first published here: http://meme.co.za/?p=111
July 30, 2016
December 18, 2015
December 17, 2015
November 15, 2015
September 29, 2015
August 28, 2015
by Willie Burger
Stephanus Muller’s Night Music is the sort of book that makes one believe in the power of the written word, in the possibilty of language to get things said that are in fact unsayable, but that, if a person keeps talking carefully enough, become nonetheless communicable.
There are many things that are actually unsayable: a life is one of them, because whatever one manages to say about your own or another’s life, can never do justice to the full person. There are too many aspects, too many perspectives and simply too many mysteries to ever give a complete account of a life. Music is also something that cannot actually be spoken about. Because the moment that you try to say in language what exists in another medium – that communicates through another medium – it is already a lie, an attempt to invoke meaning and impose in words precisely what can not be understood nor contained in words.
Night Music is at the same time a life story and a novel. On the one hand it is a biography of the South African composer Arnold Van Wyk (1916-1983). On the other hand it is a novel about a fictional character, Werner Ansbach, a musicologist who has been wrestling for years writing his biography of the composer Arnold Van Wyk.
Ansbach is struggling because he is aware of his own prejudices, his shortcomings, his inability to really understand his subject and to impose a coherent grip on the wealth of material that he has collected over the years. On top of which he is struggling with his mother who has Alzheimer’s, with moles that are burrowing in his garden and with his perverse sexual impulses and desires. Consequently Night Music is actually a sort of “autobiography” of the fictional Ansbach through which an exceptionally detailed, lucid and exciting life story of the composer Van Wyk emerges.
This description might sound confusing and possibly give the impression that Night Music is merely the presentation of a neat row of postmodern tricks, whereby the barriers between fact and fiction and between fictional characters and real people are undermined. Furthermore Night Music consists of a mixture of different text sorts such as diaries, history, music analysis, photos (some printed in the book, others as loose photos inside it), fiction, scores, interviews, crests and even scientific information about moles, all woven together.
But Night Music is in no way ‘ordinary’, it’s not even an ‘ordinary’ postmodern Pandora’s Box. In these three volumes everything has been woven together in such a fascinating way that a compelling story has come out of it.
Night Music consists of three books that are published in a slip case. And this Pandora’s Box of books, with their many photos and lists and even the complete score of Arnold Van Wyk’s piano concerto, “Night Music”, tucked in an envelope in the back of one of the books, is a work of art. Fourth Wall Books have made an exhibition piece out of it – which contributes to the contemplation of what the essence of art actually is.
The first two slim books contain all the footnotes and references to the immense wealth of factual information collected, and make possible the use of Night Music as a scholarly reference work about the life and work of Arnold Van Wyk. The third book of over 500 pages is the riveting novel/biography/autobiography – a book that eludes all attempts at categorization.
To tell a story is to select certain incidents and to arrange them in a specific order. This is why it is so difficult for Ansbach to tell Van Wyk’s life story. Every decision to select a certain event, and to place it in a specific position in the context of the whole, leads to a different meaning of the event as well as the whole. It is immobilising to try to tell a story without in some way exercising power – without imposing one’s own ideas on the subject. And to tell the story without telling the story is impossible. But this is precisely what Stephanus Muller has achieved in Night Music.
Night Music is a profound reflection about what it means to compose music and what it means to write about music, what it means to write about a human life, about how to weave language and story together in order to get a grip on the world, about the (un)trustworthiness of memories that always incline towards narratives, about the violence that we do to life with our attempts to find meaning through narrativising, and about art.
This is an exhilarating text, sometimes extremely sad and often screamingly funny. The only other Afrikaans writer that withstands comparison with this work is Marlene Van Niekerk – in particular her Memorandum. At times the book brings WG Sebald’s novels to mind, especially Austerlitz and The Emigrants. But Night Music is ultimately not comparable to any of these. You have to experience it yourself.
translated from the afrikaans by aryan kaganof
August 22, 2015
first published here: http://witsvuvuzela.com/2015/08/21/pamberi-ne-chimurenga-forward-with-the-revolution/
August 7, 2015
August 1, 2015
Art, Adorno says, is not culture. Culture is acquiescent, conformist, reflects the false consciousness of unity or totality. True art is confrontational, uncomfortable, exhaustingly engaged in an immanent dialectic with society. ‘The authentic artists of the present’, he writes, ‘are those in whose works there shudders the aftershock of the most extreme horror.’ This leads one to reflect on what kind of society one lives in and what the role is of the art that you practice (if it is art and not only culture), in this society. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because living in South Africa at this time (and here I explicitly do not mean the South Africa of anodyne American shopping malls and muzak), it should be.
Contemporary South African INterfaces with Aspects of Adornian Musical Thought
keep reading here: http://kaganof.com/kagablog/2015/03/10/stephanus-muller-contemporary-south-african-interfaces-with-aspects-of-adornian-musical-thought/
July 22, 2015
first published here: http://www.raintaxi.com/because-the-night/
July 3, 2015
June 17, 2015
first published here: http://www.bdlive.co.za/life/books/2015/06/12/book-review-because-the-night
May 27, 2015
first published here: http://www.artlink.co.za/news_article.htm?contentID=38053
May 23, 2015
The real life and celestial adventures of Tristan Tzara
360pp. MIT Press. Paperback, £24.95 (US $34.95).
