Grief, tragedy and translation

It’s been over a decade since Judith Butler reflected on Antigone, ‘the renowned insurgent’ from Sophocles’ Oedipus, in Antigone’s Claim: kinship between life and death (Columbia, 2000), but I’ve been reading and re-reading her latest thoughts, inspired by Anne Carson‘s visual-textual translation Antigonick (or is it Antigo Nick?) (New Directions, 2012) at Public Books here.

Carson’s project – she’s both a poet and a classicist – raises a series of urgent questions about translation and tragedy, and about the connective imperatives between the two.

Those links spiral in and out of Butler’s recent work too, and this is how she concludes her review-reflection:

Antigone rages forth from grief, causing new destruction, and so, too, does Kreon; they mirror each other in the midst of their opposition. So, too, do you, apparently, and everyone else as well, nodding and driving off, unless we catch ourselves in time. The reader is implicated in this recurrent alteration of grief and rage, subject to the destruction she or he is capable of inflicting, if there is no timely intervention.

Apparently “you” already know why tragedy exists. What Carson writes of Paul Celan’s direct address to the “you” offers us a formulation that may well apply to her Antigonick: “But you, by the time we reach you, are just folding yourself away into a place we cannot go: sleep. Blank spaces instead of words fill out the verses around you as if to suggest your gradual recession down and away from our grasp. What could your hands teach us if you had not vanished?”  It is a cry of grief posed in question form, emphatic, handwritten, excessive and abbreviated and, in this sense, a measured scream that gives us some sense of who or what lives on when it is all too late.

If that seems too general – I don’t think it is at all – then read Nicholas Mirzoeff‘s take on Antigo Nick on his Occupy 2012 blog here.

As predicted, Greece is having its Antigone revolution in refusing to abide by the Law in favor of kinship. For the majority who voted for Syriza and other anti-memorandum parties, mutual aid outweighs obligations to creditors. In the first days of this project, you may recall, I was very taken with a reworking of the Antigone legend in the context of the global social movements by Italian performance group Motus. The proper treatment of the dead body was later visualized by the Egyptian video collective Mosireen. And so when the chant “A-Anti-Anticapitalista” became the subject of a later post, I rewrote it in my head in my geeky way to go “A-Anti-Antigone.”

And if it’s still too elliptical, try Brian Patrick Eha‘s review of Antigonick at New Inquiry (he brilliantly describes it as ‘Antigone after Sarah Kane’, who wrote Blasted):

Never have we had so much direct access to grief. Photographs, television, and the Internet all promise to bridge the unbridgeable gap—to give us, our isolated egos, a means of ingress into the walled city of another’s suffering. What they deliver is an endless series of images like the one of the girl in the green dress that recently won a Pulitzer Prize. The photographer, Massoud Hossaini, captured the aftermath of a vicious bomb blast in Kabul, and in his picture the now-famous “girl in green,” who is eleven years old, stands amid the mangled bodies of the dead, stands crying out, in her utter anguish, as if from the bottom of a well, beyond our power to console. She screams noiselessly in the silence of the photograph, forever.

It’s easy to see why this picture won prizes. One can hardly fail to be moved by it. But at the same time that we are bombarded with compelling photographs and video footage that seem to give us access to emotions not our own, these images remain intrinsically mediated, revealing only surfaces, and our sympathy pains too often serve no utility.

Along with our hunger for grief comes impatience with emotional restraint. From the tearful confrontations of Intervention to the acting out of The Bad Girls Club, in our popular entertainments—period dramas like Downton Abbeybeing the rare exception—there’s nary a stiff upper lip in sight. Our age doesn’t do restraint, full stop. Emotions are expressed to their fullest, and these expressions are broadcast for consumption. Understated expressions of grief have largely vanished from society. We no longer dress for mourning except at hasty funerals, and even there the custom survives only in cheap black suits no less shabby than the rented tuxedos that now make our weddings feel forced. When did you last see a man wearing a black armband in remembrance of a fallen friend?

