Monday, December 08, 2014

Regarding the Pain of Others

Published in Miliva Street, December 6th, 2014

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The hunger that eats the soul

This is the raw interview that was subsequently edited and published in February of 2001
Cathrine Sneed was Special Assistant to Sheriff Michael Hennessey. She founded the San Francisco Jail’s Garden Project. At that time she had worked with prisoners for almost 20 years.

Fred Dodsworth: Why did you start the Garden Project?
Cathrine Sneed: I was a counselor here at the jail, after a couple of years doing legal services work with folks. I discovered the obvious, which is that people were here without educational or employment skills. We needed a way to help people to get those skills. The jail sits on all this land. I got sick and was suppose to die, I had a kidney disease the sometimes kills people and sometimes doesn’t. I got lucky. Sheriff Michael Hennessey felt sorry for me, so really because he thought I was going to kick the bucket and I thought I was going to kick the bucket. I was going to kick the bucket out here (in the garden).
So when I started the program I couldn’t walk, from the disease, so the prisoners would carry me out every day, I was like that for a couple of years. Then I started getting well, but as I started getting well, the prisoners were so into it. Everyday they were ready to go. They were ready to come out here. They didn’t have the right clothes on. They didn’t have jackets. But every day they were like, “Are we going? Are we going? Can we go? Can we go now?” No matter what, no matter the weather, no matter anything, they didn’t care. We didn’t have tools. They didn’t care. They were working the earth with their hands. They dug, they tore out brambles with their hands.
They were so into it. I was like, “Wow.” I’d never seen them into anything. Mostly they had a singular purpose – getting drugs or getting money or the combination. Nothing else, their kids, their families, nothing really phased them. That’s what I had generally seen. Then I learned most of the prisoners were addicts, they had a single purpose, getting drugs. When I saw them sort of get into being out here, I was like, “There’s something more going on here. This is reaching them.” At the risk of sounding like a real, cornball lame-o, it seemed to really be making a difference to them.
Then I started getting well, then I went into remission, then I got a scholarship to go to this school in England, Emerson College, the biodynamic farming school. Then I went to U.C. Santa Cruz’s organic farming course. Then I came back here to work and we decided we would grow a lot of food and give it away. So that’s what we’ve been doing. We also sell to restaurants, Chez Panisse, Black Cat all those guys. Last year we were growing so much stuff, we had enough to sell and enough to give away we were giving it away with the police department in the housing projects. We would set up, honest to god, these farmer’s market stands, these little tables with baskets. Then we would arrive with the police and the people were like, “What the heck is going on?” And we would be handing out the vegetables with the police and they were like, “huh?”, and finally they were like, “Thank you.”
It occurred to me as I saw people really, really into the food, needing the food, being there every time we came, wanting the food, it occurred to me, we’re in San Francisco and there are some seriously hungry people. So we decided to only give the food to people who really need it. So that’s what we’re doing. For instance in only 25 weeks – which is our growing season – with a limited amount of funding, a limited amount of equipment, we grew 9,600 pounds of cabbage which we gave away to a lot of old ladies, and a lot of families, and a lot of people. This year we’re going to ten times that, and that’s just the cabbage. We grow beets, 3000 pounds of potatoes, cool weather vegetables mainly.
In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve asked people, “What were you eating at the time of your arrest?” They say potato chips, hot dogs, McDonalds – with pride. And that’s it. That’s what’s available. That’s what’s sold in the mom and pop stores and it’s not fresh vegetables. “Vegetables? Oh, no… I don’t know how to cook them…” (Mumbling.) Now that we’re handing out fresh vegetables, this one group that we’re handing them out on 24th and Treat Street, Mrs. Alviar, this grandmother runs an after school program, she now has someone teaching, in Spanish, how to cook the vegetables.

Q: Is there a relationship between soil and heart?
A: I think there is. I think there’s a relationship between soil and god. What I see in the people that work here is that they never felt connected to anything. I feel like they get a connection through the soil, through the plants and vegetables that we’re growing to other people, to themselves. I hear them say being out here and their head clears, their heart clears and they can hear and notice that the sky is blue and turns colors. Stuff they’ve never noticed before. They hear the birds. I tell them to try and hear themselves, try and hear what god is trying to tell them. Because in our lives we don’t get a chance to hear what god is trying to tell us. Because we get into our lives, we’re not able to hear it. I think working in the garden you’re able to hear it. If it’s something as simple as grow vegetables, that’s a message that we have to get.

Q: What happens when they leave the garden? When they leave the jail?
A: Well the former prisoners are eligible to be employed here. All the people out in the garden right now are former prisoners.

Q: You don’t have any prisoners working today?
A: No, the prisoners just finished. These are all former prisoners and what they’re doing is a harvest.

Q: Are there any of god’s children out there that you’re not trying to save?
A: (Long silence and evasive answers about planting trees.)

Q: You’re not going to answer are you?
A: (In a quiet mumble.) I’m not trying to save them. The earth saves them. I don’t.

Q: I’ve got another hard question Cathrine.
A: Ok.

Q: Everyone out here is black. Let’s talk about that.
A: The ones that aren’t black are hiding. Really. There’s a Samoan and a Chinese person and they’re both hiding from the camera.

Q: Ok, then everyone out here, except for the Samoan guy and a Chinese guy who are hiding, is black. Let’s talk about that.
A: Don’t you want to wait until we’re in the jail, then we’ll see racism in action. Ok. Yes. (Angrily.) Let’s talk about racism in our society. Well, the thing is, I can’t. I can’t say the reason that everybody in jail here is here is because they’re black. Because I happen to know, having worked with these people for 20 years, yes they are black, yes they have committed crimes. However, I know, when you commit a crime, of course you have to take responsibility for what you’ve done. And I believe in that. What I have a problem with is I know Hunters Point. I know that in Hunters Point, if we take just that one community, there is a limited opportunity for these young, or old, people to make a legal living. People survive. I’m a gardener. I’ve seen plants come up through the sidewalk. (Crying.) Ok, it’s the same thing with people. Living things do what they have to do to survive. These people have done what they’ve done, to survive. To survive they’ve sold drugs. That doesn’t make it right. It’s still wrong. But I know why they were selling drugs. I also know the effect of them selling and using drugs. It has decimated our communities all over this country. There aren’t a lot of opportunities in Hunters Point. If you never, ever… and you have to understand I have been doing this for 20 years. In 20 years I have met Americans, people who are American, who have never, ever seen a paycheck! (Yelling.) Understand. They didn’t know we pay taxes as Americans. How can that be? How can an American not know that! How can you be that removed from a society, to not know that? It’s because you’ve grown up for generations and there’s been no paycheck. There’s been welfare checks. There’s been social security checks. So how can you expect that individual to say, “Ok, I’m going to get a job.” He doesn’t know what job means. What this program does is, we teach them what work is, what jobs are, how to survive in this society. (A long silence.)
That’s one of the hardest conversations I have to have with people when they start here. I have to explain why I have taken taxes out of their paychecks. They don’t understand what taxes are. They get mad at me. They get mad at me because I’ve taken money from their check. I tell I didn’t do it and they say, “Well who’s FICA and why did he do it?” They look at me like I’m crazy. They have no idea and it’s shocking to me.

Q: It seems like a long way to go. To have to put people in jail, so the lucky ones can get into the Garden Project, so they can learn what the answers are. Isn’t there a better and shorter way to do this?
A: Well, I think… I, ah... (Stammering.) We work with these community groups, the people we bring the vegetables to. One of them is Mrs. Alviar, the grandmother in the Mission. Another is a grandmother in Bayview-Hunters Point, Mrs. Middleton. This woman has everyday 200 children in this little place, right next to the West Point projects. You may be aware that in the last couple of years the West Point projects has been mostly known for the amount of shooting that goes on there. Anyway Mrs. Middleton has 200 kids there every day. She scrabbles around and gets people to donate little things. They’re hungry, I know, but for the fact that Mrs. Middleton is feeding them. They’re not going to stay hungry. At some point they’re going to say, “Now wait a minute, what can I do so I’m not hungry?” That’s when they’re going to go to the drug dealers and the drug dealers are going to say, “Do this and this and this and then you’re not going to be hungry anymore. You can buy your own McDonald’s burger.”
What I have learned is that a lot of these young men start on this path because they’re hungry. I know because I have a son who’s 6’2”, if I had not had a job there’s no way I could have fed him. He would have gone to get that food somewhere. Most of the people here didn’t have parents, don’t have parents and here they are.

Q: I’m going to ask the question again, is there a shorter way to teach this lesson?
A: There is. It has to start is the schools. We have to help children succeed in school. One way to help them succeed in school, to make sure while they’re there, to make sure, I don’t think we can concern ourselves with their parents, whether their parents are doing this or that, I don’t care. I know if we feed these kids they’re going to learn and if we don’t feed them, they’re not going to learn. Period. It’s very basic. You go to Bret Harte School and those kids are hungry. A lot of times the only regular food they get is the food that they eat at that school, and it’s horrible. It’s potato chips and apples that are inedible. I ask these people, “How did you get on this path?” “Well my mom wasn’t home and there was no food…” That’s how they get on it. We have to start in schools. We have to help children succeed in schools. We have to find a way to get children nurtured at least in school. We’re not talking about education, we’re talking about feeding them.

The Garden Project, Pier 28, San Francisco, CA 94105

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Karen Finley Looks for Love

Jesse Helms' notorious dream girl looks for love: For more than 30 years Karen Finley has used her naked body like a knife, cutting away at our sense of propriety in performances somewhere between burlesque and group therapy.

Fred Dodsworth: How would you categorize your work?
Karen Finley: My work I think is emotional. My work was really about emotional issues, about grieving, pain, oppression, things that weren't normally talked about. So it was very painful for me when my work was eroticized by Senator Jesse Helms. I wasn't able to handle that at that time because I, as a female, wanted so much to be kind of a heroine for gay rights and sexual rights, pain and oppression.
Now I have a perspective on what was going on. Now I am purposely having my work be erotic, using the erotic as a device.

