How to See Palestine: An ABC of Colonialism

Nicholas Mirzoeff

Visiting Palestine was astonishing for the sheer intensity of the oppression. It was clarifying to see how the occupation operates and how little it cares what others think of it. It was humbling to see what being an activist really means and how privileged academic activism seems compared to the daily litany of harm to which any person in Palestine is exposed.

I saw elements of many different visual regimes struggling to cohere into what might become a new form. Surveillance is universal, but it’s not a panopticon because the jailers are all too visible. Religion is the justification for settlement, as it was under high imperialism, but there is no desire to convert the unbelievers. Counterinsurgency seeks “full spectrum dominance” but expects the insurgency to be permanent unless its conditions of possibility are removed.

The one thing everyone on all sides agrees on is that it’s all about land—who owns it, who can farm it, live on it, use the rainwater that falls on it, mine the minerals below—and so on. Whatever this is, it’s patently a form of colonialism. So, I decided to use my impressions to create an ABC of occupation.[1] Unlike Nicolai Bukharin’s classic ABC of Communism, this is not a program. It is a report back on the heart of visuality’s own contradiction. That is to say, Palestine is an actually existing possibility for the general condition of social life in the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the election of Donald Trump clarifies this issue somewhat. The complicated ways in which someone willing to discuss Palestine gets produced as anti-Semitic surely pale by comparison with the insertion of Stephen Bannon, an old-fashioned Jew hater into the White House.

Perhaps the success of a campaign based on the promise of a “beautiful” wall, xenophobia, hatred of Islam and Muslims and a willingness to separate existing populations will help people understand why Palestine is an example not an exception.

Perhaps.

 

A is for Area A

The regime covers the territory with signs, expressing its intent (fig. 1). These signs are posted wherever Area A, under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), borders with what the regime considers to be the state of Israel. Apparently, the Hebrew and Arabic versions are at variance. The English message is clear: Palestinians are dangerous. Red alert. Less obvious is that Area A covers only 18 percent of what is still referred to as the “West Bank” in a series of increasingly isolated pockets, centered on the Palestinian cities like Ramallah and Nablus. No functional state can be made from these islands. The “two-state solution” is visibly impossible.

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Although Area A signs are quite common, there are no others. Where do you enter Area B (largely considered defunct on the ground) and Area C, now considered to be some 63 percent of the West Bank? There are no signs other than the change of rules of engagement and the appearance of settlements, settler buses and the settlers themselves. Palestinians seem to know, as do the settlers and the Israeli Defense Force. So the Area A signs are really for people like me, or Israeli leftists, venturing into the West Bank. I don’t think they work. I hadn’t been there long before the sight of an Area A sign made me relax and feel safe.

 

B is for Benjamin

Here is a sign of colonialism if there ever was one (fig. 2). It depicts the wolf emblem of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Massive in size and posted high above the ground, it is positioned on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, notionally running through Area C but extensively used by tourists going to the Dead Sea. However, according to legend, Joshua assigned this area to Benjamin. So what the sign indicates is that Oslo may have designated the land for Palestinians, but God had already given it to the Jews. Posted signs indicate that the area is officially known to the regime as Judea and Samaria. Benjamin’s land.

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The Benjamin sign is only in Hebrew, a message for the colonists alone. But its visual message is clear enough. The howling wolf arcs his body over a cluster of white houses with red roofs, set against green grass and trees. The imperial echo of the Roman wolf cannot be missed. The empire protects. The houses are recognizably those of the illegal settlements that cover every hilltop in the West Bank, which all have such red roofs, in part to make them visible to the Israeli air force as settlements.

The grass and trees transform the scene into an evocation of American suburbia, the picket-fence view of the world. When I took this picture, the temperature was 115 farenheit (45 celsius). Any greenery in a Dead Sea settlement—and there is plenty—is both an ideological production and an environmental fabrication that relies on appropriated water. 10,000 settlers living in the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea area use one-third of the water accessible to the entire Palestinian population in the West Bank (estimated at over 2.5 million).

 

 

C is for City.

Cities are the testing ground for what is now in formation. Hebron, a notionally Palestinian city, has become the front line of settler colonialism in Palestine. The settlers are expanding, street by street, using their mix of the carceral state, religion and military force. To visit Shuhada Street, formerly a shopping hub of the Palestinian neighborhood, you have to pass through a forbidding checkpoint. The street is closed, all Palestinian shops barred and sealed. Settlers and soldiers patrol to make sure you know who’s in charge.

