Fy Mlog

The International Space Orchestra, 2012: The Final Frontier

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To the slammer!

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Magicians in California, a year ago.

Foreword to some weird stuff. 23rd September 2013.

Last summer I went to California and, like, got my mind blown. I think I’m a valley girl through and through – whether in Wales or California, I don’t mind. I saw some crazy things in the Elephant Room, which popped up in LA, and also went to the wonderful town of Truckee near Lake Tahoe. Truckee’s only at an altitude of 1,773m, but by the time my friend Brooke had raced us there in her SUV - stopping only when we ground to a halt on the side of the freeway to Reno, out of gas for the second time in one trip!* - I was tripping out Tahoe-style. We were swimming in a snowmelt that glistens with fool’s gold and my earthly being had evaporated. By the time I went to bed I was practically hallucinating what I would now call Shamanistic flashes of sound and vision (#Bowie). We had just eaten a pizza the size of my mum’s dining room table.

* (see below and above photos of my friend Phoebe filling up with the aid of Highway Patrol near San José) 

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Out of Gas #1: Highway Patrolman from Fresno

I woke up on my first morning in Truckee to see a book entitled Living with the Dead right under the Pig Pen poster that adorned my bedroom wall. Was the house haunted as suspected when I was falling asleep…?

Or maybe the whole place is? Seems reasonable, Brooke agreed, if you think about the Donner Party story, for example (see below).

I have in the past coasted lucidly at high speed through 5,000m passes in the foothills of the Himalayas (driven by a very stoned person) as others around me passed out with altitude sickness, and have lived with equanimity in a haunted house in France as others around me lost their minds - but nothing could prepare me for Truckee.

Needless to say Living with the Dead was our eminently dude-like host’s book about The Grateful Dead (feat. Pig Pen). 

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Valley girl, lost to the wilds of California

I went to California to write about Nelly Ben Hayoun’s International Space Orchestra for a magazine called Disegno - and look what happened. Below is a version of that article, the writer’s cut, as penned with the feeling that you could prop a ladder up in Topanga Canyon and climb to the moon, that the world is nothing but chemicals (oh to be young again! oh California!). Yesterday I saw Nelly’s film about the ISO at the V&A and I was so moved to see a document of this crazy time, as well as footage of the ISO’s music being blasted into space! 

Read on below and learn more here http://www.nellyben.com/ !

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Magician to Mars or What Just Happened?

On the Trail of Nelly Ben Hayoun

A private memorial service for Neil Armstrong, all-American hero astronaut, was held on 31st  August 2012, just as a blue moon rose low over California – a second full moon in one earthly calendar month. On 5th August (Pacific Daylight Time), the month’s first moon had been flying high over NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles, which erupted with human joy as the Curiosity Rover touched down on the surface of Mars. Cheering the non-human, but hugely anthropomorphised Curiosity Rover from the NASA Ames Research Centre at Moffett Field, Silicon Valley[1], was a somewhat incongruous figure: an artist who, in record time, has successfully infiltrated an institution which, since its inception in 1958, has propagated a particular idea of America - on the Moon and now on Mars. “I call myself a designer,” Nelly Ben Hayoun tells me during a break from rehearsing her International Space Orchestra – made up largely of NASA Ames employees - in a former military ballroom on the Moffett Field site. “But when I work with scientists, I create chaos.”

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I first met Nelly in July 2012 in London. She is vivacious, distinctive, deliberately French, the face of Nelly Ben Hayoun Studio (an ‘experience designer’) and, as of now, a brand - just look at her Twitter feed, her websites, the jumpsuits which she receives, in a form of sponsorship deal from Ruby Rocks, to confirm this. She told me she was planning to create an orchestra composed of astronauts and space scientists, a kind of focus group for researching a ‘mission control room opera’ she is planning to stage as an extension of her research (in the field of human geography) into high-pressure situations. The only problem was, her initial endeavours had led to political complications with her US visa application: who, Homeland Security were asking, is this woman (self-identifying as French and Armenian) reaching into the heart of America? But a few weeks later Ben Hayoun had tweeted a photo of herself – in one of her trademark jumpsuits – sharing a jovial moment with the Director of NASA Ames, Simon P. “Pete” Worden (retired Brigadier General of the US Air Force). Pete Worden is, in the picture, dressed as a Viking, fresh from a talk on the future of Mars exploration - the costume, his own. Valhalla I am coming, the picture announced, just weeks before the Curiosity Rover ‘tweeted’ “GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!” in a style more American Pie than American dream. Significantly, Ben Hayoun’s intervention at NASA Ames could be seen to have resonated somewhat more clearly with Pete Worden’s immigrant song.

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By September 6th 2012, the International Space Orchestra (ISO: Nelly Ben Hayoun Studio’s trademark pending) was performing for the cameras, having spent weeks rehearsing in the shadow of Hangar One – a structure that has been stripped of its toxic coating and stands like a spider from Mars over Moffett Field.[2] And I had received my invitation to Ground Control: An Opera in Space, “inspired by our desire to understand the universe and rocket-propel our souls to further galaxies.” The stellar list of collaborators includes Bobby Womack, Damon Albarn, Japanese performance artist Maywa Denki, composer and Penguin Café Orchestra founder Arthur Jeffes, lyrics by science fiction author Bruce Sterling in collaboration with author Jasmina Tesanovic, and musical direction by Grammy Award-winning composer Evan Price. The piece premiered in San Jose, California, as part of the city’s ZERO1 Biennial, which focuses on work at the meeting-point of art and technology.

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Flying Nelly. Photo from Nelly Ben Hayoun.

“Why did I want I want to do an opera?” Ben Hayoun suddenly asks as we bomb down the freeway in a clapped-out Volvo towards Moffett Field. “Because I am a designer, or I consider myself to be a designer, and I don’t know anything about operatic forms.I am interested in the control room as a stage for opera: a place where intense decision-making takes place. Probably because I am trying to figure out what design is in some ways and how I can push it…” Speaking of her librettist, cult science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, Ben Hayoun hypothesises that – as he has never written for opera before – his obstacle-filled conversations with musical director Evan Price will break new ground: “they don’t speak the same language and yet somehow they can understand each other.” Can you hear me Major Tom? As Computer Scientist Peter I. Robinson (Bassoon, ISO) puts it, “We’re kind of the natural successors to Bowie.”

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McMoon’s.

It was a first for many people. Astronaut Yvonne Cagle (Percussion, ISO) – had never played an instrument. Bobby Womack was to perform his funky new work ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’ with a musical arrangement by Damon Albarn[3]. “I just really want this to be a success for Nelly,” Barbara Navarro, Asst. Chief at the Flight Systems Implementation Branch at NASA Ames (Trumpet, ISO), told me during one of the rehearsals running on a weekday from 5pm – 7pm, just after the close of day’s work on Moffett Field. Barbara is currently working on a design for a cage that will enable scientists to send animals into space for a protracted period of time. It’s difficult to keep them from rolling around in their own shit and food in zero gravity conditions without the right equipment.Ben Hayoun galvanised these people around her – a political and, she would argue, performative feat itself. John Cumbers (Choir, ISO) even offered up his young child, for the show, in which his fictional role as ‘flight director’ was dramatised in series of dynamic movements amongst which he proposed including the symbolic act of pulling his child from the kind of sturdy box more usually employed to transport space equipment (eventually she was placed in a custom-made rocket outfit).By day John is a synthetic biologist who is working on the necessary science to create food from DNA that will facilitate sustenance for longer manned missions. NASA administrator Charles Bolden Jr said, on the occasion of the rover landing, “President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid 2030s and today’s landing marks a significant step in achieving this goal”. Scientists like John are at the forefront of these efforts.

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NASA Ames toilets.

When I speak one-on-one to Ben Hayoun, her persona as Director and Creator of the ISO (that deliberate Frenchness which has so charmed everyone from Pete Worden to John Cumbers’s nine-month old child) drops somewhat. I am speaking to someone who is impressively strategic about a project that has accelerated from zero to infinity in two earthly months (she is currently in talks with various parties on the Moffett Field site about broadcasting the ISO repertoire infinitely, to the ends of the universe; the vaulting ambition here is only slightly diminished by the recent broadcast from Mars of will. i. am’s song Reach For the Stars.). In certain respects, yes, Ben Hayoun is like some cat from Japan. Indeed, she was trained in the secretive art of kimono design by Japanese masters (again, achieving a unique access as a ‘foreigner’) before studying Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art, London under Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (Ben Hayoun initially studied medicine for a short time). Following on from her kimono-print training, a subsequent interest in ritual led her to arrange the marriage of her whole family in the south of France. She has since emerged as a key figure in ‘experience design’.

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Hangar One

Ben Hayoun describes her way of working as that of a ‘samurai’ - as she immerses herself in extreme situations. But hers is an antic disposition, by means of which indirections she has already found many directions out. The spectacle of the ISO laid bare the politics of the Moffett Field site, and the hierarchy that exists there. On the one hand this hierarchy is tested playfully within the ranks of the ISO as participants perform roles senior in the imagined mission control room to their actual ‘superiors’ at NASA Ames (John Cumbers plays flight director whilst the real flight director, Rusty Hunt, works the sax); on the other hand, the tested sphere of hierarchy extends to the commercial ventures such as SpaceX and Moon Express which share the site at Moffett Field.In May 2012 Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corp. conducted a successful mission to the International Space Station, and Pete Worden has been consistently alert to the benefits of commercial interests to NASA Ames research: “We also hope to inveigle some billionaires to form a Hundred Year Starship Fund,” he stated at a ‘Long Conversation’ event in San Francisco earlier in 2012. “The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds. Twenty years ago you had to whisper that in dark bars and get fired.” It’s hard to imagine what this colonial aim is all about when the so-called ‘Goldilocks zone’ (where planetary conditions are neither too hot nor too cold to support life) is so unreachable. Kepler 22-b, the closest thing to another Earth that has ever been detected, is 600 light years away. Maybe it’s as Jed Mercurio writes in his space-race novel Ascent, ‘Perhaps only in sport does a man measure himself against another man in any sense that’s true.’

