Wednesday, November 5, 2008

U.S./Somalia Links, Associative Meanings

Nuruddin Farah has complicated ideas about the U.S.'s role in Somalia, and he forms associations in his novel that bring those complexities to the fore. He sees the difficulties of international intervention in his country, as well as the necessity. Farah, however, makes a distinction between helping the other and helping one's self. Farrah points to the difficult relationship between the effort on the ground in the U.S./U.N. intervention, and the media portrayal of the situation that has the ability to sway public opinion. Farah posits the idea that American foreign policy is as much a TV show as anything else, "a circus for the benefit of prime-time TV back home." The link between the media and American identity makes it hard for motives to be seen as altruistic (all the more appropriate that I use an image from a movie to begin this post).

The complexity of the situation is also written in religious terms. One of Farah's protagonists explains his "misgivings about saints and angels ... especially as I fear that people describe the Yankees as 'good angels' come on a humanitarian mission, to perform God's work here. Do you think Yankees ceased being angels, because of the conditions met here, conditions that wouldn't permit them to perform any work but Satan's? When do angels cease to be angels and resort to being who they are, Yankees?" Farah embeds religious terms in the political questions in an way that draws the two together.

The links he forms ask the crucial questions. How does the media influence foreign policy and subsequently the lives of individual Somalis? How can humanitarian goals be forgotten so quickly when things begin to go wrong on the ground? And then link the two - the media, humanitarian ideals gone wrong - an ethical imbalance?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Inhabiting Political Art

Must an artist inhabit the role she presumes to represent? How does this role connect to the political revolutionary?

Bile, one of Nuruddin Farah's protagonists in Links, explains, "an artist representing an image cannot presume to be an artist unless he is able to be the very figure being represented. Likewise, a man with a radical image who's spent years in detention for political reasons must act forthrightly and without fear of the consequences."

The comment links the artist and the radical. Both must act forthrightly and without fear to have an impact. But, what does it mean to be the figure being represented? An artist can inhabit the revolutionary role with an imagination that builds characters, scenes, and story through links to the real. Or, the artist can be the firgure represented and present a realist version of events from personal memory in order to convey a political point. The artist can be either inside or outside, but either way must present a threshold for the reader to pass through, which evokes meaning and provokes response. How does the artist reach that point?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Poet, a Picture, and a Gun

This poem is a gun
This poem's an assassin
Images mob my mind …
This pen’s a spear, a knife
A branding-iron, an arrow
Tipped with righteous anger
It writes with blood and bile
- Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’

Art's warfare ... from where does it derive its power?

Friday, October 3, 2008

War's Missed Connections

"In the shadows of war and politics there came to be surreal turns of cause and effect."

This line from Anil's Ghost possessed me while I was reading the first part of the book. The unreal aspects of war, the horror, the trauma, collapse all sense of truth and understanding, history and memory. Ondaatje explores how fear infiltrates a country so pervasively that nobody can recognize the reality of individual lives. Is this what happens in all wars? Cause and effect become propaganda and history the fiction written in a time of exception?

The text explores these questions but also initiates a response. It attempts to empower mechanisms to bridge the gap between past and present, the bones of the dead that lie in the earth, the stories of relatives, literature. How do we read the surreal world that disconnects life from its own story?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

We Varied Nomads

A Distant Shore sets up a comparison between the way two people travel. One, an immigrant, crossing and recrossing borders until he comes to live in an England he did not expect. Another, a long-time resident who does not recognize England after living there her entire life. The effects on each vary, but they both take journeys in an effort to find a place in the world. And, they both lose a sense of self, changing throughout the text while attempting to recover the past.

"If I do not share my story, then I have only this one year to my life. I am a one-year-old man who walks with heavy steps. I am a man burdened with hidden history."

Memory, story, voice, is literature an act of recovery? Does it provide the journey we all need to take to find/see purpose and gain a sense of self? Is this only an insight the nomad can realize, having crossed into different perspectives to gain her or his own?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Denizen Memories

In A Distant Shore, Gabriel comes to the realization that he must leave his country. All that has happened to him must be pushed aside as he flees at all cost, trying to get to England. And as he does so, he leaves behind everything, even his memories, to transform.