Although the street has been closed for years, it was nonetheless disturbing to see Stars of David painted on the closed doors, as if in active forgetfulness of those other times and places where such stars were painted on Jewish shops to different ends (fig. 3). More disturbing yet was the thought that perhaps the ends were not that different after all.

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At that moment, a settler started to film us from the other side of the street. Losing my temper, I walked towards him, holding my phone so as to film him. He retreated, only to return with a soldier a few moments later. Nothing was said, but the point was made: we were photographing on their sufferance. We left in short order.

 

D is for Desert

In the Naqab desert (called the Negev by the regime and within what Palestinians call the forty-eight, meaning the 1948 border), Bedouins at the village of al-Aqarib told us how their village had been destroyed ninty-eight times by Israeli police (over one hundred times as of October 2016). Their crops have been sprayed with Round Up from the air. The Jewish National Foundation plants millions of trees over as much of the Bedouin land as they can, aided by well-meaning environmentally inspired donations from the United States and elsewhere.

The Bedouin’s animals are arrested as they graze by the Green Patrol—an ecological unit of the regime—and the Bedouin are forced to pay heavy fines to retrieve them. How so? The regime has declared 85 percent of the Naqab to be state land or environmental reserves, so any person or animal setting foot in these areas is trespassing. The camels are arrested just like anyone else. Despite these conditions, we were treated to a lavish and delicious meal at al-Aqarib, according to the dictates of hospitality. A week after we left, the structures were demolished yet again.

 

G is for Giraffe

The Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi has called Israel a “carceral state.” A metonym of this condition, and its complications, can be found at Qalqilya zoo. Qalqilya is almost entirely surrounded by the Separation Wall, as a result of its involvement in the first Intifada. Despite this embattled status, it has within it a zoo, one of the few functioning public leisure spaces I saw.

Like most zoos, its containment of animals is grim. A brown bear paced in his cage relentlessly, as if wanting the Palestinian visitors to see his confinement as their own. Most dramatic is the separate museum that contains a number of stuffed animals. They died in the Intifada, as in the case of the giraffe, who lay down in fear during gunfire, causing her to die from her own blood pressure (fig. 4).

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It transpired that she was twelve months pregnant (out of fifteen), and so the zoo director, Sami Khader, turned taxidermist to preserve them. Their spindly bodies are perhaps indicative of his emergent skills or maybe testify to the emaciated condition of the animals under siege. You might see them as martyrs, nonhuman victims of the occupation, or as surrogates, waiting until Palestine is free to welcome other giraffes. It’s a poignant story, and there’s a film being made called Waiting for Giraffes and a published book called The Zoo On the Road to Nablus.

But there were very few visitors other than us to the museum, not least because there was an additional charge for admission. And then there’s always the occupation. During the Intifada the animals that did survive were forced to eat leaves from the trees and other local plants. At some point later, Dr. Sami (as he is known) decided to take animal food and other equipment from Israeli zoos. To do so is to break the boycott of Israel. Palestinians condemn his action.

Is sustaining a public resource and keeping animals alive a reasonable cause? Or is a boycott a boycott? Palestinians demonstrate time and again a long-term steadfast resistance, known as sumud in Arabic, to their own material and physical detriment. There is no simple and painless answer to this dilemma, which is the condition of being under occupation. The proper solution is, of course, an end to that occupation.

 

S is for Settlement

Perhaps the strongest impression that a visitor to Palestine receives is how many settlements there are in the West Bank. No one should imagine that they all can be removed in some future two-state solution. That’s why I initially put West Bank in quotation marks: there is no West Bank. As we were driving, we once went into a valley where there was no settlement. Surprised, I glanced at my watch. It was twenty-five seconds before the next settlement became visible.

Settlement landscape in Palestine is not hard to read because it is intended to dominate and intimidate (fig. 5). The settlements occupy hilltops to command a dominant viewpoint all around. The windows of the buildings face out to have as many eyes engaged in this monitoring as possible. They are close together for supposed safety, built behind defensive walls on land cleared of trees. There’s little left to tell you that Palestinians once farmed the land. Even the slow-growing olive trees have been cleared to make way for fast-growing pines.

