Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chapbook Festival at CUNY Grad Center

Books! I can never resist them, and chapbooks are a special treat, so after several Friday morning appointments, I headed down to the CUNY Graduate Center to check out the Chapbook Festival, which was sponsored by the City University of New York, CUNY's Center for the Humanities, the Center for the Book Arts, the Poetry Society of America, and Poets House, great organizations all.  The three-day festival (March 28-30) comprised a book fair in the Grad Center's Concourse atrium, readings (with free lunch and coffee), talks, and workshops on how to create chapbooks. There were publishers assembling right there at the book fair, and so many little presses I had to restrain myself from exceeding the very modest budget I'd set.

But I did pick up a neat, bound set of chapbooks, the first of the Lost and Found Series, edited and published by people at CUNY's Center for the Humanities. Each series features various key documents from American literary history produced by original research, in beautifully printed editions. Series I contains:

  • Amiri Baraka & Ed Dorn: Selections from the Collected Letters, 1959-1960, ed. Claudia Moreno Pisano
  • Darwin & The Writers: Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Stefania Helm
  • Philip Whalen's Journals: Selections: 1957-1977 (Parts I and II), ed. Brian Unger
  • The 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference / Robert Creeley's Contexts of Poetry, with selections from Daphne Marlatt's Journal, ed. Ammiel Alcalay
  • The Correspondences of Kenneth Koch & Frank O'Hara (Parts I & II), ed. Josh Schneiderman

At the table, the first document from Series III, Lorine Neidecker's Homemade Poems, was on sale, with the rest of the volumes to appear soon, so I said I'd wait for it and buy Series II soon. I got to see a number of poet friends, including Tonya Foster, Brian Teare, and Cara Benson, and to meet a number of new folks as well. I arrived between the readings, so I didn't check those out, but saw on Twitter that they went well.

I also had a verklempt moment, when I saw a chapbook by Christy Call (with her brother Ryan Call) for sale, Pocket Finger (Baltimore: Publishing Genius, 2008). I taught Christy as an undergraduate (she took her introductory fiction course with me) and then, years later, when she was finishing up, I served as her thesis advisor for her creative nonfiction thesis. (She's the only student so far I've been lucky enough to teach at the undergraduate and graduate levels.) In this book, she shows her versatility by providing the drawings.  I remember Christy saying the book was forthcoming, but it was so good to see it on display and for sale. I am definitely look forward to next year's event, which I hope to catch a lot more of!

Here are some photos from the event:
Chapbook Festival 2012 @ CUNY Grad Ctr
The window display at the CUNY Grad Center

Chapbook Festival 2012 @ CUNY Grad Ctr
The display in the Grad Center alcove

Chapbook Festival 2012 @ CUNY Grad Ctr
Some of the chapbooks

Chapbook Festival 2012 @ CUNY Grad Ctr
The chapbookfair

Chapbook Festival 2012 @ CUNY Grad Ctr
Some of the vendors, sewing and assembling chapbooks

Table display at Chapbook Festival 2012 @ CUNY Grad Ctr
Books for sale: Christy Call was my undergrad and grad student!

Chapbook Festival 2012 @ CUNY Grad Ctr
More books

Chapbook Festival 2012 @ CUNY Grad Ctr
The fair

Chapbook Festival 2012 @ CUNY Grad Ctr
A particularly fine display

The window display @ CUNY for the Chapbook Festival 2012
Another excellent display

Friday, March 30, 2012

Abdellah Taïa's Appeal

A novel that I wrote an essay about for Spirale (at the invitation of the brilliant Nathanaël) a few years ago, Une mélancolie arabe (An Arab Melancholia), by the Moroccan queer writer Abdellah Taïa (1973-) is now available in English from Semiotexte/Smart Art, under its Semiotext(e)/Native Agents series, having been translated by Frank Stock. I browsed a copy at St. Mark's Bookshop the other day, and hope to pick it up (there, at McNally Jackson, Unabridged Books or another independent bookstore) very soon.