It has been a summer of vaulting ambition, an international celebration of superhuman achievement and America was not to be outdone. Whilst Neil Armstrong’s life was claimed for humanity, ‘for mankind’, the celebration of the Rover mission was a very American affair. A banner was raised at the entrance to Moffett Field after the landing, during the London Olympics: “NASA wins gold! They stuck the landing!!” Obama extended his presidential congratulations: “Tonight, on the planet Mars the United States of America made history. It proves that even the longest odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.”Manned space flight is undergoing something of an ideological revival, maybe the hunt for a new Armstrong figure is on – we need more stars for the mighty firmament! But as the UK’s ‘astronomer royal’ recently wrote in The Guardian, ‘It is foolish to claim, as some do, that emigration into space offers a long-term escape from Earth’s problems. Nowhere in our solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest.’ And US funding for Mars missions is set to fall from $587 million in 2012 to $360.8 million, a figure comparable to the budget of the recent Disney flop John Carter ($350 million) that all but bankrupted the studio with a loss of $200 million. No one was into the story of a Confederate soldier on Mars, who would surely turn in his mock-grave at the thought that the Red Planet too had been claimed for the Union – even if this ambition must be funded by a new set of pioneers.

Moon Express, for example, was founded with the goal of exploring ‘resource utilisation’ in space (top rhetorical tip from Moffett Field: don’t speak of ‘mining’ or ‘bombing’ the moon or asteroids, which are governed by the same international laws as those governing fishing in international waters). Moon Express is amongst the competitors seeking to win the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize for the first privately-funded team to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon. But Ben Hayoun has established her own competition: who on the Moffett Field site can recreate as a sound the kind of vibrations that emanated from Neil Armstrong’s one small step? Moon Express Project Engineer Mike Vergalla has risen to the challenge - with the aid of a vacuum chamber, an accelerometer and a vibration sensor - and was soon trying to sell Ben Hayoun the means to create such an auditory signal from one of the lander feet of the first three Moon Express missions.

“We’re the company sending stuff to the Moon, so why not work with us as a customer? We are a business.”

“Oh my God, Mike, you are so good! You are basically selling something to a very poor artist!” 

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Freaky Donner Lake.

In March 1846 George Donner, a successful farmer from Illinois, placed the following advertisement in the Sangamon Journal newspaper:

WESTWARD HO! FOR OREGON AND CALIFORNIA!

Who wants to go to California without costing them anything?

Come on boys! You can have as much land as you want without costing you anything.

But can anyone go to California without costing them anything? 

When the eighty-nine members of ‘The Donner Party’ set off, little did they suspect that their story would become one of the most infamous in the history of the United States – which at that point were far from being defined. Over half a million emigrants crossed the plains before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, but the Donner Party’s desperate situation (they became stranded in early snows north of Lake Tahoe, and resorted, over the course of a savage winter, to cannibalism of ‘the loathsome flesh’) has been meticulously documented. Walt Whitman, also in 1846, had written in his column for the Brooklyn Eagle: “Then there is California, in the way to which lovely tract lies Santa Fe. How long a time will elapse before they shine as two new stars in our mighty firmament?” To the pioneers, stepping into the unknown hazards of the majestic West must have been like travelling to another planet.

If ‘USA’ has long been the world’s most successful brand, then it has been based on a formula: a bold claim of union that preceded political success (if there ever has been real union among these stars). The brand is a magic trick that actively pumps stars into the firmament; a sleight of hand in which pioneer spirit is pulled from undignified corpses. Native American communities, and others too, still hold the star-spangled banner upside down as a sign of ‘distress’ – an act most recently reported at the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa. The original ‘Occupy’ movement might have been in February 1973, when 200 members of the American Indian Movement occupied the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. “Right here at Wounded Knee,” Olowan Thunder Hawk Martinez was recently quoted as saying, in National Geographic: “This is where the idea of me happened.”

The idea of what it is to be American perhaps found its perfect articulation in the figure of Neil Armstrong. His modesty prevailed (“I was certainly aware that this was the culmination of the work of 300,000 to 400,000 people over a decade”), but, like it or not, he was anointed a star. Armstrong flew as a Navy fighter during the Korean war (in which the Soviets flew under a cloak of invisibility), and clocked up more than 1,000 hours as a test pilot in the world’s fastest aircraft, but – as Tom Wolfe found when it came to seeking out ‘the right stuff’ – such heroes can be lifted from military history, ‘for mankind’.

“We’re going to the moon,” says Vergalla and when Ben Hayoun asks “Who’s we?” he clarifies his position: “I say we as the, like, collective mind and sensors that is our human reach on things.” But at the same time, Vergalla wants to stick his own landing. His whole life has been a preparation for the astronaut training he hopes to undertake by his mid-thirties. I suspect that, as with Wendy Holforty, Aerospace Engineer (Guitar and Choir, ISO), the word ‘fail’ is not in Vergalla’s vocabulary. When Ben Hayoun – a chain-smoking artist who has him crawling on the ground at Moffett Field to recreate ‘the magic one’ (the sound of a footstep in a semi-vacuum) – reveals that she too plans to train as an astronaut, Vergalla’s immediate reaction is not one of incredulity, but to offer a number of variations on “I’m cool with that” and “I’m not threatened”: “Start sailing 500 mile sea races and then we’ll talk.”

For Ben Hayoun this is ‘political design’, in which, as designer, she adopts a position, which is both disruptive and revealing. On other occasions, however, she simply marvels at this situation of her own making. She says it will take her three years to go through her archive to work out what just happened and that she will write her findings up as part of that PhD in human geography: “I’ve been trained in my family to be the person who can perform, and I can see that it is totally, totally making it with this project. I can go in someone’s office and I can persuade him [to get involved] in five minutes. All of these things are just so surreal”. Indeed, Barbara Navarro’s eyes pop with delight when Ben Hayoun says that she intends to train as an astronaut and that she has already secured letters of recommendation from her champion and mentor the former head of NASA Ames Jack Boyd. “If you can get a letterhead with the Meatball on it, then that’ll be something,” Barbara half-whispers, referring to the legendary NASA logo that was only momentarily replaced by the controversial 1980s-style ‘worm’ logo (which nonetheless spawned the Nice and Safe Attitude clothing brand).

I put it to Ben Hayoun that her personal investment in this ‘political design’ project must also be a romance with space. Her previous projects include The Soyuz Chair, a chair that recreates the experience of lift-off atop the Soviet Soyuz rocket (the Russians still lead the way in rocket design, although the Americans are currently working on a rocket that may or may not be for future Mars missions, according to one source at NASA Ames). But no, she tells me. It’s about impossible situations, the way of the samurai. Her ambition to become an American astronaut would be a prime example of such an impossible situation, notably because she is not an American citizen. Perhaps Ben Hayoun’s affinity with Pete Worden and Jack Boyd is founded in their particular avant-gardism, which embraces the possibility of ridicule and failure as well as personal sacrifice in a country that seemed to back down from its ambitions in the face of the space-shuttle disasters. Worden, for example, and controversially, has mooted the possibility of ‘one way missions’ to Mars. As scientists Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies have written, ‘Explorers such as Columbus, Frobisher, Scott and Amundsen, while not embarking on their voyages with the intention of staying at their destination, nevertheless took huge personal risks to explore new lands, in the knowledge there was a significant likelihood that they would perish in the attempt.’ And didn’t Vikings discover the Americas?

Nelly Ben Hayoun and Pete Worden work with a humour that announces itself, after Beckett, more Worstward Ho, than Westward Ho, embracing the thought that there’s nothing new under the sun, from Donner Pass to Silicon Valley to Mars: ‘All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Peter I. Robinson is delighted with this injection of avant-gardism back into the NASA ecosystem and shares with me his thoughts about the art that inspired him to join the ranks of what Ray Bradbury called ‘a truly future-oriented avant-garde’: the artists of the modern world, the space pioneers. Bradbury found Sir Edmund Hilary’s response to the question: why climb Everest? (“Because it was there.”) ‘meaningless’[4] – but, is this not the highest truth: that hurling objects at the moon ‘as the, like, collective mind and sensors that is our human reach on things’ is an extension of what Orwell called the ‘sporting contests [that] lead to orgies of hatred’[5]. For Orwell, sport was war by other means. Maybe after a 500-mile sea race, Mike Vergalla should talk further to Nelly Ben Hayoun, whose intervention at NASA Ames has surely created vibrations that might sound only as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of an accelerometer and a conductor’s baton – but which echo through various dimensions, past, present and future.

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Freaky pelican.

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WTF 

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A cat called Pyewacket. San Francisco. 

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Somehow I also ended up in Detroit. 