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The pines are cultivated for timber, but they also serve to make the settlements look established. And they remove a resource from Palestinians. Locals told us that the Israelis had sedated and removed even the local wildlife, like deer and eagles. I have not been able to independently verify this account, but the absence of wildlife was notable.

In this valley, though, one farmer has kept a foothold. Using Ottoman-era documents to demonstrate ownership, the family has been able to cling to their land. Their goat pen is visible at bottom left. Thousands more were not so “lucky.” Their land is gone, appropriated or made useless. The Bedouin at al-Aqarib have similar documents that have not helped them.

 

T is for Tell es Sultan

A ‘tell’ is the name for an archaeological mound created by an abandoned human occupation (fig. 6). In Tell es Sultan, just outside Jericho, the British architect Kathleen M. Kenyon excavated human settlements reaching back to 10,000 BCE. That’s the very beginning of the Holocene, the now concluded window in which stable climatic conditions allowed for settled agriculture and what we call civilization.

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Kenyon’s signature “stratigraphic” style allows us to see the unfolding of human possibility from that early period, via the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages to the Romans. Her vertical method emphasizes these changes over time, rather than allowing for a horizontal exploration of how people lived in any one epoch. The discoveries of tombs on the north side of the site were in fact made by Palestinians from the ‘Ein-as-Sultan camp that held 20,000 refugees after 1948. In 1967, all but a thousand or so were expelled into Jordan. The British Museum where some of Kenyon’s objects are now housed makes no reference to the Palestinian role in discovering the tombs or to the camp, which is visible if you know where to look in the site photograph provided. No one does, they all rush past to get to the Egyptian “mummies,” human remains on display for tourist consumption.

Everything changes. An urban civilization fell circa 2530 BCE. It was not restored until 1900 BCE. The big white tourist buses arrive and take a look at what they incorrectly believe to be the fallen walls of Jericho and leave. When you look up at the mountains above you realize what a mote in the eye of geological time these little ripples have been.

 

 

Q is for Qalqilya

Everywhere you look in Palestine, there’s detritus—discarded packaging, demolished housing, unfinished settlements, abandoned cars, electrical components, and trash and waste of all kinds. In Area C, most of the West Bank, no one is authorized to pick up trash—the PA has no authority, and the IDF could care less. In the refugee camps the United Nations steps in. Elsewhere, it piles up or people burn it, contributing to the omnipresent smog.

At the Qalqilya checkpoint at the end of the day, after the last few workers have returned around 7:30 at night, crossing back into Palestine from Israel where they work, no one hangs around (fig. 7). To be sure of getting through in time for work, people will begin queuing again at 2 a.m. to be well-placed when the checkpoint opens at six. It processes one person at a time. Around four thousand will go through.

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And so coffee cups, soft drink bottles, bus tickets, and candy wrappers pile up, signs of lives lived in transit (fig. 8). As they sediment into the ground, the impermeable plastics and metals will await some future archaeologist, one who will note with surprise the sudden collapse of a short-lived but apparently consumer-oriented society. They will puzzle over the fences and walls; what purpose could they have served? Perhaps a new legend, like that of Joshua and the walls of Jericho will have been created. It’ll be a long wait for these new investigators; evolution takes place in deep time. The plastics, metals, and rocks won’t mind.

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Acknowledgements

I visited accompanying the art activist group MTL and with the generous support of many Palestinians, especially Habshe Yossef. I would also like to acknowledge the decolonial activist group Zochrot for arranging my meeting at al-Aqarib. The full web project is still being worked on by techs at USC for security. When available it will be  here. For the time being I have made a PDF of the project that you can access, with either the full text or just the introduction.

That said, all the opinions expressed here are mine alone.

 

[1] These are selected entries from the full ABC available at scalar.usc.edu/nehvectors/mirzoeff/index

 

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Further Night Thoughts on the Trump Election

W. J. T. Mitchell

Can I just say that I am sick and tired of hearing liberals and leftists beating their breasts about how they failed to empathize sufficiently with the white working class in this country? How terrible that we failed to feel their pain, to go out into their dying towns and promise to bring their lives back along with their dead-end jobs mining coal. Shouldn’t Hillary have spent more time in the white suburbs of Milwaukee? Shouldn’t we all give up our city jobs and take up farming or automobile maintenance? Shouldn’t we have nominated a man who feels the pain of hunters and sportsmen deprived of their assault weapons? Why can’t we seem to empathize with evangelists whose flexible moral code includes a tolerance for pussy-grabbing, race-baiting bigotry and xenophobia (sorry for the big word), as long as it includes the sacred right to invade a woman’s body to save a potential American citizen? Could this be why we are so annoyed by pants suits?