Q: Sexual or erotic?
KF: It's not pornography. I don't know really what's with pornography. I think the idea of looking at something … that the idea is separate from the physical rush, that kind of sense of the arousing wasn't my issue then. Now I play off of that. I remove the idea of the enemy so I don't have to occupy the territory of the heroine any more.
It's not about the victim. It isn't having to voice what the pain is, or even talking about that. Now what I feel is the politics of joy. Now the left and the right can be similar in terms of their needs to ridicule or use people for their own political gain, which I've experienced.
I feel that's what's political -- joy, right now. So many people are concerned about a moral sensibility. I'm going back to a '70s sensibility. Even with the idea of Queer Theater, when that was starting, or even if you want to look at the idea of the "Party."
I have laughter and I have a sensibility in this work, although there's a sensuality in this work, I'm appropriating the chanteuse. Which also has the sensibility of just having a Gay Olde Tyme, within that pain, within the childhood trauma, of not being understood.
So I use that. So I'm having a very good time, I'm dancing, while I've deconstructed the strip. I'm a participant. I'm not being victimized. I'm a participant. I'm complicit. The joy is just in the living.
Any people that are oppressed, humor is a way to disarm. I think that feminism hasn't had a good sense of humor. I don't think that politically correct liberals have a good sense of humor.

Q: So you're trying to bring humor back to…?
KF: Joy. Party. The joy life.

Q: You look uncomfortable.
KF: I was thinking about instances where I would try to bring in humor and where I would be turned down. When New York Now had asked me to do a tee-shirt for them and I had the Virgin Mary as Pro-Choice. I think that's funny. I like it. There's no anger. It's an irony -the irony of it all.

Q: Do you like your body image?
KF: My body image, what I think of myself, is different than what I am, what I look at. I don't really feel that I am this body. I'm much more ethereal. I usually don't… many times I don't feel like I'm in my body. (Quietly.)That's so funny. I feel uncomfortable in using my body as a female. When I was young, I resented that my body, my femaleness, would come before my talent. Because I knew that I was talented and I had something special. I had original material to do. I resented that, that couldn't be looked at. Just being a female. I think it's kind of funny now.
I worked at the Condor Club and El Cid. I was the hostess at the Top of the Mark. So I've worked at many San Francisco institutions. I was an intern at the art museum cataloging art catalogs…

Q: We were talking about your body-mind conflict.
KF: I think it's really about a generation at that time - a collective unconscious. I don't think that mine was a unique voice. I started to make art, expecting that I would be able to be a "body" artist like other artists, like men were. It became complicated and there were lots of different levels … the female being objectified. I became the artist. It becomes different when you're participating, or drawing the nude, or having the feminine form as the content of art. Coming as a female into that it becomes confusing.
I think that younger artists, women, don't have to do the same work that I had to do. I really had no choice. When I went to the San Francisco Art Institute there weren't many female faculty. I think that there are certain powers that worked collectively to keep women's voices down. It was a different time.

Q: Is the world better now?
KF: There are steps that have been made. I see some change even in the student body. I see different situations in terms of power and the idea of certain experiences and expectations. I feel there have been changes for the better for women. You know we still need to continue on but I really feel there has been good change.

Q: Let's go back to the difference between men and women.
KF: I think you have to go to the idea of knowing physical power. There is a certain sense or assumption of power. I think that's culturally put into perspective. I think that there is a new "masculine" happening and has been happening for a while. Just looking at abstract expressionism as an emotional cry from the second world war.
I feel the whole anxiety of men having to fight, the burden put on men, that men are basically worthless. From the moment they are born they are trained to be a soldier. They are there to protect the mother, the country, the flag. I feel that burden. The idea of not being able to show emotion -- that's a weakness. That's a cultural norm, an idea that goes back thousands, perhaps millions of years.
It goes back to the same thing with woman, having to be protected so they would be safe with their babies. Many of these structures are very primitive. Men have that fear. They can be called at any moment. Their body is worthless. I think we ought to be thinking about that and the violence. Is it random that boys are doing this? What's their rage? What needs are been met and what needs aren't being met? What is this a manifestation of? What is this telling us about the need these children are feeling? This is a collective experience and obviously we're not responding to it.
I think what's happening is they are "lost boys." I think that we are in a crisis. I think that there has been an over femininization. There's double messages about their masculinity, and aggressiveness. There is such pressure for boys to be quiet. They are not allowed to be boys. That energy, of the masculine, gets a double message. It's good but we're also afraid of it. Their emotions, acting out. I think it's important to look at it, but I haven't figured it out.

Q: You use your body to communicate complicated messages.
KF: I think I do that unconsciously. I'm showing my body and I'm comfortable with that, I'm enjoying it. It isn't a good girl. It isn't a prostitute. It's knowing one's self and being there, centered. There's no other reason.
I think there is a fear of female sexuality. What is that? What is the primal fear of that? Does the male feel not strong enough, or potent enough to satisfy a real, sexual woman? I'm certainly having fun doing it and doing it in San Francisco has an importance to me. It brings it home.

Q: Is it intimate or is not intimate?
KF: I make my audience feel very comfortable with me. This is an intimate journey. They are seeing it. They go through what I go through. This is definitely different than going to the Condor. This is definitely different than that.

Q: How?
KF: Well, actually I thought Carol Doda was great and I think that I actually owe a lot to watching Carol Doda. It's just talking to the audience the way she would talk to the audience. Making people feel comfortable. I think I went through so much pain. I've been through a lot. Now I know where the joys are and I like giving those to the audience. I love giving that to the audience. I love having that group endorphin experience. There's some good laughter in it.
What makes it good for me is after the different losses that I've had in my life, and everyone's got their own journey, but I didn't want to be like Lenny Bruce or Mae West. I didn't want to become a tragedy. I thought my way out of it. Going beyond the tragedy. This is the kind of career where you can re-invent yourself.

Karen Finley appeared at Theater Artaud in her one woman performace, "Shut Up and Love Me," March 15th-24th, 2001

Saturday, June 01, 2013

“We have met the zombies and they is us.”
A book review of M.T. Anderson's FEED

The following text is from pages 202 and 203 of MT Anderson's Feed.

Violet was screaming, “Look at us! You don’t have the feed! You are the feed! You’re feed. You’re being eaten! You’re raised for food! Look at what you’ve made yourselves” She pointed at Quendy, and went, “She’s a monster! A monster! Covered with cuts! She’s a creature!”
And now I was going, “Violet—Don’t. Violet! She’s not a—she’s not a goddamn monster. She’s—” but Violet screeched, “You too! Fuck you too!” —and she tried to slap me—I grabbed her by the arm—and she tried to scratch at my face, but her hand wasn’t working.
She had broken somehow, and she was broken, and, oh fuck, she was sagging and I grabbed her to help her, and she was shaking, and her eyes were all white and rolling around, and she couldn’t talk anymore—
—she was choking—
I grabbed her and tried to wrap my arms around her. There was a long line of spit coming out of her mouth. Her legs were pumping up and down. She was broken. She was completely broken.
…and the feed whispered to me about sales, and made all these suggestions about medical lawyers and malpractice, and something happened, and I was sitting beside her in an ambulance, and suddenly I realized, The party is over. The fucking party is over. (202, 203)

“We have met the zombies and they is us.”

Feed is a sophisticated cross-genre (zombie/vampire/horror) novel, which subverts the conventions of science fiction to create a post-apocalyptic narrative told from the zombie point of view. Popular culture memes pose zombies as a metaphor for the destructive results of our consumer society, especially affluent, western consumers. M.T. Anderson flips the implicit metaphoric relationship, creating a tale featuring popular consumer culture as an inescapable, all-powerful character; simultaneously forcing the reader to recognize the novel’s teenage, human characters, including Titus, the narrating voice, his family and friends and Violet, his love interest, are either zombies or undergoing zombification as their dead end society drifts, inextricably, toward its inevitable destruction. Anderson creates a zombie narrative without identifying any characters as zombies, or giving his characters the classic post-George Romero trope of cannibalistic flesh-eater. Instead, by naturalizing and glorifying their deadened, aggressively consumerist behaviors, and afflicting them with a flesh eating disease called “lesions,” the reader realizes the novel’s characters are the unspoken embodiment of zombies.

Introducing the process of naturalizing lesions, Quendy complains to her friends that hers has spread, making her comparatively unattractive. “‘If they don’t know you,’ Marty said, ‘they’re not going to know what you normally look like’” (21). Marty doesn’t compare Quendy with idealized beauty, but with her former self. Marty’s response is reasonable, as all the main characters have lesions. The self-consuming feed-culture has turned its fleshing eating disease into an aesthetic attribute: “The girl’s lesion was beautiful. It was like a necklace. A red choker” (22). Thus, on Violet, the flesh-eating disease becomes a desirable signifier of belonging to the zombie community. Necessarily the cause of the disease is mysterious (otherwise their status as zombies would be self-evident), progressively debilitating, and without a cure (they’re zombies!). Through constant propaganda projected directly into their “virtual reality” the zombie culture comes to see the flesh-eating disease as natural and desirable. Taking the corporate-controlled messaging to its “natural” extreme, Quendy inflicts expensive prosthetic lesions upon her body to gain attention, not unlike adolescent self-cutting. Her prosthesis create an interesting response from her main rival when Calista us sarcasm to draw attention to the hideous and frightening results, undermining the corporate/cultural message: “‘That’s right, Quendy,’ said Calista, ‘because seeing what’s inside you, all your guts, is just so sexy” (200). Calista’s comments are not hyperbole, “You can see her like muscles and tendons and ligaments and stuff,” (199) mind-chats Titus to his friends. Their corporal deterioration is exemplified in the extreme as Titus describes his mother: “… you could see her teeth even when her mouth was closed” (284). This only makes sense if they are zombies, not humans.