978 0 262 02754 0
It is . . . foolish and self-destructive to lead a Dada life”, the poet Andrei Codrescu has written, because a Dada life will “include by definition pranks, buffoonery . . . intoxication, sabotage, taboo-breaking, playing childish and/or dangerous games, waking up dead gods, and not taking education seriously.” Dada is all these things and, beyond them, a constant practice of self-creation, an orgy of self-fashioning. That much is clear from the life of one of its founders, Tristan Tzara, as recounted by Marius Hentea.
Tristan Tzara was born Samuel Rosenstock in Moineşti (a small town in Romania, some 200 miles north of Bucharest) on April 16, 1896. At the time, Romania was still using the Julian calendar. By the modern calendar, his birthday would be April 28, which, as Hentea points out, happens to be the day when the Romanian Orthodox Church celebrates the martyr Dada. (This is not a Dadaist joke.) Although he was born into an affluent middle-class milieu, Samuel lacked something important: a country. Until the end of the First World War, Jews in Romania were rarely citizens, even when they were born there, even after several generations. Those who did gain Romanian citizenship – for example, decorated war veterans or influential financiers – were naturalized on an individual basis, through a complicated legal procedure. Young Samuel must have found that unbearable, because around 1915 he decided he should have in his name what he didn’t have in real life: Tzara (“country”).
Most ironic of all, however, is the fact that the word is slightly misspelled: it should in fact beŢara (which Samuel also considered). To simplify pronunciation and spelling, it might make sense to use “Tzara” abroad, but not inside Romania, where it looks unusual and foreign. That must have been precisely Samuel’s point. Alienation became his second nature, and foreignness his artistic method. When he adopted French as his main language, he made sure he didn’t sound too native in it. As Hentea aptly points out, “the foreignness of French contributed to his distinctive poetry, which could be destructive and bric-à-brac in the way that a native poet could not be”.
Once Samuel Rosenstock became Tristan Tzara, he was perhaps bound to leave his native country; indeed, another way of reading “Tristan Tzara” in Romanian is Trist înțarǎ: “[it is] sad in the country”. His feelings about Romania, though, would have been more complex than that, for his young country was in the throes of a “rushed modernity”, as Hentea puts it. Barely independent from the Ottoman Empire, Romania was furiously refashioning itself as a European country, adopting everything Western. Bucharest, once a sleepy Eastern town, dreamed of being “a little Paris”, and was undergoing the most dramatic changes. As the French author Frédéric Damé noticed in 1906: “Everything which today makes up the capital’s beauty, everything which gives it the air of a modern city only dates from yesterday”. So the notion of radical reinvention, of re-creation from scratch, was something Tzara must have breathed along with Bucharest’s dusty air. And he smuggled it out with him when he left for Zurich.
Officially, Tzara went to Zurich to complete his studies, but he spent much of his time in the city’s literary cafés and cabarets. In February 1916, having nothing to lose, he decided to perform in one of these cabarets with a handful of friends. Nothing in these youths’ exotic, awkward appearance suggested the earthquake they were about to produce. Hugo Ball, the cabaret’s founder, recalled their arrival at his first performance: “an Oriental-looking deputation of four little men arrived, with portfolios and pictures under their arms: repeatedly they bowed politely. They introduced themselves: Marcel Janco the painter, Tristan Tzara, Georges Janco, and a fourth gentleman whose name I did not quite catch”. The birth of Dada, orchestrated by these “little men”, can be traced to that performance. Other future Dadaists were already there or on their way: Ball, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp and Richard Huelsenbeck, to name just a few. From Zurich, Dada would spread like fire on a dry night.
When Tzara mockingly whispered, “Adieu ma mère, adieu mon père”, on the cabaret’s stage, his farewell had little to do with his family. Rather, it must have been addressed to a whole civilization and the order on which it was based – political, economic, military, cultural and intellectual. That order itself was an odd thing. Firmly rooted in the “Age of Reason”, it evolved into something that was anything but rational; what had started out, innocently enough, in the literary salons of the Enlightenment, with writers singing praises to “man in a state of nature” and philosophers dreaming of “perpetual peace”, ended up with one of the bloodiest wars the world had ever seen. The civilization of Europe came to exhibit the wildest contradictions: it mostly did away with transcendence, yet it worshipped science; it gleefully proclaimed that “God is dead”, yet embraced reason with a boundless faith. The latest discoveries in chemistry were used to gas the other side’s soldiers; barely invented, the aeroplane was deployed to bomb their cities more thoroughly. The First World Ward showed just how easy it was for a civilization built on a faith in “infinite progress” to regress to barbarism.
What Tzara – and, with him, the whole Dadaist movement – did was, in a sense, disarmingly simple: they placed a mirror before a civilization that seemed to be committing suicide. They just sat to one side, amusing themselves to death. As Tzara put it, Dada remained within the “framework of European weaknesses, it’s still shit, but from now on we want to shit in different colours so as to adorn the zoo of art with all the flags of all the consulates”. And the place where all this started – referred to by Tzara as a “cosmopolitan mix of God and brothel” – was called, quite fittingly, “Cabaret Voltaire”.