"Gabriel knows that if he is going to live again then he will have to learn to banish all thoughts of his past existence. There can be no sentiment. Hurtling blindly down this highway, he knows that if he is lucky the past will soon be truly past, and that with every gasp of the acrid air beneath the heavy tarpaulin, life is taking him beyond this nightmare and to a new place and a new beginning."

In effect, Gabriel becomes the exception, leaving everything to enter into the unknown, at once citizen and not citizen, forgetting in order to create new memories, starting life over after having lived too much. He embodies the changes that occur to the traveler, but how does it compare to the England he finds upon arrival? How is the memory of the past in play for both the immigrant and the citizen? Do they both embody the nomadic state? Does the immigrant, as the exception, force the resident of a country to see themself differently?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The NGO Challenge

Some argue that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) offer a challenge to traditional politics and the State. This becomes all the more apparent in the transnational world where borders are more fluid and temporary communities are built out of necessities. In Bel Canto, all of these aspects come into play in the figure of Messner, the representative of the Red Cross. He wields a kind of power no other person in the text maintains.

Messner's "manner was so calm, so seemingly unaware of the chaos that surrounded them, that he could have been taking s Sunday morning collection. The Red Cross was always there to help the victims of earthquakes and floods, the very ones Vice President Iglesias was sent to comfort and assess ... 'The Red Cross,' he said to the bank of guns behind him."

Where does his power, or an NGO's power come from? Is it the way they stand on a higher ethical ground that gives them protection above others, akin to clerical or some other status outside of normal relations? How does Messner embody the state of exception, and what critical ground does that offer us as readers?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

An Aesthetic of Memory

The "garua," a mist that isn't a mist, the fog that is not a fog, forms a thick barrier that hovers around the house forming an even deeper isolation in which the hostages in Bel Canto find themselves. It is the manifestation of their seperation from the world, while new connections are being formed in the inner space demarkated by the "garua." Memory is the only link to the outside world for them, and it is provoked by music.

"He could only hear the notes, the clear resonance of her voice, like when he was a boy and would run down the hill past the convent, how he could hear just a moment of the nuns' singing, and how it was better that way, to fly past it rather than to stop and wait and listen. Running, the music flew into him, became the wind that pushed back his hair and the slap of his own feet on the pavement. hearing her sing now ... was like that. It was like hearing one bird answer another when you can only hear the reply and not the plintive, original call" (99-100).

If an aesthetic is defined as a quality of artistic production that elicits an emotive reaction from the viewer, a sensory value of sorts that opens art to values of judgement and sentiment, does Bel Canto put forth an aesthetic of memory? If so, it seems to act in similar ways across the group of hostages and terrorists alike. What does it mean that it crosses borders and acts nomadically, connecting to the past while also helping to construct a unique community in the present? What are the productive possibilities?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Collisions of Community

Ann Patchett's Bel Canto forces readers to think about community and the diverse communal nature of our transnational society. This may seem difficult in a book about terrorists taking hostages at a birthday party. But is it just such trauma, the international cast, and the unique foundations on which the cast of characters is brought together that offer the most poignant questions. The uncertainty, the temporary nature of the situation, and the connections across various boundaries add to the mix.

What constitutes a community and binds it together in the contemporary world? What roles/subject positions are most vital to a transnational community? Are fleeting communities always formed out of trauma, temporary and necessary to escape a distinct threat?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Falling Man

Google "falling man" and this image comes up time and time again. I will follow suit and post the image, but with the pertinent question: is it ethical to post this image? Also, how does the photograph function today?

DeLillo's novel Falling Man refers to this famous picture. In the text, a performance artist recreates the photo by placing himself at strategic locations around the city and jumping from a building tethered by a single rope. In the process, he assumes the position of the man in the photo. DeLillo's text asks the important question: "Falling Man as Hearless Exhibitionist or Brave New Chronicler of the Age of Terror" (220).