Another stereotype of the post-apocalyptic/zombie/vampire/horror genre which Anderson perverts is the “final girl theory.” Of the novel’s characters, Violet is the most empathetic, most chaste, and most concerned about the direction her culture is going. She even has the “abject terror” response when she screams at her friends: “Look at us! You don’t have the feed! You are the feed! …She’s a monster! A monster! Covered with cuts.! She’s a creature” (202). Against the horror and post-apocalyptic genre stereotype, Violet succumbs to the zombification process. She’s not dead. She’s non-responsive due to profoundly reduced feed input. Similarly, zombies are non-responsive to human concerns due to profoundly reduced empathy. In Feed, human concerns have been supplanted by corporate, profit-based concerns, resulting in a death-like state. “She was completely calm. She didn’t move” (289). Violet has completed her journey, she is the living dead.

Importantly, Violet’s “death” informs the reader there will be no savior, no survivors, no happy ending. Violet’s death is antithetical to the genera if Feed is to be read as traditional post-apocalyptic tale. Alternatively, as Feed is told from the zombie’s perspective, total destruction is inevitable. The human race must survive and “everything (zombie) must go” (299-300). Repeated five times, “everything must go” are the novel’s final words, and that statement is definitive: The fucking [zombie] party is over.

Works Cited
Anderson, Matthew T. Feed. Cambridge: Candlewick Press. 2002
Clover, Carol. Men Women and Chainsaws, actually from conversations with Joann Conrad, Ph’d Anthropology and Kendra Dodsworth, MFA, discussing Clover’s final girl theory in popular culture, horror, in conjunction with the concept of the “monstrous feminine.”

©Dec. 12, 2012

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Regarding: Borges, Labyrnith:
“Pierre Menard...;” “The Circular Ruins;” “Funes the Memorius;” “The Shape of the Sword”

Labyrnith by Jorge Luis Borges: the short stories “Pierre Menard...;” “The Circular Ruins;” “Funes the Memorius;” “The Shape of the Sword”

Does Borges seek to elicit a profoundly different response in us, his readers, to his various stories? It seems to me that none of us are really capable of telling but one story, singing one song, reciting one poem with a wide variety of names and places and inconsequential details, and Borges is really no different from any of us in this regard. I don’t yet know, but at least, after comparing and contrasting today’s reading, we’ll, perhaps, have a better idea, so let us examine the following four short-short stories and see what there is to see.

In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges posits an author who responds to Miguel Cervantes’ 17th Century classic by rewriting, word for word, that very book. The pivot point here is that Menard is not a copyist, he intends to rewrite Don Quixote by becoming Miguel Cervantes, by knowing now all that Miguel Cervantes knew then, but in today’s world, and thus, due to the critical passage of time, the dawning of a new era, the act of existing as Miguel Cervantes in the modern era will make the exact words written then more powerful, more compelling, more elegant, more meaningful today. Underlying this conceit is the real difference in context. Today’s readers are not the readers Cervantes wrote for, and a Miguel Cervantes writing exactly the same words in this time would necessarily mean something quintessentially different. Thus Borges is forcing the sensitive reader to acknowledge that the perceptions we make and share are unique to our experience and, in essence, untranslatably unique. Similarly the reader may come to acknowledge the criticality of the reader, that the manner in which meaning is created is unique for every reader of every text, that, to paraphrase Borges, each reader erroneously attributes anachronistic meaning to the text they encounter and negotiate.

In “The Circular Ruin,” Borges creates a dream world where a mythic creature, perhaps a man, perhaps the dream itself, or perhaps some form of gendered energy, carefully and deliberately constructs the world of man. “He wanted to dream a man,” the reader is told, to “interpolate him into the world of reality.” In this tale the reader comes to understand that endeavoring to dream the man is arduous and unsuccessful until the protagonist abandons his attempts to dream the man, and then, “almost at once” he dreams “of a beating heart.” Minutely, thereafter, the dreamer slowly crafts the man, and the man, metonymically, the world, in a fashion quite similar to how consensual understanding, or meaning, is created in this world — a laborious and accretive process. This understanding, perhaps the fiery, passionate sense of self we all share, is the fire and “fire was the only one that knew his son was a phantom.” Could Borges be saying that knowledge, meaning, experience are all illusory, that these shared “experiences” are no more then the dreams of the consciousness we singularly tap into and eventually, inevitably withdraw from? Ending, not dissimilarly from “Menard,” we are told: “he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another.”

Again, diving into the meanings of Borges, let us examine “Funes the Memorious,” where the mysterious and ethereal subject, “Ireneo Funes” — Ireneo inferring peace or perhaps peace between men, consequently linked to Funes, possibly a stand-in for Funesto, meaning mortal or fatal — is the main topic of this tale, despite that the author, Borges, introduced within the text, has only briefly and rarely met him: “I never saw him more than three times.” Their first meeting, which Borges recalls clearly, was no meeting for it was just a viewing as the child, Funes, leapt distantly and precariously overhead “in March or Feburary of the year 1884.” Subsequently, after Funes suffered what would typically be known as a catastrophic injury, Borges lent the paralyzed, uneducated, impoverished child a copy of Pliny’s Naturalis historia, and a Latin dictionary, enough to allow the representative savant access to all of the natural world’s knowledge. Funes was tortured or blessed with the ability to recall, in precise and exacting detail, every experience he’d ever had previous to his injury. Before, like all of us, Funes “lived as one in a dream: he looked without seeing, listened without hearing, forgetting everything, almost everything.” When he awoke from his injury “the present was almost intolerable in its richness and sharpness, as were his most distant memories.”

The injured man lives more richly, more completely in the minutia of his past and present than the rest of us live at our most sensory enabled. Funes subsequently goes on to create a vast and intricate system of signs, of signifiers and signified, of semiotics, that acknowledge, that deeply and profoundly see how incredibly (beyond the credible) unique every experience, every object, every sensation actually is if we chose to experience the infinite world we exist within. Funes moves beyond human experience into the totality, the global and universal experience, recognizing both the connections and the discrete aspects of each element of our shared experience. He lives more completely by being withdrawn than the rest of us live immersed in the world, and in doing so escapes both his disability and the world itself, a world composed of the “tranquil advances of corruption, of decay, of fatigue. He could note the progress of death.” We are told that no one “has felt the heat and pressure of reality as indefatigable as that which day and night converged upon the hapless Ireneo.” In this sense does not Ireneo escape death? Though death comes for him soon after, he is already immaterial, beyond the grasp of that which can decay. Is this a different story than that which Borges elucidates in “The Circular Ruin,” a creation myth that posits life and awareness as a dream we share? How is this different from “Menard,” where meaning and understanding are posited as infinitely complex and unique, transiting time and space to create a singular moment of incomprehensible complexity?

Lastly, and briefly, let us look to “The Shape of the Sword,” where Borges tells a tale (which also includes the author as a character) that explicitly states that “I am all other men, any man is all men, (even) Shakespeare is in some manner the miserable John Vincent Moon.” One could take this as an oppressive and pessimistic message, for Moon is not a sympathetic character, yet, are we not all cowards at times, but heroes, too, on occasion. Unique as we are, do not we all carry the scars inflicted upon ourselves and upon all others and are these scars no more than the consensual signifiers of our lives and values and loves and hates? “The reasons one can have for hating another man, or for loving him, are infinite.” We are man, isolate and universal, this hall of mirrors called life simply reflects our shared consensus.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The necessity and pleasure of demiurgic action ...

Regarding three stories by Jorge Luis Borges: "Tlön, Uqbar,Orbis Tertius," & "The Garden of Forking Paths," & "The Zahir."

The necessity and pleasure of demiurgic action outside the hermetic sanctuary of Literature; Or the role of assertion and resistance in the mental construction of a cultural raison d’etre; Or why reality must always yield to the accreted consensus, yet allow and even predict reëxcavation and reinterpretation.

In 1940 Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo edited and published the Antología de la Literatura Fantástica, a collection of fantastic short stories, but the Anglo-American Cyclopedia may not yet exist, even at some point in the still non-existent future known as 1917, or in the illusory location known as New York.
How can we know New York? Does Des Moines presuppose New York, a constructed antithesis to the extravagant ideation of urbanity at its funky, oppressive, darkened and transitoriness? Or are acts of resistance acts of self-creation? In the beginning there was darkness but now there are only the unknowable acts of the intellect, or is it the romantic, emotional pure love found in acts of faith that offers us leads us to knowledge?

Awful explorations and exposures leaving the reader agape. I could describe multiple blind persons attempting to describe the colors of the dawn but I must assume you know my meaning and see my inferences, as otherwise my citations are merely marks on a page.
That said, or written, the object is artifact and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is the object, the romantic, emotional, intellectual, yearning object, not dissimilar to the mysterious vibrating compass, with its quivering blue needle, it is the quivering blue needle that validates the Princess’s yearning for meaningful artifacts with which to express and affirm her place in the physical world.

By the by, although it is unlikely that Borges knew this then, Ezra Buckley did exist, 1803-1874, and the Ezra Buckley Foundation, created for the purpose of destroying history, exists, as a game, here and now, although it is impossible Borges would have known that then or now as Borges, a mercurial being, ceased to operate as a participant of the object plane of this planet—the Orbis Primus, i.e. the physical world, if I may—as of the ephemeral temporal location accepted and acknowledged among some of the cognizanti of Orbis Tertius (earth, not mind) as of June of 14, 1986 but located else-whens by other consciousnesses (see Cervante’s death as compared to Shakespeare’s, for example, or the Chinese versus the Jewish calendar for more examples). “Such (is) the … intrusion of this fantastic world into the world of reality” (p 16, 1962, New Directions Publishing).