Hentea traces Tzara’s every step from Moineşti to Zurich to Paris, and discusses everything he published, every magazine he edited, every hoax he performed, almost every letter he wrote. The Tzara that emerges is Dada’s leading figure: a gifted poet, performer and editor, a tireless manager, promoter and public relations expert. As Hentea points out, the overwhelming importance of modern mass media for the dissemination of avant-garde ideas was something that Tzara understood like few writers before him.
Tzara’s unforgettable manifestos, with their combination of literary, artistic, typographical and even commercial elements, created the social awareness needed for Dada to make an impact. In no time he became a virtuoso of “l’arte di far manifesti”, as the Futurist Marinetti put it. His voice was clear and poignant, his gestures precise, self-assured, light-handed, his writing razor-sharp. Take this fragment from the “Dada Manifesto” (1918):
“abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create: Dada; abolition of memory: Dada; abolition of archaeology: Dada; abolition of prophets: Dada; abolition of the future: Dada; absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity: Dada;”
Such statements did not make Tzara a militant or activist. In line with Dada’s absurdist philosophy, his manifestos are manifestly against everything and nothing, which makes them nonsensical, which is precisely his point. “I write a manifesto and I want nothing”, he said. “In principle I am against manifestos, as I am against principles . . . . I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one fresh gulp of air.” Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett would take the absurd from where Tzara left off, and turn it into a new art form altogether.
Importantly, Tzara’s manifestos are not sermons; he is in no position to sermonize. This, for instance, is from the “Manifesto of Mr. Aa the anti-philosopher”:
“Take a good look at me!
I am an idiot, I am a clown, I am a faker.
Take a good look at me!
I am ugly, my face has no expression, I am little.
I am like all of you!”
Proclamations such as these touch on something deeper than the sheer “entertainment” some Dada performances, happenings and hoaxes might suggest: they reveal the philosophical vision in which all of them were rooted and which is not reconstructed in Hentea’s book as fully as it might have been. Tzara the philosopher is an intriguing figure, as complex as he is unexplored. Throughout his work the former philosophy student engaged – unsystematically and eclectically, but passionately – with Nietzsche, Wilhelm Wundt, Henri Bergson, and perhaps even, as Andrei Codrescu and others have shown, with elements of Hasidic and Kabbalistic philosophy. On the one hand, Tzara’s thought is a philosophy of crisis – an “anti-philosophy” – that responded to the manmade catastrophes of his time. On the other, there is something trans-historical and metaphysical about Tzara’s vision. His universe is one where chance, spontaneity and indeterminacy rule. “Logic is always false”, he said. “It draws the superficial fibres of concepts and words towards illusory conclusions and centres.” For Tzara, as for Dostoevsky’s underground man, one can find liberation only in sticking one’s tongue out. Life in such a universe, he once suggested, boils down to “a game of words”; yet still a game worth playing.
On his deathbed, Tzara told a journalist: “Everyone is a poet in one way or another, in a more or less conscious way”. He may have started out as a “faker” and a “clown”, playing the “idiot” out of media savviness or just a desire to provoke; yet he came to take his own masks seriously. If as a young rebel he made a career out of poking fun at the literary establishment, late in life he fought tooth and nail to ensure that his position in the canon was properly recognized, and his legacy taken care of. More seriously, he ended up entangled in some of the contradictions of the world he had always laughed at, finding himself mocked, as it were, by the object of his own mockery. Early on he had rejected political activism and thought Communism a “bourgeois form of revolution”, but after the Second World War he joined the French Communist Party, and took an active role in it. He was, as Hentea puts it, “fully committed to PCF cultural initiatives” and represented the Party abroad. Tzara even went so far as to sing the praises of the Soviet Union for having “guaranteed freedom of expression”. What kind of freedom Soviet Russia guaranteed was revealed in 1956, when the Red Army put a bloody end to the Budapest Uprising. Tzara promptly left the PCF.
Marius Hentea has given us what will probably be the book in English on Tristan Tzara for some time: splendidly written, thoroughly researched, balanced and sophisticated, and infected by his subject’s creative energy. With its eye-catching design and generous illustrations, there is also something distinctly Dada about TaTa Dada, for which the publishers deserve their fair share of praise.
Costica Bradatan is Associate Professor of Humanities at the Texas Tech University and Honorary Research Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Queensland. His most recent book, Dying for Ideas: The dangerous lives of the philosophers, was published earlier this year.
first published here: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1558393.ece
May 21, 2015
keep reading this review here: http://constitutionallyspeaking.co.za/at-the-venice-biennale-an-ugly-condescending-scream-on-the-wall/
May 18, 2015
first published here: http://www.herald.co.zw/when-the-dream-comes-unstuck/
May 6, 2015
. Trans. Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000. Pp. 160. $20.00 cloth.
