Monthly Archives: March 2016

Memory, Anger, Betrayal: A Museum Visit

Cunning Hired Knaves

Proclamation

We had spent a good hour waiting in the queue to get in. In front of us were three teenagers. A girl and two boys. I got the feeling by the way they spoke and the things they said that maybe they were friends from some school or group for people with special educational needs. The girl and one of the boys were a couple, and from time to time they would smooch. If the other boy felt uncomfortable, he was good at hiding it. If the couple felt he was disrupting their day out, they were good at hiding that too. `

Behind us was a couple in their sixties, with their grandson. They were white, he was mixed race, around 9 years of age. The grandson was wearing a green fedora -maybe belonging to his granddad- that would blow off in the wind onto the decorative gravel. He…

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Blade, Oedipus and the 1%

“There is no such thing as monsters.” The truth of this sentence resides within the capacity of the word ‘monster,’ to convey something inscrutable or ‘super evil,’ its raison d’etre is its unconveyability. There’s no such thing as vampires, zombies, werewolves as they always function as cultural diagnosis. The key to any film that makes use of monstrosity is that it is always-already pointing to something beyond the mere monstrosity. What vampirism in the first Blade film points to is the question that confronts us now.

Patton Oswalt has spoken on how he enjoys the representation of vampires in Blade – for him, it makes sense to envision vampires as participating in a very 90’s, eternally young, rave culture founded on exclusivity. This is an excellent point, well observed, but does miss the fact that the film’s primary antagonist, Deacon Frost, and the coterie of vampires who surround him are what seems to be a rather small subsection of the vampire community. The staid, less fun-loving members of the vampire council admonish Frost for his reckless business practices; in gathering large numbers of vampires together, he makes them an easy target for the vampire hunter Blade, who dispatches roughly nineteen of them at a rave in the film’s opening sequence.

In the ‘lousy dean’ role the vampire council are forced to adopt in the face of Frost’s nightclub antics, and at a number of key points they make during their meeting, we begin to approach Blade’s thesis on vampirism. In the film, vampires symbolise behind-the-scenes string-pullers, a Bilderberg group. As Whistler, Blade’s weapons guy/father figure explains to N’Bushe Wright’s character, Karen Jenson, “They own the police…they’re everywhere.” In contemporary parlance, they are the 1%. When Frost presents his Darwinist theories of vampires’ cultural superiority, (“We should be ruling the humans…for fuck’s sake these people are our food.”) the vampire council remain unresponsive and more pressing matters on that meeting’s agenda, such as “the matter of our off-shore accounts” come up before Frost has even left the room. This analogy established between vampires and the super-wealthy is among the more successful elements of the film and should be viewed in conjunction with its familial psychodrama, which I will return to.

First though, it is necessary to return to Frost. Frost’s subject position relative to the vampire council is made clear in the earlier scene where he is told off by them, but one or two members of the council seem positively bashful when doing so; Frost bullies the elder Dragonetti – his failure to nip Frost’s rebellion in its bud is both mystifying and difficult to not relate to the homoerotic overtones in the exchange between the two in the archives.

As Frost’s sacrifice of the elders demonstrates, Frost’s threat to the established vampire order lies in his capacity to set in motion a revolt of a younger generation, an underclass of ‘turned’ vampires in opposition to the ‘purebloods,’ who are born as such. Frost is insecure on this point – the only scene in which he sheds his disaffected coolness is when Jenson points out that rather than being part of a superior race, (hominis nocturna), he is just ‘infected’ with vampirism. In order to elucidate this further, we may need to turn our attention to what it is that Frost’s becoming the material incarnation of the vampire deity La Magra entails. As he says: “The blood tide’s coming and after tonight you people [humans] are fucking history. He’s a hurricane. An act of God. Anything he touches will instantly be turned.” This last line makes more sense in the context of an alternate ending to the film (its poor tests led to it being re-written) wherein Frost becomes a gelatinous blood-monster that swirls around the sacrificial ruin. One could envision Frost’s movement across the earth as a one-hundred foot tall blob monster touching every human as straightforward, but seeing as they replaced this scene with a swordfight, it would seem to confront Frost as more of a task.