I believe DeLillo is asking us to remain shocked out of our daily routines, not to let 9/11 become simple history, and relearn the lessons of the event each day. Is this giving too much value to terrorism? Is performance art that interrupts our daily lives an important aspect in postmodern society? If art does not interrupt, what will?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Solid Signifiers

After presents a question about identity that continues to provoke diverse thoughts in me. The wife whose husband dies in a terrorist incident, views video of the husband being questioned before he is killed. She describes the situation:

"When those men asked my husband if he was a Jew, he said, 'Yes, I am a Jew.' He didn't say, 'No, I'm an individual ... An individual. What's that? Individuals are all the same, you know. Cut off from what they are. They are nothing at all. It's the context that matters ... I wonder could you do that? Give up everything, your family, your life, just for once to be completely what you are?" (132-133).

The wife believes that one needs a solid identity marker to define ones character. She believes that the husband's unwillingness to shy away from his identity is valiant, even though he is depicted as "Not a good Jew," whatever that means (133). I simply question the validity of that type of overarching identity signifier in today's world. Is there one thing that defines any of us that we hold onto completely and would give up our individualism for? Is that called patriotism, loyalty, fanaticism....? The context she speaks of seems to be a large identity affiliation, but don't we more actively identify with smaller more localizes identities which we inhabit on a daily basis? Things like community, family, ethics formed based on experiences within a more localized context? Is the solid marker of religion or culture what we truly "are" more than family, relationships, community? Could you, would you, give up your family for the sake of some more grand narrative?

Terrorism as Event

Claire Tristram's After is a disturbing view of one woman's struggle to come to terms with her husband's death at the hands of terrorists. I have not come to terms with the questions the text asks, but one thing is for certain, terrorism acts as an interruption to the life of the protagonist in a way that shifts the ground under her feat.

"Alternatively she wished for a disaster, like the ones they had imagined for one another the night before; a pox, a plague, a pure, holy terror event after which all that had come before would be erased in a brilliant white light, rendered irrelevant from one searing moment to the next, so that all the world could experience the same dislocation that she had. The shattered pieces would rearrange themselves eventually. Life would go on. But no one would return to the before-place, when everything was ordered and complete" (177).

If terrorism acts as an event that interrupts the status quo and puts us on new ground, does that mean it is an effective means of changing the world? What does it mean to desire that kind of dislocation of identity and attempt, as takes place in the book, to provoke this type of shift? Is that what art does already, or can art shift the ground beneath our feet to invoke a more ethical society to the degree that political dissidents will not need to use violence as a means of political action?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Nurruddin Farah's Ethical Anecdote

As I read Somali writer Nurruddin Farah's Links, I have come across an example that goes a long way to portraying the conflicting influences that embody the conflict in the country.

Farah's protagonist, Jeebleh, a Somali ex-patriot living in the U.S. but returned to uncover the events of his mother's death, witnesses "a boy in a fancy cowboy hat and jeans, ruthlessly hitting an Alsatian with a stick ... The pregnant dog was writhing in agony, and actively giving birth ... a pure-bred Alsatian in today's Mogadiscio ... the dog had once belonged to an Englishman, formerly of the BBC African Service, who had been seconded to the city by UNOSOM" (129). Jeebleh intervenes, finds the dog shelter, even covering the puppies with his jacket.

To the American reader, the ethics here seem obvious; the dog is being physically harmed and one must come to its aid. Shit, there is even a TV show about animal cops where we enjoy watching these crusaders save desperate animals and lock away the offenders.

However, Jeebleh is vilified for his behavior. His acts amount to dirtying himself by actually touching a dog and offending the others present. Farah uses the example to establish the cultural divide between his English speaking readers and the locals. But it also posits the contradiction of a society enamored with American culture, envisaged in the "cowboy hat and jeans," saddled with the legacy of colonialism, the BBC man's dog, and at odds with the helping hand of NGO's, "UNOSOM." It is a conflict that plays out between the western world's ideology of individualism that infiltrates Somali culture yet conflicts with the traditional clan-based rule. The essence of the political problem of the country lies somewhere in the conflicting ideals of clan vs. individual.