Since I've already written about the book I won't attempt to review it here, but I do urge readers to plunge into it, because I think it's Taïa's most ambitious and accomplished work of fiction, and extends the themes of his previous works in ways the prior novels and nonfictional works do not. One of the themes I wrote about was the omnipresence of "deaths," actual and metaphorical, creating a series of what I read as sites and performances of sublimity, tying this novel to that of a Francophone predecessor, Antonin Artaud, and his theorization of the Theater of Cruelty. An Arab Melancholia also expands upon the idea of "melancholia"--racial, colonial, queer--that Taïa engaged in his previously translated and acclaimed novel, L'armée du salut (Salvation Army), but in its strong embrace of Arab and Muslim cultures, its challenge to simplistic integration into French homonormative narratives, its queer, recursive structure and defiance of genre, and its insistent struggle with selfhood itself, An Arab Melancholia productively complicates any attempt by the French or any literary culture or establishment to exoticize or recolonize him.

Abdellah Taïa (Chema Moya/European Pressphoto Agency)
A week ago, Taïa published a short essay in the New York Times, "A Boy to Be Sacrificed," which explores some of the very incidents he treats in An Arab Melancholy, but in this piece he amplifies certain of them and downplays others. The entire essay reads like a radical, journalistic distillation of the novel. The gist is that as a young, effeminate queer boy, he was so completely rejected because of his sexuality, rendered so abject, so subject, so socially dead and alien even to his family, that he and other boys like him could (and can) be used as sexual playthings by any man who wanted, an irony in a religion and society that at the same time harshly condemn "homosexuality," particularly in its Western guise(s), but which also have created social and economic spaces for colonialized sexual differences and relationships. In the Times piece, he recounts one night in 1985 when men in the neighborhood--not white European foreigners seeking boy lovers--began calling out for him to come downstairs, so that they could violate him, and the response of his family members was to turn their backs on him, which not just metaphorically but literally--affectively--"killed" him. That night he died, as he had begun doing before, and would, he makes clear, repeatedly thereafter.

What particularly interests me, beyond the convergences and slippages between this autobiographical account, situated within the truth-bound, journalistic frame of a newspaper, and the novel's different, more dramatically structured and stylized versions of this story, is that the latter work provides through its narrative and serves as the embodiment of the answer to the rhetorical statement he poses to Times readers: "I don't know how I survived." This, he says, is a truth, that he doesn't know how; and yet the truth exists in fictional form, in that work of fiction, it seems to me as I read this mini-essay, a performance itself, of a particular type of subject speaking to a particular liberal, Western audience that probably has not read his book or much literature from Northern Africa, has little understanding of the complexity of sexualities there, and yet is not unwilling to sympathize with a sentimentalized account of his plight. I'm not criticizing him. But I do think too that he knows the answer lies in the novel's version of this story, with its multiple deaths and the journey they constituted towards a survival, the survival of that fictional Abdellah, and the real one, now 38, who also now can write this Op-Ed piece.

Taïa begins closing his piece by saying: "I don’t know where I found the courage to become a writer and use my books to impose my homosexuality on the world of my youth. To do justice to little Abdellah. To never forget the trauma he and every Arab homosexual like him suffered." The novels cumulatively, however, show us where he found this courage; they do not in fact "impose" his homosexuality on the world of his youth so much as they respond to and make sense of that trauma; peel back the many hidden layers of that world; invest it with a living shape, a density and a texture that perhaps he might not even have been able to see in his youth, though he felt and knew it, and can now, through his books, fictional and nonfictional, his movie appearances, his journalism and essays, convey it. His books open windows, multiple ones, on the world of his youth and of Morocco today, the queer Arab world, windows onto the lives of queer boys and girls like little Abdellah, and allow him, and we the readers, to respond to and make sense of that world.

He concludes with this appeal: "Now, over a year after the Arab Spring began, we must again remember homosexuals. Arabs have finally become aware that they have to invent a new, free Arab individual, without the support of their megalomaniacal leaders. Arab homosexuals are also taking part in this revolution, whether they live in Egypt, Iraq or Morocco. They, too, are part of this desperately needed process of political and individual liberation. And the world must support and protect them."  Rather than quibbling with his specific rhetoric, I will agree with him, and add that the world--and especially we in the United States, with our vexed national and imperial relationships to the Arab and Muslim world--must begin by listening carefully and attentively to queer Arab people, listening to their appeal, listening to their accounts of their lives, listening so that we can hear what it is they want and need, and thus respond accordingly. Taïa's work represents one call; there are many others, and if we are willing and able, we should listen.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Remembering Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich at Northwestern, 2006 (Photos by Marion Hanlon)
Last night I started to see posts, first via email, then on Twitter, that poet, essayist and activist Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) had passed away, and Googling quickly confirmed this sad news. I immediately felt a sense of loss, as so many others did and expressed in multiple ways, the most common, at least on Twitter, through quotations of Rich's poetry and essays, which will be with us for time to come.