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Everyone who looks at the electoral map notes one striking pattern. This is about the country versus the city. How many cities (and the universities in them) are now declaring themselves “sanctuaries” for the ten million illegal immigrants who will, if Trump keeps his most fundamental promise, soon be rounded up by federal authorities, with the cooperation of local law enforcement? Sheriff Arpaio of Arizona, voted out of office in his home state, but soon to play a role in the Trump administration, has showed how local police can be used to enforce immigration laws with racial profiling and stop and frisk tactics. We have known about the danger of “driving while black” for some time. Soon we will find out what happens to those who are driving while Latino/a. And if cities like New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Chicago refuse to enlist their police forces in the immigrant roundup, Trump and his minions have threatened to cut off federal aid to cities. Suppose the cities defy this move, bite the bullet of a budget shortfall, and open up refugee camps for immigrants? What is Trump’s next move?   As the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, he will find it perfectly logical to call in federal marshals or even the National Guard to enforce the law. At this point the wounded white folks out in the sticks will turn off their television sets so as not to witness the crowds of women and children, housemaids and students, teachers and carpenters, fruit pickers and restaurant workers being loaded onto busses. I presume the Trump team will have the good taste not to put them in cattle cars on trains heading for “temporary” detention camps. The imagery might not play well in rural sports bars when the NFL game is interrupted by an annoying news bulletin.

 

So please, all you liberals, leftists, hipsters, intellectuals, progressives, school teachers, and people who read something besides Twitter feeds, and watch something besides Fox News, stop apologizing for losing this election. Please remember that in fact Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. She was clearly over-qualified for the job and failed to bring her message down to the level that P. T. Barnum had in mind when he said that there’s a sucker born every minute. Before you assemble in a circular firing squad to put the blame on yourselves, take a moment to assign the blame where it belongs: on the idiots who voted for this man, and the hypocrites who are now kissing his ass and encouraging the rest of us to look in the mirror. Instead of the mirror, I recommend a panopticon of critical inquiry, led by a rebirth of vigilant investigative journalism, a mobilization of historical and cultural memory, and frequent reminders that the Constitution has other things in it besides the Second Amendment.

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Trump’s Election and Collective Madness

W. J. T. Mitchell

 

“History is a Nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” –James Joyce, Ulysses

“Insanity in individuals is somewhat rare. But in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” –Nietzsche

“A single Athenian is a wily fox. A group of Athenians is a flock of sheep.” –Solon

“Every man, seen as an individual, is tolerably shrewd and sensible, see them in corpore, and you will instantly find a fool.” Schiller

“No one ever went broke underestimating the American public.” -P.T. Barnum

“You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” –Abraham Lincoln.

What Lincoln failed to add is, those are pretty good odds for the success of a determined and skilled con artist in the short run.

“We Palestinians love Trump because he is pure Americana. He shows the true face of the American character, and we feel it is important for the world to see that truth for what it is.”

–Conversations with Palestinians in the West Bank, May, 2016.

To which I replied: “That is easy for you to say in the safety of Palestine.”

The shocking election of Donald Trump reminds us that the real location of mental illness, whether it takes the form of anger or a melancholic sense of wounding and resentment, is primarily in the group, not the individual. We sometimes think that the paradigm of madness is to be found in the individual case. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paranoia is most effective when it is shared with others; nurtured in isolation, it shrivels up and dies. It is a long standing commonplace that human reason of the practical sort, the kind that involves the management of one’s own affairs generally prevails at the individual level. Even the famously psychotic Judge Schreber could perform complex feats of legal reasoning, and convince a court that he was capable of managing his own affairs. Reason also operates quite efficiently at the level of tactics and strategy, never more relentlessly than in warfare, the most dramatic form of collective madness known to our species. In politics, the supposedly peaceful sublimation of war, reason moves from the manipulation of weapons and destruction to the skillful manipulation of unreason; it deploys the ancient lessons of rhetoric as opposed to logic, of instrumental, egoistic reason as contrasted with wisdom or Kantian Enlightenment. Calculated appeals to emotion trump (you will forgive the pun) those of reason. The heart has reasons of its own, and it is the chief exercise of cynical, manipulative reason to understand the triggers that set off collective madness in the mass. See Kelly Ann Conway, Trump’s brilliant campaign manager, who showed us the power and “reasonableness” of wiliness, cunning, and clever rhetorical agility.