So Anne Carson’s blunt Antigonick has arrived at the right cultural moment, if not for poetry than for grief….

Visual culture and battles for Algiers

My copy of Nicholas Mirzoeff‘s newly published Visual Culture Reader was waiting for me on my return from Cologne.  It’s the third edition of a classic resource, first compiled ten years ago, and it’s been comprehensively revised, with a number of specially commissioned essays.   You can download some of Nick’s own essays here, including discussions of Abu Ghraib and US counterinsurgency.




Chapter 1: “There are No Visual Media” W. J. T. Mitchell Chapter 2: “The (In)human condition: A Visual Essay” Ariella Azoulay Chapter 3: “Mapping Non-Conformity: Post-Bubble Urban Strategies” Teddy Cruz Chapter 4: “X-reality: Interview with the Virtual Cannibal” Beth Coleman Chapter 5: “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge” Wendy Hui Kyong Chun Chapter 6: “Notes on the Photographic Image” Jacques Rancière Chapter 7: “Queer Faces: Photography and Subcultural Lives” J. Jack Halberstam Chapter 8: “Currents of Worldmaking in Contemporary Art” Terence E. Smith Chapter 9: “Sublimated with Mineral Fury: Prelim Notes on Sounding Pandemonium Asia” Sarat Maharaj Chapter 10: “The Sea and the Land: Biopower and Visuality after Katrina” Nicholas Mirzoeff


War and Violence

Chapter 11: “The Archaeology of Violence: The King’s Head” Zainab Bahrani Chapter 12: “The Actuarial Gaze: from 9-11 to Abu Ghraib” Allen Feldman Chapter 13: “American Military Imaginaries and Iraqi cities” Derek Gregory Chapter 14: “Zeroing In: Overheard Imagery, Infrastructure Ruins, and Datalands in Afghanistan and Iraq” Lisa Parks Chapter 15: “What Greg Roberts Saw: Visuality, Intelligibility, and Sovereignty – 36,000km Over the Equator.” Trevor Paglen Chapter 16: “Media and Martyrdom” Faisal Devji Chapter 17: “Live True Life or Die Trying” Naeem Mohaiemen Attention and Visualizing Economy Chapter 18: “Kino I, Kino World: Notes on the Cinematic Mode of Production” Jonathan L. Beller Chapter 19: “On Virtuosity” Paolo Virno Chapter 20: “Faking Globalization” Ackbar Abbas Chapter 21: “Creativity and the Problem of Free Labor” Andrew Ross Chapter 22: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” Mark Fisher Chapter 23: “Do It Yourself Geo-Politics” Brian Holmes


Bodies and Minds

Chapter 24: “Optics” René Descartes Chapter 25: “Blindness and Visual Culture: An Eye-Witness Account” Georgina Kleege Chapter 26: “Reduplicative Desires” Carol Mavor Chapter 27: “The Persistence of Vision” Donna Haraway Chapter 28: “The body and/in representation” Amelia Jones Chapter 29: “Mami Wata: A Transoceanic Water Spirit of Global Modernity” Henry Drewal Histories and Memories Chapter 30: “The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity: Flâneur/Flâneuse” Anne Friedberg Chapter 31: “Tourism and Sacred Ground: The Space of Ground Zero” Marita Sturken Chapter 32: “Maps, Mother/Goddesses and Martyrdom in Modern India” Sumathi Ramaswamy Chapter 33: “Museums in Late Democracies” Dipesh Chakrabarty Chapter 34: “The Fact of Blackness” Frantz Fanon Chapter 35: “The Case of Blackness” Fred Moten (Post/De/Neo)Colonial Visualities Chapter 36: “Orientalism and the Exhibitionary Order” Timothy Mitchell Chapter 37: “The Colonial Harem” Malek Alloula Chapter 38: “Vodun Art, Social History and the Slave Trade” Suzanne Preston Blier Chapter 39: “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm and the Museum,” Finbarr Barry Flood Chapter 40: “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition.” Okwui Enwezor Chapter 41: “Urban Warfare: Walking Through Walls” Eyal Weizman