The example embodies the political misunderstandings that outsiders bring to bare on Somalia and other African nations. The question is thus, how do we approach the situation? With an eye for the individuals who are suffering, which seems to be the only thing that draws our attention? How do we give due consideration to the local customs?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Comment on Khadra at Strangled Sleep

The following is from an entry at ....

The Return of the Jewish Nose: Reading Yasmina Khadra's The Attack

Unless you are a fan of Tex-Mex, truck with balls, scorching heat, and museums commemorating George W. Bush, there are very few reasons to spend the summer in southeast Texas. But I happen to be here visiting someone, and so I’ve taken the opportunity to sit in on his Texas A&M University class on contemporary world literature, where the focus is literature and terrorism.

For today, we read Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack (2007). Khadra (his real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul) is a former Algerian army officer turned novelist, and this novel, despite its unsophisticated writing style, does a pretty good job of getting college students to think and talk about terrorism in an unfiltered way. The only problem is that the book is so severely biased against Israelis and Jews that one wonders how unfiltered the discussion can truly be.

The storyline goes something like this: Arab-Israeli surgeon is called to the hospital where he learns his wife has been killed in a restaurant bombing. He later finds out that his wife was in fact the suicide bomber. The rest of the book, with all of its undeveloped plot threads, is about his attempts to uncover her secret life and come to grips with what he sees as her betrayal of him. The important thing to note is that it’s not that he needs to come to grips with what his wife has done to innocent men, women, and children in a crowded restaurant, but with what he sees as her personal betrayal of him.

A bit self-absorbed, no?

It’s not that the novel doesn’t tell a good story or address timely issues. It definitely kept me reading, but perhaps that was also because of the all but latent anti-Semitism that kept jumping out at me. Like many people, I tend to like to stare at things that repulse me. Although I run the risk of sounding like an anti-Semitic ambulance chaser, it is difficult not to read between the lines when nearly every time Khadra’s narrator introduces a new Jewish character, he refers to his “unattractive nostrils” or depicts him looking down his “nose” at the narrator. Or, in the absence of the description of a character’s unflattering nose, he depicts them as fat, selfish, and always gobbling things up.

.... continued at

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Open Thread

Shopping or Protest on Saturday

"It isn't rationalism that will overcome the religious zealots, but ordinary shopping and all that it entails - jobs for a start, and peace, and some commitment to realisable pleasures, the promise of appetites sated in this world, not the next. Rather shop than pray." (127)

Saturday explores the tension between the self and the world and how one situates both thinking for oneself and thinking globally at the same time. The above quote, which resonates with comments made by both our President and Vice President, seems to say that the balance is maintained by shopping. The text seems somewhat at odds with this type of understanding with its constant reference to social involvement and political discussion. So, where is the balance? How does this tie in with religion in both the fundamentalist terrorist way and in an everyday American way?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Open Thread

Suicide Bombings, Response, and Khadra

Yasmina Khadra does not give us the full motivation of the female suicide bomber in The Attack. He leaves the idea of an embodied bomb out there to consrast with other ideas in the book. It is juxtaposed against the character of Amin, a selfish doctor who chooses life in medical care but is as selfish as a bomber when it comes to personal motivations. The suicide attack is positioned against Israel's airstrike response. These juxtapositions bring up questions but do not define. What are we to take from that idea?
Talal Asad writes of suicide bombers "that motives in general are more complicated than is popularly supposed and that the assumption that they are truths to be accessed is mistaken: the motives of suicide bombers in particular are inevitably fictions that justify our responses but that we cannot verify" (3). If this is true, what does Khadra and maybe even literature in general provide? A verification or new assumption to add to the list? Or, does lit have a productive insight, method, or idea to posit that will challenge our thought process in a productive way? If so, how does Khadra carry it out?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Open Thread: The Cyclist