In any case, what Frost is proposing in awakening La Magra is a disestablishment of the vampire hierarchy, a worldwide equalising in terms of class. Frost isn’t a selfless Marxist in this regard however. Frost’s response of “Sure we are,” to his second-in-command saying: “We’re gonna be Gods” demonstrates Frost’s belief that as the incarnation of La Magra, he would probably be at the head of the new power structure that he plans to inscribe.

Frost’s insurgency has implications for how we should understand Blade’s methodology as a vampire hunter. If Frost poses an existential threat to the established order – its more medieval sensibility in the European-located Blade II suggests that it may well have suffered a substantial blow at Frost’s hands, almost as if it has culturally regressed, if not technologically – is Blade’s representation analogous?

No. Frost may represent an existential threat to the vampires, but Blade does not. Blade targets Frost’s clubs because it is easier to murder ravers, whereas challenging the global world order, on which the vampires have a stranglehold, would be far more challenging. In this way we can cast Blade as having a code of practice that is as problematic and ineffective as Batman’s. Rather than dealing with the oligarchic billionaire industrialist class that are conceivably to blame for Gotham being crime-ridden, and lacking in job opportunities beyond becoming a hired thug for one of the many super-villains, he beats up said thugs, wallet-takers, etc. Rather than investing his money in better infrastructure, prison education programmes, Bruce Wayne spends money on increasingly sophisticated weaponry for his various bat vehicles. In the same way, Blade takes out young members of the vampire underclass, leaving elders such as Dragonetti to retain their positions as upholders of the status quo, ensuring wealth and power will continue to be concentrated in their hands. Blade’s ineffectuality in eradicating the vampire population may be attested to by the fact that he seems to have entered some sort of vampire folk tradition – vampires constantly seem surprised to be surprised that he really exists. If ‘the daywalker’ is at least half-rooted in the realm of myth, it’s difficult to take Blade seriously as the putative eradicator of the vampire race.

What is the cause of Blade’s lack of methodological sophistication? The explanation that is given for Blade’s actions brings us to the ‘daddy-mommy-me’ of the Freudian psychodrama. A vampire (who later turns out to be Frost) bit Blade’s pregnant mother, who dies (she returns later) while giving birth. Like Swamp Thing, Blade mourns for his supposedly lost humanity, which he doesn’t believe himself to have lost when he was born as a vampire-human hybrid, but during years spent sustaining himself in Chicago by sucking blood from the homeless. “I have spent my whole life looking for that thing that killed my mother,” he says, which in one way makes sense, but in another way, doesn’t. Blade’s kills, if executed balletically, are indiscriminate, and he’s hardly forensic in his detective work, such as it is. I don’t think he asks one vampire in the whole film where he was on a particular night in the late sixties.

Blade goes on to say that every time he kills a vampire he gets a piece of ‘that life back,’ by which I assume he means his lost life as a human, though I can’t be sure, the line seems nonsensical to me. Firstly because it is semantically obscure and secondly because Blade rejects Jenson’s offer of a cure, which will make him completely human. Rather than jumping at the chance to gain full humanity, he opts to stay in his unresolved hybrid state, proving I think, that he wouldn’t know what to do with his humanity, were he to get it. I don’t think that he is attempting to regain his humanity is a convincing explanation for Blade’s hunting, and a scene between Blade and his mother proves revealing in this sense; she has been re-animated as a vampire, and asks him if he has enjoyed hunting and killing as much as she has. In many ways he has become her perfect son. Whistler and Blade’s inability to contemplate the possibility that Blade’s mother is still alive further denigrates the extent of their know-how on vampirism at all, considering Jenson, within a week of finding out that vampires exist has engineered a super-weapon out of an anti-coagulant and cured (!) vampirism, yet still has the boys not take anything she says seriously.