We all come from the border of somewhere but it is not so much the liminal spaces that are important as the missing, what Louis Althusser posits as the lacuna, which defines the true discourse. Once again Borges both writes and evokes/invokes through assertion and resistance, through appeals directly to the conscious mind while simultaneously whispering indirectly to the unconscious mind questions about Literature (with a majuscule) and the more important questions about our derivation of meaning.

In the same way the author offers fragmented narratives and the missing pieces to illuminate the “true” text, Borges constantly eludes to the creation of meaning by, Ouroboros-like, constantly returning to the text from different, even alien, and always incomplete perspectives. In another tale, Stephan Albert will say everything stated above, using different metaphors and similes to convey similar meaning, a meaning related but one in which the reader/protagonist necessarily will make different choices, or perhaps the same choices, but end up with a different narrative as a result of the abysmal problem of time, which is actually a problem of interpretation as modified through action, even inaction, which inevitably leads to a unique result—one of an infinite number of possibilities, each, like a broken fragment, redefining the same shared experience of what is.

Don’t get lost. We’re already there. Start making sense. They’re all the same narrative…

Friday, March 01, 2013

James Madison’s Majority Nightmare:
An engaged, enraged and impoverished rabble.

It may be said that I come to this argument with a personal agenda, especially considering the economic circumstance we find in America in the early 21st Century, so be it. Like most of us, I feel poor by my own standing, but, unlike many, I know that I am rich when compared with so many other Americans. Further I believe that I have experienced the extremes of both opposing sides of the economic spectrum that impacts us all; and in the 60 years I have been on this earth I have seen a wide swath of what is humanly possible. It is in this glaring light that I must judge James Madison’s Federalist 10 and 51 and find these to be too quickly, even premeditatively, reaching for the bottle of power to protect and secure the well-heeled minority over the natural interests of the economically bereft majority.

It is so widely acknowledged and recorded that Madison’s “most distinctive belief was that the new republic needed checks and balances to protect individual rights from the tyranny of the majority*” that this is noted almost immediately in the Wikipedia entry on James Madison. In Federalist 10 Madison plainly states his concerns about the tyranny of the majority against the minority, referring in paragraph one to “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority,”as though it was the greatest threat facing the new-founded country. Madison perfects his concerns in paragraph seven of Federalist 10: “The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property,” suggesting that an impoverished hungry country full of unemployed citizens might find the excesses of those who got their money the old fashion way — by inheriting it — hard to bear meekly. I suggest that it is Madison’s fear of potential future acts of government that might redistribute the young nation’s wealth that most motivates his thinking in both Federalist 10 and Federalist 51, but let us look to the texts.

Federalist 51 begins with a question: How should the young country “practice the necessary partition of power?” Madison says this partition is particularly important in assuring that no one segment of the government reign supreme over all the others, for as we know from our class discussions and his reference to the saintly behavior of inhuman angels, pure power is the most addictive of substances for mere mortals and inevitably leads to tyranny. Madison answers his initial question in paragraph four of Federalist 51 with the observation that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Note that it is not the Creator nor morality nor compassion nor Christian charity that might mediate the human lust for power and wealth, but that by pitting the hunger of one ferocious dog against the next, the general populace might be saved from the most wretched of avaricious impulses by its individual governing citizens. In paragraph nine he again reaffirms his concerns about dangers of majority rule by first briefly acknowledging the risks of oppression by the ‘rulers,’ which is offered in contrast to the premier importance of guarding “one part of the society against the injustice of the other part” — as though the tyranny of the elite was not either of those ‘parts.’ It almost seems as if Madison’s ideal of democratic rule is a dream almost beyond his ability to surrender to the democratic process, which should be ironic in that he is called the “Father of the Constitution.”

Returning to paragraph four Madison recognizes that the first problem of government is granting men the power and authority to govern themselves. He then states that the second problem is getting government to regulate or restrict itself. His solution in paragraph five is to create many, separate, nearly equal departments to vie for this dangerous authority in a policy of supplying “opposite and rival interests,” “where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other.” Again it is only by setting the worst of us in competition with the other worst of us that the average person might avoid being entirely consumed. There is no appeal to our better natures in Madison’s argument, nor are there legal obligations and restrictions, only the recognition of our most selfish impulses. Each self-interested party in governance shall be constrained by the matching self-interest of their competitive parties. Like Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, this system seems to work better in the idealization of daydreams and coffeehouse conversations than in the dog-eat-dog world where these greedy parties quickly realize that by either ‘horse-trading’ or selective ‘blindness,’ each of them can get all them want and more, so long as no one upsets the status quo by reining in his opposite too vigorously. In fact, by codifying this specific individual self-interest into the institutional framework of government, doesn’t this encourage the most selfish and self-interested of behaviors and ensure us that predominantly only the worst of us will fight hard enough to win a seat at the public table of governance, and only so that those who rise to such heights of hypocrisy will be giving access to the trough of bottomless cash? Doesn’t this create an entire governmental culture of greed and narrow self-interest rather than empathetic and noble compassion for all the citizens of this union? There are other compunctions used by humans throughout history to moderate their worst behaviors, religion offers entire tomes dedicated to elevating man’s baser instincts to a higher plane.

Madison’s next several paragraphs are devoted to further elucidating the particular branches of government, both state and federal, and each branch’s natural strengths and weaknesses, with suggestions as to how best to keep each branch and office at parity with its several mates. In paragraph nine Madison states the obvious, that ‘Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens,” by which it is reasonable to suggest that he is again referring to the disparity of wealth, especially inherited wealth, already endemic to the new born country. His first solution is to create a “hereditary or self-appointed authority.” I assume by this Madison is referring to something like the English House of Lords (or more and more like both of our two houses of government where hereditary office seems to be more the rule than the exception). He dismisses this idea without detail. His second solution is to suggest a society “broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” It has been our misfortune to have seen over the last 250 years that the rights of the minority, if that minority was not wealthy and powerful, were rarely protected from the abuses of the majority under such a system as Madison devised, just as it has been our misfortune to have witnessed that a wealthy and powerful minority has continually coalesced both wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands over the ensuing years.

Madison then looks into the hazy future in the balance of the final paragraph, still paragraph nine, to see a vast and diverse America where our great numbers and varieties of peoples is our salvation. Or as Madison states “the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government.” It would be wonderfully interesting sit down with James Madison today, 250 years later, and hear what he has to say about this system of governance he worked out. My suspicion is that it worked out very much like he expected it would.

*from Wikipedia, referencing Madison Debates in Convention - Tuesday June 26, 1787: “There will be particularly the distinction of rich & poor. … In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former.” …and Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, June 26th: “The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa, or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge of the wants or feelings of the day laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time … when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small … will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections … if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. The checks and balances ought to be so constituted as to protect the [privatized property of the] minority of the opulent against the [will of the] majority.”

Madison, James. “The Federalist Papers, The Federalist No. 10.” Thomas: Library of Congress. unknown. Web. April 13, 2011 Wikipedia. “James Madison.” April 13, 2011. Web. April 13, 2011 <>
Fred Dodsworth, April 13, 2011

Thursday, May 24, 2012

It’s Not Just A Fairy Tale: Le Petit Chaperon Rouge in The Company of Wolves.

Fred Dodsworth
May 15, 2012

Folk tales, a combination of campfire story and literature, perhaps as old as human language, are, arguably, one of the first forms of popular culture; and as such intrinsically linked to our depiction of and identification of self and culture. Central to the telling of folk tales are questions of agency, power, knowledge, gender, and sexuality. Today it is granted that these issues are social constructs, to use Michel Foucault’s ideas, part of the discourse that defines our world. To determine the meaning and to locate the context of the discourse, especially, embedded narratives and unequal hegemonic power distribution, one needs knowledge of some of the tools cultural scientists have created in the last 100 years. Combining the literary theories of the post-feminist theoretician Rita Felski with those of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (looking at the signified and the signifier as building components for signs of meaning), Roland Barthe (for semiology: the way in which signs are used to create false ideologies and how to evaluate codes for meaning base on their subject location, historical context, and the cultural values of the author and reader) and Louis Althusser’s Problematic, which notes that which is obvious in its absence, in conjunction with Michel Foucault’s concepts about the ways in which discourse creates meaning, I intend to compare ancient and modern versions of the Little Red Riding Hood tale.

When Charles Perrault collected eleven such folk tales, and published them as Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories of Times Past) in France in the late 17th Century, he created the genre we know as fairy tales. But Perrault’s tales were hardly the first nor final word, and as such they differ from earlier and later iterations as his culture did. Perrault, erudite, male, and one of the founding members of the Académie Française, structured his stories to reflect “the mutual interests of a bourgeois-aristocratic elite” (Zipes 11), especially regarding their daughters, who were bartered for economic benefit. In contemporary times, Angela Carter’s “In the Company of Wolves” re-envisioned Red Riding Hood with a frank expression of sexuality and female self-agency reflecting modern social values responsive to second-wave-feminism. The lens of post-structuralism allows the modern investigator to decouple concepts of innate gender, of essentialism, from the story, to examine how modern iterations of the story reflect new ideas about gender, sexuality, and power.

Historically women have been bound by the constraints of unmediated reproduction and their roles deliberately and consciously constrained by the dominant elite to contain them (and their reproductive capacity) within proscribed social bounds. As reproduction came under the control of women, their behaviors, ideas, depictions, narratives, motivations and opportunities changed, and the female authors, especially, had the opportunity to revisit those powerful influential texts .