 

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Trump’s campaign capitalized on all the dark forces in the electorate that lay below the threshold of opinion polls and their data bases, unreachable by rational arguments about policy solutions to shared problems, unembarrassed by transparent lies and demagoguery. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anxiety, resentment, paranoia, and a generalized hatred of elites, experts, and established institutions were all mobilized to produce a wave of collective passion seen in the crowds that chanted “lock her up,” and threatened violent revolution if the “rigged” election went against them.

Now that the election, and the frenzy that has swept the American public for the last 18 months, has passed over us, a strange, ambiguous calm will settle over the country. Everyone will urge us to “come together as a nation,” and to heal the wounds that have been opened.  Even Trump will remind us that, at heart, he is just a negotiator who has no principles except “the art of the deal” that favors his perception of national interest. The madness, however, has simply gone underground, the wounds festering, leaving the American dream as always, only the blink of an eye removed from the nightmare of our history.

 

 

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In Memoriam David Antin (1932–2016)

Marjorie Perloff

            Summer 1975: I was attending the first annual Ezra Pound conference in Orono, Maine. Among such prominent conference speakers as Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie was a former Davie PhD student from Stanford, now teaching at Indiana University at Bloomington, named Barry Alpert. Barry was a true radical—so radical that he was soon dismissed from Bloomington and has led a peripatetic life as free-lance poet, critic, and book dealer; for a time he owned a bookshop in Washington D. C. that burned to the ground one dark night. But in the 1970s, he was editing and publishing an important literary journal called VORT, which had just brought out the Jerome Rothenberg and David Antin issue. Barry gave me a copy, which I read cover to cover, ordered earlier issues (there was one on Jackson Mac Low, another on Guy Davenport), and began studying David’s provocative ideas about the “new American poetry,” as well as his curious “talk poems”—transcribed oral performances, avoiding all punctuation and capital letters and leaving plenty of white space between phrases so as to simulate actual talk. I was hooked and was soon reviewing Talking at the Boundaries for the New Republic (1978).  Ironically, then, it was via Ezra Pound that I came to Antin. My 1981 book The Poetics of Indeterminacy contains chapters on both.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to take up a position at the University of Sothern Claifornia, I introduced myself to David, then already living in Del Mar; both he and his wife, Eleanor, soon to be a famous artist, were professors at UC San Diego. Soon we began to pay visits back and forth—in those days, one could drive from Del Mar to LA in about one and a half hours, whereas today it can be three or four—and we also had countless long phone conversations, during which David would educate me on issues like Wittgenstein’s numbering system, Diderot’s dialogism in Rameau’s Nephew (one of his favorite books and a model for his own monologues), the use of narrative in Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and Gertrude Stein’s syntax. Once he was on track, David could talk on and on, and I wish I had recorded what in retrospect were quasi-talk poems. I also remember the excitement of going to conferences with David. One time in 1978, he and I and Charles Altieri (another great talker) were at a conference on postmodernism held at Stanford. In the afternoon, I went up to my room for a nap; when I woke an hour later I could hear, below my window in the motel courtyard, David and Charlie still going on and on about the meaning or (nonmeaning) of the term postmodernism. The conversation never let up for an instant!

I shall forever be in David’s debt for these conversations, which taught me how to think about American poetry in the larger context of European modernism as well as the Platonic dialogue. It was David who first made clear to me that, at a time when Pound was still writing rather romantic stylized dramatic monologues of Personae, Blaise Cendrars (for whom David’s son Blaise is named) was already completing “La Prose du Transsibérien,” with its artful simulation of actual speech and its colloquial free verse. And it was David who introduced me to the collage texts and paintings of Kurt Schwitters.

