A metal the flute has melted
Following is the translation of Osip Mandelstam’s poem The Age by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin (trans. 1973) that inspired and pushed my music making:
My animal, my age, who will ever be able
to look into your eyes?
Who will ever glue back together the vertebrae
of two centuries with his blood?
Blood the maker gushes
from the throats of the things of the earth.
Already the hanger-on is trembling on the sills of days to come.
Blood the maker gushes
from the throats of the things of the earth
and flings onto a beach like a burning fish
a hot sand of sea bones,
and down from the high bird-net,
out of the wet blocks of sky
it pours, pours heedlessly
over your death-wound.
Only a metal the flute has melted
will link up the string of days
until a time is torn out of jail
and the world starts new.
The age is rocking the wave
with human grief
to a golden beat, and an adder
is breathing in time with it in the grass.
The buds will go on swelling,
the rush of green will explode,
but your spine has been shattered,
my splendid derelict, my age.
Cruel and feeble, you’ll look back
with the smile of a half-wit:
an animal that could run once,
staring at his own tracks.
(Osip Mandelstam 1923)
The decisions a translator of poetry must make as they translate from the original language into another have always interested me. Poetry involves considerations of the sound of a language and of rhythm as much as the meanings and imagery that emerge from the arrangement of language, not merely a direct or literal A to B. The translator will interpret sense impressions from the original language before considering English expressions that may resonate in a sympathetic way.
Mandelstam’s poems have been known in Russian to have a kind of “cello sound” and their rhythm, to perform “abrupt syntactic somersaults” (Brown 1973, xviii). I love knowing this about their starting points, that there are a whole range of timbral cello sounds in Russian bobbing around and stopping abruptly; available for possible interpretation.
Brown and Merwin’s translation inevitably changes Mandelstam, but their aim is to remain sensitive to “[the poems’] plastic sculpture of rhythm, its tenuously resonating change-ringing on some syllabic bell” (1973, xviii). This is getting down to some syllabic nitty gritty. If we are to admit the search for truth is a myth in terms of approaching ‘an original’ then interpretation both prolongs the life of a poem and disturbs its meaning. The translation above and my own engagement with it may then be examples of potentially exhaustive bodies of translation. If anything is possible then everything becomes meaningless, it has been noted but I believe we are able to judge the language choices Brown and Mervin made. With rhythm and sound in mind their translation viscerally enhances the cruelness of the age in question. Similarly, there is careful judgement in the sonic choices: the flute line I thought about so often while either making music or while waiting for seized muscles to get back to ‘normal’ appears in the version of the poem above. Whereas in this unattributed version the phrase itself is less memorable.
When things are pretty crap, we bide our time by holding on to something. It could be the sound of an (imaginary) flute, writing, listening, gardening — any daily activity that is creative/destructive. A new time, a new age is made possible by a fleeting faith in a flute that melts metal. Something that is both painful but which helps in reproducing subjectivity
Themes in poems like The Age show that Mandelstam was living at a time of great upheaval. Osip Mandelstam’s biography is very tragic*. He at first supported the Bolsheviks but then found he was on the wrong side of them as they set up a communist state. This was during a time when artists were expected to create politically acceptable work (otherwise known as propaganda). He persisted, writing in his own way often on personal, mythic or humanist themes and became reviled, blocked from publishing and began writing children’s books for money. He was eventually arrested for denouncing Stalin and sent into exile in 1934. He wrote many poems during these years. Once returned from exile in Moscow he was arrested again and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia eventually dying somewhere in a Soviet work camp.
So, clearly a very distinct epoch from the one facing us right now. There is nothing as totalising as a revolution dissolving past certainties and a new communist society is not in the process of being set up. Artists are not at risk of being sent into exile for not supporting the status quo with the result of them dying in labor camps.