Little Red Riding Hood is one of the most widely known of the fairy tales, read around the world and translated into the major languages1. While Perrault often gets credit as father of this tale, it existed long before Le petit chaperon rouge was published in 16972&3. In earlier versions the young woman was not naïve: “The ‘peasant girl’ is forthright, brave and shrewd. She knows how to use her wits to escape preying beasts” Jack Zipes informs the reader in The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (9). Cannibalism, scatological humor and sexual acts were embedded in the ur-story as reconstructed by Paul Delarue in 1885, which celebrated a young girl’s maturation into womanhood (Zipes 5). Perrault sanitized this tale and turned it into a morality play, to teach young females the forest (a metaphor for the French Court in his version4) was dangerous, and wolves (a metaphor for rapacious men of the Court and their voracious sexual appetites5) would destroy them. In Perrault’s version both Granny and child perish while the wolf escapes (Tater 13). He couples his narrative with an explicit warning, a “Moral”, to convince girls that their sexuality has fatal consequences. In the Grimm Brothers’ version, published a few decades later in Germany, the wolf devours Little Red Cap and Granny, but a masculine savior rescues them intact from inside the beast! (Tater 16), reaffirming the protective supremacy of men and re-stipulating the vulnerability of women. Many noted authors have rewritten this tale, not all reflect on Red Riding as a metaphor for the status of women; nor certainly are all the tales invested with the specific authorial subjectivity that a woman author brings to Red Riding Hood’s ambiguous representation. Referring to the work of Swiss linguist and philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, John Storey states the symbolism and imagery which allow a reader to make connections is arbitrary: “the relationship between the two is simply the result of convention — of cultural agreement” (111). A sophisticated author can layer alternative suggestive meanings into her tale and a critical reader should assume modern authors do not intend the conventional metaphoric connections. This is especially important when examining the work of women writers: “The true meaning of women’s writing lies beneath the surface, in covert messages and submerged clues. Because this meaning is socially unacceptable and even subversive, it is buried deep within the text” Rita Felski states in Literature After Feminism (69). When a female author recreates Little Red Riding Hood, she does so with a sense of her time and place and an awareness of the oppressive history of women’s experience of social authority over their sexuality, and the heavy price paid by women who ignore the dominant cultural imperative. While Perrault’s goal was to “civilize” girls into complacent and accommodating members of 17th and 18th Century French society, authors such as Angela Carter, Anne Sexton or Carol Ann Duffy have a different agenda.

“In the Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter, published in the United Kingdom in 1979, was a short story in The Bloody Chamber, her book of updated fairy tales (published in the U.S. in 1980). It was subsequently turned into a BBC radio-play in 1980, and a film by auteur Neil Jordan in 1984. It is a staple of college-level literature and gender-studies programs. Carter used her version to offer ambiguous perspectives on gender, sexuality and self-agency. She positions feminine sexuality as an important but underrepresented source of innate power, symbolized by the werewolf. While the wolf and its lycanthropic manifestation are typically interpreted as masculine, Carter flips this and uses the symbol to connote overt, feral, female sexuality.

Carter crafts her tale in three sections, each constructed to lead the reader to understand her use of the wolf/werewolf as a symbolic, transformative figure signifying female desire. As the tale begins Carter informs the reader: “The wolf is carnivore incarnate. He’s as cunning as he is ferocious; once he’s had a taste of flesh than nothing else will do” (110). The author returns twice more to this motif before her story ends. Additionally by double stressing the root syllable “carn,” from the Latin “carnis7,” Carter encourages the reader to polysemically associate the inferred word “carnal,” with the wolf. She reinforces this subliminal association by describing the wolf as “cunning,” homophonically suggesting Latin “cunnus8,” for female genitalia, and then heightens the association: “once he’s had a taste of flesh, than nothing else will do” (ibid.). Carter continues like this for six paragraphs with direct and indirect references to sexuality: “the light from your lantern will reflect back on you — red for danger” (ibid.), red light, the signifier, overt sexuality the signified, the denotation that one’s own carnal desires are reflected; “…then he knows he must run” (111), note the pronoun here is masculine, it is the male who is the fearful prey, not the female; “they cluster invisibly round your smell of meat” (110), inferring olfactory and pheromonal responses to female fertility and identifying the reader as female with the possessive pronoun: “your”; “the rending you will suffer, in itself a murdering” (ibid.), this active and on-going experience of killing suggests le petite morte, a euphemism for orgasm. When the author describes the wolf attacking: “Those slavering jaws; the lolling tongue; the rime of saliva on the grizzled chops” (ibid.), this opulent and salacious description evokes erotic ecstasy as an alternative to death by werewolf. She reminds the reader such hungers do not respond to reason, that even in the sanctity of the home lustful desires are ever evident: “But the wolves have ways of arriving at your own hearthside. We try and try but sometimes we cannot keep them down,” (111). Humorously and anachronistically she adds: “there was a woman once bitten in her own kitchen as she was straining the macaroni” (ibid.). By these means Carter identifies lust’s thrilling, dangerous demands as contemporary, commonplace and domestic. Of course the inherent ambiguity of metaphor allows a reader to argue a different interpretation: “we need to understand the polysemic nature of signs, that is that they have the potential to signify multiple meanings” (Story 119). It is possible to argue that by these phrases Carter is referring to predatory male sexual threats, even interpreting “he knows he must run” as an un-gendered universal pronoun. But, to paraphrase Roland Barthe: “Which codes are mobilized will largely depend on the triple context of the location of the text, the historical moment, and the cultural formation of the reader” (Story 121). To understand the connotation one must consider the context. Carter, a globally-recognized author6 and feminist is not the standard bearer for conventional sexual stereotypes of reluctant, sexually-victimized women. Her work, including the other fairytales in this collection, embraces overt female sexual desire as a right. As she states in Sadian Woman: sexually uninhibited behavior is “part of the acceptance of the logic of a world of absolute sexual license for all the genders” (22). Affirming a more aggressive interpretation Carter concludes this section with a warning: “the wolf may be more than he seems” (“Wolves” 111). Recalling Felski, Carter appears to saying her wolf is not the conventional one.

The short middle section of her story is composed of three brief vignettes intended to show the place of the werewolf in this world. The first vignette features a wolf who “pounced on a girl” (ibid.) but was chased away by men with rifles, an example of the rifle as symbol of the phallus being used to protect (and oppress) women.. Then the wolf is tricked, entrapped in a pit, into which the hunter jumps to “slit his throat” (ibid.). After slaying the creature the hunter discovers no wolf, only “the bloody trunk of a man, headless, footless, dying, dead” (ibid.). Extending the metaphor of werewolf as female desire, it is possible to interpret this as an example of man’s fear of woman’s carnal appetite. The hunter does not shoot the wolf from the safety of the edge of the pit but jumps into the pit, both to make intimate contact and to destroy the beast. Jumping into the pit, the hunter imagistically enters the vagina (a synecdoche for female desire) where he delivers a deadly, bloody slash to the beast’s throat and removes the wolf’s head and feet. Symbolically, the bloody slit reminds the reader of women’s reproductive role, evoking the imagery of menses and its mysterious (to too many men) place in human regeneration; and by removing the beast’s head the hunter (as man) destroys the both wolf’s identity and self-determination. If the wolf represents womanly desire and lust, this denies women the opportunity to practice their sexuality. By cutting off the beast’s feet, the wolf (as woman) is prohibited release (sexual freedom and freedom of movement), thus woman’s foundational autonomy is undermined. While this may be interpreted as trapping/constraining female sexual expression in a manner similar to Perrault’s tale, Carter suggests that doing so annihilates female sexual expression “dying, dead.” In the second vignette, a wedding party is transformed into miserable werewolves because the groom defied the wishes of a female witch. The wedding party stands as the symbol of sacred human connection, especially in its regenerative, sexual manifestation, and the misery of the werewolves again indicates desire without release. The groom —a man —is to blame for the suffering of all due to his selfish choice. The third and final vignette is a short-short story that returns one of ur-tale’s missing elements, the scatological reference lost when Perrault sanitized it into a literary artifact. Now a new-husband disappears on the wedding night before the new bride has the opportunity to experience socially condoned sexuality. She mourns her loss in the culturally proscribed fashion, then settles for another man and bears him children. Years later her first love, symbolizing long lost desire, returns, a werewolf. The lycanthrope abuses her, calls her a whore, and attempts to destroy her family. The creature is killed and revealed to be the beautiful being she once loved, symbolically representing lost lust. She weeps for her loss, which results in her getting beaten. In each of these vignettes, by viewing the lycanthrope as a metaphor for female sexual desire, the reader discovers profound and symbolic meaning whereas a straight reading of the text remains obtuse, ambiguous and unresolved.

It is in this light that the reader enters the third and most freighted portion of Carter’s retelling of the tale as a girl’s unambiguously sexualized journey into womanhood. “This strong-minded child insists she will go off through the wood” (113), the narrator informs us, setting the child in opposition to traditional constrictions on female autonomy, stressing her intent to ignore these cultural prohibitions symbolized by the woods. Now the tone of the story is foreboding: This “is the worst time in all the year,” “children do not stay young for long in this savage country… they work hard and grow up wise,” the ominous if brilliant look of blood on snow” (ibid.). Similarly Granny loses her saccharine qualities, now she is “a reclusive grandmother so old the burden of her years is crushing her to death” (ibid.). Informing us of Red Riding Hood’s changing sexual status, the narrator states her “breasts have just begun to swell… and she has just started her woman’s bleeding, the clock inside her that will strike, henceforward, once a month” (ibid.). As we read the child transitions into a fertile but virginal woman: “She stands and moves within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity. She is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane” (113-114). The redundancy of this passage is not the work of a lazy author but the work of an author who intends for her writing to be unpacked. In the “Polemical Preface” to The Sadeian Woman, Carter states: “relationships between the sexes are determined by history and the historical fact of the economic dependence of women upon men” (7). After discussing the ways in which men regulate women’s fertility and sexuality, she continues: “The very magical privacy of the bed, the pentacle, may itself only be bought with money” (12). By invoking the “pentacle of her own virginity” in her fairy tale Carter acknowledges the problematic: “According to Althusser… a text is structured as much by what is absent (what is not said) as by what is present (what is said)” (Storey 72). Neglected throughout the “The Company of Wolves” are issues (practices) related to the economic and the political subtexts of the story. This is highlighted when one recalls that Perrault, to please his 17th Century aristocratic patron, Jean Baptiste Colbert, minister of finance to Louis XIV, “The Sun King” (Orenstein 30), crafted a text which removed all class-related signifiers in the predecessor iteration of the tale (Zipes 2) and his “morals” were informed by the economic benefit his patrons received when they sold off their daughters to highest bidders in state-sanctioned mariages de raison, “marriages of convenience.” Whether the narrative is located three hundred years ago or the late 20th Century, Carter maintains women depend upon men for their economic well-being and men value women for their sexuality. Carter wants us to understand that as a virgin Red Riding Hood’s worth was at the apex of the pentacle of her value to the parental estate, which is what Perrault espoused and valued in Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. “Virginity was a requirement of the mariage de raison in the French Court” (Orenstein 36). Such marriages were political and economic pacts managed by parents for their personal gain, not acts of romance.