[1] The Moffett Field site is owned by the US Navy (the 1,000+ acres were purchased for $1 in the 1930s) and is the home of Hangar One, the largest aircraft hangar in the world. Over its history, Moffett Field has been home to the Army Air Corps, Navy, NATS, MATS, NASA and is also now used as a landing site for the Google execs’ private jets. It’s a mixture of military, government and private commercial enterprises. http://historicproperties.arc.nasa.gov/history/history3.html

[2] Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt – the CEO, co-founder and executive chairman of Google – had proposed paying the full $33 million cost of rendering Hangar One fit for (totally unclear) purpose again with the condition they could use two-thirds of the floorspace to house their eight private jets. Hangar One is a structure wide enough to fit three Titanics inside - side by side. It is currently looking unlikely that Google will be permitted to lay claim to this historic and now largely symbolic structure, which is the property of the US Navy but which The White House Office of Budget and Management has stipulated should be the financial responsibility of NASA. There is significant local concern about Hangar One, as the structure is seen to represent an important part of US aviation history.

[3] Unfortunately Bobby Womack was prevented from performing by illness.

[4] ‘We climb not because Space is there, but because the gift of life, of seeing, of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching is worth survival.’ (Ray Bradbury, Introduction to In the Stream of Stars: The Soviet American Space Art Book (NY: Workman Publishing, 1990)

[5] Tribune, 14 December 1945, re. Anglo-Soviet relations via the visit of the football team Dynamo Moscow.


In Turkey, 2013

Taksim Square outside Gezi Park, June 15th 2013 from Ute Zucker on Vimeo.

About an hour prior to the violent clearing of Gezi Park in Istanbul on the evening of Saturday June 15th 2013, just as musicians finished playing to an enthusiastic crowd on what was the park’s central stage, one man, on the southern edge of the park, on the border of Taksim Square, took a roll of parcel tape and started to wind it methodically, deliberately, absurdly around bollards in an optimistic attempt to create a buffer zone between the world within the park and the ranks of riot police massing outside the condemned structure of the Atatürk Cultural Centre. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say this method of defence was never going to be effective. I took a film of this flimsy barricade-construction - my own gaze reflected in the eyes of Atatürk, everywhere, observing like Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby - then beat a hasty retreat.

 Gezi Park, June 15thimage

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"Visit Divan Hotel"

Typical çapulcu in Gezi, June 15th

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A random photo of secularist Izmir on 7th June 2013: Atatürk + Ferrariimage

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Abandoned concrete highway that was to run right across the historic seafront of Izmir - building halted by protests, but concrete struts remain.

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Later that summer, in London, a friend told me: “Ihsan said he saw you in Gezi Park. With no helmet. And, apparently, you were with a man.” This was perhaps one of the most inadvertently comical observations regarding my travels last year, which nonetheless included, in early June, The World’s Most Sweltering guided tour of the concrete suburbs of southeast Turkey with a group of Bahraini women activist friends. One of whom became so overheated that she declared, “Maybe I will die!” - before we all escaped mid-freeway (“Alhamdulilah!”) to find one of the world’s oldest churches. Which turned out to be closed. Later, as we stood on the muddy banks of the Tigris, I put a scarf on my head, to keep the heat off. My friends thought I looked much nicer like this and whooped their approval.

By June 15th 2013 I was indeed in Gezi Park without so much as a helmet, no sign of a Baedeker. Many protestors had decided to continue the occupation even after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told representatives of some of its participating groups that the controversial development plans which triggered the extraordinary events of early summer would be put on hold. This was perhaps a tactical error at a moment when the occupation could have declared a first victory; instead Erdoğan could declare to his thousands of supporters in Kazlıçesme, Istanbul on Sunday evening, June 16th, that the ‘çapulcu’ (the ‘looters’, as he called protestors) had been put down, albeit by a method which Reporters Without Borders stated ‘seems more like revenge than law enforcement’ and which included tear-gassing the lobby of the chic Divan hotel off Taksim Square, where staff had been sheltering protestors. I was staying opposite, and yet eventually found it easy to get back to my hotel, chauffered as I was by a group of boisterous Galatasaray supporters well schooled in the dynamics of police and protesting crowds. 

An empty Gezi Park stood, then, on June 16th 2013, as a silent symbol, a monument to add to those which crowd and dominate the public sphere in Turkey and which constrain the debate to the old binary: Islamism v. Secularism. It’s easy to get lost amidst the shifting symbols of Turkish politics, and easier still for Erdoğan to dominate this baroque symbolic war by appropriating the image of Atatürk – the authority of the state – and, in a deft metonymy, to strengthen and entrench a tradition of charismatic authoritarianism. Another key symbol, to be discerned between the tear-gas smoke and mirror-images, was the headscarf. During that June 16th rally, Erdoğan yet again leapt to the defence of the ‘headscarved women’ he alleged were attacked by the hordes of çapulcu. Yet one ‘headscarfed woman’, @dididjango, wrote on Twitter:  “I will put the TV on mute every time the PM talks about the headscarf until he allows it to be worn in public institutions.”

 Izmir - Atatürk carved in stoneimage

I spent a lot of time in Turkey last year. In late May I attended a conference in Diyarbakir, or Amed, in Turkish Kurdistan, the one with the overheated bus tour, and, flying back from Diyarbakir to London via Istanbul, had not seen Gezi Park. I regretted this. As the plane swooped low over Istanbul on the morning of June 15th 2013, then, I felt something like relief. A miniature Istanbul revealed itself through the fogged-up aeroplane window, the police water-cannon trucks lined up like toys.

I was invited to Diyarbakir, known in Kurdish as Amed, to the 1st Middle East Women Conference organised by DÖKH (the Kurdish Democratic Free Women Movement) in memory of three Kurdish women activists assassinated in Paris in January 2013. I arrived on 31st May, just as things were starting to kick off in Gezi Park, spilling over into Taksim Square. A press conference was announced and a short statement made by DÖKH representatives in support of the protests in Istanbul. Then we were to get on with the business of the conference. Images of the Kurdish ‘martyrs’ - Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Doğan and Leyla Şaylemez - watched over us, and I was amazed to find the legendary politburo member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Laila Khaled, amongst the delegates. Laila Khaled’s striking young face, wrapped in a keffiyeh and accessorised with a gun, is so iconic that to see these same features – the high cheekbones, the wide eyes - on the face of a robust, attractive older woman, was to experience the uncanny quite purely.

The outcome of this conference was extraordinary. It took a long time for the many delegates to draft a final declaration (at one point the translators begged to be given a break; at another, one simply gave up: “She is saying something about Mesopotamia and she is speaking very fast”), and there were certainly many who did not approve of the published declaration, which included the statement, ‘We underline our opposition to all forms of discrimination based on ethnic, ideological [or] religious belief, sexual identity and sexual orientation.’ I remember seeing Iranian LGBT activist Shadi Amin punch the air with relief and delight when this latter point was included. Another section of the declaration reads as follows: ‘We support the peace talks and negotiations between Kurdish People’s Leader Mr. Abdullah Öcalan and the government of Turkey. We demand freedom of [meaning for] Mr. Abdullah Öcalan.’ Öcalan. Öcalan. Founder of the PKK. the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been engaged in armed struggle with Turkey since 1984. From his prison, Öcalan, or Apo, came to dominate the conference, a kingdom haunted by an invisible king. One Kurdish woman dared to suggest that, just maybe, at a women’s conference, we might not want to go on so much about this patriarchal figure. This suggestion didn’t go down well. But I thought it awfully strange that the assassination of three major women of the PKK in January should have prompted Öcalan to peace talks soon thereafter. It appeared to me that these three women were being used as symbols – icons and vanishing mediators – to further entrench those totems of male authority. Erdoğan’s metonymic chess-game, I thought, included also Öcalan, an invisible king, yes, but also one of many pawns. Peace with Turkey could bring power to Öcalan, perhaps, but also counterbalance the growing power of Iraqi Kurdistan and the fragility of Syrian Kurdistan. Quid pro quo.

“Do you want to come and observe the departure of the guerrillas from the mountain?” one woman asked me. Of course I said yes. As part of the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government, PKK guerrilla fighters were leaving Turkey and making their way to oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan. A friend I had made at the conference, Maryam, an Iranian photojournalist, was working on a project about women guerrilla fighters and hurriedly assembled her equipment. We got into a car with a woman who I later learned was the mayor of a town called Nusaybin on the Turkish-Syrian border, and set off for ‘Babok’. In truth, neither Maryam nor I were quite sure where we were going, and when we asked Ayşe, the mayor, to tell us about it, she said “I’m too tired,” and promptly fell asleep. Maryam, exhausted, also fell asleep. I was sitting up front with our male driver, with whom I could barely communicate as we drove south, south, and unmistakably south. We hit a wall of black night, and turned sharply eastwards. I looked into the expanse of black. “Syria?” I asked the driver. He nodded. Soon we were stopped by a Turkish military checkpoint. The driver produced his identity card and Ayşe, roused from slumber, flew out of the car and started hurling abuse at the two soldiers inspecting it. I looked at Maryam. “I have many thoughts running through my mind at this moment,” she said calmly.

‘The mountain’ was a hillside above a recently reconstructed Syrian Orthodox village called Babok, which we passed through, its own history of destruction and reconstruction an unanswered question. Fireworks exploded overhead, seemingly heralding our arrival. “It’s dangerous,” Ayşe tutted. This was a party. ‘To observe’ the departure of the guerrillas was a wonderful excuse to nestle overnight in a hillside that had been sculpted by time, that was of a shape to be lived in. In its open spaces people danced the aggressive traditional Kurdish dance, holding hands and stampeding like bulls, changing direction suddenly like a murmuration of starlings, singing songs of the guerrillas; on the comfortable moss-covered stones, built for gods, people lounged, drinking tea, eating bread and cucumbers. A young man I spoke to said he felt hopeful about the peace process. Enough people had died on both sides. The idea was to occupy the mountain so that the Turkish government would know that, though the guerrillas might be departing, the actions of the Turkish government towards the Kurdish population were being closely observed. But no one was looking at this occupation; all eyes were elsewhere. We were in an expanse of black. I switched on my data roaming and took a screenshot of my GPS location.