Adrienne Rich inspired generations of people; first as a young, incredibly talented female poet who in her senior year (1951) at Radcliffe College won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, meriting offhandedly sexist praise from the judge, W. H. Auden; then, by the early 1960s, as a woman writer who had moved away from the formal strictures of her early verse, while also increasingly expanding upon what was evident in her earliest published poems, a critique of the political, social and economic strictures on American women; then, by the late 1960s, through her active involvement in the anti-Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movements; and then, in the early 1970s, through her increasingly powerful articulation of feminism and her coming out publicly as a lesbian, which produced her landmark books Diving into the Wreck (1973), for which she was co-awarded the 1974 National Book Award for Poetry (with Allen Ginsberg), an award she accepted not for herself but, with the other nominees, two queer women of color, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, present on stage beside her, on behalf of all women, followed by her "Twenty-one Love Poems" (Effie's Press, 1976), which appeared first as a stand-alone text and quickly became a major work of lesbian and queer literature, and then in Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (1978); then through her essays, such as "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," her published notebooks and other theoretical essays, her ongoing poetic oeuvre, and her public activism, particular on behalf of equality, her advocacy for women writers, writers of color, working-class and poor people, people battling American imperialism and neocolonialism; and always, because of her courage, her willingness to be herself, a woman, a Jewish woman, a lesbian, to criticize herself, lay bare her privileges, to risk calumny and condemnation because of her political stances, to be dismissed as a serious poet because of the same, to ally herself with those who had no privileges to offer, to speak truth to power, including in 1997 to a Democratic president who wanted to honor her with one of the country's highest honors but whose actions flew in the face of so much that she believed in.

I met Adrienne Rich several times over the years, including being introduced by another poet I admire so very deeply, Marilyn Hacker, but perhaps most special to me in this regard was having had the opportunity to offer my thoughts on her work with her present, at Northwestern, in 2006.  I later posted them on this blog: you can read them here. I also had the pleasure just this past quarter to teach Adrienne Rich's poetry and "Compulsory Heterosexuality" again, and look forward to doing so in the future. We have lost a major figure in our literature and culture, a guérillière, to use Monique Wittig's term, of the likes we might not see anytime soon.

And, in honor of her passing, here is one of her poems, Number XIII from "Twenty One Love Poems":

Copyright © Adrienne Rich, from Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, W. W. Norton, 1978. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Exciting Literary Events in NYC

As always, lots of exciting literary events happening in New York City over the next few days.

They include:

Institute of African American Affairs at NYU presents Critical Voices: Women Writing the World
March 28, 2012 (TONIGHT!)
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Martha Southgate, ZZ Packer
moderated by Rich Blint, Ph.D. candidate, NYU, American Studies
Time: 6:30 pm
Location: Institute of African American Affairs, NYU 41 East 11th Street, 7th Floor New York, NY 10003
Free & Open to the Public Limited Space
Please RSVP to (212) 998-IAAA (4222)

March 28-30, 2012
In addition to a book fair, it includes workshops, classes, panels, and readings

The poster:

The 11th National Black Writers' Conference, at Medgar Evers College, CUNY
March 29-April 1, 2012
Honorees: Ishmael Reed, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Nikki Giovanni, Howard Dodson
The theme: The Impact of Migration, Popular Culture, and the Natural Environment on the Literature of Black Writers

PAINTING AWAY REGRETS: a book launch and benefit, featuring Opal Palmer Adisa & friends
Thursday, March 29th, 2012, 7 pm
Cave Canem, 20 Jay Street, Suite 310-A Brooklyn, NY 11201

Celebrate the launch of Cave Canem fellow Opal Palmer Adisa's latest collection, Painting Away Regrets (Peepal Tree Press), in a rare New York appearance. Alice Walker has described her work as “solid, visceral, important stories written with integrity and love.” Joining her will be Cave Canem fellows R. Erica Doyle and Darrel Alejandro Holnes and special guest, Jacqueline Bishop.  Book signing & reception to follow.