But Carter’s woman-child, with her incipient sexuality, is neither naïve nor sequestered. Carter’s Red Riding Hood makes her own sexual choices. When she encounters the “very handsome young one,” unlike the “rustic clowns of her native village … soon they were laughing and joking like old friends” (“Wolves” 114). Comparing the stranger to the pool of undesirable mates she knows, Red Riding Hood chooses the stranger. When he tells her “his rifle would protect them” (ibid.), she surrenders her knife to the potent promise of his phallic weapon. There was neither knife nor rifle in Delarue’s ur-tale or Perrault’s version, thus Carter allows the reader to invest these symbols with meaning, and she makes that meaning obvious when the werewolf asks Red Riding Hood to wager. “What would you like? she asked disingenuously. … Commonplace of a rustic seduction; she lowered her eyes and blushed” (115). With this pantomime of femininity Red Riding Hood chooses the beast.

In contradiction to the lustful negotiations between the virgin and the beast, Granny symbolizes the restraints of a culture in decline. “Aged and frail, granny is three-quarters succumbed to the mortality the ache in her bones promises … the grandfather clock ticks away her time” (ibid.). Even while still living, she is already dead, withdrawn from the daily intercourse of the social, carnal world. Clutching her Bible, calling on her Christ and his mother, and all the angels in her heaven won’t stop the inevitability of a changing social order (116). Representative of the Ancien Régime, Granny must die to make way for the revolution. In this sense Granny’s death represents the end to historic restrictions on women and the end to Charles Perrault and his misogynistic narrative. “The last thing the old lady saw in all this world was a young man, eyes like cinders, naked as a stone, approaching her bed” (ibid.). The lycanthrope, with “His genitals, huge. Ah! huge” (ibid.), sexually and intellectually symbolizes the cycle of renewal and simultaneously is an ironic acknowledgment of Granny’s original nature as a sexual actor. Heralding this explicitly coupling of death and sexuality Carter resurrects the paean she used to introduce her story: “The wolf is carnivore incarnate” (ibid.). Devouring the flesh, embodying the flesh, the beast asserts the triumph of the flesh.

The tale’s dénouement is inevitable. It is neither a chaste story, nor is it a false morality play. Whether Red Riding Hood is devoured by the wolf or not, the reader knows Carter does not intend to chastise the young woman for her sexual impulses. Instead the author uses this opportunity to revisit Delarue’s folk tale reinsert some of the explicit sexuality Perrault excised. When Red Riding Hood recognizes the werewolf in Granny’s bed, she acknowledges “the blood she must spill” (117). Here Carter redirects the signifier: blood, from its historic signified: destruction of the flesh, to create a new oppositional sign; blood resulting from her soon-to-be torn hymen representing sexuality, fertility and the flesh reborn. The old signifier and the new signified unite to create a sign that celebrates carnal rights. Similarly the beasts’ howls, originally terror inducing, are re-contextualized: “(They are) howling as if their hearts would break… poor things” (ibid.), says Red Riding Hood. The wolves suffer, like women suffer, and so they, too, cry at their unfair fate. In an act of self-agency Red Riding Hood removes “her scarlet shawl… the color of sacrifices, the color of her menses, and since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid” (ibid.). Like any number of initiates throughout history, Red Riding Hood simultaneously fears and embraces the imminent change in her life. “What shall I do with my shawl? Throw it on the fire, dear one. You won’t need it anymore” the wolf replies (ibid.). This action is repeated until the young woman is naked. While the reader might think this was a baroque literary element Carter added to sexualize her story, the language comes verbatim from Delarue’s ur-tale. Similarly, in both tales Red Riding Hood willing climbs into the wolf’s bed where “she freely gave him the kiss she owed him” (118), and is initiated into her fully sexual self. “Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him” (ibid.), like the chorus of a song, Carter uses this phrase to reaffirm the essential carnality of the human condition. In the historic tale, after her sexual awakening, Red Riding Hood escapes by going outside to defecate and then running away. In Carter’s retelling, she needs no such subterfuge, with full self-agency and full awareness she has arrived at her journey’s destination: “sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf” (ibid.).

Thus the modern fairy tale can resolve with Red Riding Hood embracing her womanly right to exercise her sexual choices while the real wolf, the avaricious actors of class and sexual domination are dispatched, not through sharp, pointy weapons nor mortal state apparatus, but through a protagonist’s self-agency. Similarly, if we are to accept Felski’s essentialist position, authors like Carter utilize women’s writing style to uproot the oppressive texts of folk tales used historically to limit gender and class options, and such authors expand both the options and the tools we have to argue new meaning when confronting the hegemonic authority of the elite. To access the deeper meanings Felski tells us are embedded in the text, one can use the ideas of Saussure to look at ambiguity for meanings in the signifiers and signified authors chose to use. A werewolf need not only represent oppressive male sexual domination. If the reader looks closely enough it can represent a woman’s innate sexuality instead. With these tools a reader can again reevaluate the signs in the text to find both the denoted and the connoted meanings, ad infinitum. To see the class issues fairy tales have deliberately glossed over, concepts like Althusser’s problematic give us the necessary lens to reexamine what’s missing. When the actions of a character in a tale seem to veer into sexual parody, Judith Butler reminds us that all of this is a masquerade, that gender is a social construct rather than a predetermined and inflexible fact, and when we wonder what it is that we are, Foucault reminds us that in the act of asking we are still changing and redefining the answers to these questions. It is even possible, as we confront sexual, gender, class and racial stereotypes as the social constructs they are that a new literature, a new manifestation of popular culture can evolve that no longer depends on disparaging and objectifying others to elevate one’s spirits. Perhaps someday all readers, male and female, will discover Eros without the limitations of sexuality or gender, without destructive power dynamics. One can dream.

1 “‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is told on every continent, in every major language” (Orenstein 3)
2 “In the eleventh century, the scholar Egbert de Liège published the tale La petitie fille épargnée par les louveteaux [The Little Girl Spared By The Wolf Cubs], which presents the central and indispensable event of Little Red Riding Hood” (Velay-Vallantin 310)
3 “Sources: From Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Tales of times past with morals), also called Contes de Ma Mere L’Oye( Mother Goose tales), published by Claude Barbin, 1697” (Orenstein 20)
4 “Perrault’s audience would have readily recognized he setting of these tales. Sleeping Beauty passes through a hall of mirrors that is like the famous one at Court. … Cinderella wears dresses that recall Madame de Sévigné’s specific, detailed descriptions of the wardrobe of the King’s official mistress” (Orenstein 34)
5 “Monsieur Le Duc d’Orleans, the King’s bisexual brother, was so promiscuous that, according to one author, every Roman Catholic royal family of Europe can claim him among its ancestors” (Orenstein 24)
6 Carter ranks tenth on the UK Times list “The 50 greatest British Writers since 1945” 5 January 2008. The Times. Retrieved 10 May, 2012.
7 "carnis." Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 09 May. 2012. <>.
8 "cunnilingus." Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 09 May. 2012. .

Works Cited
Bacchielega, Cristina. 1997, “Not Re(a)d Once and For All” in Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press. pp 50-70. Print.

Carter, Angela. 1993 (1979). “The Company of Wolves,” in The Bloody Chamber. New York: Penguin Books. Pp 110-118. Print.

Carter, Angela. 2012 (1979). “Polemical Preface: Pornography in the service of women,” in The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. London: Virago Press. Pp 3-42. Print.

Felski, Rita. Literature after Feminism. Chicago. University Of Chicago Press 2003. Print.

Harries, Elizabeth W. Twice Upon A Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print.

Orenstein, Catherine. Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of the Fairy Tales. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Print.

Storey, John. 2009. “What Is Popular Culture?,” “Discourse and power: Michael Foucault,” “Orientalism,” and “Structuralism and Post-Structuralism” In Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. (Fifth Edition). Harlow, England: Pearson Education, Limited, Pp. 1-11, 101-103, 171-178, 111-134. Print.

Tatar, Maria, ed. 1999. “Introduction,” “Introduction: Little Red Riding Hood,” The Classic Fairy Tales: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: WW Norton, 1999. pp ix-xviii, Print.

Velay-Vallantin, Catherine. 1997. “Little Red Riding Hood as Fairy Tale, Fait-divers, and Children’s Literature: The Invention of Traditional Heritage” in Out of the Woods, ed.. Canepa, Nancy L. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. pp 306-351.