And yet… there are overlaps. This is an age in upheaval, where those in power utilise social media to spread news — language and cultural signs need questioning now more than ever. We are facing major environmental and social crises with our government unwilling to provide useful policies to address these. And while it isn’t artists being locked up, it’s refugees and asylum seekers who are fleeing from places all over the world due to global conflict, persecution, hunger, in continual states of bodily anxiety and abuse. There is no doubt this is an affluent age in the West for a small number, but it’s also a biting, tearing, struggling to put one foot in front of the other just to get by age for an ever swelling amount as well. Cracks are appearing in Australia’s sunny reputation and we may well look back on this time as if it were ‘a broken animal that could run once’.
On this page I started with rhythm and sound and finished with a general contemporary context. It’s possible the two are tenuously connected as Mandelstam drew attention to the sonic, rhythmic qualities of language and image in his poem. There are sometimes limits to how agentic we can be politically. But it is necessary to hold humanity and earth in mind amidst the negative political climate. My music making was one humble effort at doing so.
* (Drawn from Brown & Merwin 1973 + http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/osip-mandelstam)
About the piece
Earlier. I had the urge to play this morning, I was unsettled but keen to move forward with sound-shapes. I also thought I might be able to show what I discussed in regards to the norm needing the breach and vice versa in the piece. Also, because I am weirdly being pointed toward melancholy and through thinking about my own daily grinds which I feel obliged to hide from the norms and the mainstreams but which I can’t hide because I spill out uncouth like on many occasions. [later that day I have big seizure that takes me to the ER for many hours.]
[ … ]
Who uses the words ‘epileptic fit’, ‘seizure’, ‘epileptik’ in popular culture? An ep by an experimental duo, a new ‘contemporary’ australian magazine and a UK drum’n’bass label. Common to all would be a certain desire to be associated with an edge, a subculture, to equate an epileptic fit with music/dance (if you were Catholic you would invoke St Vitus, the patron saint of dancers, against epilepsy, although in the 19th century your prayers would focus towards Sydenham’s chorea, including myoclonus and other movement disorders). What is popular culture’s relationship to epilepsy or to fitting in general?
— November 2014
Oh! the Melodrama!
I’ve enjoyed watching soap operas over the years but I first read about them after my sound installation Days of Our Lives became part of my PhD. I was recently reminded about the valuing and devaluing of soap opera as well as melodrama while watching the Book Club on ABC and heard a few of the regulars giving a popular book — popular with a mainly female audience I would say — a good trashing because it was ‘soapy’ and ‘melodramatic’. A note that what follows looks at melodrama and soap opera (not too extensively..) with a focus on music in both genres rather than books. (Brook‘s early interest actually centred on how elements of nineteenth-century melodrama entered modern literature and I believe there is nothing so high minded that cannot contain a microbe of melodramatic excess somewhere along the creating production line!).
Many assume soap opera is melodramatic, and while the soap and melodrama share characteristics they are distinct and have quite different histories. In the beginning, soap operas were short dramas that became serials on radio. They were written by a husband and wife team, and later a woman, for a female audience designed to highlight soap powder advertising on American radio in the 1930s. By contrast, melodrama originated in Europe in the late eighteenth century as a popular theatrical form. Melodrama flourished in the early nineteenth century, a century associated with a particular codification — and often exaggeration — of realism. Gledhill (1992) recognises this staged or stilted reality in melodrama as a value that survived continuing to our current era, entwining itself with current plots that diverge from ‘reality’ in mainstream film and TV. Melodrama pushes reality toward fantasy or social relations towards imagination, even as it obeys certain formal popular codes. In this way nineteenth-century melodrama was more than a theatrical form with its attendant conventions but was also an imaginative and epistemological mode, informing social and intellectual thought (Gledhill 1992). It initially addressed a broad audience — the disadvantaged, working and upper-middle class men and women — until a division in the mid-nineteenth century became apparent. Melodrama continued to attract the working class, women and children as a form of entertainment while tragedy was the genre accorded to an intellectual elite and, for the most part, middle class men. The denigration of the genre took place when the upper-middle class male audience turned their backs; and so value lied elsewhere in the cultural landscape. A similar elitist impulse erupted on the TV discussion on Book Club around show themed ‘Summer Reads’ where a top 10 had been picked by the show’s audience. The top book — the Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullouch — was quickly dismissed by one member for being melodramatic, for not being literary enough, for its drama and personal conflicts.