David’s talk poems, written in the short phrasal units of what Northop Frye defined as the “associative rhythm,” use repetition and metonymy to produce complex meditations that look nothing if not “natural” but are in fact carefully constructed and shaped. In their emphasis on the actual thought processes that lead to certain conclusions, they look ahead to the conceptual poetics of our own moment. But David was also a leading literary and art critic, and in 2016 it may be useful to remind younger readers of what a difference that criticism made to those of us who came of (literary) age in the 1970s.

In his two essays on modernism and postmodernism—the first for the inaugural issue of boundary 2 in 1972, the second in Occident 1974, and both reprinted in the Chicago volume Radical Coherency (2011), David stages a stinging attack against what he took to be the neomodernist symbolist poetry of the post-World War II period. It was a time when W. D.

Snodgrass was considered a major new voice. Antin takes as a specimen the lines:

The green catalpa tree has turned

All white; the cherry blooms once more.

In one whole year I haven’t learned

A blessed thing they pay you for.

Of which David remarks: “The comparison between this updated version of A Shropshire Lad . . . and the poetry of the Cantos or The Waste Land seems so aberrant as to verge on the pathological.” Here, as in the case of Delmore Schwartz, or Allen Tate, or early Robert Lowell, Antin insisted, the “originating styles” of modernism seemed to have lost all their energy. We were witnessing, in establishment poetry, a giant step backwards, even as the poets Donald Allen had introduced in his New American Poetry, beginning with Charles Olson, were doing exciting new work. And, anyway, David argued, none of these poets, whether “raw” (Allen Ginsberg) or “cooked (Lowell), were as brilliant as such Europeans as Schwitters and Cendrars, not to mention that unique expatriate Stein, who was the most innovative of them all.

Antin could be excessively dismissive and arrogant about his likes and dislikes, but the fact is that his boundary 2 article and its postscript in Occident changed the map of postwar twentieth-century poetry, as it was being studied and understood in American universities. Students had to ask themselves whether the metaphoric mode of, say, Richard Wilbur really was a valuable successor to the modernists or why the “history collage” of Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle often seemed merely tepid vis-à-vis Pound’s “history” Cantos.  Meanwhile, his bon mots like “From the modernism that you want, you get the postmodernism you deserve,” and “Anthologies are to poets as the zoo is to animals,” were widely cited and repeated by a growing circle of disciples.

Part of David’s appeal was what T. S. Eliot, talking of Andrew Marvell, called “the tough reasonableness behind the slight lyric grace.”   Writing of avant-garde poets and artists, David always began reasonably with the literal. In “Duchamp: the Meal and the Remainder,” David’s focus was on Duchamp’s use of language, on the erotic puns and double entendres that made the work what it is as well as of the significance of calling The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” a “delay” in glass. Again, David wrote what is still considered the best essay on the all-black paintings of the Rothko Chapel in Houston—on the power of this “uncompromising difficult and secular work” to produce in the observer “a sense of your human fallibility,” by evoking such things as the early promise of nuclear energy as a “kind of glowing in the dark that’s still part of the metaphoric system we have to engage in.”

In this essay—“The Existential Allegory of the Rothko Chapel,”—framed not as a conventional essay, but as a talk piece, micronarrative intrudes so as to “thicken the plot,” to use Cage’s term. There are shaggy dog stories, speculations about remembering faces like the poet’s father’s, who died when David was two, conversations with other art critics, and so on. But the seeming diversions and parenthetical stories are all related: in the end an Antin talk poem has a curious way of coming full circle and tying up the loose knots. Only when the poet stops talking (or in the transcribed version, writing) do we see that the threads that have come together were there all along.

Many of David’s talk poems and art essays, now in the J. Paul Getty Trust archive, have yet to be transcribed; one of my favorites is called “The Poetry of Ideas and the Idea of Poetry,” and compares Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writing to Bertolt Brecht’s verse version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, arguing that Wittgenstein’s “prose” is, finally, much more poetic than Brecht’s hexameter version of Marx. David performed this piece at a conference on poetry and philosophy at Berkeley, and it was not well received by many of the academic philosophers, who found its treatment of “serious” ideas frivolous. But I predict that, as generic boundaries become less important, the Wittgenstein piece will be recognized for its profundity, its understanding of what poetry is and can be and where poetry and philosophy meet.