When “Super-Masochist” Bob Flanagan proclaims in his explanatory poem “Why?”: “because I had to take my clothes off and lie inside this giant plastic bag so the doctors could collect my sweat” (in Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist, eds. Andrea Juno and V. Vale, People Series: Number 1 [San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1993]: 64-65, 65), we experience a moment of synchronicity with M. Geoffrey’s eighteenth-century treatise on the uses of excrement, Suite de la Matière médicale. In that scatological document, which Dominique Laporte has recourse to in the newly translated History of Shit, we learn of the socially elevated French woman who relied on stercorary fluid to maintain the youthful lustre of her face. Her boy Friday’s only duty would be to seal his fresh feces in a special basin to prevent evaporation, and after cooling, scrape the condensation that formed under the lid so that Madame might splash her precious pores with the age-defying liquid.
Laporte presumes that this servant’s diet and physical condition must have received “special ministrations” (108), and while we cannot be certain if the perspiration of performance-artist Flanagan was collected, scraped, and applied in similar fashion, each of the two excretions draws a spectacular power from the potential use-value of bodily waste. Amid the history of such sublimated discharges, Laporte’s History of Shit indulges an array of scatological impulses to demonstrate the ways in which the history of the “State,” the history of modern subjectivity, and to a certain extent, the history of history, are entangled in wonderful and horrible ways with the history of the fundamental fundament, that basest of human products—shit.
Laporte’s cultural ode to excrement, originally published as Histoire de la merde (Prologue) in 1978, requires a radical dissolution of what he sees as State-sponsored mechanisms controlling language and excrement, so that all excesses, linguistic and anal, gleam with the light of shit-transformed-into-gold. Nadia Benabid’s and Rodolphe el-Khoury’s engaging translation from the French preserves the excesses of Laporte’s prose style as it attempts “to reverse the deodorization of language by means of a reeking syntax” (ix). Augmented by a gallery of fantastic images, History of Shit celebrates a “language as slut” paradigm that defies the virginal turn where a castrated “feminine” state of a neutered language works intently on maintaining production, so that the “profits of [language’s] harvest must be indistinguishable from those elements by which it is sublimated and refined” (17). The sublimation of shit to any totalizing teleology cannot be dethroned through mere revelation or exposure of control elements, and the problems Laporte addresses in his six feculent chapters are not only those of political production and individual waste retention within a matrix of profit and loss. Instead, the crude alphabet of shit, [End Page 407] urine, bile, and its other hoary phonemes also challenges a complex social system that ultimately authorizes its own excesses through an invasive program of obsessive purification—separating the “extra matter” of waste from its counter-disciplinary stink. Freed from odor and turned to “gold” by the State, the treasure trove of rationalized language (and thus, excrement), “resembles the young girl who sells her body in exchange for the dowry that ensures her virginity on her wedding night” (18).
Laporte knows from Barthes that “when written, shit does not smell” (10), but also that the taint of base feces still remains even after the complete declination of the olfactory sense. History of Shit argues that all superfluous matter arising from the Freudian triad of cleanliness, order, and beauty, must conversely be “put to use; the gain-in-pleasure must be made to enrich civilization in a sublimated form” (14). Any escape from the prison house constructed from a social domination of “excess” shit-words depends upon a deployment of over-coded language and matter somehow capable of eluding the apparatuses of capture and consolidation that manipulates, to borrow from Deleuze and Guattari, all flows and schizzes.
Central to Laporte’s puncture of civilization’s humanist grandeur is the axiom that the concurrent domination and legislation of excrement by the “State” excises the superfluity of (broadly-defined) waste products through a host of symbolic purification mechanisms: “Shit comes back and takes the place of that which is engendered by its return, but in a transfigured, incorruptible form. Once eliminated, waste is reinscribed in the cycle of production as gold” (15-16). This is a process of laundering, purifying, and rendering translucent.
Juxtaposing the rationalization of official discourse to the domestication of shit and urine (and farm animals) establishes the modern city as a site of a carefully-mandated ideal of purity, where the traditional powers of the government travel, by legislative extension, out from the seats of official authority and over the city streets, penetrating into the cesspool and outhouse, and by extension, into the intestinal tract of each legal subject. Private concerns become mandated by public oversight, and Laporte suggests that this mandate to eliminate the stench of shit from the city via an “investment” in the sublimated use-value of excrement bears complicity in the entire modern system of production.
In the cities of the United States, this fight to sublimate all malodorous excesses manifests itself through similar social engineering initiatives. In the 1880s, typhoid and cholera epidemics spurred the creation of Chicago’s Metropolitan Sanitary District to dig a drainage canal that would reverse the course of the Chicago River. In the early part of the twentieth century, the young William S. Burroughs would watch “as turds shot out into the polluted [End Page 408] water from the vents along the sides” of St. Louis’s Rivière des Pères (Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs [New York: Avon Books, 1998], 29). Today, second-ring suburbs of New York City such as Lyndhurst, New Jersey, dream of processing the landfills that surround them into family-oriented golf resorts, transforming, as Thom Metzger writes of the Jersey turnpike, “vast tracks of landfill, junk-yards, chemical sump-holes and slag pits” into the gold of capitalist efficiency (What the Fuck: The Avant-Porn Anthology, ed. Michael Hemmingson [New York: Soft Skull Press, 2000]: 155-62, 155). Such manifestations of the perpetual urban battle against waste are also common in Laporte’s historical France. Civilization’s interest in controlling waste function does not automatically produce a concomitant interest in the Freudian triad of cleanliness, order, and beauty. Rather, significance resides in the edict’s introduction of a discourse that would soon spread along myriad symbolic lines.