I helped Maryam to make a film, holding a small flashlight. We were mobbed by the many Kurdish ‘mothers’ – in white headscarves – present on the mountain, who grabbed the microphone to tell their stories. They ululated and celebrated our presence, shouting out, “The guerrillas are coming!” Mothers, mothers everywhere and children, unspecified, unknown, possibly lost. Maryam would translate these chaotic filmed statements later. Ayşe was too tired. She begged to make a move, but Maryam and I dallied and delayed – in the most beautiful place on Earth, the stars wild and scattered like dust within reach. Eventually we were dragged back to the car. We knocked on the window to wake up our driver. By this point we had picked up one of the mothers, who accompanied us back to Ayşe’s flat in Nusaybin. “It’s too late to get back to Amed now,” Ayşe explained. “We’ll stay the night in my flat.” The rituals of bedtime unfolded: Ayşe would share her bed with the mother – her mother? – while Maryam and I would share the twin room, like children at a sleepover. We all smoked a Vogue cigarette on Ayşe’s balcony and watched the cats stalk the streets of Nusaybin for a while. Maryam and I donned pyjamas as delicious, clean and soft as only a stranger’s can be. The mother shuffled benignly between rooms like a figure from a Fellini film. Asa nisi masa. And I was completely unable to sleep. My eyes remained wide until we arrived back at the conference, like visitors from another planet, the following day.

I wanted to see Gezi Park on June 15th. I saw people of all ages dawdle through the warren of the park, past the Kemalist-Leninist stand, past the simit-sellers - one in a tracksuit top which added the motivational marketing slogan “To dare is to do” to the mixture of political banners - as a group of Turkish youth sat in a circle with a well-known actress conducting a forum about possible futures for this ‘movement for change’ and as the sun streamed suddenly through the trees and glared down at the expanse of Taksim Square as though in anticipation of the violence that was massing, about to be unleashed, outside the condemned structure of the Atatürk Cultural Centre.

The recent protests in Turkey have been about rights and freedoms in an authoritarian democracy. In Gezi Park, unlike, for example, in predominantly Kemalist Izmir, a space emerged for the discussion of these rights and freedoms which dismantled old binaries, exploding concretised totems. Once the park was emptied, a question arose as to where these discussions would take place. Then, in the early evening of Monday June 17th 2013,  images started to circulate via social media of a man standing, still and silent, in the middle of the heavily-policed Taksim Square, just staring at the image of Atatürk blazing forth from the old cultural centre. This silent protest quickly went viral (#standingman, #duranadam) and many went to join him, or mimic him elsewhere – in Ankara, for example, at the point where Ethem Sarisülük was killed during the protests, and even in Trafalgar Square. Eventually the Standing Man - performance artist Erdem Gündüz, who has previously protested the headscarf ban in Turkey’s secular public institutions by wearing a headscarf himself into a public university - was moved on by police. But a new form of protest had been invented. Many stopped for five minutes at a time in Taksim Square, standing stock-still, staring at that familiar image, appearing to interrogate it, like living question marks. Erdoğan wants to construct an opera house, in the baroque style, on the site of the Atatürk Cultural Centre, yet one might hope that, by interrogating the ultimately baroque symbol of Turkish emblematic politics, one might begin to dismantle the foundations of authoritarianism. But it will take more than one standing man to stare down the past.

Turkish Kurdistan

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Occupation at Babok.

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Sebahat Tuncel, on left

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"God save Bahrain."

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The very brave Malalai Joya from Afghanistan, and son.

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Leila Khaled! with Fatima and Basema.

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The muddy banks of the Tigris.

Istanbul

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Above: Taksim Square on 15th then 16th June

Babok: Kurdish Community Observing Guerrillas’ Departure from Ute Zucker on Vimeo.


Asymmetrical Warfare etc.

I wrote something that was published in this book. 

The Cinema of Michael Haneke: Europe Utopia

http://www.cup.columbia.edu/book/978-1-906660-30-7/

There are some explanatory footnotes at the end.

Subject to Memory? Thinking after Hidden 

In the beginning … Silence

Hidden begins with a silence which, like that of the ‘il y a’  described by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in some of his earliest works, lacks peace, and could be seen, rather, to constitute ‘an undetermined menace’ (Levinas 1978: 60). This murmuring, increasingly unsettling silence begs a question: the disembodied ‘Et alors?’ I hear voiced, and which, indeed, I had silently voiced, or, perhaps, the ‘Who’s there?’ with which Hamlet opens and unfolds its many questions: ‘Speak, speak. I charge thee, speak.’ For the time of this film is out of joint and its coherence, therefore, elusive to my grasp. The ‘something rotten’ at the heart of Hidden’s vision of a state, France, founded on the death of a king and of so many others, creates a haunted perspective by means of which sovereignty – including the sovereignty of history – is undone, and yet by means of which I become a vigilant spectator.

 

The film critically engages conceptualisations of history and memory, as the past re-emerges as a question and a power in its movement through various individuals and groups of individuals – Georges, Anne, Majid, the spectator (myself and others) – who become subject to interrogation or subject to memory: who are, in various ways, called to respond. I think here of Walter Benjamin’s sixth thesis on the philosophy of history:

 

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. […] Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious. (Benjamin 1999: 247)

 

Is the ‘image of the past’ Benjamin refers to a form of what Martha Nussbaum, after the Stoics, might call a ‘cataleptic impression’? Diverging from the Stoic account - that ‘all our knowledge of the external world is built upon the foundation of certain special perceptual impressions: those which, by their own internal character, their own experienced quality, certify their own veracity’ (Nussbaum 1990: 265) – Nussbaum states that, ‘[t]he cataleptic impressions in this case […] are emotional impressions – specifically, impressions of anguish’ (Nussbaum 1990: 266). As an example, she cites Marcel’s reaction, in Proust’s Albertine disparue, to the news that ‘Mademoiselle Albertine has gone.’ It is on hearing this that ‘Marcel knows, and knows with certainty, without the least room for doubt, that he loves Albertine’ (Nussbaum 1990: 261).

 

Might Benjamin’s ‘image of the past’ be an image of injustice? The image of an other’s anguish, to which the historical ‘Messiah’ is compelled to bear witness? ‘Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to a man singled out by history at a moment of danger.’ As Susan Sontag writes: ‘[n]o ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain’ (Sontag 2003: 7). I think now of Antigone, figuring courage and an experience of injustice uniquely her own; of Phocion’s widow as described by Gillian Rose after Plutarch: gathering her husband’s ashes ‘– for if they are left unconsecrated, his unappeased soul will wander forever’ (Rose 1996: 23). I remember the image of Majid, as a child, coughing up blood; Majid, as a man, slitting his own throat in a spectacular, petrifying display. I remember Georges left, alone, with this scene, and myself as his spectatorial shadow. Do these images contain what David Simpson might call a ‘purposive shock’ – a ‘power to move and move to action?’ (Simpson 2006: 129). Paul Gilroy has criticised the representation of Majid’s suicide as ‘an exclusively aesthetic event’, which denies Majid a voice (Gilroy 2007: 234). But does this reading overlook Majid’s claim to integrity? Does it overlook the significance of his claim to an absolute silence, and his resistance to interrogation? Majid’s act speaks, and speaks of countless acts many would dismiss as ‘senseless’. On 10 June 2006 three inmates of the US base at Guantànamo Bay were found dead after having committed suicide in an act described by the camp commander Rear Admiral Harry Harris as one of ‘asymmetrical warfare’ (BBC 2006). In the absence of habeas corpus, it is possible to reclaim the body. And it is possible that there is a version of truth in such testimony, to which we, or, again, I, in my singularity, might bear witness.

 

In the case of Georges, however, it appears that the impressions he is subject to move him towards a more active forgetting. When Majid’s son confronts Georges at his place of work, Georges once again refuses any responsibility for Majid’s ‘sad and ruined’ life. At the end of the film, Georges attempts to take refuge in the anonymity of sleep from the images that haunt him, by taking ‘deux cachets’ – sleeping pills. Even the dead will not be safe. Libby Saxton has described Haneke’s aesthetic construction in general as an attempt to ‘implicate the body of the viewer-witness, a body habitually preserved as inviolable by the signifying procedures of dominant forms of cinema. In according a spectrum of spectators physical presence on-screen, Haneke’s films insist on spectatorship as an embodied, corporealised experience, as an encounter between vulnerable bodies’ (Saxton 2008: 89). If I figure Georges’ spectatorial shadow, to what extent am I also implicated in this active forgetting?

 

Thence came a spirit…

 

I introduce these questions in order to draw Haneke’s perhaps aporetic film into current debates in the field of ethics and politics, which touch on a conceptualisation of ‘aesthetic experience’ which follows the etymology of ‘aesthetic’, from the Greek aisthánesthai – ‘to perceive sensuously’. David Simpson, in his recent work 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration, has argued that ‘[t]he time is out of joint, which means that we must work all the harder to find its history and to dispel its mysteries’ (Simpson 2006: 170). Yet he has cautioned against the privileging of aesthetic experience he reads in the work of Nussbaum and Terry Eagleton. Eagleton, he points out, has recently turned ‘against theory’ making a ‘renewed case for the power of literature as the medium better suited to our human needs, better able to cultivate the desired sympathy or compassionate identification with the demise of physical suffering’ (Simpson 2006: 125). Yet Simpson draws on Wordsworth for evidence that art might blunt our sensitivity to suffering. In ‘The Prelude’ ‘[Wordsworth] tried to explain why the sight of the ‘ghastly face’ and ‘spectre shape’ of a drowned man surfacing on the lake of Esthwaite did not startle or surprise him’:

 

And yet no vulgar fear,

Young as I was, a child not nine years old,

Possessed me, for my inner eye had seen

Such sights before among the shining streams

Of fairyland, the forests of romance –

Thence came a spirit hallowing what I saw

With decoration and ideal grace,

A dignity, a smoothness, like the words

Of Grecian art and purest poesy (See Simpson 2006: 126 – 27).