$5-10 suggested donation. Wheelchair accessible.
Hosted by LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and Metta Sáma

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Neuroaesthetics, Part 2: Fiction's Effects

Last week I posted a summary of Alexander Kafka's discussion, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, of Eric Kandel's newest book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present (Random House).  In this new study Kandel synthesizes his interests in visual art and neuroscience, producing what Kafka judges to be an important text in the burgeoning field of neuroaesthetics. Not more than a week after I read Kafka's essay, I came across Annie Murphy Paul's short essay, "Your Brain on Fiction," in the New York Times' SundayReview section, and could see that she was in direct conversation with Kandel (and Kafka), and any number of other people talking about the relationship between art, the mind, consciousness and the illusion of "free will," and so many other related topics. Had my classes not already concluded I probably would have emailed this essay to all my students, because it in a concise and cogent fashion it walks through a number of fascinating points about what brain scientists are discovering concerning how fiction--and other non-documentary, narrative forms, including films--affects us.  As I like to say over and over, fiction--and art--is hardly frivolous, and as I feel I must point out over and over, the fictional works of a now deceased hack writer and philosopher and economist manquée have already profoundly and disastrously affected and constantly threatening to once again negative affect the lives of 310 million Americans, and potentially many more people around the globe. (The first person who posts the correct name of said fiction writer and at least one of said fiction writer's notorious and scarily popular books will receive a copy, sent by me, all postage paid, of either Nathanaël West's Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust* or Allen Ginsberg's Howl, since I have several extra copies of both books and will gladly send them to you free of charge!) I'll only add that a number of the people I note online breezily ranting about slashing funding for the humanities and arts appear to be deeply influenced by this person's work and unaware of the profound resulting irony.

But back to Annie Murphy Paul's essay, which talks about how brain scans are demonstrating the profound effects of what happens when we "read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters." Fictional narratives--and evocative metaphors, and other forms of figurative language occur in poetry, plays, creative nonfiction, and other literary forms--that is, "stimulate" the brain and can also change how we act in life. I have previously blogged about studies showing that fictional narratives in toto can both provoke empathy and aggression. I also discussed aspects of this operating at the granular level, primarily with metaphor, in my long review last July of James Geary's superlative survey I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World (New York: HarperCollins, 2011). Whereas the other studies utilize psychological tests to gauge the effects of fictional texts, and Geary focuses on the relation between figuration and the mind, Murphy Paul's essay explores how descriptive words in narratives, as well as narratives as a whole, activate particular parts of the brain.

She notes that sensory words, in particular, spark not only the language-processing areas of the brain, but those that deal with those senses, so that "lavender," "cinnamon," and even "soap" make both brain regions fire up, and that according to a 2006 study in the journal NeuroImage, when researchers in Spain had participants read words with strong odor associations alongside more odor-neutral words, an MRI showed their olfactory cortex lighting up for the odor-associated words, but not for the neutral terms. "Coffee" yes, "chair" no. Similarly, last month, a team of Emory University researchers wrote in the journal Brain & Language that when when participants in a study they were conducting read metaphors involving texture--"a rough day"--their sensory cortex, the area of the brain responsible for perceiving touch, became active. Writes Murphy Paul, "Metaphors like 'The singer had a velvet voice' and 'He had leathery hands' roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like 'The singer had a pleasing voice' and 'He had strong hands,' did not."  And, lest you think this is only salient with the five senses, it turns out that descriptions of action also activated parts of the brain distinct from the language-processing centers; participants reading passages about characters grasping or kicking objects experienced activity in regions of the brain associated respectively with arm or movement.

So, you might be say: and? On one level, as Murphy Paul suggests, immersion in textual fictional narratives does entail a form of virtual experience that is hardly surprising to anyone who has ever written even a bad short story or read any fiction at all. On the other hand, it is significant that experimental methods are bearing this commonsense perception about the power of fiction out. The relationship between language, our minds and our bodies is not arbitrary. Let me say that again. The relationship between language, our minds and our bodies is not arbitrary.  Fiction, and literature more broadly, is powerful stuff.  Moreover, Cartesianism and all that has folowed in its wake (or the Platonism of The Symposium) really did get it wrong; the Plato of The Republic, like Aristotle in his Poetics, got it right. Indeed, to quote Murphy Paul, "The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated."  She also cites University of Toronto emeritus psychology professor Keith Oatley, whom I also cited in an earlier blog post, who argues that fiction offers a particularly powerful mode of simulation running in readers minds simular to ones running on computers.