For instance, the potential anality of society and its cleanliness of presentation manifest themselves for Laporte in the private/public split that successfully launders a shit that “must nourish the very cesspools of its production” (26). In chapter 2, “cleaning up in front of one’s house, heaping against the wall,” Laporte identifies this process with the domestication of waste as a marker of State-imposed responsibility masked by an illusion of private control (the same that many postmodern theorists see in the organization of the family unit): “This little pile of shit, heaped here before my door, is mine, and I challenge any to malign its form . . .” (30).
The imposition of specific waste protocols combined with notions of private ownership escapes the mere banality of excrement, binding the “subject to his body” (31) and leading to the revival of ancient models of waste-value. In sixteenth-century France, translated authors such as the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenes appealed for a significant time-lapse before human stercus would “break its pact with the devil and become nourishment and fertilizing breath” (37). The devilish stench that would presumably inhibit the alchemical process whereby shit becomes gold, fits unsurprisingly into Freud’s notion of the overall declination of the olfactory sense as an outgrowth of the civilizing process—prompting Laporte to cite Immanuel Kant’s remark that “the beautiful does not smell” (38). The reeking shit of the earth is banished to the country, so that the town and city advance a public sphere of the visible where the odor of shit is transmogrified, once again, into the visual gleam of gold.
Still, the purification rituals of the city involve a suspicion running through all economic classes that vile filth corrupts that which they are not. The rich associate the poor with vulgar and corrupt feces, while the poor sniff the stench of corruption from the upper class. This “othering” allows the State to act as a meta-purification system capable of keeping the dirty transactions [End Page 409] of money-making and its fecal association separate from the final golden product. Laporte identifies the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a time when the State assumes control of both the private production of shit as well as its public treatment—so that the latter process, analogous to the accumulation of capital, manifests itself as a political object through “a discourse that urges proprietors to become even richer, while casting a withering eye on the foul odor of their accumulations” (46).
For Laporte, the State’s controlling dialectic between private and public, town and country, rich and poor, and waste and profit, has as its true aim a loss of the personal object of shit in favor of symbolic replacements—a policy concerned more with modifying the subject’s relationship to his feces than any obsession with the physical product. Think here of Jean Genet’s works: the prisoner in Our Lady of the Flowers, whose olfactory realm is partially composed of “urine, formaldehyde, and paint” carries the stench common to all prisons-houses, so that the narrator “recognized that this odor would finally be the odor of my destiny” (Our Lady of the Flowers, trans. Bernard Frechtman [New York: Grove Press, 1991], 103). The subject’s relation to her/his own production, even when manifesting a gain-in-pleasure à la Genet’s excremental prose, finds itself uncomfortably compromised, fixed in a “dangling and dependent position vis-à-vis the absolute State” (Laporte 49).
With the basic theoretical framework of argument established, Laporte moves on to more intriguing points of analysis. In the short chapter entitled “the colonial thing,” the paralyzing sameness of the State (as emulate of the Roman sewer—the cloaca maxima) finds an exemplar in both the British domination of Ireland (illustrated through Professor MacHugh’s speech against “foreign invaders” in Ulysses) and in a discussion of race relations equating the white man to a corpse. The colonist is bound by the “return of that repressed ‘remnant of earth’ which clings to him as much as to any man” (60) despite his urge to rise up from the soil that he associates with the black man and shit.
The colonial master’s false beneficence is evident in the urge of this white “corpse” to remove the subject from its shit, a process which introduces the civilizing sameness that results only from the removal of foul odors. To return to Kant, the beautiful does not smell because imperialism will eliminate that which does. Of course, separating the subject from shit refuses to equalize the oppressor/oppressed power differential. All persons may be similarly humbled when defecating, but the colonizer always tidies his patriarchal behind first: “The cleansing of others comes later, as an aftereffect. . . . others must not remind me . . . that I once walked on all fours” (64). One manifestation of the colonial project, then, is to institute a standard of near sameness in process that allows the colonizer to be acknowledged always for his “beneficent” policies, imposing his will to the point where these policies “elevate” the subject while simultaneously maintaining the threat that the subject can be [End Page 410] made to “topple back into [shit] at any moment if it pleases the all-powerful Master” (65).
It becomes a necessity to, at a minimum, mask, and ideally eliminate the smell of this unholy log, so that those force-fed its purified matter will remain blissfully unaware of any putrid origin. Laporte closely identifies this remnant of shit with the business of commerce, noting that if a person dirties her or his hands through various and sundry transactions: “Your shit itself will be taxed. Only an offering of gold, placed in the hands of the tax collector, can expiate you of your crimes. Only then shall you be washed of your sin, and what once was foul be transformed into the site of pure power” (78).