Politics, Community, and The Cyclist

The Cyclist portrays a cycle of violence that moves forward indiscriminately through attacks that seem to be without political motivation. But the text does not withdraw from politics, it places its message in the body of those involved mainly through food. The central position of food and its use as metaphor for violence as well as its actual role as sustenance, not to mention that food is the narrator's reason for living, means that politics needs to be thought through food.
Food contains communal properties as representative, conduit for bringing people together, etc. Its position in the center of the text means all political messages must move through some idea of what food means. I want to suggest that Viken Berberian is more concerned about the communities being destroyed in Mid-East violence, envisioned through food, than the actual politics of the Nations involved. In what ways does the author develop this idea through more than just food?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Open Thread: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Intertextuality: Camus, and Hamid

The relationship between Camus and Hamid is immediately apparent when comparing The Fall and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamid models the structure of his text on that of Camus, a conversation between two men taking place mainly in a bar. But Camus's themes are what resonate in the contemporary text. Complicity, lack of innocence, and a paramount event that changes the central character are at the forefront of both texts. But the question I have is, what do they have to do with terrorism?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Open Thread: Due Preparations for the Plague

Turner Hospital's Question of Finding Testimony to Terror

Trauma contains within it an essential ambiguity. The terrorist act invokes this absence. The various networks within our society - media, government, ngo's - capitalize on the absence to foreclose the meaning of the event. They ursurp the voices of the dead and fill in their own discourse in what amounts to realpolitik. Yet, the question remains, how do we see the event for what it is, finding testimony to trauma?

"The dead never stop telling stories. Those whom we have betrayed, no matter how pure our intent, how scrupulous our reasons, they tell their tales to us night after night, which is why some of you will lose all capacit to sleep" (270). Janette Turner Hospital understands that the story lies with the dead, the intefral insight of Primo Levi comes through here. But somewhere between the loss of testimony and the foreclosure by outside means is an ethical way forward, investigating the event and responding to it. Giorgio Agamben explains that it is in understanding the absence and directing our attention to the middle ground. "Survovors bore witness to something it was impossible to bear witness to," according to Agamben (13). With this understanding, is Due Preparations for the Plague seeking a new ethical territory to respond to the essential absence that terrorism provokes? Are "due preparations" not simply ways of preventing terrorism, but ways of dealing with the aftermath?

The Artist and Terror

Due Preparations for the Plague is filled with intertextual elements that play diverse roles in the text. Epigraphs are used to bring other voices to bare on the text. The structure used can be and has been compared to that of Dante's famed Inferno. But I want to think through how these other texts and artists - those both outside, inside, and situated in some liminal relationship to the text - add questions and engage terrorism.
"We ignore, therefore, at our peril the artist's insight. It is the artist-it is Homer-who observes and names Achilles' heel" (230).
"Do you think it was the plague-the plague itself-the Boccaccio, Defoe, and Camus all sought, with such frantic scribbling, to keep at bay? ... No. I can attest to this: no" (270).
Janette Turner Hospital posits a few ideas on the topic. From these quotes, we see that art works in different ways. But in the contemporary world, is art able to add critical insight into terrorism? What does art keep at bay in the face of terror?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Due Preps for Janette Turner Hospital

Janette Turner Hospital approaches fear from a different impulse in her prescient novel Due Preparations for the Plague. She situates terrorism and the fear it invokes as analogous to the plague, victims waiting for a vile death to take them indiscriminately from their lives. When she began writing the novel prior to the events of September 11, 2001, she could not have known how her ideas would resonate with the largest media event of our time and that the culture of fear would grow so pervasive as to make her critique all the more salient. After 9/11, she did not deny the impact of that day on finishing the text. In an interview with Eleanor Hall, Turner Hospital describes her reaction to the recorded voices of the victims experiencing the tragedy, “there was a sort of radiant calm to them and they wanted to tell the people they loved that they loved them, and I was unprepared for that, you know, and it altered very much the tone of the end of the novel.” Turner Hospital heard the opposite of fear in those voices, that impending death inside of a catastrophic event does not destroy the voice but empowers a final message of hope. Terrorism did not close off the voices of its victims; the voices rose up from the aftermath of the event to inspire and comfort n a time of uncertainty, especially for the families of victims, but also for those left wondering what would become of the world.