Zipes, Jack. The Trials & Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context. South Hadley MA: Bergin & Garvey Publishers. 1983. Print.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thank you, Adrienne Rich
(May 16, 1929 to March 28, 2012)

also A Rich Life at the Boston Phoenix

and Adrienne Rich at

and Living In Sin, an analysis at Tourettesdujour.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What’s so Criminal about Fiona Apple’s Award-winning Music & Video

Fiona Apple’s 1997 song “Criminal,” from her premiere album Tidal, is the biggest hit of her career so far, winning the Best Female Rock Performance Grammy Award at the 40th Grammy’s and peaking at #4 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks. The video version of the song, directed by big screen auteur Mark Romanek, won the 1998 MTV’s Best Cinematography award. Apple described the song as an ambivalent homage to the power of female sexuality. (Wikipeda: “Criminal”) The song begins with the lyrics: “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.” While the bad girl theme is not an uncommon motif in popular culture, popular culture products typically treat women as physically, emotionally, and sexually vulnerable. Sexually active women, especially women unfaithful to their male partners, typically are punished in popular entertainment. In this light it can be suggested Apple’s song and video conform to Antonio Gramsci’s ideology of “hegemony,” where “Organic Intellectuals” — pop singers in this case — provide “intellectual and moral leadership” utilized to negotiate a new consensus (Story, 80-81) regarding acceptable forms of sexual expression for women as our culture enters an era where autonomous women represent an ever increasing proportion of the economic and cultural community. The record company, Epic Records, a division of Sony Corporation, the second largest music publisher in the world, profited (obscenely) promoting this discourse while avoiding any threat to unrestricted capitalism, the keystone ideology of the most powerful component of our culture.

It’s worth noting that while this video is transgressive on a number of terms, it maintains substantial obeisance to the traditional male power manifestation of objectification of female body through voyeurism. (Rose, 109) In this case the power is shared as the scopophilic “object” (Apple) exercises scopophilic actions of her own, disrupting the standardized articulation between the viewer and the viewed and calling into question the semiology of the redirected “gaze.” Conventionally Apple objectifies both male and female bodies but more interestingly, Apple objectifies the spectator through aggressive and direct staring, and through the use of mechanisms such as cameras, photographs, and television screens, which serve to remind the viewers that they, too, are being observed. When a video monitor rises mysteriously out of the furniture, Apple’s on the screen, watching the viewer while still-photographs of her, also observing the viewer, emerge from another machine mere inches away. Scopophilia or Panopticon?

The music video opens with the pop singer pointing her camera directly at the viewer and taking a photograph. Her body is off-screen and her face is obscured by the camera, then the screen is momentarily white-washed by the singer’s camera flash. Thus, before we’ve had a chance to voyeuristically examine her, she has aggressively breached the invisible wall between viewer and viewed, making a “permanent” document which undermines the viewer’s sense of anonymity — in the first two seconds of the video. After visually panning over isolated consumer objects in an unidentified, middle-class domestile for several seconds, the singer reappears and takes a second flash photograph of the viewer! Apple is still completely obscured from our view, frustrating our sense of control over her as a scopophilic subject. After additional pans over unidentified consumer products, the singer reappears, camera in hand, no longer obscuring her face, but instead she stares intently, directly, and comfortably at the viewer, again disrupting the articulation between the viewer and the viewed. Immediately thereafter Apple is shown reclining on the ground, clothed but in a sexually suggestive pose entwined with other partially clothed women and the lyrics begin: “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.” The singer now sits up, looks directly at the viewer provocatively and confrontationally as her lyrics continue, “I’ve been careless with a delicate man.” This directly confronts the traditional semiology of masculinity by linking it with “delicacy,” a more feminine signifier.

The video continues in this vein delicately dancing between titillating and confronting the heterosexual male viewer. While there are no overt sex acts depicted nor mimed, the heterosexual male and homosexual female viewer see an aggressive young woman who predominantly, but not universally, takes what she wants. It’s worth noting that except for the pop singer, all other male and female bodies in this video have been depersonalized and objectified. Rarely is there even a portion of another person’s face shown, and frequently the viewer only sees small portions of objectified, sexualized bodies. Overtly voyeuristic, this video and the song it illustrates, disrupt the dominant paradigms of man as aggressor and woman as passive recipient. In a bathtub scene, in which male domination is inferred by showing an unidentified man with his feet on the singer’s neck, the text disrupts our expectations with Apple’s loud, powerful, and confident voice: “I know tomorrow brings the consequence at hand, but I keep livin’ this day like the next will never come,” she then responds orgiastically to her partner’s caresses. It’s hard to rationalize this female pop singer as a passive or reluctant under such circumstances.

With all this sexual heat it’s easy to overlook all that the video has neglected, Pierre Macherey suggests that viewing a text as having a single meaning is an “interpretive fallacy.” He states “all texts are ‘decentred’ in the specific sense that they consist of a confrontation between several discourses: explicit, implicit, present and absent” (Storey, 74). “Criminal,” in its adoring and salacious examination of inanimate consumer objects from vacuum cleaners to automobiles from liquor products to fashion attire, fails to negotiate or recognize the ever-diminishing purchasing power of the modern middle-class paycheck. What good is it to want these products if the average person can no longer afford even middle-class “luxuries”? It also fails to acknowledge or address the growing class of women and children living in poverty, the too-typical result of the sorts of steamy adolescent intercourse the film lustily depicts. Systemically, like in every hegemonic interaction funded by the power-class, the film fails to mediate on the profound economic injustice that is destroying the American Dream. The other factor that the video, “Criminal,” references but fails to mediate is the ever-growing problem of our non-existent privacy, of the panoptic nature of modern living. Yes, we enjoy, sexually and otherwise, surreptitiously viewing our neighbor’s bodies but all of us also are constantly on view for other purposes. Without our permission or awareness, the average American is photographed and videotaped hundreds of times a day by cameras installed, “panoptically,” in every part of our environment and those cameras monitor our every moment. “The major effect of the Panopticon [is] to induce … a state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Storey, 131). “Criminal” seems to tell us that power structure doesn’t care who fucks whom, but it also lets us clearly see that it’s always watching.

Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies, An Introduction (2nd edition). London, England: Sage Publications Ltd. 2007. Print.
Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, An Introduction (5th edition). Essex, England: Pearson Education Ltd. 2009. Print.

“Criminal.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 7 Feb, 2012. Web. 12 March, 2012.
“Fiona Apple.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 12 March, 2012. Web. 12 March, 2012.
“Fiona Apple-Criminal.” Mark Romanek. YouTube. 1997. Web. 12 March, 2012.
“Fiona Apple & Mark Romanek: Filming ‘Criminal’.” Mark Romanek. YouTube. 20 May, 2010. Web. 12 March, 2012.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It's way past time to free Leonard Peltier.

Dear President Obama
Perhaps the only Americans America has treated worse then African-Americans are the people who were here first, the Native Americans. The history of institutional violence towards the First Peoples is well documented and continues to this day.

Whether it is the Bureau of Indian Affairs/U.S. Department of the Interior’s continued, deliberate mismanagement of Native owned natural resource rights (see Judge Royce C. Lamberth’s recent rulings in Cobell v. Salazar), the Termination Program instituted during the Presidency of Dwight D Eisenhower (see House Concurrent Resolution 108 in 1953 and Public Law 28) which resulted in the illegal conversion to private ownership of approximately 1,365,801 acres lands previously held as tribal lands, or hundreds of legislative acts going back to the founding of our great country, the record of abuse suffered by Native Americans by our hands is a national disgrace. Perhaps you didn’t realize, as the person who best represents our great tradition of religious freedom, that Native Peoples were legally prohibited from practicing their religious beliefs until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) of 1978! I certainly was unaware of this until recently. Despite the progress our country has made in so many ways, the disgraceful and abusive treatment of America’s First Peoples continues to this day and shames our nation and the principles upon which this nation was established.

It is as a direct result of the illegal Termination Program of 1953 that my appeal comes to you today. The American Indian Movement, much like the several civil rights movements of the 1960s, was founded responsive to the theft of Native rights and lands and the hateful tradition of violence inflicted upon the Native Peoples at the hands of racists and opportunists who valued money and profits over Native lives. In 1975 Leonard Peltier (now Federal Prisoner #89637-1320) answered the call to the people of the American Indian Movement for help and put himself between those who would kill Native Peoples for their lands and natural resources and those whose rights were again being betrayed. Since Mr. Peltier’s trial in1977, evidence continues to come to light in appeal after appeal that directly contradicts that which was presented by the government at the trial where Mr Peltier was convicted of the murder of two FBI agents and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Even the FBI itself has acknowledged that the Bureau withheld exculpatory evidence; that the rifle linked to Mr. Peltier was not his nor had he ever been associated with that weapon; that the rifle in question was not actually at the scene or used in the crime; that the ‘eye-witness’ who testified against Mr. Peltier — a woman alleged to be Mr. Peltier’s ‘girl-friend’ —had never met Mr. Peltier; and that there was no way for the FBI to prove who fired the shots that killed the agents. Nor has the FBI ever explained why it sent more than 50 agents to the reservation that night, ostensibly to arrest a man who stole a pair of used cowboy boots. In the end the last appeal acknowledged that Mr. Peltier hadn’t killed the agents but stated that his actions “aided and abetted” those who did and thus his sentence was reasonable and appropriate!

Mr. Peltier has already served 34-years for “aiding and abetting.” There are many former prisoners who were actively involved in murder who served less than one eighth of the sentence Mr. Peltier has already served on these trumped up charges! In 2009 Mr. Peltier again came before the United States Parole Commission and he was again denied parole. If he lives so long, Mr. Peltier is allowed to again petition for parole in 2024, at which point he will have served nearly 50 years for a crime everyone acknowledges he didn’t commit. Like Nelson Mandela, Mr. Peltier is no common criminal, but a political prisoner held by a dangerously corrupted system that ignores both the actual evidence and the history of oppression that placed Mr. Peltier and those like him in harm’s way. At this point his, and America’s only hope, is executive clemency. I know that such acts are more typically granted to connected, white, wealthy, powerful people like Scooter Libby and Marc Rich but I’m hoping that you will give some serious thought to undoing some small part of the great damage this country has done to the people who were here first by either pardoning Leonard Peltier or commuting his sentence. I would very much appreciate hearing your thoughts on this matter. I would be even more appreciative if you took action to right the wrongs suffered by this courageous and heroic American.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

How I learned to stop hating Hofmann.

Hans Hofmann’s “Effervescence” 1944, A(n in)Formal Analysis.