This “pure power” carries Laporte’s argument past its seemingly infinite golden telos. Borrowing from Marx’s Capital, the concept of “crystal money” replaces the golden offering; the continuous, temporal movement of money through generations effaces the foul stain of its delivery. Through the dirty pact of shit-to-gold through commerce, the bourgeois denies his own birth so that advent of new masters breaks with the temporality of a traceable lineage, making it impossible to pinpoint the origin of wealth, and necessarily suppressing all “surplus value and primitive accumulation” (79). For Laporte, this translucent state of systematic nullification “elevates” all elements of the system as signs: “the very light that penetrates (bodies and objects) blurs their contours, renders them opaque and tasteless, luminous and free of smell” (80).
The stakes here are significant. Free of odor, only matter remains, and, to the reader’s delight, History of Shit wends through the territory of perfumes used to cover the noxious stench of excreta, approaching a crystal standard linked to healthy digestion. The healthy and odorless digestive system “emerges as the signifier for the rich, the attractive, the beautiful” (82). The odorless ideal entirely sublimates bodily processes; sundry perfumes, “orange blossom-scented drops” (83) favored by Parisian cesspool workers, attempt to alleviate the superfluous elements of their waste/capital sign system, yet this odorless condition, no matter how advanced by the most sophisticated chemical or biological procedures, remains an asymptotic move toward an impossible zero. And while this odorless ideal perpetually crystallizes its object through a negation of olfaction, Laporte argues that aesthetics has no place for smell, because full activation of that faculty would disrupt the system: “Were smell to be beautiful, then the beautiful would have to smell, to breathe, to sniff itself, and then what would transpire? Would not mud and blood splatter the virginal, still-translucent surface of the beautiful?” (86), adding in the next paragraph “All smells are primordially the smell of shit” (87).
The closing chapters examine this suspicious irreducibility of smell and beauty in the production of an odorless pure-matter that remains from these cleansing processes. Laporte takes great rhetorical pleasure in cataloguing the [End Page 411] uses of waste’s “quasi-magical properties” (97), often rediscovered in the nineteenth century, so that even as excrement has a use-value for production, it also occupies a place as “hygenic imaginary” (97). Dioscurides, Apuleius, Catullus, Strabo, Diodorus of Sicily, and Pliny celebrate the wondrous powers of urine, with the latter commenting: “The most celebrated midwives have declared that no other lotion is better treatment for irritation of the skin, and with soda added for sores on the head, dandruff, and spreading ulcers, especially on the genitals” (99).
Dung serves a similar cosmetic function, and Laporte revels in the immense list of shit-inspired works published between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries (noted in the Biblioteca Scatalogica), commenting via Bachelard that “Stercus nigrum, or rat droppings, is a sure-fire remedy for constipation as well as a cure for baldness when mixed with honey and onion juices” (101). The multiform uses of waste in an emergent capitalist discourse privileges a denial rather than a repression of shit’s foulness; upholding its curative powers results in its elevation to the plateau of the finest perfumes. These therapeutic and cosmetic uses of waste persisted well into the sphere of our modern world, and Laporte refuses to mark a clear division between the barbarity of ancient civilization and the manufactured reality of our own.
In the closing chapter, “i’m with shakspeare” [sic], Laporte establishes the spiritual nature of shit, championed by the figure of the production-minded hygienist, “prince consort of bourgeois civilization, of colonialist Europe as embodied by Queen Victoria” who speaks tirelessly of “blood, milk, shit, sex, corpses, sperm, sewers, hospitals, factories, urinals” (119). Spoken by these brave social engineers unafraid to deal with the stercus of society, the hygienist’s discourse represents the potential profitability of shit in primordial terms: “[The imperative of profit] also marks the return of a repressed fantasy of which utility is merely the displaced reversal . . . the dream of satisfying all need and thus liberating the subject from lack” (119). Human shit is revered above animal waste for its agricultural efficiency, and Laporte’s coterie of hygienists, pressing fearlessly for more efficient drainage systems, never “doubted for an instant that his invention of a separator, a ventilation system, a new form of toilet bowl, or a mobile urinal would transform the future of humanity” (123). The hygienist’s mania toward production manifested itself in a learned discourse that indeed called shit by its name, but still masked the fear of loss in the language of profit.
Despite the manifold structures intent on excising what cannot be sublimated and controlled, History of Shit defies these notions in its complete refusal to play by the conventions of the linear read. Imposing a rational order on its contents (as I have attempted) is to share complicity with the objects of Laporte’s critique. Readers who delight in scraping every bit of condensation [End Page 412] from their air-tight canisters will be able to find familiar strands of ’70s poststructuralism in Laporte’s study. Those who put less stock on the efficient collection and purification of waste and language, who defy, in even small ways, the scatological imperatives of the State (whether capitalist or socialist), will also find themselves rolling—happily—in something entirely different.
Lake Forest College
Criticism 44.4 (2002) 407-413
April 18, 2015
April 16, 2015
keep reading this review here: http://mg.co.za/article/2015-04-07-stories-that-push-the-boundaries-of-the-female-experience
April 4, 2015
keep reading this review here: http://www.soiledsinema.com/2015/04/can-go-through-skin.html
March 25, 2015
Note that this text is rather dated and has not been revised.
Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) wrote much of his large output for strings, either for solo instruments or in combinations including five quartets. Scelsi’s concentration on string writing began in the mid-50s, at about the time he was writing his last piano suites and eventually abandoning that instrument which had to that time been his primary means of expression. From the mid-50s onward, Scelsi’s most intimate compositions are written for strings — often performing solo, and in many ways this is the heart of his output.
Recently released on CD on Etcetera KTC 1136 is Frances-Marie Uitti performing the Trilogia for solo cello along with Ko-Tha for modified cello. Certainly Trilogia is the major work on the disc, and the center piece of Scelsi’s early output for solo strings. Uitti worked with Scelsi at his home, and this CD is a re-issue of a dutch recording made in 1979. In this way, Uitti is grouped with the performers Michiko Hirayama and the Arditti Quartet which were chosen by Scelsi to record some of his music — and her performance of the Trilogia can be considered definitive. Her control of the multiple-string polyphony is impressive, and she brings a mature polish to some very difficult instrumental work. This recording is a must for anyone interested in Scelsi’s chamber music.
The immense work Trilogia (The Three Ages of Man) is made of three smaller pieces of normal length for Scelsi (each just over thirteen minutes) which were written at different times and combined to form this epic saga. The first of the group is Triphon which can be considered Scelsi’s first real string masterpiece in his new style. According to the CD, this piece dates from 1957 but in two other sources it dates from 1956. One of these sources includes David Simpson’s recording of Triphon on FY 119; Simpson’s performance is good, though the mixing on the recording makes it a little dim, and his interpretation cannot have the historical weight of Uitti’s. However, since Uitti helped in the cataloging of Scelsi’s music, the date 1957 might be more accurate; in this case, there is not much difference but other works have a greater spread in the date assigned to them.
Anyway, Triphon (1956) represents a culmination of Scelsi’s string writing in the mid-50s. This ouput begins with Divertimenti for solo violin of which there are five; the third (1955) is recorded on Accord 200622. Scelsi apparently used the title Divertimento because these pieces are in a traditional tonal idiom — however, they are quite serious and show Scelsi’s incredible mastery of this idiom. Another earlier work is Coelocanth (1955) for solo viola (also on Accord 200622) which shows something of a transition between the traditional style and the style of Triphon. Here the first movements sound a bit unsure, but the last really looks forward to the polyphonic style which was to occupy Scelsi for the next ten years. Triphon is subtitled “Youth – Energy – Drama” and is a work of intense individuality, which would be very difficult to anticipate from Coelocanth or any other music. Here Scelsi begins the use of two kinds of metallic mutes for individual strings, and the first movement consists mainly of a slow recitative in the lower register under a fast buzzing (achieved via individual metallic mutes, at times scraping) interplay in upper voices. The sound is quite intense, and is somewhat reminiscent of the buzz of indian sitar. The third movement Drama is indeed highly dramatic, and consists of Scelsi’s intense polyphonic style in which different voices use different forms of ornamentation concurrently (presenting unusual instrumental problems for the performer.) There is certainly some violence in this work, but after repeated hearings the overall effect is not a violent one — indeed, the sharp overtone sprectrum on a sitar is considered not at all aggresive in India.
The second part of the Trilogia is the single-movement work Dithome which the CD dates also from 1957. I find this date rather dubious, but have no other references. There is quite a bit of stylistic difference between Triphon and Dithome, though some of that can certainly be ascribed to their different stated descriptive intentions. The subtitle of Dithome is “Maturity – Energy – Thought” which obviously shows reference to the earlier work, however it is in one long movement — possibly Scelsi’s longest (the longest recorded) and probably the most exhausting. The sound world of this piece corresponds much more closely to the Quartet No. 2 (1961) than to Triphon, and in fact represents something of a companion piece to that epoch-making Quartet (for that reason, I suspect the date may be as late as 1960 though the more I listen to Scelsi, the more I wonder about dating his music at all.) Here there is even more concentrated use of microtonal interplay between voices as well as unisons, the overall effect is much more calm and polished. Concerning Scelsi’s use of unisons in polyphony, it is important to note that in the composer’s 80-word autobiography he mentions his “medieval education” which apparently had some consequence for him — and his use of unisons and open intervals can be seen as a continuation of Binchois and Ockeghem some five hundred years later. Scelsi’s inspiration is quite cosmopolitan in almost every conceivable sense of the term. At any rate, Dithome can be viewed as an ABCBA form in which the middle section is much expanded, at times homophonic and songlike and at times involving quick microtonal manipulations, always more restrained than Triphon which neglects homophony. The A-sections are single voice melodies, the second recapitulating the first. The B-sections are intense microtonal polyphony (which took me more than a little effort to follow), as impressive and powerful as anything in Scelsi’s output. Dithome is a symmetric piece (though nothing is repeated exactly) and as opposed to the Quartet No. 4, it is centrally symmetric. Also as opposed to Quartet No. 4 where the second “half” is arguably more intense than the first, in Dithome the first B-section is by far the most challenging; whereas the fourth quartet is a study in the path of least resistance and sneaks up on a listener, Dithome packs a big punch in the first moments. Exactly how the form relates to the poetic title, I am not sure — though the B-section will surely impart some listening maturity.