In a theatrical context, melodrama’s imaginative elements involved music, tableaux and visual signs. For people participating in melodramatic culture, these musical signs were a significant part of the program, with verbal discourse relegated to lesser importance. As Gledhill puts it: “[m]usic carries climactic moments, giving an emblematic quality to the resounding cliches that arise from confrontation, recognition, declarations of identity” (1992, 108). Melodrama, a combination of drama and melos (music), or a “play with music”, was designed to exaggerate the emotional through “the liberal use of music” (Melodrama Films). According to Brooks (1976), music was used by dramatists to “strike a particular emotional pitch or colouring” as well as to “lead the audience into a change or a heightening of mood” (49). This strikes me as a kind of preparation or priming. It is music that lends melodrama its heightened emotive effects; music emphasises and confirms the meaning of a particular relationship, a dastardly deed, a judgment, an argument, a declaration of love. Music underscores tension while audience wait for relief. It is reasonable to assume that if soap opera carries melodrama within it, then these interrelations between drama, emotion and music continue to occur during exaggerated emotional interactions. This then is a feature that overlaps.
An important element of distinction between soap opera and melodrama is that melodrama “demands an ending” to its protagonists’ struggles whereas soap opera does not reach a conclusion, and in the process, affirms the primacy of a family in constant turmoil (Modleski 1979). Tableaux in melodrama were often used at the ends of scenes and acts — frozen physical signs — as a resolution of meaning (Brooks 1976). Characters would stand, sit or balance, arranging gestures and bodies, so as to illustrate the “emotional situation”, punctuating the pace of the drama. Additionally, music in melodrama would be used to mark a character’s entrance suggesting changes in character’s strong emotions, to underlie “dark plottings” or to guide the audience as “breathtaking peripety” — the quick and almost unlikely reversal of circumstances (Brooks 1976). In contrast, although music is scored underneath conversations and at times emotional outbursts in soap opera, the soundtrack stops short of heralding every character’s entrance with a distinct orchestral hue; perhaps this is an element that is too theatrical for television. The soap opera may be exaggerated in its emotional cues and family conflict but it does not retain these features of melodrama. In American daytime serials such as Days of Our Lives, music does not offer relief in terms of large climaxes, rather, it is scored in accordance with a soap’s many small climaxes. For example, repeated semiquaver motives play under a conversation between two ex-lovers or a long sustained minor triad may crescendo at the end of a scene where conflict has occurred between two women who are adversaries.
Despite their differences, melodrama and soap opera are interrelated via two elements. The first is that an everyday understanding holds that melodrama and soap operas are histrionic and melodramatic. The term melodrama has various contemporary or informal uses such as ‘don’t be so melodramatic’ implying an emotional overreaction or an inability to think rationally, or a not-very-worthwhile piece of art as demonstrated by the book club response to the Thorn Birds. Overreactions and inabilities to think with reason have also, of course, historically been associated with women, mental illness and non-White Anglo-Saxon cultures. Irrationally and overreaction continue to be embedded in stereotypes about women’s character and women’s voices and we should continue to question this. Much feminist research into soap opera has shown how in many cases it is resistant to dominant gender and narrative norms. Those who call themselves feminist and yet judge the idea of melodrama, day-time soap opera and/or its predominantly female audience from the outside should not underestimate practices of value, particularly as this pertains to popular genres and people with lower social and cultural capital than themselves.