The scene wherein Blade does kill his mother requires attention, of course. He does so with a bone that Jenson obtains, which I think places its phallic resonance under erasure, considering Jenson is herself on the way to become a conduit of subjectivation in Blade’s mother’s wake. This is particularly striking when the inscriptions of Blade’s mother and Jenson as ‘mommy’ involve misclassification and underestimation. In the case of the former, Blade’s mother has to be a woman in distress. She is captured in a frieze of peril, always bleeding and reaching out for her son, always in need of avenging, silently approving any and all acts of violence in her name when she is in fact just as capable and likely to hunt, kill as Blade himself. Jenson in turn, is to be claimed as a replacement for Blade’s now dead human mother, when she seems to be the most likely among herself, Blade and Whistler to put some sort of end to the vampire ‘virus,’ as she calls it. If she hadn’t removed Blade from his sarcophagus, he certainly would have been killed and, even after being drained of large amounts of blood, racks up a respectable body count.

The fact that Blade is returned to his full-strength/potency enough to defeat Frost and kill his mother after drinking Jansen’s blood, repudiating serum in favour of ‘the real thing’ instating the film’s nostalgic discourse surrounding organicism, (perhaps to be returned to) would seem to verify Blade’s capacity to escape the ‘daddy-mommy-me,’ but such emancipation is of course, impossible. First, breaking oneself out of any system still inaugurates it, one is conducting oneself relative to it whether one recognises that or not. Second, one should recall that the only reason Blade didn’t kill Jenson when Quinn bit her initially was that she reminded him of his mother, stretching her hand out in the final moments of the film’s first scene to Blade as a baby. The director, Norrington, makes this clear via flashback, but, this flashback wasn’t Blade’s memory. Blade was a newborn at the time of this shot, in the arms of medical professionals on the other side of the room. This flashback comes from outside Blade, so that his own motivations become clear to the audience, if not him. Blade concedes to Whistler that he should have killed her, but that he did not, but offers no explanation. Through Blade’s own lack of self-knowledge, the audience is made aware that it’s ‘daddy-mommy-me’ territory.

(Further, if we were to go extra-textual, Blade’s relationship with Nyssa in the Blade II suggests that his Oedipal attraction to vampires remains strong.)

In many ways, the father-figure of Whistler would seem to be an instinctive point of entry for any analysis along these lines. But I find these adoptive father relationships to be far less interesting. The familiar foil of reluctant father/son mutual gruffness, deeper concealed understanding paired with the scene at the climax of Blade II, wherein Whistler’s paternal instincts extend to hauling a comatose Blade into a convenient blood fountain, thereby avoiding the far more radical potential of having Blade suck his blood in the same way that Jansen volunteers herself. That would have been to go a step too far, presumably.

Anne Enright in conversation with Fintan O’Toole

Anne Enright in an extended, great conversation with Fintan O’Toole, giving interesting info on the structural aspects of her 2015 novel The Green Road, how it moved from a King Lear re-write to what it is and how she grappled with its geographical wide-rangingness. She does a couple of readings also, and they’re class.

http://www.podcastchart.com/podcasts/irish-arts-center-podcast/episodes/anne-enright-in-conversation-with-fintan-o-toole

Reading Lessons from Martin Heidegger

Trying to derive an aesthetic system or outlook from Martin Heidegger’s writings on art in Poetry, Language, Thought is an errand for fools; Heidegger explicitly rules out the idea that his hermeneutic philosophy, or at least, his philosophy which inclines itself towards hermeneutics, is concerned with aisthesis, or the apprehension of an artwork. Instead, he subsumes it within his wider philosophical task, to get to the nature of Being, note the capital B.