Murphy Paul concludes her case by citing some of the material I previously pointed to regarding the effects of fiction on creating empathy--though she doesn't cite the aggression studies--and locates this in "novels" (though the studies show that movies have a similar effect, though many fictional TV shows appear not to), but I would argue that any kind of fictional, textual narratives, from short stories and tales up through full-length works, including ones purporting to be "nonfiction" but which are actually mostly made up, probably have the same effect. (Think James Frey.) She also makes a quick slide from "novels" and "fiction" in general to "great literature," which she avers "enlarges and improves us" (and that was part of Samuel Richardson's aim, as it has been many another fiction writer), but I think she's leaving out the fact that all kinds of fiction, including much that isn't "great" or barely "literature" at all, can have powerful effects on readers, for good, yes, and sometimes for ill, or sometimes with no evaluative appraisal possible. You have read the book, been affected in ways even you don't grasp, and how you act in the world, who's to say. The effects of the wretched novelist I describe above we know are hardly "enlarging or improving," unless selfishness, greed and antisociality are considered moral and social "goods". There too is a great deal of fiction, particularly from the 19th century on, that aims not towards moral uplift but towards simply getting the reader to think about the world, and words themselves. It is deeply ethical, even as it does not push us in one direction or another. I think of Moby Dick, say, or The Red and the Black, or the stories of Anton Chekhov and the countless writers, including this blogger, who toil in his wake.  And, what are the aims of those beloved and not-so-well-written Twilight novels, or the newest sensation, the Hunger Games trilogy?  Do we know or even need to know? Do the writers? Do readers? Do scholars? Because readers are not setting these works without things occurring between their ears....

One final point I'll make that links back to the first half of Murphy Paul's essay is this: I always stress to my students that attentiveness to language itself, including precision in description, but especially sensory description, use of figuration, varied syntax, and vivid verbs, alongside the other fundamentals--character, plot, voice, tone, dialogue, pacing, structure, beginnings and endings, etc.--are key to improving their work. I can see from their revisions that they grasp this, but in the future, I will use this article as another persuasive device. Stronger verbs than compound formations using the necessary but weak verbs "to be," "to have," "to get," etc., are often hallmarks of beginning writers, and it's thrilling to have confirmed what I try to convey, but also experience myself when reading fiction, mine or others: that our brains start firing when we read words that evoke the senses, or activate our mirror neurons, and immerse us in a world that at least initially exists only on the page but comes a real world to and in and for us--that is, if we or someone else can properly create it.

*A bonus point to the first person who posts the name of the popular cartoon character named after one of the key characters in this second, marvelous West novel.

Embodiment Exhibition @ CUNY Graduate Center

I haven't seen Corporealities: An Exhibition of Art on Embodiment, at the City University of New York Graduate Center, which went up in February of this year (and may no longer be up; I need to check!), but an artist I worked with over a decade ago, Adrienne Klein, whose artworks explore and synthesize the multiple locations where art and science meet, did have a piece in it, and you can see a snippet of her and other artists in the show talking about their work.

According to the YouTube description, the exhibition was held in conjunction with a seminar, likely still underway, on embodiment, and was sponsored and hosted by the Mellon Foundation Interdisciplinary Committee on Science Studies. The exhibition featured artists whose work deals with "body parts, body modification, beauty, disease, sexuality, and biological processes," which is to say, "corporealities." I hope there's a fuller writeup and more images online soon.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Thinking through Collapse" @ NYU

Earlier this week Chris S. emailed notice of this year's Neil Postman Graduate Conference, which New York University's Department of Media, Culture and Communication, in the Steinhardt Graduate School of Education. This year's theme and title was "Thinking through Collapse."  Since it was free and since I'm around, I decided to attend and did.