The second interrelated aspect concerns parts of Brooks’ (1976) analysis on the melodramatic imagination as a phenomenon that functions in soap opera. Despite melodrama demanding certain narrative endings, endings that soap opera is resistant to, language is employed in melodrama that finds parallel in soaps. The way language is used in melodrama is worth examining as, in Brooks’ (1976) account, it is a theory of disturbance. Although soap characters may be wrapped up in everyday actions, ordinary language is not always primarily used, rather, it is disturbed in two ways. Firstly, melodrama may overload language by presenting an element of the excessive or of the bombastic, thus breaking through a ‘reality principle’ and its own “linear logic” (Nochimson 1992, 146). This revisits the idea of melodrama pushing through reality as introduced above. Secondly, melodrama may engage in what Brooks (1976) calls the “text of muteness”. This is the language disturbance that best resonates with Days of Our Lives as both a soap opera and my own music-based project. In this case, there is a vocabulary that speaks “in spite of the word, around the word, or instead of the word — the tableau, the gesture, the mute character (including children and animals), and, certainly, music” (Nochimson 1992, 146). Music is key here as an element that can move and interact with our sense and understanding of what is happening, in place of direct expression.
For Nochimson (1992), soap opera takes up the ‘text of muteness’ in staging, visual organisation and direction. Furthermore, Nochimson develops the idea to include the technology of ‘partial vision’, entailing close-ups, enclosed spaces, horizontal organisation and broad depth-of-field in TV production (Nochimson,1992). This technical framework is significant and I expand this towards sound, music, space and gender in tandem with epilepsy and aspects of the tableau — the melodramatic pose. The ‘text of muteness’ functioned, at times, in my sound installation through the inclusion of close mic-ed breathing, samples of character dialogue, reverb-less percussive plastic sounds. ‘Partial sound’ was achieved through the sampling of Days of Our Lives soundtrack mixed randomly with other melody files. In the four-channel spatial layout of the speakers, the space was relatively small and intimate as the sound and music panned around listeners. This means that the installation had elements of an ‘enclosed space’, however it was without the aural equivalent of a ‘broad depth of field’ (distance between near and far that appear in focus of a shot). In addition to these text-of-muteness characteristics, my installation shares a potentially unending narratives with soap opera.
In a humanities thesis, knowledge is pursued and proven through rational argument and sequence. In human subjectivity that is interrupted by epileptic events, it is particularly challenging to find continuity in research and writing — and so I lay down the crumbs to find my way back, sometimes feeling old before my time. With interruptive seizures and multiple medications, clear (and therefore ‘normal’) is vestigial. I’ve had epilepsy since I was nine and grand mal seizures were ever present in my adolescent years but these mindbloom seizures, which appeared six years ago in tandem with migraine, are like trying to find my way in a craggy landscape, blind.
Crip has been reclaimed by disability activists and scholars as a term in much the same way queer was, although it has been used in north America, mainly for physical disability*. A recent conference titled ‘cripistemologies’ re-examined the knowledge produced and meanings around disability/ability and debility/capacity. These pairings are tools to approach global labour contexts in relation to women’s bodies, to mental health, to social relations, and to health systems. This has implications for humanity and how we depend on the ‘rest of the world’ in embodied and disembodied ways. Zeroing in on this, the relationship between debility and capacity connects us to how we become who we are in the bodies we inhabit, in places we share with others as we grow older. We live with ease or without in our day to day struggle; we move or migrate to feel safe; we keep working, pushing ourselves, at the expense of our bodies or minds. Capacity is doing one’s best and feeling the power to act with others and the world**.
Reflecting on a global scale, in this paragraph I make a gesture to the many unnamed bodies who tire and become sick due to inadequate public health care because their lives, their bodies do not matter. In this paragraph, and it is a superficial gesture to be sure, I highlight how we continue to make demands on an invisible labour force who are making the electronics, the silicon chips, the cameras, the computers, the recording gear, our clothes. Bodies bent, fingers working over the parts, hours, days, years, their bodies given to the making process — as a result of this intense labour they become disabled in a way, suffering from changed posture, from long-term pain, accidents — or death — and here disability and debility becomes the new norm in entire populations, as Jasbir Puar insists. In this paragraph, I also acknowledge that being linguistically diverse in a culture dominated by assumptions about sense-making in English is disadvantageous and represents struggles around race and culture, where discrimination occurs without thought and where difficulties arise in applying for work, while on the job, on the sports field and in education. In this paragraph being a refugee is a crime (& that is certainly not my struggle).