 

Simpson asks, therefore: ‘Are the drowned man and the falling towers instances of what we call, after Baudrillard, the simulacrum, the sign without a signified, the image emptied of any connection to the real? […] Are we trapped by the repetition of the spectacle as a commodified form able to digest whatever associates with it in the realm of new experience, making such experience never new and never shocking?’ (Simpson 2006: 129). Are we immune even to what Gilroy dismisses as ‘an exclusively aesthetic event’? And to what extent might this immunity have been built through an immersion in the aesthetic element?

 

The defiant silence of the other

 

Nussbaum, however, expresses similar skepticism about aesthetic experience. Indeed, her essay ‘Love’s Knowledge’ is preoccupied by the problem of skepticism: ‘We said that the cataleptic impression can coexist with skepticism about the feelings of the other. In fact, it implies this skepticism. For on the cataleptic view an emotion can be known if and only if it can be vividly experienced. What you can’t have you can’t know. But the other’s will, thoughts and feelings are, for Marcel, paradigmatic of that which cannot be had. They beckon to him out of Albertine’s defiant, silent eyes at Balbec, a secret world closed to his will, a vast space his ambitious thoughts can never cover’ (Nussbaum 1990: 271). As Emmanuel Levinas has written: ‘[…] Proust’s most profound lesson, if poetry can contain lessons, consists in situating reality in a relation with something which for ever remains other, with the Other as absence and mystery, in rediscovering this relation in the very intimacy of the ‘I’ […]’ (Levinas 1989: 163). For Levinas, ‘I am therefore necessary to justice, as responsible beyond every limit fixed by an objective law’ (Levinas 1969: 245). The ‘I’ is that without which the other, and, in particular, the other of history is lost. Nussbaum concludes her discussion of love’s knowledge and literature with the observation that ‘it was philosophy, and not the story, that showed us the boundaries and limits of the stories’ (Nussbaum 1990: 283). It is ‘perhaps in the attentive – or I might even (too naively?) say loving – conversation of philosophy and literature with one another we could hope to find, occasionally, mysterious and incomplete, in some moments not governed by the watch, some analogue of the deliberate fall, the aim for grace’ (Nussbaum 1990: 284).

 

The past in the present

In an attempt to read Hidden through the lens of ‘trauma theory’ Guy Austin describes what he sees as ‘the return of the body, of emotion and potentially also of politics, to the domain of theory from whence these concerns had been exiled by deconstruction’ (Austin 2007: 530). Yet in order to think through the role of aesthetic experience for a subjectivity, at risk, ‘at a moment of danger’ in history, I have already turned to the work of Emmanuel Levinas, whose philosophy was so central to the thinking of Jacques Derrida. Levinas’s 1974 text Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence is dedicated, ‘[t]o the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-semitism’ (Levinas 1981). There is a visceral emphasis on sensibility in Levinas’s work. In his 1972 text ‘Truth of Disclosure and Truth of Testimony,’ Levinas describes the experience of our radical responsibility towards ‘the Other’ as an alienation in ‘the depths of’ identity: ‘The soul is the other within me, a sickness of identity; its being out of phase, its diachrony, gasping, shuddering […]. A sensibility perhaps, coming back to the for-the-other of maternity […]. A subjectivity of human flesh and blood more passive in its extradition to the other than the passivity of the effect in a causal chain […]’ (Levinas 1996a: 102). Subjectivity in Levinas’s work is described in terms of ‘[v]ulnerability, exposure to outrage, to wounding’ and, importantly, as a ‘trauma of accusation suffered by a hostage to the point of persecution’ (Levinas 1996b: 121).

 

Levinas’s work is an attempted renewal of philosophy in the face and in the aftermath of horror, in which philosophy is redefined as ‘the wisdom of love at the service of love’ (Levinas 1981: 162). Levinas’s work seeks to move beyond phenomenology as a philosophy of present perception, by introducing the haunting figure of the Other – entering into ‘a kingdom of an invisible King’ (Levinas 1981: 52). Levinas may describe the ethics he posits in terms of an ‘optics’ (see Preface to Levinas 1969), but the face of the Other, which constitutes a breach in any totalising ontology by the epiphany of infinite time it prompts, is that which occupies an ambiguous position in the realm of the senses. In Otherwise than Being, Levinas seeks to think an absolute alterity, which throws the sovereign ‘I’ into question, introducing a diachrony – a double time - irreducible to any present or presence, which Sarah Cooper has expressed in terms of ‘the ethical rip in the fabric of time’ (Cooper 2006: 28).

 

I wish to draw attention to the sense in which ‘memory’ – an image of the past – might be linked to sensibility, and also to ethics and politics understood after Levinas, as a passivity coupled with activity (the response of our responsibility). I wish to consider memory as an experience of ‘purposive shock,’ which might change my relationship, as an individual, with history. Hue-Tam Ho Tai has noted the increasingly significant role memory has played in historiography after Pierre Nora’s Lieux de mémoire project, exploring the ‘construction of the French past’ through ‘questions it poses about nation, nationalism, and national identity, as well as its implications for the conceptualization of the relationship between history and memory’ (Tai 2001). She cites also the importance of scholarship in Holocaust studies, where ‘[m]emory—localised, diffuse, polysemic—is thus often seen as undermining nationalizing, totalizing projects’. Robert Eaglestone’s important work The Holocaust and the Postmodern, against historicism (which, he emphasises, ‘is not the same as ‘not believing in the past’’’), ‘is a way of rejecting the claims of the discipline of history to the mastery of that past as if it were a science’ (Eaglestone 2004: 171). Eaglestone draws on Levinas’s reconceptualisation (or rehabilitation) of ‘truth’ as ‘witnessing’ which, he argues, ‘comes to be understood, in one context and series of debates, as memory’ (Eaglestone 2004: 171). In thinking about memory as linked to sensibility, and so to the aesthetic, however, I am forced to ask, with Nussbaum, how to delimit the boundaries and limits of stories. As David Simpson states, in questioning the picture of our responsiveness to the past he finds in ‘the culture of commemoration’ post-9/11: ‘Photographs of the dismembered, the dead, and the dying will not in themselves change the terms of the culture of commemoration, whose nationalised or mediatised attributes have usually proved more powerful than any claims for common human sympathies or responses. But if any inquiry into these consequential matters is to be other than radically foreshortened, there is a need for more images and more words’ (Simpson 2006: 119).

 

Subject to memory?

 

Hidden threads the past through the present, and it is brought to bear upon individuals and groups of individuals, intertwining guilt and commemoration. Into this web are various other threads of history woven and unravelled. On October 17 1961, the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale/National Liberation Front) organised a demonstration in Paris against a curfew applicable to so-called ‘French Muslims of Algeria’. It has been estimated that between around 200 demonstrators were murdered that day by the Parisian police force, then under the leadership of Maurice Papon. In the 1990s Papon was imprisoned following his conviction of crimes against humanity after an assessment of his role in the Vichy regime during World War II. That the Parisian police force was, at the time of the Algerian war of independence, institutionally racist is a fact that has been addressed only relatively recently, and the process of commemorating the events of 1961 has been slow. Only in 1999 was Papon also convicted of an active role in what is now perceived to have been a brutal massacre of peaceful demonstrators. Some demonstrators were thrown from bridges after having been beaten unconscious, and bodies were seen floating in the Seine near the Quai d’Orfèvres, centre of the Parisian police force. Only on 17 October 2001 was a commemorative plaque placed on the Pont Saint-Michel in the centre of Paris although, as the number of dead is still under dispute, it is dedicated ‘À la mémoire des nombreux Algériens tués lors de la sanglante repression de la manifestation pacifique du 17 octobre 1961’.

 

In what ways am I subject to memory? I might be subject to laws established in the service of memory. For example, the law of 12 October 2006 passed by the French Senate against any contestation of the Armenian genocide. Law provides the means to inflect the picture of our responsiveness to the past. Bernard Dréano, however, has argued that this law ‘feeds nationalisms’ (Dréano 2006) and, indeed, we have recently seen the political import of this particular question re-emerge (Cornwell 2007). Dréano also refers to the now repealed law of 23 February 2005, by means of which law might have erased the memory of crimes committed during the Algerian war of independence, making the point that law can at times obstruct certain historical claims – such as those made in the struggle for Turkey’s recognition of the Armenian genocide. As Eric Heinze has commented, in another context, ‘US law protects hate speech; France routinely punishes it. Yet, given the recent episodes of ethnic unrest in France […] no one can seriously argue that its bans on hate speech have been more successful in promoting racial tolerance than American freedoms have’ (Heinze 2006).

 

Dréano has drawn out the connection between questions of historical memory and the politics of art in noting that 12 October 2006 was also the date on which Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, dividing opinion in Turkey. Pamuk chose to comment on the murder, in 1915, of ‘30,000 Kurds’ and ‘a million Armenians’ in an interview with Swiss magazine Tages-Anzeiger, at considerable personal risk. As he put it in his Nobel Lecture (in a different context), we are constantly reminded ‘that writing and literature are intimately linked to a lack at the centre of our lives, and to our feelings of happiness and of guilt’ (Pamuk 2006).