Examining Hans Hofmann’s “Effervescence,” a painting he completed in 1944, in the very institution that was built to house this collection of 47 masterworks his wife gave to the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught in 1930 and 1931, is an ouroboros exercise — where does the tail of the snake who eats itself end? I selected Hofmann’s piece because I’ve never like Hofmann’s work and I don’t understand why it’s important, especially this work which is given prominence in the exhibit by its dominating location. Perhaps this paper will help me discover his relevance. In that light I also purchased and read Hofmann’s Search for the Real, to better help me understand and respond to this work.

Hofmann’s “Effervescence” is a painting approximately 36 inches wide by 54.5 inches tall utilizing the materials of oil paint, casein, enamel, and India ink applied to a plywood panel. Hung in a room devoted to Hofmann’s work, it is backlit by a floor-to-ceiling picture window overlooking a portion of the Berkeley Art Museum’s exterior gardens. The walls and floor and ceiling of the museum are the neutral gray of its concrete building material with no softening modern building design elements or colors. The net effect is not entirely unlike creating a cave or a cavern where the art is meant to be the most prominent element of the landscape, and it is clear that displaying artworks was the most important design criteria for the curators and architects. It should also be noted that this structure has distinct and unique acoustic properties that may play a role in creating a sacred space for the viewing of art. The painting is well illuminated by gallery display lights that are far from the painting and out of sight for the viewer. Neither the painting’s frame nor its surroundings visibly overwhelm or even intrude on the work and there are no readily visible placards identifying the work. Despite that the painting was viewed during a class visit, and that there were at least two different classes visiting the museum that day, the gallery is not crowed and the painting is not obstructed and was easily approached. Even the museum guards kept a respectful distance from the object and the viewer.

The structure of the painting is immediately discernable: Over a thin neutral gray wash which does little to conceal the texture of the surface of the painting, which presumably was coated in gesso, the artist has imposed two large triangles of color. A soft, cool, organic green wash roughly bisects the canvas diagonally from upper right to lower left claiming more than the lower half of the painting. It varies in density and tone allowing multiple brushstokes to build up a color density that gives the work both warmth and intrigue. Similarly a warm flesh- pink color, green’s complement, washes over the image defining a rough triangle in the upper left quadrant of the painting, oppositional to the vegetal-green shape. In both cases the underlying gray brushwork is allowed to show through, especially in those areas surrounding the center image of the painting. The pink and green brushwork is loose and irregular causing the pigments to pile up in some sections creating a texture and density of color that further defines the organic, natural and nature-like qualities of the image’s defining edges. I have the sense that Hofmann was intent on creating a frame within which to constrain the exuberant central image yet to come, and he is noted for saying that the first line placed on a canvas is in fact the fifth line in the composition. He uses his colors, pink and green with added white pigment, to add texture and depth in the major color-fields he has created, and to define a hard pink, slightly curved line at the top of the painting, which encloses the image and forces our eye back down into the composition.

The next application of paint on the image are two large black areas that have a solidity, fluidity and high gloss appearance suggesting the pigment was poured on to rather than brushed on to the panel. In that the Hans Hofmann catalogue states that this image was created using oil paints, enamel paints, casein paints and India ink, it is reasonable to assume that this is black enamel paint, and that after pouring the media onto the panel in a circular glob at the top of the ‘canvas,’ Hofmann manipulated it to create a bubbled derby-looking top shape with a bold black curving line, similar to the brim of a hat. The black line is parallel and in opposition to the previously noted nearby pink line that tops the painting. A second large black structural element appears to have been splotched and blotched into a large roughly rectangular shape that is allowed to drip and run down the vertical surface of the composition, pulled by gravity but restrained by the viscosity of the material in a slow moving barely controlled ooze that actually runs off the lower left edge of the painting in a thin diagonal streak. These two dense black elements dominate the central third of the image and the contrasting color value of the black against the soft pastel pink and green forces a great depth into the image, almost as though the viewer were staring into an abyss. As an aside, the resulting black shapes Hofmann created in “Effervescence” are strikingly similar to ink sketches the artist composed while teaching in California in 1931. This is also suggested in Search for the Real: “In Hofmann’s simplified representations of landscape, such as the drawings (“Island in the Bay, California” and “Trees and Landscapes, California,” both 1931), it is possible to observe shapes which reappear in his later abstract paintings” (pps 16-17). Despite the obvious similarities, the painting “Effervescence” is not specifically identified as such an example.

Reasserting control over the painting’s liquid ‘accidents,’ Hofmann uses the diagonal runaway drip as impetus to create two black slash lines upon the image, both starting on the far right side of the composition. The first, a thick black brush stroke that breaks the painting’s edge, parallel but in the opposite direction of the drip, fights gravity, and rises out of the upper portion of the dominant black rectangular element to pierce the upper right side-edge of the work. The second, a much more tentative gesture, takes a runaway drip and directs it diagonally from the bottom right edge into the center bottom of the composition. The quality of this line is similar to the thin, indistinct quality of the original runaway drip. Tending toward transparency and ending directly in the middle of the work, this insubstantial black line frames the composition at the bottom just as the hard pink line frames the composition at the top. Each line, pink and black, directs our attention back into the image.

At approximately the same time the artist established the painting’s heavy black gravitational foundation, which defines the deepest depth of “Effervescence,” using his brush he developed an ash-blue shadow on top of a portion of the triangular pink area that resembles a large skeleton-key hole shape in the upper left center of the painting. This element is possibly responsive to the upper right black hat-shape. While not exactly complementary colors, the pink and the blue work together to create a sharp vibrational contrast that draws our attention more than one would normally expect. This is the only place in “Effervescence” where Hofmann has used the color blue, and he carefully modeled the shape to give it a texture and substantial solidity that might balance the density of the nearly monolithic, abstract black hole that also demands our focus at the top of the painting. While the bottom of the keyhole shape dissolves into the central image, even in its dissolution it implies a solid, deliberately artist-crafted element, receding yet still balancing the central image. Atop this blue shape and at several intersections of colors throughout the work Hofmann has dribbled an earthy brown pigment that struggles with the black voids in a war for control of our focus. Toward the center of the painting and on the right side of the blue keyhole shape, where the dribbled brown paint intersects the brushed blue shape, this color has created a plane or ‘face’ and a hard right edge which draws the viewer’s focus into the central image and down the canvas. Like blood the loose brown line works further down the painting only to then follow the original runaway black streak diagonally off the lower left edge of the composition. Spiritually, not figuratively, it suggests death’s black hand wrestling in a battle for supremacy with life’s bloody, fecal earthiness. Another dribbled and smudged heavy brown streak vertically bisects the rough black rectangle, cleaving deep up into it, while a third, much lighter and thinner downward dribbling streak, like the third tine on a trident, approaches but does not penetrate the far right edge of the image, constraining the gloom and delicately redirecting our attention back into the painting.

The penultimate layer of the painting is an explosion of thick, glossy liquid white casein splotches, while organic and accidental, clearly also referencing Hofmann’s earlier sketches, but in white this time rather than black. The thorough art history researcher learns from the “Guide to the Hans Hofmann Collection of the Online Archive of California” that “‘Effervescence’ consists of pools of pigment poured and dripped onto the canvas with little premeditation.” Further the casual researcher is told: “By welcoming chance effects, Hofmann introduced the aesthetic of controlled accident into his work.” In “Effervescence” it is obvious that Hofmann slopped and poured and pushed around the thick, glossy, brilliant white casein on the surface of his carefully layered composition as an antidote to the gravitational pull of his large dark black voids. Like clotted cream Hofmann freely layered numerous organic globules of this ancient milk-based pigment onto his work creating a perfect, nearly-sterile counterpoint to the organic, natural lushness of the colored elements of the painting while also using the powerful stark white to contrast with the heavy dark black holes he had earlier created. It is with the white elements — one might suggest ‘highlights’ — that the magic of creative transformation occurs. What had previously been simply a process suddenly becomes a “living object.” Like fresh flower buds, two white blossoms, also breast-like, define the center of the painting. Pushing out, up and away from the mass of the central form, these twin white globules both draw our eye’s attention and push our gaze out into either side of the painting. Another small splotch of white casein, higher on the image, establishes a central axis for the composition. These shapes, lacking color, work together to create a strong vertical orientation to the ambiguous central image. While there are several additional small splotches of casein descending on the far right side of the image, the remaining dominant white element is a large, amputated white triangular shape centered in the image that falls off the bottom of the painting. This white shape also works to anchor the composition while reaffirming a white vertical axis for the central image. Attached to the top of this truncated triangular shape is a poured white casein gesture that dribbles diagonally up and to the right into the image encouraging our eye to continually move restlessly around the painting.

Hofmann’s final gestures are delicate black India ink lines, mostly in the white areas at the bottom of the painting, which are deliberately introduced to define texture, volume and direction to his otherwise mostly accidental applications of pigments. These are “the hand of man,” working both visually and symbolically to reassert the artist’s control over the various accidents of process that have created this painting. It must be plainly stated that this work, which resembles but precedes Jackson Pollock’s famous dribble paintings, does not appear to be crafted as a representational image. That said, in the final analysis, all human gestures are symbolic, and all symbols are representational if one has the proper tools with which to interpret the message. Hans Hofmann was 64 years old when “Effervescence” was created and he’d been a studio artist and art instructor for many decades. His “casual” gestures and the “accidents of process” not withstanding, this work is balanced and has a composition that not only references the outer world but demands that the viewer also seek to understand and interpret what may have started out as a series of random processes but inevitably must be resolved into a meaningful image.

Fred Dodsworth © February 23, 2010

Hofman, Hans, edited by Sara T. Weeks and Bartlett H. Hays, Jr. Search for the Real, and other essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts. M.I.T. Press, 1967.
“The Guide to the Hans Hofmann Collection.” Online Archive of California. University of California’s Digital Library. Web. February 25, 2011. (