In this paragraph, I am thinking about what I need to do to sustain an existence so I can engage with others in the global contexts, working toward change. I need an encounter with epilepsy, which I have been avoiding, in semi-public. I like this take: Merri Lisa Johnson seeks to redefine ‘able’ — it is not that she is unable — it is that she is unwilling. She made a decision she didn’t want to travel to see family and friends, or for guest lecturing positions because it results in painful spasms and mobility issues. She says, “It is a refusal to insist—a refusal to act in accordance with the system of compulsory able-bodiedness — that requires individuals to mask, suppress, and disregard discomfort in the process of determining what is possible, of what we are capable”. I regularly mask and suppress the physical discomfit and psychic pain in the experience of seizures. I censor myself a lot, or I don’t and where I don’t it doesn’t end well. I am tired of masking my demon-epilepsy. It isn’t just a physical thing, it’s a dark, dark being dropped into a trapdoor of ‘shit where did my existence just go?’ thing. It’s agitation and confusion. It’s irritability. It’s having my detailed mind suddenly surrounded by an ocean of snapping dragons or an ocean of nothing. There is a continual negotiation between debility, in the sense of being worn out from chronic illness and its attendant medical and administrative needs, and capacity, where I feel able and excited to act in the world; and aligning this with social expectations is difficult.
Taking her inspiration from Sara Ahmed, Johnson draws on the ‘feminist killjoy’ to think about wilfulness, “if a cruelly optimistic culture insists that we fake it till we make it, the crip killjoy refuses to play along”. ‘Killjoy’ here is a mismatch with the dominant cultural scripts that say either implicitly or explicitly (in some cases) ‘just get on with it’ ‘be happy’ ‘look what he can do with a bad heart..’ ‘don’t let epilepsy get you down, be positive!’ ‘you need to manage your epilepsy’ ‘stop whinging’ ‘everyone gets a bit vague’ ‘you’re too negative, get over it’. In spheres like the arts and academia, spheres of achievement (and don’t anyone tell me about how prolific disability is ‘in’ the arts, I know, I know.. but there is an unevenness to this and there are power relations at work and it is about who pulls which strings), being able to verbally articulate and make sense is a taken for granted norm. Putting on a confident front is also necessary if one is to succeed in their arts networking. Positivity is seen as a desirable attribute in both sectors that are plagued by their own difficulties and mini-politics, so I believe there is an urging to ‘look on the bright side’; in a kind of survival of the fittest in an individualist, self-entrepreneurial way.
Being confident and looking on the bright side allow you to get on with work and attract others who are confident and happy. However, “(y)ou cannot always close the gap between how you do feel and how you should feel”, says Ahmed. Especially if the circumstances we are growing in are adverse or irregular. And that’s when we may be labelled ‘killjoys’ — a feminist killjoy or a crip killjoy — for not sucking it up and getting on with things. To be a killjoy is to be wilful; yet an opportunity presents itself if we choose to become wilful pebbles in shoes: “(b)ehind the sharpness of this ‘cannot’ is a world of possibility” and this world is a potent, living mess, crying for ready and reluctant participants. Instead of trying too hard to cover this gap, smooth the way for verbal discourse, instead of straining to access pockets in the arts and music world and not being able to get there or feeling confused when I do or covering up the seizures I have upon arrival (because of light flickering through trees on train), instead of feeling like I’ve done something wrong by being locked out of doing volunteer work because I have had too many seizures and been banned from an opportunity to visit a youth unit in a prison because of the likelihood I would’ve put place the whole joint in lock down, that I was the security risk, I might stand my ground and talk about how unfun the realities of living with epilepsy are. And listen for whether there is anyone or any other contrasting tones ringing in the vicinity.
*Britain’s history with disability activism is quite different and grounded in socialist struggles and their disability conversations continue to be informed by this (still a good thing, despite the history of sexism, which feminist disability activists and scholars fiercely challenged).