Janette Turner Hospital challenges readers to look at the culture of fear that persists in the face of terrorism in a new light. The text examines the importance of critical engagement to take us beyond recognizing the event and into a space where critical engagement can begin to take us beyond the spectacle of terrorism. Both are stories of foreclosure that show how voices are closed off by the fear mongering mechanisms of society, the media and the government, and demonstrate the impact of silencing the voices of individuals.

Turner Hospital takes a transnational view of terrorism, one that crosses borders and forges connections across impossible boundaries to show the global reach of terrorism while envisioning its impact on two people. She explores how government conspiracy functions in the same manner as the spectacle to foreclose lives and empower fear in the aftermath of terrorism.

For Turner Hospital, the text takes a realistic look at the way we prepare for terrorism by asking, “how do we ready ourselves for what might happen tomorrow? What possible preparations can be made?” (401). Each demonstrates how fear is the means through which the unknown becomes palpable in a time of uncertainty, and when societal forces capitalize on fear, art needs to go beyond the foreclosure of the media and the government to critically engage the spectacle of terrorism, bringing about an ethical discourse that allows subjects to live without perpetual fear.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Information as......

"The chorus of radio and television, the slow build of plasma image and newspaper and magazine photograph, the rising leafstorm of banners and newsflashes not only made any error impossible to rectify, they made errors the truth, the truth became of no consequence, and the world a hell for those whom it randomly chose to persecute." (Unknown Terrorist 290)

In the current and increasing state of globalization, the world has unified into a single gaze that views events through a media that circulates information immediately, constantly, and ubiquitously. Richard Flanagan examines how the media picks and chooses how and who to focus the gaze upon, creating a story out of a person's life that may or may not involve the truth. Either way, the story becomes reality, shaping public imagination around a constructed idea. Can or does this amount to terrorism? It may be a bomb of sorts, at least Paul Virilio would describe it as such. Does it function as a spectacle, ala terrorism? Or does it have distinctly different qualities? With regard to Flanagan's passage above, what do we call our propensity for information?

Flanagan and Fear

“A subtle fear has entered Tasmanian life; it stifles dissent and is conducive to the abuse of power. To question or to comment is to invite the possibility of ostracism and unemployment.” These remarks by Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan would prove to be true after they appeared in an April 21, 2004 article in the British paper The Guardian. The article, about the clear cutting of forests on Flanagan’s home island, criticized the close ties between the government and the Gunns corporation, Australia’s largest logging company holding a monopoly in Tasmania. Flanagan did not anticipate the backlash he would receive from the Tasmanian Premier, Parliament, and the local media that were all critical of his opinion being voiced in a foreign venue that brought local politics to international attention. In remarks made later, Flanagan describes how he realized at that point the power of the media to create an image of a person that has nothing to do with reality. The false identity amounts to an ad homonym attack foreclosing the point of criticism and stifling dissent.

Flanagan’s latest novel, The Unknown Terrorist, derives from the context of the writer’s personal controversy to explore the way the media capitalizes on public concerns about terrorism to construct a story and a new identity of one woman as a terrorist that has no basis in reality. I argue the media construction amounts to a spectacle that forecloses identity based on fear and allows terrorism to succeed because transnational terrorism is a media spectacle. Flanagan attempts to engage this issue by going beyond the media spectacle and beyond the spectacle of terrorism by asking the questions regarding fear and terror that make readers “question and comment” in ways that engage the issues rather than buy into an emotional reaction perpetuated by the government and the media. The text is Flanagan’s means of fighting against “the politicians and the security forces and the journalists, who, instead of protecting people, also betrayed them” (Unknown Terrorist 186).

Set in Sydney, the novel explores the nuances of how the fear of transnational terrorism dominates the local imagination. Even though Australia has been relatively secure, fear becomes the primary mechanism through which the people view the world and is used to define every aspect of those around them. “People like fear. We all want to be frightened and we all want somebody to tell us how to live” (Unknown Terrorist 166). Fear is the means through which the unknown becomes palpable in a time of uncertainty, and when societal forces capitalize on fear, art needs to go beyond the recognition the media spectacle provides to critically engage the topic and bring about an ethical solution.