"Thinking through Collapse" Conference @ NYU
Prof. Benson, Grad students Richard, Garrett, Selimovic

Named in honor of the department's distinguished, eponymous former and late media studies professor and cultural critic (1931-2003; he taught at NYU from 1952 until 2002, and I had the pleasure of meeting him), this year's conference proceeded from the following premise, which I quote from the conference website:

In the past year we have been confronted with many sites of present and impending collapse: the collapse of oppressive regimes in the Arab world, a global economy pushed to its limits, our own political system in paralysis, the teetering of the fourth estate, continuing environmental collapse and so on. In each of these sites, visions of apocalypse exist alongside those of renewal, inviting the imagination of new forms of organization and sustainability. In the academy, they are prompting new interdisciplinary assessments of the conditions – historical, social, political, economic, cultural, technological – that have brought us to these limits, and are forcing the question: where might we go from here?

There were several talks, panels, and a roundtable, and I stayed for most of the afternoon, the highlights of which for me were a talk by graduate student Claire Richard entitled "Politics of Fiction in Antoine Volodine's Work," which was part of the "Europe in Crisis" panel, and the keynote talk by philosopher, critic, and New School professor Simon Critchley, "Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit," which was quite profound despite--or rather, in keeping with--its title.

Philosopher Simon Critchley at "Thinking through Collapse" Conference @ NYU
Simon Critchley giving his talk

Richard's paper explored the writings of the pseudonymous Volodine (b. circa 1949-1950), award-winning author of more than 40 books, written as well under the names Elli Kronauer, Manuela Draeger, and Lutz Bassman, and a translator of numerous works from contemporary Russian literature. (Only two of these texts have been translated into English: 1994's Le nom des singes, as Naming the Jungle [1996], and 1999's Prix du Livre Inter winner Des anges mineurs, as Minor Angels [2000].)

Richard began by discussing how fiction might not just be political, but in its thinking through form constitute a form of politics, and went on to show how Volodine's work bore this dictum out. She began by noting its frequent inclusion of scenes set in camps and prisons, or during or after wars of various sorts. She then noted some key elements of the texts which represented Volodine's narrative method: an avowal of post-collapse worlds without revolution as a recourse not as terminal but as sites of possibility; collaging of multiple languages, linguistic registers and genres, its use of plot and character repetitions and elisions, multiple aporias, all as challenges to unified understandings of history or temporality; the inclusion, in condensed form of the entirety of 20th century European history; and the employment of memory, imagination and poetry as ways of opposing "the end." He has even coined his own name for his approach, "post-exotisme," or post-exoticism, which he wrote about in a book Le Post-exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze (Paris: Gallimard, 1998). Hearing her account of Volodine made me want to read him, and I shall.

Simon Critchley's talk was the afternoon's highlight. Would that all talks of depth be so clear, concise and, for a philosopher and theoretician, relatively jargon-free, or explanatory in terms of the terms when needed.  Drawing his title from the placard statement the Occupy Wall Street protester pictured on the conference's poster was carrying around at one point, Critchley launched into a compelling discussion of how power, the ability to get things done, and politics, the means to get things done, had become decoupled, leading to the widespread "vague, diffuse sense of fear" people throughout the West and many other parts of the world now feel, and which had profoundly delegitimated the "nation state" as the location, however imperfect, as the unity of these two major categorical concepts. In so doing this separation has also profoundly undermined the political regime through which we believe power to be based in and lie with (the) people: democracy.  Instead, as anyone looking at the European crisis or our own confounding political scene realizes, power is often supranational, and under the control of global capital and finance, information, military-industrial complexes, trafficking of various kinds, and so on. Critchley noted that we still think of and act as if power is "local," but, as the situation in Greece demonstrates so aptly, sovereignty lies elsewhere. Thus the major casualty: the (nation-)state.

I won't recap Critchley's entire talk, which including a great deal of humor, musings about ancient philosophy and Greek democracy, a one-sentence summing up of the history of philosophy's key issue, and so much more, but instead jump to the conclusion, in which he contrasted "representation" with "association," using this as a way to think through the significance of the latter in relation to the Occupy movements' combination of old forms of democratic engagement, such as "assembly, consensus and autonomy" with newer technologies, from digital recording and photography to social media. He was clear about the necessity of education for "politics," and noted how the Occupiers, though criticized for having "no demands" and achieving little--ha!--were actually quite well prepared, and though in some ways autochthonous, also drew from a deep well of resistant political organization and assembly, both within US history and outside. (I thought immediately of the Highlander Folk School and its important, often forgotten role in the Civil Rights movements of the mid-20th century.)