Chapter 42: “U.S. Operating Systems at Midcentury: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX” Tara McPherson Chapter 43: “Rethinking the Digital Age” Faye Ginsburg Chapter 44: “The Unworkable Interface” Alex Galloway Chapter 45: “On the Superiority of the Analog” Brian Massumi Chapter 46: “Race 2.0: Neoliberal Colorblindness in the Age of Participatory Media” Lisa Nakamura Chapter 47: “Imagination, Multimodality and Embodied Interaction: A Discussion of Sound and Movement in Two Cases of Laboratory and Clinical Magnetic Resonance Imaging” Lisa Cartwright and Morana Alac

In human geography – and beyond – the go-to site for matters visual is Gillian Rose‘s visual/method/culture, and her excellent Visual methodologies: an introduction to researching with visual materials (Sage, 2011) is already in its third edition too.

But Nick’s work also speaks directly to geography (at least with a little g, which is the sort I prefer).  Readers probably already know his most recent book, The Right to Look: a counterhistory of visuality (Duke, 2011), but this summer he produced a remarkable ‘digital extension’ of one of its chapters in conjunction with the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture called “We are all children of Algeria”: visuality and countervisuality 1954-2011 that plays with the idea of what I suppose we could call ‘spatial stories’.

In a revealing interview Nick explains why he chose to use a new open access authoring platform – Scalar – rather than his blog:

Blogging is a format that expands how it’s possible to write and think in relation to the contemporary. It makes a form over time. Scalar allows me to share a wide range of North African and European cinema, newsreel footage, guerrilla documentary and photography with the reader in a way that is obviously not possible in print.  Unlike a blog, or at least one using an off-the shelf template, I have a great deal of freedom as to the look, layout and design of each “page,” which can vary from one to the next.  More than that, it allows me to explore a more complex form of narrative in which multiple threads (or “paths” as Scalar calls them) can be developed. This opens up a new set of possibilities for comparative and cross-cultural work that have only just begun to explore in digital humanities work but which I think are among its most fruitful possibilities.

Much to think about there for me: as I noted in a previous post on Targeting and technologies of history, I’m really drawn to the visual experimentations taking place at USC – like Vectors, which showcased some of Caren Kaplan‘s work and which was also involved in Nick’s collaboration.

In “We are all children of Algeria”, then, Nick uses the metaphor of the march to tell a story about revolution and decolonization in Algeria from the outbreak of the revolution in 1954, and to illuminate affinities and connections between the post-war revolutions and the Arab uprisings that began in December 2010.

There is a march! A demonstration as they say in England, a manifestation in French. The Arabic is مسيرة. What is it? It is a means to put our bodies in space, where they are not intended to be and to make a claim. It moves, it demonstrates, it shows: it is militant research…

It asks: how can we “see” Algeria, its decolonization and revolution? Following the lead of Frantz Fanon, it takes the point of view of the child, meaning both children as such, the colonized “child” of  the parent nation, and the “infant” revolution that emerged. 

The Zapatistas say that everything they do is “walking,” a journey that has no final destination. This walking is done here by means of text, media and to-camera videos. This format, allowing as it does for a set of intersecting and interfacing threads to compose the whole, is better suited to reclaiming and exploring these histories than the linear text-based narrative.

So it is both a story about Algeria as such and a way to understand the interface of decolonization and globalization. Whether or not you work “on” or about Algeria, there is an “Algeria” in your work, meaning that there is a place where the incomplete or failed processes of decolonization and the formation of independent developing-world nations intersect with the power of financial globalization. We need to occupy that place, not erase it.
And, yes, Pontecorvo’s Battle for Algiers has a pivotal place in the march (page 5 of the Main Route).