**The dark side to capacity is in the term’s maximum inflection. How far can you go, how much can you make/produce, how hard can you work? Who pushes and who profits? What is behind this capacity for maximum ability?
Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory by Clare Hemmings (2013, Duke)
Clare Hemmings appraises the discursive currents in inter-disciplinary feminisms over the past decades characterising narratives in terms of either ‘progress’, ‘loss’, or ‘return’. A reminder that what’s framed and what is cut out always sets in chain a set of political and ethical implications, subtle or surging, in motion. Hemmings’ work also shows an innovative approach to discursive research itself, aiming to allow imagination and space for feminist futures to sit alongside critique. This is important because often critique or discursive framing is cast aside in favour of generative or more positive approaches (see Barrett & Bolt 2013 below), however, one approach does not necessarily exclude the other. Social transformative thinking begins where both critique and generative gestures are considered together, or when there is some degree of resistance that is explored between them.
New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies Edited by Rick Dolphijn, Iris Van Der Tuin (2012, Open Humanities Press)
The interview with Rosi Braidotti is most useful in situating the ‘new’ materialism in relation to other currents of thought. Hers is one of the few accounts of this philosophy that fleshes it out fairly in amongst other forms of feminism, without being narky and snide in the process. Braidotti has been around long enough to have seen various theoretical waves rise and fall and so she is able to provide fascinating historical, geographical and contextual details about the emergence of this ‘new’ current. Examples are that the movement emerged out of linguistic focused poststructuralism (the poststructuralism that is often demonised), and that the material and the maternal in psychoanalyst accounts was an issue that Braidotti’s generation oriented themselves around. Braidotti eventually found the feminist focus on the ‘intergenerational break’ (between mothers and daughters) in the context of poststructural psychoanalysis so overwhelming that she “took shelter” in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus.
Braidotti aligns herself with Canguilhem, Foucault and Deleuze, de-emphasising the linguistic domain, but focusing on, “the concrete yet complex materiality of bodies immersed in social relations of power” (2012, 21). The three thinkers mentioned all have a relational matrix that involves materiality and language to greater or lesser extents. I imagine this might be surprising for those who quickly adopt ‘new materiality’ for its anti-discursive stance. While the linguistic paradigm is not centre stage, the acknowledgment of social relations and the effects of power on bodies implies a network where the material is in relation to the social, to discourses, and among bodies.
While both Marxist and poststructuralist notions of materiality are important to her, Braidotti’s philosophy is largely informed by French feminist theories of sexual difference along with other materialist work. Her observation that feminist philosophy is working with, within and across two streams: post-humanism and post-anthropocentrism (2012) will be of interest (and recognisable) to those currently involved in exploring theory-practice relations in the arts and activist configurations.
Artaud: The Screaming Body by Stephen Barber (1999, Creation Books)
Antonin Artaud first used the phrase ‘body without organs’ in his radio play To have Done With The Judgement of God(1947). It is a figure that Deleuze and Guattari take up and develop with great resonance; Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the BwO is a hugely influential one in the humanities. I wanted to better understand Artaud’s connection with his body as it appeared in his own writings, radio recordings and art works. Barber covers many of Artaud’s key pieces of work and his relationships with other artists at the time from within and outside of the Surrealist movement. The section on drawings and paintings is quite riveting, perhaps because the examples are so immediate. The final section on ‘the screaming body’ (which I was very much looking forward to) seemed rushed and jumps around and back and forth between sentences but not in a creative or deliberately performative way. What does come through, however, is Artaud’s uncompromising approach to art, language, voice, body and living; and Barber is able to show this in his description of Artaud’s work.
Feminist Disability Studies Edited by Kim Q Hall (2011, Indiana U.P.)