The third part of the Trilogia is the piece Ygghur (which means catharsis in Sanskrit) which is again in three movements and subtitled “Old Age – Memories – Catharsis.” The CD dates it from 1961, though other sources date it from 1965 — in this case, the dating is more interesting since Ygghur is notated on one stave per string which Scelsi officially began in 1964 with the fourth Quartet, making the 1965 date seem reasonable. Another piece, one of the Scelsi’s masterpieces Elegia per Ty (recorded on Accord 200622) is also notated one stave per string and has the conflicting dates 1958 and 1966 associated with it. Given that Scelsi often recorded a piece (at least in the case of piano music) and only subsequently had it notated, it seems plausible that these pieces may have been completely composed and even performed on the the earlier dates and only notated in final form after the issue of notation was resolved. This idea is rather interesting since Scelsi’s orchestral output came mostly from the early-60s, and makes his creative work in the late 50s truly awesome (in which case pieces like the Quattro Pezzi on a single note (1959) can be seen as simplifications not so much for personal study and eventual expansion, but to help the listener with the music already composed.) Whether or not there is any truth to this, Ygghur is notated one stave per string and therefore deserves to be considered with Scelsi’s mature summations of his string style dating from the mid-60s, these being the Quartet No. 4 (1964), Xnoybis (1964) for solo violin, Ygghur (1965) for solo cello, Manto (1966) for solo viola along with the Duo for violin and cello (1965) and Elegia per Ty (1966) for viola and cello. Within this group (though I have not heard Manto, which I hope will be released soon), Ygghur is much more personal than the extremely technical (and perhaps instructional) Quartet No. 4 which is a study in pure form, and the highly intense and technical Xnoybis which is extremely difficult. It is also rather easier than any of these pieces which makes the 1961 date more plausible, though the difficulty may have been reduced in order not to overwhelm the other pieces in the Trilogia (which the Elegia certainly would.)
Scelsi apparently wrote six duos for strings. In addition to the two from this period using the cello, there is Arc-en-ciel (1973) for two violins, Nuits for two double bases, and two others which are still unknown. The Duo for violin and cello is seen as a study for the Elegia (though if the 1958 date is accurate this is rather dubious, unless as purely a study in notation) and consists of two movements which are basically independent illustrations; the power of the two illustrations should not be underestimated though, and the work builds somewhat on Xnoybis and also makes for a good introduction to the mid-60s ouput (the Quartet No. 4 is really formally simpler than any of these pieces.) The Elegia is an astonishing, mournful masterpiece which continues to show new aspects — it is very difficult to digest. By the fourth Quartet, Scelsi’s string writing is so expanded that a quartet sounds like an orchestra and so these duos represent an important level in his chamber music, perhaps taking the place of the traditional quartet.
Returning to Ygghur, the first movement “Old Age” anticipates/recalls the first movement of the Elegia, with its concentration on poignancy. The second movement “Memories” echoes much of Scelsi’s output to that time, though in particular the slow “gong” movement of the first quartet and anything else in disembodied form. The final movement “Catharsis” is mostly in high registers, very restrained, and looks forward to much of Scelsi’s string writing in the late-60s and the early 70s with their slow, restrained microtonal glissandi; as such it is not really as successful, though it takes some audacity to even attempt a movement on catharsis specifically. Whatever its position with respect to Scelsi’s 60s string ouput, Ygghur represents a fitting conclusion to the Trilogia and it can be assumed that it was at this point when the complete Trilogia was assembled.
In 1974, Scelsi wrote two more pieces for solo cello collectively titled Voyages. One of these, Le Fleuve Magique, has been recorded by Robin Clavreuil on Adda 581189. This piece hardly exists: it is only two minutes long and operates in fleeting harmonics. Nonetheless, it takes the listener on a real voyage and it is in such brief passages that Scelsi’s genius can be most easily felt. In addition to the Trilogia, Uitti’s CD includes Ko-Tha “A Dance of Shiva” which was arranged for six-string cello by Uitti in 1978 and recorded in Rome. The original was for amplified guitar, though one wonders whether Scelsi may have had the south indian veena in mind (which was played with electronic pickups by the late great Balachander) since the sound evokes the veena, though the lack of melody is certainly not indian. This piece consists largely of quickly arpeggiated, decaying chords much as in Aitsi (1974). In this case, there is also some rapping on the body of the cello. The piece is rather engaging, and an extreme example of one aspect of Scelsi’s late music.
As a whole, the Trilogia represents much of Scelsi’s mature style in an epic journey through his life. It is extremely powerful music reduced to its barest essentials for a single cello, yet producing at times a huge variety and intensity of sound. It is one of Scelsi’s masterpieces, and sure to take its place in all modern cello repertoires.
March 23, 2015
first published here: http://sabotagereviews.com/2015/02/22/because-the-night-by-stacy-hardy/
March 18, 2015
read the full review here: http://www.soiledsinema.com/?zx=4223a559b7a0aaa7
March 17, 2015
first published here: http://www.molossus.co/poetry/review-of-stacy-hardy-because-the-night/#