 

The play’s the thing…

 

Haneke may not need to draw on the same resources of courage as Pamuk, but he has nonetheless been recognised, in the words of Mark Cousins, as ‘the great disconcerter of European metropolitan elites’ (Cousins 2007: 225). It is clear that his work engages a particular group identity, as Cousins has made clear in his discussion of Hidden’s reception and its ‘water-cooler’ dissemination amongst the ‘chattering classes’. Yet might it not be the case that an identification with the milieu of Georges and Anne (I am their spectatorial shadow) could be coupled with a masochistic enjoyment of guilt, a safe defusing of responsibility in what Levinas has called ‘the aesthetic element’? A safe arena for the kind of hand-wringing that Paul Gilroy compares to ‘shooting crabs in a barrel’? (Gilroy 2007).

 

‘Why does the other concern me? What is Hecuba to me?’ – asks Levinas in Otherwise than Being (Levinas 1981: 117), paraphrasing Hamlet’s ‘What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her, / That he should weep for her? […] ‘ soliloquised in contemplation of the performance of his beloved player and the possibility that,

 

[…] The play’s the thing

 

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

 

In his 1948 essay ‘Reality and its Shadow’, Levinas questions the role of art with respect to our capacity to do justice to the Other, particularly by describing the captivating effect of the ‘aesthetic’. For Levinas, ‘the aesthetic element’ is one of ‘sensation’: ‘Sensation is not a residue of perception, but has a function of its own – the hold that an image has over us, a function of rhythm’ (Levinas 1989b: 134). ‘Rhythm represents a unique situation where we cannot speak of consent, assumption, initiative or freedom, because the subject is caught up and carried away by it. The subject is part of its own representation. It is so not even despite itself, for in rhythm there is no longer a oneself, but rather a sort of passage from oneself to anonymity’ (Levinas 1989b: 133). In a text from 1958, Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ relation is said to be revealed in what Buber called ‘Umfassung’ – ‘the embrace’. Levinas is keen to distinguish this relation from ‘the psychological phenomenon’ of ‘Einfühlung’ - ‘empathy’ - where the ‘subject puts itself completely in the other’s place, thus forgetting itself’ (Levinas 1989c: 68). On the contrary, ‘Umfassung’ is described as a relation wherein ‘the I sharply maintains its active reality’ (Levinas 1989c: 68). Similarly, in ‘Reality and its Shadow’, against the implications of aesthetics as potentially absorbing, Levinas pitches a concept of ‘criticism’ as that which might introduce the time of ‘the Other’ into what Levinas calls the ‘between time’ of art – which he describes as ‘inhuman’ and ‘monstrous’. For Levinas, the ‘most lucid writer finds himself in the world bewitched by his images’ yet the ‘most forewarned, the most lucid writer none the less plays the fool’ (Levinas 1989b: 142 – 43). Haneke could be seen to play the knowing and silent fool to the history Caché engages – implicating the Western spectator (myself and others) in this history. Yet any straightforward spectatorial identification has been complicated throughout Haneke’s oeuvre.

 

In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, writes about an encounter with a young schoolboy who ‘asked me the obligatory question: ‘But how come you didn’t escape?’’ (Levi 1989, cited by Eaglestone 2004: 19). As Robert Eaglestone points out, ‘[u]sed to romantic prison fictions, the boy identifies himself with the captive Levi and imagines a storybook escape’ (Eaglestone 2004: 20). Levi writes that he ‘would like to erect a dyke against’ the trend towards a representation of the experience of the camps that might encourage any form of identification. It is:

 

part of our difficulty or inability to perceive the experience of others, which is all the more pronounced the further these experiences are from ours in time, space or quality. We are prone to assimilate them to those related ones, as though the hunger in Auschwitz were the same as that of someone who has skipped a meal, or as though escape from Treblinka were similar to an escape from any ordinary gaol (Cited in Eaglestone 2004: 22).

 

I remember here my desire for the tortured family in Funny Games (1997) to escape, and the feeling of spectatorial humiliation I experienced when they inevitably failed to do so. Haneke complicates identification, and I am caught out in my movement between self and other, across a boundary as fragile as the limits of stories.

 

Libby Saxton’s work on filmic representation offers an invaluable resource for thinking through the sense in which Hidden immediately solicits and then throws into question the role of the spectator. Saxton has, for example, argued that, during Hidden’s opening sequence, ‘[t]he absence of a counter-shot disrupts the mechanisms through which cinema habitually sutures its spectators seamlessly into its diegetic fictions, preventing us from making sense of the space outside the frame’ (Saxton 2008: 106). This observation is part of an analysis of the various absences or non-representations within Haneke’s oeuvre. Haneke’s aesthetic construction offers experiences which are not simply alienating, and certainly not solipsistic - but solitary. In Hidden, we, as spectators, or again, I, in my singular responsibility, suddenly and shockingly encounter that which Simon Critchley describes as ‘radically resistant to the order of representation’ (Critchley 1997: 26): death, in the form of a suicide. In its representation of absence, the absolute silence of Majid’s death, Hidden could be seen to announce the duality which Levinas describes as developing from an experience of an other’s death to the relation with the irreducible Other (see Levinas 1983: 20) - opening ‘the ethical rip in the fabric of time’. It gives us this time, out of joint. In Hidden, the Other is eventually hidden – and this absence is a haunting.

 

Levinas writes, ‘[t]he self is through and through a hostage, older than the ego, prior to principles. What is at stake for the self, in its being, is not to be. Beyond egoism and altruism it is the religiosity of the self’ (Levinas 1981: 117). In the Discourse on Inequality Rousseau famously argues that ‘human governments need a basis more solid than reason alone’ (Rousseau 1994: 77) and that ‘if I am obligated to do no evil to my fellow man, it is less because he is a rational being than because he is a sentient being’ (Rousseau 1994: 2). Yet I seek to clarify, as Howard Caygill has done, that Otherwise than Being, despite describing a subjectivity bound to the Other in sensibility, does not posit subjectivity as ‘subject to heteronomy’ (Caygill 2002: 148). Levinas looks towards the ‘possibility of finding, anachronously, the order in the obedience itself, and of receiving the order out of oneself, this reverting of heteronomy into autonomy, is the very way the Infinite [takes place]’ (Levinas 1981: 148 – translation modified). The ‘I’ is that without which the other is lost. Thus, I would suggest, there is an echo of Benjamin’s ‘man singled out by history at a moment of danger’ in Levinas’s particular messianism: ‘Messianism is therefore not the certainty of the coming of a man who stops History. It is my power to bear the suffering of all. It is the moment when I recognise this power and my universal responsibility’ (Levinas 1990b: 90). Levinas’s philosophy, as with our thinking after watching Hidden, does not end with, but begins by placing ‘emotion or anguish at the heart of consciousness’ (Levinas 2000: 211).

 

References

 

Austin, G. (2007) ‘Drawing Trauma: Visual Testimony in Caché and J’ai 8 Ans’, Screen, 48, 4, 529–36.

Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations. Trans. H. Zorn. London: Pimlico.

Birch, N. (2006) ‘Pamuk’s Nobel Divides Turkey’, The Guardian, 13 October.

Bolla, P. de. (2002) ‘Toward the Materiality of Aesthetic Experience’, Diacritics, 32, 1.

Butler, J. (2000) Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death. New York: Columbia University Press.

Caygill, H. (2002) Levinas and the Political. London and New York: Routledge.

Cooper, S. (2006) Selfless Cinema? Ethics and French Documentary. London: Legenda.

Cornwell, R. (2007) ‘Bush and Congress Dispute Armenian ‘Genocide’ Status’, The Independent, 11 October.

Cousins, M. (2007) ‘After the End: Word of Mouth and Caché’, Screen, 48, 2, 223–6.

Critchley, S. (1997) Very Little … Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature. London: Routledge.

Davis, C. (1996) Levinas: An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity.

Dréano, B. (2006) ‘Négation Du Génocide Arménien: Cette Loi Alimente Les Nationalismes’, Politis, 19 October.

Eaglestone, R. (2004) The Holocaust and the Postmodern. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Einaudi, J.-L. and É. Kagan (2001) 17 Octobre 1961. Arles: Actes Sud/Solin.

Gilroy, P. (2007) ‘Shooting Crabs in a Barrel’, Screen, 48, 2, 233–5.

Heinze, E. (2006) ‘Self-Righteous Editors’, London Review of Books, 28, 16, 17 August.

Levi, P. (1989) The Drowned and the Saved. Trans. R. Rosenthal. London: Abacus.

Levinas, E. (1969) Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

— (1978) Existence and Existents. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

— (1981) Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

— (1983) Le Temps et l’autre. Paris: Quadrige Grands Textes.

— (1989a) ‘The other in Proust’, Trans. Seán Hand, in Seán Hand (ed.) The Levinas Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 160–5.

— (1989b) ‘Reality and Its Shadow’, Trans. Alphonso Lingis, in Seán Hand (ed.) The Levinas Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 129–43.

— (1989c) ‘Martin Buber and the Theory of Knowledge’, in Seán Hand (ed.) The Levinas Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 59–74.

— (1990a) ‘Signature’, Trans. Seán Hand, in Difficult Freedom, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 289–95.

— (1990b) ‘Messianic Texts’, Trans. Seán Hand, in Difficult Freedom, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 59–95.