Most great critics have their blind spots; think of Samuel Johnson dismissing John Milton’s Lycidas or Virginia Woolf deploring the scatological language of James Joyce’s Ulysses. David had little interest in the novel—I never heard him say anything interesting—indeed, anything at all— on Leo Tolstoy or Marcel Proust or William Faulkner. He paid little attention to the work of younger poets, although he was, of course, an early proponent of feminist performance art, of which Eleanor was a key exemplar. He admired theorists like Michel de Certeau, whose work on the everyday was backed by thorough scholarship, but had little use for Jacques Derrida or Jacques Lacan, or even Theodor Adorno, whom he regarded with bemused skepticism. Despite his love of French and Russian avant-garde poetry—Maria Tsvetaeva was a great favorite—when it came to theory and criticism, he was an American pragmatist. Does it work? Is it useful? What can you do with it? These are the questions that interested him. But perhaps because he was so unabashedly American—with a Brooklyn accent to boot—it was in the France whose theorists he dismissed that he was especially popular. Most of his books have been translated into French and the Oulipo poet Jacques Roubaud was an early kindred spirit.

In the decades to come, I am convinced, David will be recognized for the transformative critic and poetician he was. Close to so many of the artists and poets of his day, beginning with his best friend and fellow innovator Jerome Rothenberg, whom he had first met in his undergraduate years at City College, he was, finally, entirely his own person—a bracing, provocative, and entirely original voice in the wilderness of what is considered the poetry scene.

Here an anecdote may be apposite. In 1980 or so, I invited David to give a poetry reading—that is, a talk—at USC. The auditorium was reassuringly full. But about ten minutes into the piece—I think it was “Who’s Listening Out There?”—David was interrupted by a woman’s voice from the audience. “When,” she asked impatiently, “does the poetry reading begin?” Everyone laughed. “You’re not going to hear anything you’re not hearing now,” David responded calmly, “so feel free to leave. There is nothing else coming.” She stayed.

 

[Visit the CI website to read some of David Antin’s work—Ed.]

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New Essay from Danny Postel

Danny Postel, a frequent contributor to this blog and the Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, has an essay in the new issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas in which he reviews Laura Secor’s new book Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran and also examines Iran’s role in the changing political landscape of the Middle East—especially in the Syrian catastrophe. You can read the essay here.

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Maximum Security: A Visit with David Gilbert

W. J. T. Mitchell

On 22 July 2016, I paid a visit to David Gilbert in Wende Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison not far from Buffalo, New York. The visit, arranged by one of David’s legal counselors, Cynthia Bowman, consisted of five hours of nonstop conversation on personal, political, and what can only be described as philosophical topics. From the moment we met, David impressed me with his marvelous sense of calm self-possession. He has a radiant smile, a resolute gaze, and an unbroken stream of humor, intelligence, ethical and political clarity without a trace of resentment. When he speaks, David has a habit of raising his hands above his head like an orator addressing an audience. But there is not a trace of pomposity in this gesture. It’s as if he is framing whatever he has to say (often modest and self-critical) in a moment of intense, deeply considered communication that is almost as arresting as his ideas and opinions.

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David is serving a life sentence for “felony murder,” a uniquely American legal nicety that makes a person guilty of any murder committed during a felony (like robbery), regardless of whether one actually killed anyone, intended to hurt anyone, or was even carrying a weapon. David was involved in the famous robbery of a Brinks truck in Nyack, New York on 21 October 1981, an act of what he called “revolutionary expropriation” aimed at supplying financial support for the Black Revolutionary Army, a militant spin-off from the Black Panther Party. At his trial, David insisted on representing himself, refusing to recognize the authority of the court, and presenting himself as a political prisoner who should have been tried by an international court.   As a result, he received the harshest possible sentence and (barring a pardon)[1] is unlikely to leave prison in his lifetime.

At one point I asked David if there was anything good about being incarcerated in a maximum-security prison. He was able to think of two things. First, “you meet a lot of interesting people in here that you would never meet on the outside.” Second, being a convicted felon means that you don’t have to participate in the joyless decision of voting for Hillary Clinton instead of the awful Donald Trump. A third thing, which he didn’t mention, is that a life sentence is a very effective way of finding out who your true friends are, who will stick by you and work hard to make your life bearable by visiting as often as possible and keeping your existence visible to the outside world. Certainly Gilbert is a very unusual “lifer,” sustained by a network of friends, centrally the former leaders of the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who have raised David’s son, Chesa Boudin, since he was a baby.