For Heidegger, Western philosophy has insufficiently grappled with ontology. René Descartes made a mistake in trying to determine what is, Heidegger thinks he should have thought a bit more about what is is. What exactly we mean by Being is complicated by the alienating processes of industrialisation, mercantilism and urbanisation, which have left us with an increasingly utilitarian sense of things in the world. Instead of enquiring into the nature of what something is, we define it relative to its use-value. Heidegger writes that art is also part of this wider enquiry into Being, that this is the primary function of ‘poets’ – which I decide to extend as a catch-all term for artists in a more general sense – to do exactly what it is that Heidegger is doing, and reach a more nuanced definition of Being. This might seem like a self-involved or solipsistic manoeuvrer, but if you came from a national literary tradition as philosophically inclined as Heidegger (Rilke, Goethe) you might well agree with him.

So how would one read a text in a Heideggerian way? Well, Heidegger was always more interested in the posing of further questions than in proposing resolutions. There’s very little in Poetry, Language, Thought that one could hope to derive a positive methodology from, unless saying something like ‘The answer to this has six primary components,’ and providing a long digression on said components is your notion of pragmatism. Interestingly, one of his students, more invested in heremeneutic philosophy as an autonomous branch of philosophical enquiry, Hans Georg-Gadamer, is similarly anti-systematic, perceiving the work of art as something that makes you subject to its meaning-makings. In this schema, the process of interpretation is something that leaves the putative reader behind, meaning overtakes your agency as it establishes itself. Which I think could be productively linked with the writings of Heidegger which attempt to justify National Socialism. Digression for another time.

Rather than describe how the work of art works on us, Heidegger divvies it up into increasingly thin components, the allegory of the form/content binary, within which there is the form-matter, which is distinct in itself, the process of ‘worlding’ that a work of art inaugurates, ‘the earth’ on which the work dwells and many, many other features which contemporary literary critics would probably understand, rightly or wrongly, as relating to a work’s context.

There is a tendency in the wake of Jacques Derrida, particularly when he seemed to be such an attentive reader of these philosophers supposedly foundational to post-structuralism, such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, that within these philosopher’s works are the germs of Derrida’s system of thought. Therefore Heidegger’s insistence on the context being made up of these manifold sections, interdependently and intricately linked, may create a sense that this structure is about to be deconstructed, and lapse into its own angst. In fact, Heidegger is very clear that these sections retain their formal integrity, each may be articulated relative to and within the other, as is the case in Derrida’s re-formulation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s differential networks of meaning, but within this mutual articulation, they remain solid. This comes across in a very interesting passage that describes the process of building a bridge:

“It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge lies across the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge…With the banks, the bridge belongs to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape around the stream.”

By coming to an understanding of what is outlined in this perhaps wilfully obtuse paragraph, Heidegger hopes that we may come to an understanding of art which will provide a place of dwelling rather than merely a refuge, a place that we can authentically ‘live’ within, rather than merely taking refuge. Hear, hear, I say, probably.

Ben Marcus Q & A

If you’ve never read Ben Marcus’ novel The Flame Alphabet, you may not be totally aware what words on a page are capable of doing. He gave a lecture/had a conversation about the reductiveness of the label ‘experimental’ and how his self-imposed limitations play a role in his writing.

An Evening With Will Self reading ‘Shark’

The link below is a podcast of an extended reading Will Self did live in the London Review of Books Bookshop of his nu-modernist novel ‘Shark.’ Some interesting a’s given to the q’s afterwards, but it’s all about the prose, really.

 

Political Context to the Queen’s Theatre Visualisation Project

Here’s another blog post I did in which I try to sum up some one hundred years of Irish history in 500 words. I mostly fail, I think the most telling part is when I stop to admit what I’ve been saying has little pertinence to the overall project, which can be found here. I also have a few inaccuracies and incorrectly used words, but I do slam de Valera, which is fun.