Critchley, a self-described Gramscian, stated that politics is about "articulation" and the "formation of fronts," and pushed towards the question of an "articulation" between political representation in the conventional sense and the Occupy assemblies, though he was careful not to place too much emphasis on the former, having been a former Labour activist in the 1980s and 1990s, only to witness the triumph of the neoliberal, neoconservative British Prime Minister Tony Blair.  Politics requires, Critchley said, a demand flowing from a feeling or need for something; and a location, a "terrain where that politics is to be articulated."  Association, which he called the key signifier, and present in the work of Rousseau and the later Marx, might be the generator of such a politics rather than representation, though without a location "we're doomed to the abstraction of protest." But locations, spaces, places, often are unanticipated, as Zuccotti Park proved last year. When Wall Street itself was closed off, the park became the locus of association, and as he pointed out, when people know the location or sense it, their (our) association means something.

I was very glad that he cited the Million Hoodie March for Trayvon Martin as part of this; I think about how the rage and frustration about the aftermath of this young man's murder has been building, but with the rally and march beginning in Union Square, one of the key historic sites in American history for public protest and the articulation of various kinds of politics, the protest had a national and symbolic location that the media could not ignore, though they tried to minimize it, as with the Occupy Wall Street and other protests, and as marches in Florida, Philadelphia, and elsewhere are demonstrating, it is compelling the speech and action of those with power, the President, the Justice Department, authorities in Florida, and so on.

I'll conclude by noting that this was the first conference I've ever attended wherein a question and answer session arose out of democratic consensus on how it might be structured. We had the choice of breakout groups or the General Assembly method of stacking comments, and we chose the latter. People spoke, someone kept a tally of who commented, preference went to those without permanent faculty positions, students, university staff, non-academics; and then Critchley responded to the comments in graceful fashion, without antagonism and taking into account the concerns of all who offered thoughts or questions. He urged that those on the left assume the temporality of the long durée as opposed to immediate results (as, I thought to myself, the right have done my entire lifetime) and accept a "refusal of the future," while still fighting for concrete changes in the here and now. He noted that we also should not ever underestimate the "presence of bodies in space," bodies together, in locales like Zuccotti Park or, as I could attest, marching down Michigan Avenue to protest Proposition 8, or through Washington, DC back in 1990s, and so on.

Though we often and rightly think of politics as a mediat(iz)ed spectacle, we should not forget the "excitement of bodies in space," the "pleasure of performing as bodies together." Again, I could point to the power of this just yesterday. He also talked about the paradox of visibility, and how some activists were seeking, in the face of steadily waxing surveillance and panopticism (he didn't use this word, but I immediately thought of it), to secede from visibility while still engaging in association, to achieve even partial modes of anonymity, an increasingly difficult prospect today. He ended with a point that Mohandas Gandhi or Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have made many times over: "Acting peacefully, in concert, anything is possible."

"Thinking through Collapse" Conference @ NYU
Yvonne Garrett (l), talking about Irish artistic responses to the collapse

As so often when I hear a brilliant talk or reading or have an enlightening conversation, I left the conference--which included a final roundtable discussion with several of the graduate students, very energized--somewhat dazzled, unable to stop thinking about the possibilities before us. As always too, I wished that these sorts of conversations, especially in such a clear and compelling form as Critchley engaged in his, were available to the widest array of people out there, people outside academe, though events all over the world have made clear that these ideas are circulating in varying forms. I also wish that there were more people of color in particular at this event, though I took into account how the program possibly developed, which is to say, who is in the graduate pipeline at NYU or similar institutions. Still, I wish a far more diverse group of people were having such conversations inside academe as well as outside it. That is an ongoing struggle as I can attest from my own experiences and those of many I know.

Those criticisms noted, we have seen more than enough "Collapse": of politics and political structures; of global capitalism; of our ability to challenge or arrest supranational agents; of our psyches, of language and nature (think ecocide) themselves. Yet we are not without power, or possibility, and we must not surrender them. Even if we lose the fight, we still possess them, in multiple forms, modes, ways, especially when we come and are together, and we must never forget that.