When I asked David how he has learned to cope with the miserable conditions of imprisonment without hope for parole, he made a point of emphasizing this environment of love, loyalty, and friendship that has sustained him now for thirty-three years of prison life. In this respect, he is certainly not typical of the prison population, many of whom feel abandoned to a living death. Is this just because he is such a remarkable individual? Or because he has an unusually energetic group of friends, which now includes young political activists from Black Lives Matter and other groups who come to seek his counsel. Most surely it is the interplay between his personality, his political principles, and his excellent choice of friends. Inside Wende prison, which is all too typical in having a black male population of about 90 percent, he relies on the long-standing network of racial solidarity engendered by his work with the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 70s and his subsequent work inside prison. These comrades protect him from what could otherwise be a very dangerous environment for a slender Jewish guy who is now becoming a somewhat frail senior citizen. In 33 years in maximum security, David has never experienced a physical assault.

Another factor in David’s remarkable endurance has been his self-definition as a political prisoner, an identity that gives incarceration itself a meaning quite different from the usual self-image of criminals as losers and/or victims. There is no trace of self-pity in his conversation.   And right alongside his relentlessly thorough self-criticism and acknowledgment of the terrible results of the crime he was involved in, there is a quiet, reflective sense of mindfulness, both in his relation to present circumstances and the conditions of everyday life, as well as the long arc of history to which he feels connected.

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Perhaps the most interesting moment in our five-hour conversation was at the moment of parting. As the loudspeaker rang out orders to leave, David took a moment to give me some advice. “As a first time visitor to a maximum security prison, you will probably feel a kind of melancholy as you depart. This is a common reaction, and you should be prepared for it.” This made me want to stay for another hour, because I was already starting to feel exactly the emotion he was describing, which only grew stronger as we made our way through the numerous gates out to the car. But what is this feeling really about? Could it be the sense of massive injustice that weighs down on this gentle, wise soul in every moment of his waking life, and must haunt his dreams? Is it a version of “survivors guilt” at the contrast between my own freedom and his probably endless imprisonment? Could it be my own sense that I could never endure the kind of conditions he has not merely suffered but also transformed into the setting for a meaningful life? Whenever I try to imagine what it would mean to be locked up for so long in this ludicrously misnamed “correctional facility,” my heart sinks into a certainty that I would never be able to stand the daily humiliations amid a system that seems designed only to induce despair and a breaking of the spirit. A kind of blackness opens up in my imagination that only seems deeper and darker when I contrast it to the wonderful life, freedom, and work that I have been so lucky to have, and appreciate even more having met David. Or maybe it was just the strangeness of feeling that David Gilbert, a man who maintains his moral equipoise, political vision, and modest cheerfulness amidst conditions whose thought utterly terrifies me, was taking out a moment to comfort me.

 

[1] Since Gilbert is in a state prison, he cannot be pardoned by President Obama, but must depend upon the mercy of Governor Andrew Cuomo, an unlikely possibility.

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Syria’s Medical and Humanitarian Nightmare: Interview with Dr. Zaher Sahloul

Danny Postel

Since their days as medical school classmates, Bashar al-Assad and Zaher Sahloul have followed rather different paths: one became a war criminal; the other, a humanitarian advocate.

Dr. Sahloul is the immediate past president of and a senior advisor to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a humanitarian and advocacy organization that provides medical relief to Syrians and Syrian refugees. Last year, SAMS served 2.5 million patients in five different countries. (The organization’s vital work is featured in the recent documentary film 50 Feet from Syriawhich is available on Netflix.)

Dr. Sahloul is also the founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria, a coalition of 14 US-based humanitarian organizations working in Syria. He is an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and is a practicing physician in pulmonary and critical care medicine. He has written about the medical and humanitarian crisis in Syria for Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.

I conducted this interview with Dr. Sahloul for the Middle East Dialogues series produced by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies on April 26 — less than 48 hours before the Assad regime’s airstrike on the MSF-supported pediatric hospital in Aleppo that killed dozens of patients and doctors, including one of the city’s last remaining pediatricians.

Go here to volunteer with the Syrian American Medical Society (you do not need to be a doctor or medical professional) and here to donate to the organization.

Originally published on Pulse

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