This volume shows how ‘disability’, like ‘woman’ before it is an unstable and contested category that may be engaged with critically. It is part of a burgeoning body of work around ‘crip theory’ or disability studies that has emerged, particularly in the US. Literature on disability exists in medical sociology and the anthropology of medicine but assesses people with a disability often from a perjorative angle and does not engage a critical framework. Disability, it has been mentioned, is one of the last minority identity markers that has yet to be explored. I’ve mixed feelings about this even if the authors have disabilities of some sort. There is something about the enthusiasm of several of these compendiums on disability, in theory, that reminds me of colonisation — it being one of the last minorities to open up potential new vistas of vacant scholarly ground in English literature and cultural studies. The best of these publications are aware of this and draw reflexively on it. Hall’s book is one of these.
My interest in disability studies is perhaps at the junction of cultural approaches and social theory. I prefer work that will have a social impact as the barriers disabled people face remain high and assumptions about their existence remain ignorant. I don’t discount a literary approach either, for there can be much to learn through these explorations. So the following two essays stood out for me.
The first (Samuels 2011) points out there are no easy methods to analysing disability, a term asked to stretch way too far for a diversity of body-mind experience. For example, to simply exchange ‘disability’ for ‘gender’ in Judith Butler’s work on performativity, although a good idea in theory, does not necessarily work in practice. The other valuable piece in this collection — not only for me, but for feminism — is an essay by Lamp and Cleigh (2011) that traces connections between some of the first white feminists in the US and their active support and promotion of the eugenics movement and tied to nation building and modernity. These practices — patronising, ablist and racist — were [and continue to be] cruelly abusive. It is worrying that these events are tied up in white, liberal feminism’s genesis in one of the most influential countries of the world.
Carnal Knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ through the Arts Edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt (2013, I.B. Tauris)
Some exciting ideas that could have done with some better editing at the structural and surface level to maintain a tighter position. For example, a range of distinct and complex positions associated with either postmodernism, poststructuralism, the linguistic turn, social constructionism or cultural theory are often quickly conflated and then dismissed very simply. The result of this gesture being repeated throughout the book is that an unnecessary and very obvious binary is set up with battle lines drawn in the sand and it was difficult for this reader to be led in to the space of new materiality. To have such an unacknowledged conceptual binary at the heart of of this book that uses new materialism — where blurring between animal and human, body and word, nano particles and cultural, language and un-thought/becoming — as part of aesthetic exploration, was for me a major stumbling block. (As an alternative, while Judith Butler  provides some starting points,Vicki Kirby  and Mel Chen’s  work complicates the linguistic-material in very interesting ways).
Many of the writers in Carnal Knowledge present their arguments for new materialism in association with the arts with a certain zealousness. The critique was inexact and the advancing of what was new could have been shown with less reactionary language, with less of a feeling of a manifesto. I have just now performed what I accused the book of doing — reducing many arguments to few a simple lines without fairly reproducing or outlining them. I referred to a conceptual stumbling block above that prevented me from wanting to do this because: a) I felt the text needed a good edit and this annoyed me; b) the aligning of Deleuze’s thought with the different arts projects took a domineering tone that made me bristle.
Instead, this amazing sounding book* (Revolution: a Reader, 2012 — the text is free online) perhaps embodies some of the spirit of new materiality and poetics without asserting itself as either ‘new’ or ‘material’. This, from the introduction:
We think that there is no public space that is not an embodied public space. We think that there is not a politics that does not begin in our desiring cells. We think that this corporal surplus, the movement beyond our biographies and our perceived or administrated limits, is the force that makes and changes worlds. One of us uses the word soul to name this surplus, and one of us doesn’t. But what we have learned from our intense performance together is that a common vocabulary is not necessary, and probably not desirable.
And so, it is clear that bodies and spaces are mired in politics. Instead of battling between new and old, between discursive or linguistic and ‘material’, the reader is invited in to perform reading and annotating with the texts that are collated and shared by editors Robertson and Stadler in the reading commons online or alone with a book. I am yet to jump in to this, but it seems such a creative, political, bookish, net event, the kind that throws a pebble in the usual discursive academic forms. I anticipate musical connections. For a super fine and extensive review, see Holly Pester‘s