— (1996a) ‘Truth of Disclosure and Truth of Testimony’. Trans. Iain MacDonald and Simon Critchley, in S. Critchley, R. Bernasconi and A. T. Peperzak (eds) Basic Philosophical Writings, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 98–107.

— (1996b) ‘Essence and Disinterestedness’. Trans. Alphonso Lingis, with revisions by S. Critchley and A. T. Peperzak, in S. Critchley, R. Bernasconi and A. T. Peperzak (eds) Basic Philosophical Writings, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 109–27.

— (2000) God, Death and Time.Trans. Bettina Bergo. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Liauzu, C. (2005) ‘Une Loi Contre L’histoire’, Le Monde diplomatique, April.

Nussbaum, M. (1990) Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Pamuk, O. (2006) ‘My Father’s Suitcase’, Nobel Prize Lecture.

Rose, G. (1996) Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rousseau, J.-J. (1994) Discourse on Inequality. Trans. F. Philip. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Saxton, L. (2007) ‘Secrets and Revelations: Off-Screen Space in Michael Haneke’s Caché’, Studies in French Cinema, 7, 1, 

— (2008) ‘Close Encounters with Distant Suffering: Michael Haneke’s Disarming Visions’, in K. Ince (ed.) Five Directors: Auteurism from Assayas to Ozon. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 84–111.

Simpson, D. (2006) 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Tai, H.-T H. (2001) ‘Remembered Realms: Pierre Nora and French National Memory’, The American Historical Review, 106, 3.

Wheatley, C. (2006) ‘Unseen/Obscene: The (Non) Framing of the Sexual Act in Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste’, in M. Seabrook, A. Lewis, L. Bolton, G. Kimber (eds) Framed! London: Peter Lang.

 

 

As Colin Davis points out, ‘[t]he il y a names what Levinas calls ‘existing without existents [un exister sans existant]’: an anonymous, impersonal existing (the verbal form is important here) before the constitution of the individuated human subject’ (Davis 1996: 23).

Insomnia is a central part of Levinas’s account of ‘hypostasis’ or what Davis calls ‘the constitution of the individuated human subject’ as described in De l’existence à l’existant. In the series of lectures God and Onto-theo-logy (delivered between 1975–76, Sorbonne, Paris) Levinas, in a lecture entitled “In Praise of Insomnia”, compared his ‘meta-category’ of insomnia to ‘the Cartesian idea of the infinite, in which the cogito bursts under the impact of something it cannot contain’ (Levinas 2000: 212).

In a footnote on p. 265, Nussbaum explains that, ‘“Cataleptic” is the Greek katalēptikē, an adjective from the verb katalambanein, “apprehend,” “grasp,” “firmly grasp.” It is probably active rather than passive: “apprehensive.” “firmly grasping (reality).”’

Citing Kaplan 2005, Guy Austin writes ‘E. Ann Kaplan establishes the concept of the ‘vicarious trauma’ experienced by the reader or the viewer when confronted with trauma narratives, and seeks to distinguish between the effect of witnessing, which ‘involves not just empathy and motivation to help, but understanding of the structure of injustice’, and what she terms the ‘empty empathy’, which tends to be elicited by images of suffering provided without a context or background knowledge’ (Austin 2007: 530). This distinction will be pertinent to my discussion of Emmanuel Levinas’s thoughts on ‘the aesthetic element’ and to the question of ‘how to get the right inflection of ‘right’ into the picture of our responsiveness to the past’.

To see the painting by Poussin Rose is discussing visit: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/collections/17c/poussin.asp.

In Antigone’s Claim, Judith Butler asks whether ‘Antigone herself might be made into a representative for a certain kind of feminist politics’ (Butler 2000: 2).

I shadow the positions of Georges and Anne at the outset of the film. I share in their point of view. Eventually, Georges’ meeting with Majid is re-played on the same television screen – his lying revealed to Anne in their family home. The angle of filming in the first encounter between Georges and Majid is paralleled in the framing of Majid’s suicide. Which leaves me asking: will this footage ever find its way into the wider world?

I assume that readers will feel familiar with this language, as Haneke seems to do when Georges suggests that Anne’s distress (caused by his unwillingness to share his suspicions about Majid) is the reaction sought by Majid, whom he assumes to be responsible for sending the videos and drawings which, in Anne’s words, ‘terrorise’ them. In the face of terror, we are supposed to ‘keep calm and carry on’ – whereas Anne is perhaps representative of many in wanting to interrogate the situation more thoroughly.

As Peter de Bolla points out in an abstract of his highly pertinent scholarship: ‘Over the last twenty years or so it has become a commonplace in discussions of  “aesthetics” or of “art” in the most general sense to note that the term “aesthetics” was only very recently invented by Alexander Baumgarten in 1735, where it appears in his Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus.  But the force of this observation in regard to the relative youth of the concept is rarely, if ever, commented upon. As many philosophers and critics have pointed out, Baumgarten’s use of the term was not primarily angled at what today might be unproblematically called  “artworks” — say, paintings in the European grand master tradition — since his new kind of investigation was to be a “science of  sensual recognition,” that is, a general inquiry into how we come to  know the world from the evidence of our senses’ (Bolla 2002).

Simpson refers particularly to Eagleton 2002. See also Eagleton 2003.

In the autobiographical text “Signature” Levinas writes that his intellectual ‘biography’ ‘is dominated by the presentiment [note here the emphasis on sentience] and the memory of the Nazi horror’ (Levinas 1990: 291).

I draw here on the work of historian Jean-Luc Einaudi. See, for example, Einaudi and Kagan 2001.

For an initial reaction to the repealed law of 23 February 2005, see Liauzu 2005.

Catherine Wheatley (2006), for example, has called attention to the ‘unseen obscene’ in The Piano Teacher (2001), and Saxton has suggested that, also in The Piano Teacher, ‘Erika’s face is less a window on her soul than a mask which conceals it from sight, or a blank screen which, like so many of Haneke’s images, solicits the spectator’s projections.’ (Saxton 2008) See also: Saxton 2007.

The Infinite is here to be understood as the epiphany of the irreducible alterity of the Other – and in terms of ethics.

 

 


A Child’s Christmas in Wales

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(Originally published on Roads & Kingdoms)

What should I say about Welsh Christmas? Let me start here: As a child, I was afraid that Jesus might appear to me. Although fascinated by all things mysterious, by Joan of Arc and stories of statues weeping blood, true awe sounded like an experience so terrifying that it would probably result in my death. Possible visitations smacked to me of hauntings, and hauntings were of the earth; the mystical mixed with the macabre, something further explored by my friend Simon Critchley in his book The Faith of the Faithless with reference to the medieval mystic Christina the Astonishing:

While mass was being said for her at her funeral, her body suddenly revived, rose into the air and soared into the rafters of the church and remained there until mass was over. Christina felt such loathing for people that she fled into the wilderness and survived for nine weeks by drinking milk from her own breasts. She threw herself into burning-hot baking ovens, ate foul garbage and leftovers, immersed herself in the waters of the river Meuse for six days when it was frozen, and even hanged herself at the gallows for two days.

That sounds like religion to me. But then, I’m Welsh. And there is a vague sense that some Celtic otherworldliness might have been passed down through the centuries to us, even if we’re from Bridgend. As the most famous Welshman after Tom Jones, Owain Glyn Dŵr—the last true prince of our Principality?—says (as ventriloquized by Shakespeare), “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” My personal grasp of our culture was so tenuous, however, that I mostly experienced it through fear. Ladies’ Welsh costume (which includes a tall pointy black hat) looked to me like witch’s garb, and I once fled a hotel in Fishguard because of a mannequin all trussed up in the lobby. My whole family had to change not only hotels, but towns, moving to an alternative residence during that small holiday weekend. I was about five.

A lot of Welsh mythologizing was cooked up, often as an expression of nationalism in a time of crisis and by no means to be trusted. In the late 18th-century a self-styled Iolo Morganwg made a certain amount of mischief, and this is something Gruff Rhys explores in his current project American Interior —the tale of an expedition from Wales in the late 18th-century to find an apocryphal tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. Look it up.

I was, eventually, ‘chaired’ as ‘the Bard’—it’s all a ritual, you see, so you have to get the lingo—at my school’s Eisteddfod, this being a traditional festival of song and poetry. I was honoured as a poet, if not otherwise. A sword was unsheathed over my head as some of my best friends read out verses in my honour, as composed by my unforgettable headmaster—Mr. John Jones of Oldcastle School, Bridgend—in what remains the very proudest moment of my life. I must have been eleven years old.

One truly ancient ritual, however, is kept alive in the Glamorgan area where I’m from. And could it be more macabre? In this ritual of the Mari Lwyd, or Grey Mare, a horse’s skull is made festive with ribbons and glass bottle-bottoms for glinting eyes. Every midwinter—it’s a winter solstice ritual, but practised between our Hallowe’en and mid-January—such decorated skulls are paraded, as it were, from house to house, now from pub to pub, and those with the Mari Lwyd party sing to request admittance, and refreshment, within. And you’d better grant such things, because this death’s head brings Good Luck. But you have to put up a fight for the sake of luck. In a ritual called ‘pwnco’ the residents of whatever door the Mari Lwyd knocks at should riposte with witty sung verse, at first repelling the skull before cheerfully relenting and welcoming it in. It is but sport, although I have heard of Mari Lwyd parties getting out of control and barred from certain establishments.

This Sunday I will attend the ritual of the Mari Lwyd. We meet at noon at the Dynevor Arms in Groesfaen. Come and join us. My sister and partner will not attend. In his words: “It’s a great big piss-up.” And, indeed, this pagan ritual has been repressed for appearing just so. “O tap the barrel,” the Mari Lwyd will sing (in Welsh!), “and let it flow freely.”

