of gases and minerals, but of peoples and cultures:
It is difficult to explain why Germany should have come to the fore in this manner as a leading country in the field of chemistry. Economic reasons alone or a coincidence of calculable and rational factors would not supply a full explanation. The great strides made by some nations in the process of Reshaping the Invisible are partly due to a certain dynamic element that cannot be accurately forecast and which is not governed by reason or by coincidence and which must be regarded as manifestation of that nation’s inherent quality.

If one adds this inherent capacity of the German people to the previous observation that it is not chemistry that must be directed to the fulfilment of human needs, but rather man (sic) that must 'prove himself worthy of the countless means made available to him by chemical research and by chemical industry to fulfil his destiny', Sieburg comes mighty close here to rehashing the Master Race argument, but one must read the book to fully appreciate its utter and consuming lack of self-awareness.

Bayer’s self-penned history is not revisionist, nor does it fall under the rubric of unbecoming: for there is nothing here that is being denied, or rewritten, or obfuscated. There is in fact no mention of the words national socialism or Hitler or Zyklon B or Auschwitz in the whole text - not even in the year-by-year timeline, which in the lead up to the war makes for distressing reading: 1934, Bayer sets up a dental department; 1935, Bayer releases the first therapeutically effective sulpha drug; 1937, Bayer receives an international prize for the synthetic rubber Buna (later to be manufactured at the Monowitz camp); 1938, Bayer produces 350,000 tons of sulphuric acid. It is a seamless transition, and pride in achievement and industry continues unabated. Here’s the entry for 1933:

The Bayer Cross is erected in an elevated position above the Leverkusen works and is lit up on the 20th of February as the largest freely suspended and luminous advertisement of its with time with a diameter of 70 m. It is switched off in 1939 and later taken down. In 1958 it is replaced by a modern lighting arrangement of 51 m in diameter.

But why, what had happened in 1939? The only clue is in the entry for 1945, which contains the one and only mention in the book of the word war (whereas the entries between 1940 and 1944 - believe it or not - enumerated yet more discoveries, including pioneering advances in colour cinematography). Here we also find the only image in any way related to the conflict.

IG Farbenindustrie Aktiengesellschft are seized and dissolved by the Allied Control Council. The works at Leverkusen, Elberfeld, Dormagen and Uerdingen are placed under US control, later under British control. On 11th May 1945 the Military Government issue the first Permit No. 1 RWA for resumption of certain production activities. The Leverkusen sales organisation is built up. Reconstruction of war-damaged sites is initiated. Production in those plants that have either remained intact or have been reconstructed is gradually resumed provided raw materials can be procured. The number of employees which had been 29,563 when the war begun had gone down to less than 3,000.

That is it. The one moment when the author allows for all that history to creep into the account of the life of Bayer reads like the minutes of a board meeting ratifying a change in the company’s organisational structure, mixed with a victim’s report - and the victim is the corporation, whose factories are damaged, whose workforce is severely depleted (an arithmetic that fails to mention the fact that the company ran its own camp at Auschwitz, good for 83,000 slave labourers at its peak in 1944).

I am unsure of the boundary between the callous omission and the pathological excision in this account. ‘All that happens today belongs to the past tomorrow. But which of us engaged in shaping today’s events can judge what will pass into history?’ asks Sieburg, as if soliciting an absolution that cannot be given, and neither is truly, explicitly sought. What is left, when one expunges these statements symptomatic of a profoundly dysfunctional relationship with memory and history, is the lavishly illustrated, occasionally interesting chronicle of the birth of an industry. ‘It started with colour’, explains the author, with light, like the book of Genesis.

‘A rich palette of syntans, special dyes, high-quality leather lacquers and other auxiliaries are available for the leather industry.’

The synthesis of textile dyestuffs from coal tar is what paved the way for the chemical industry, and then of course came photography, its ‘most conspicuous and visible triumph’ and a source of enduring pride for Bayer thanks to the success of its Agfa plant in Leverkusen.

‘Critical eyes examine Agfacolor transparencies and negatives.’

I’m making a mental note to refer to this picture in a future discussion of Coppola’s The Conversation, for it is the correlative of Gene Hackman’s character emblematic failure to understand the content of the audio tape that he replays for us during much of the film. Here we have not one but six specialists hunched over a set of colour pictures, examining them with their ‘critical eyes’. But what are they looking for, what can they see? One doubts that they are making sense of those images the way an end user would, looking for familiar people or places and a socially constructed meaning. I rather think they are looking for other qualities: exactness, sharpness, uniformity and fidelity of the colours. And so does this peculiar and distressing history of Bayer appear to have been written by a technician intent at making certain observations, writing down numbers, weighing, assaying with methodical precision, who yet has trained himself to disregard (certain) human beings with their messy interrelated lives, their vastly greater networks of meanings, and has succeeded in making them truly invisible. Like that Doctor Pannwitz at the Buna factory, another Bayer employee of not so long before, who examined Primo Levi and declared him fit for a purpose. ‘That look,’ writes Levi, ‘was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the Third Reich.’

In the final analysis this book too, which explicitly doesn’t set out ‘to relate in full the history of the achievements of the house of Bayer’ but merely those of the previous one hundred years that seemed significant, is the product of that diseased ideology, which couldn’t process defeat or failed experiments, and had made it its mission to strip whole categories of people not solely of their lives but also of their meanings and their histories.

Addendum: Stephen has very kindly provided a translation of Friedrich Sieburg's German Wikipedia entry - you can find it here.

I wasn't able to work into the post the figure of the young female laboratory assistant evoked by Sieburg in his essay - I try to account for her in a side note to be found here.

For an account of the relationship between IG Farben (therefore Bayer) and the Nazi regime, I recommend Peter Hayes’ IG Farben in the Nazi era and this terrific post by John Ptak. The Levi quotation is from If This is a Man, pp. 111-112 of the 1979 Abacus edition translated by Stuart Woolf. There are no page numbers in the remainder of the post’s quotations because
Reshaping the Invisible is not paginated - make of that what you will. The bibliographical details are as follows.

Kramer, Hans O.R. (ed.).
Reshaping the Invisible. Text by Frierdrich Sieburg. Düsseldorf-Wien: Econ Verlag GmbH, 1963.