This blog post provides a historical context for the Queen’s Theatre by outlining Ireland’s political and economic situation in the first half of the twentieth century.Events such as the 1916 Rising and the ensuing Civil War cast a long shadow over Irish political discourse even today, as can be seen by the ongoing controversy as to how best to celebrate the 1916 Rising, or whether such an event should even be celebrated.

In 1914, the failures of constitutional parliamentarians such as John Redmond to both secure a definite deal on Home Rule with the British government and assuage the anxieties of Unionists in the North of Ireland led to a situation that more fringe minorities could take advantage of, as is demonstrated by the formation of both the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteer Force. In this environment, the Irish Republican Brotherhood became increasingly radicalised, as exemplified by Patrick Pearse’s inflammatory rhetoric at Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral in 1915: “Life springs from death, and from the graves of patriotic men and women spring living nations.” A minority were determined to take advantage of the timing of the Great War. Others within the IRB, such as IRB’s chief-of-staff Eoin MacNeill, were reluctant to adopt violence as a means to independence : “To my mind, those who feel impelled towards military action on any of the grounds that I have stated are really impelled by a sense of feebleness or dependency or fatalism, or byan instinct of satisfying their own emotions or escaping from a difficult…situation.”

Reactions to the Rising were multiple and varied. Many urban dwellers seized the opportunity in the immediate aftermath to loot a number of shops in the surrounding area. For some members of a younger generation, such as then-medical student and later IRA officer Ernie O’Malley, the occasion was stirring and brought about an increase in Volunteers. It was not until subsequent events relating to the Rising that public opinion began to soften with regards to the actions of the Volunteers. Among these events were J.C. Power-Colthurst’s shooting of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington  during the events of the Rising, the excessive measures of the British government against those responsible (fifteen executions) and Dublin Castle’s attempts to pin responsibility for the outbreak of violence on moderate parliamentarians.

In the Irish Free State created in the aftermath of the civil war, the maintenance of income from agriculture was regarded as crucial to further prosperity. An economic policy of protectionism was adopted, albeit an incoherent one. Tariffs on imported goods were established but with no attempt made to create a domestic industry of production. This policy, combined with a lack of funding for the development of  employment schemes, led to widespread emigration. De Valera’s vision for rural Ireland as being made up of self-sustaining, frugal and anti-materialist family units ignored the metropolitan and anglicised lifestyle in urban centres such as Dublin, where 21.1% were employed in finance, 12% in administration, 13.7% personal services and 32.2% in agricultural production. Economic growth remained sluggish throughout ‘the Emergency,’ for the obvious reasons.

How the Queen’s theatre fits into a survey of Irish history of this kind can be difficult to quantify. Pearse’s uncompromising vision of an independent Ireland and ideologically driven economic mismanagement can seem to have little bearing on the function of the Queen’s Theatre as a venue for light entertainment. However, what is important to recall is that the Queen’s remained a site of cultural practice throughout many generations, and during one of the most tumultuous periods in Irish history until it closed in 1966. It furthermore remained a Dublin landmark until 1969. When The Plough and the Stars (1926)  was staged in the Queen’s, its political contentiousness perhaps did not match that of the earlier productions in the Abbey when widows of victims of the Rising, including Hannah Sheehy Skeffington,  disrupted the performance, but it was in a city that within living memory had been the site of a divisive conflict. When the Abbey Theatre Company took up residence in the Queen’s, the Irish Free State was only twenty-nine years old. For projects like this Queen’s Theatre Visualisation Project, it is important that the space inhabited by the theatre-whether that space is physical or social-be reconstructed also.

Information on the history of the Abbey Theatre Company at the Queen’s can be found here.

Further Reading

Brown, Terence. Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2002. London: Harper Perennial, 2004. Print.

Foster, R.F. Modern Ireland 1600-1970.London: Penguin Books, 1989. Print.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. England: Vintage, 1994. Print.

Morash, Christopher. A History of Irish Theatre 1601-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.