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In D. H. Lawrence’s story of “St. Mawr”, the eponymous horse comes from the Welsh borders, “belonging to a Welsh gentlemen, Mr Griffith Edwards. But they’re wanting to sell him.” Ominous words, and sure enough St. Mawr turns out to be more than our American heroine bargains for:

“He was so powerful, and so dangerous. But in his dark eye, that looked, with its cloudy brown pupil, a cloud within a dark fire, like a world beyond our world, there was a dark vitality growing, and within the fire another sort of wisdom. […] his great eyes came bolting out of his naked horse’s head, and she saw demons upon demons in the chaos of his horrid eyes.”

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Happy Christmasimage

 


Buying and Selling

(A version of this was published on Roads & Kingdoms in November 2012)

Here I am, accepting the Saudi petro-shilling by proxy, in the Arab Emirate called Sharjah—on the 31st occasion of the Sharjah Book Fair. My compatriot David Cameron is next door, selling Typhoon jets to the ‘Peninsula Shield’ force, Abu Dhabi.

I’m here to to talk to Arabic-language publishers. In particular I would like to discuss the anthology Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus, which will be published in the UK by IB Tauris next year. It is vital that we find an Arabic-language publisher for this collection of essays – largely written in Arabic – from Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.

One of our initial contributors, Ali Abdulemam, has been missing in Bahrain since March 2011. Bahrain, by all accounts, is en route to becoming a protectorate of Saudi Arabia – which, by the way, accounts for about 30% of the Arabic publishing market.

The old adage was: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads. Something got broken. Instead of a Book of Mormon, this is my hotel reading: more post-Christian religion in the form of the Qur’an, which has me thinking about what is hidden. In the lobby I meet an Iraqi man, originally from Baghdad, who, in 1994, at the age of 24, walked with his five-year old brother from Iraq to Syria. “Obama or Romney?” I ask him. And eventually he asks me: “Think about your life. Do you not feel that something is missing?” After the first Gulf war Iraqis thought they could rise up against Saddam, with American support. Abandoned, they paid a heavy price and “something was broken inside.” It got worse. Of course, it has to be Obama—even if he has not repaired what is broken. The Saudi businessman here said the same.

Earlier I had met one of many Syrian publishers who remarkably managed to attend the book fair. We were in “Bedou Land” in Umm al-Quwain for our entertainment. “Now they will cut the camel,” said one publisher. The Syrian publisher said, “Bashar al-Assad is killing all Syrians. And the rest of the world?” He covered his eyes.

“What is your room number?” he asks me.

“What about your wife?”

“I am putting my wife in Syria!”

(Dear Publishing World: he was joking about the room number.)

Earlier that day, wading through the atmospheric soup of Sharjah’s afternoon haze, an American publisher described herself as “anxious”. Whether this was about Romney or our jaywalking expedition via small freeways, amongst the exclusively male population of flâneurs in search of the date souk, is entirely clear: “Let it not be Romney.” My Iraqi friend here says when he was thirteen his uncle committed suicide because he did not want to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. He did not want to kill. I cover my eyes. Let it not be Romney.

As I fished around in order to write this piece for Roads and Kingdoms, I asked at the desk of my hotel: “Obama or Romney?” “I will check on the internet later for you, madam,” came the reply. But when I asked later if I could jack their office ethernet, before I got to the point where I was lying under a desk trying to send an attachment via my shoddy old laptop, the tables were turned once more: “How would you answer your question of earlier?” Only when I revealed that I favoured Obama was I permitted to use the Hotel Holiday International’s internet connection.


My Yoga Teacher Ruined My Life by Ute Zucker

The contents of a man’s shorts — or pants, or briefs — is a matter which might give pause. Pause, not only via the means of a button on a remote control, but pause (hesitation: do I step into the abyss?) as we are frozen in the act of revealing that which threatens terror. You wrangle with a man — or boy – and you get to the part where you’re about to remove his shorts, or (still braver) reach into his shorts. But how do you know what he’s got in there? How do you know there’s not a squid in his pants, in place of a penis? Or a monster like the one found cowering in a daylit parking lot in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive?

I could have called this piece The Confessions of a Woman of 30 despite the fact that I am 31. But I confess that I have learned nothing in all my 31 years, and I therefore confess that I have nothing to confess — other than that my yoga teacher ruined my life. True: this life has now been optioned for a film with Paul Rudd attached to lead. Another reason I cannot write The Confessions of a Woman of 30 (copyright in the title resides with Universal). One could say, therefore, that I have been compensated to the tune of 3% of the budget (an as-yet undetermined budget, but the ceiling of my slice is set at £300,000 in any case), plus a share of the proceeds from a film based on this abandoned life – so I should quit yammering. “What’s the problem?” you might well ask. “I should be so lucky!” you might well cry. “My yoga teacher ruined my life!” you might whine, indulging yourself in some amateur dramatics, in pronounced hand gestures and a mimicry of me wiping away tears like someone might screw wooden stakes into their eyes.

I’m not complaining, though. It’s a statement of fact: my yoga teacher ruined my life, as in he made of it a ruin (for me to haunt). And we should all love ruins. You can still see it, my life. Like London in the 1950s, the vestiges of violence are visible. Children play in it. Women push their prams through it. Eat cupcakes in it. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. It started with a story. I sought to make my fortune. I had planned a novel. The Confessions of a Woman of 30. £50,000 advance my agent said. Easy. Someone else had said: “This agent of yours. He told me he can see you writing a bestselling bonkbuster novel.” I was sold. I thought: it’s easy. I’ll make a version of Tracey Emin’s tent, featuring everyone I’ve ever slept with.

Unfortunately I hadn’t slept with many people, but my yoga teacher had. He was known for his hands-on adjustments to the Downward Facing Dog. I had never written a novel, so I signed up to my yoga teacher’s Sharing Group and there I found a host of characters. We sat in a circle, not obliged to talk, but I told them that I was a writer and that I needed help. They all agreed to be in my novel.

After three weeks my characters — led by my yoga teacher — formed a union and accused me of unreasonably withholding their pay. I explained that I had not yet written a word of the novel, and therefore could not expect my agent to be able to sell the work to a publisher: that the £50,000 advance was not in sight just yet! In any case, I said, coming round somewhat late to their accusation, I had not yet heard of any writer sharing their income with the characters who populate their creations. I had assumed their participation in this story was a collective act of spontaneity, but I explained that I was willing to share 10% of my income with them (as I had before with someone who had initiated the idea for a sitcom I wrote).

“Fuck you,” said my yoga teacher. “You’re working on a sitcom?” (He’s originally from Florida.) “You think this is so amusing, right? This group of people’s very real love for one another which — yes — extends beyond the confines of a traditional bourgeois existence as well as the physical boundaries of any one individual? You want to make some sort of version of Friends out of this, in which you get to be Tom fucking Selleck and we’re all Joey?”

I suddenly considered that this was a good idea, and probably far more lucrative to me (even if I did share income) than any novel could ever be. I mean, the best thing that could have come out of the novel is that someone would pick it up and make a long-running HBO show out of it. So I threw the ball back into my yoga teacher’s ballcourt and asked whether, if we could get Tom Selleck attached to play him, he would be willing to workshop some material for a ‘comedy drama’ – the latter in concession to his avowed sensitivities. He said yes.

At this point my yoga teacher literally colonised my life. The members of the Sharing Group were his ground forces. They would get up at 5am every morning in order to assemble and then make as if they were exiting my house after an all-night Sharing Group. I became locally known as someone who was sleeping with the yoga teacher and his ‘Sharing Group’ — now known to be part of a wider sex cult with its roots in a San Francisco ashram run by a Mancunian called Paul. Everything was going so well, but then — because I had only entered into a ‘good faith’ agreement (a verbal contract) with him — my yoga teacher was able to claim to his former client Madonna that I was planning to write about his sex life without his consent and that this was a violation of his human rights. The rest is well known. Madonna funded his superinjunction against me, Twitter went crazy, and – as I should have anticipated from the start — my yoga teacher was given a column in The Guardian in which he would write versions of the very scenes we had been workshopping with Tom Selleck!

On the fifth occasion my agent called my yoga teacher to remonstrate with him, he was put through to Universal who suggested that I could sell my life to them and have done. They wished to hire my yoga teacher to continue living the sham ‘open house’ existence I had created with such ‘hilarious consequences’. If the film was not made within 25 years all rights in my life would revert to me. All I had to do was agree to enter and exit my house at certain times, and to let my yoga teacher continue writing his column in The Guardian.

I now regularly feature on Yahoo!’s frontpage – usually juxtaposed with a picture of my yoga teacher in such a way that my exhaustion is drawn out against his healthy glow. But I spend my days wandering around the ruins of my life. It can be quite interesting. I have always had a fascination with Sadhus. I suddenly considered that I could become one myself. I went to the local crematorium and gathered ash from the furnace. I started to daub myself with this ash. I set up in someone’s garden on Regent’s Park Road and, as in Midnight’s Children, I have not been moved on. A small religion has erected itself around me. People lay cupcakes at my feet. Apparently this has really added to my life’s potential from the point of view of various backers. They consider that when I die – which they hope will be soon – they will be able to pursue a franchise of sequels to my life.

I am now so far away from life that I barely have the energy to lift a small cupcake to my lips. I am very far away, and I know now that I will end my days with the outward appearance of a monster like the one found cowering in a daylit parking lot in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.