Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Rene Magritte and the Visualization of Thought


"What one must paint is the image of resemblance — if thought is to become visible in the world." (Rene Magritte)


"On The Threshold of Liberty"
Rene Magritte, 1937


What do you see? What does it mean to be on the threshold of liberty?

Will one realize 'liberty' by exploding the panel of representations and experiencing the sky, a forest, etc. for itself, unmediated by their representations? But if art can be nothing more than representation, can it ever lead to the actualization of liberty?

Or since the cannon is pointing to the left side of the house, could it suggest that liberty as represented by the elements of nature (i.e. the sky, forest, wood, and a woman) are somehow endangered?

I found it fascinating to view the painting at first without the title and then with it -- Would one begin to think about liberty without the explicit guidance of the painter in the form of the title? Can thought therefore be made visible without the help of the word? The title places constraints on the imagination and in turn on our interpretation of the painting, for it is hard not to think of the painting as it relates to the title. Is Magritte helping the viewer understand the painting or is he deconstructing the use of image and word in conjunction with one another? Is he leading us astray by giving the painting that very title, because he knows of the natural precedence that is given to the word over the image?

Any thoughts?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Chillies and Revolution: Glimpses of Kensington on a May afternoon

"The stone that the builder refused, will always be the head cornerstone.”
(Ernesto Che Guevara)


[Child pointing to the wall]: "Hey, that's Jesus!"

Black woman [to Shami]: Salaam alekum.
Black woman [to me]: Are you Muslim?
Black woman [to Shami]: No, she's not Muslim. She'd wear a hijab.
Black woman [to me]: You Hindu?
Me: No
Black woman: Who do you believe in? What God will take you to heaven?
Me: All of them.
Black woman: No, you can't do that. [Pointing to Shami] You pick one man don't you? You have to pick one leader too, someone who will show you the way. Whose your leader?
Me: Gandhi
Black woman: Mahatma Gandhi?
Me: smile
Black woman: Do you pray to him?


"You have to be someone" (Bob Marley)


Kensington Market is a veritable melange of grunge, pot, resistance, and spice; where derelict walls bear brazen graffiti and the revolutionary spirits of Che Guevara and Bob Marley still linger; where rickshaws festooned with plastic carnations stand in front of chic French bistros; and the smell of fresh baked empanadas, ground espresso, jerk chicken, and organic chocolate collide; where on warm afternoons the gritty accents of the young mingle with smoky Latino vocals and the rum-laced musings of wise men from Barbados. If you are lucky enough, a peek into a shopper's jute bag can yield surprising wonders: vanilla beans from Madagascar, bracelets made of Icelandic whale bone, dried chillies from Peru, a take-away menu from the Hungarian Thai, a wedge of Swiss Emmenthal, tapioca from Trinidad, couscous from Israel, a rasta hat, and a pamphlet on becoming a Trotyskian revolutionary...


"At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality." (Ernesto Che Guevara)

Some Kensington Keywords: counterculture; synagogues; hippies; immigrants; graffiti; grunge; resistance; revolution; pot; eclecticism; falafels; multilingual street signs; organic produce; La palette; rickshaws; eco-cars; funky doors; vintage clothes; the Hungarian Thai; Roach'O'Rama; Ali Baba's House of spices; Cobs Bread; The European Butcher; Big Fat Burrito; pedestrian Sundays; African drum beats; Zimmermans Freshmart; Last Temptations; I Deal Coffee; Urban Herbivore.


"In this bright future, you can't forget your past." (Bob Marley)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Redemption Song

For my grandmother

They will see me, you say, as I undo your sari.
You speak of the silhouettes dancing
in their glass cage:
charming men with salty accents and lace-less shoes,
women fragrant with wild poppies
and feverish dreams.
You can see them, they can’t see you,
I say, but I hear
your sudden and pitiful weeping.

I silence their eyes.

I’m ready, you say.

You are resplendent
in a hibiscus sari and peacock-blue bathroom slippers.
In your hands a ragged bundle,
enclosed by a towel and a safety pin:
old petticoats; a half finished bottle of sherry;
a plastic crucifix;
and the preacher’s tattered Bible, your father’s,
that now bears the faded picture of your child,
my mother,
pressed into the Book of Psalms.
A crushed rose at chapter sixty-three.

She reminds me of God’s kindness, you once said,
and that glorious night with your grandpa,
you added with a wink.
God bless him.

You no longer remember his name,
but you can summon his presence at will:
moonlight spilling off his rough shoulders;
the scent of summer nights
and revolution warm on his limbs;
your humble room filled
with misty songs of dreamers,
and sweet-breathed rebels.

I’m ready, you say.

I remember that one night,
your startled voice fracturing the darkness
I thought you had fallen,
but you were singing those verses
marked by my mother’s countenance,
a plea,
a wounded whimper in the fading light.

Didn’t you hear me, darling?
Where are you off to, I ask.

This is your home.

Yet you speak of coconut trees,
and worlds stilled in green waters,
kisses blown on crooked bridges,
and fishes roasting over open fires…

I am home, home at last.

You sit on a bamboo bench,
your hair abandoned on your shoulders.
In the powdery light of dawn
your cheek gathers the shadow of leaves,
your voice a ribbon trailing in the breeze.

O God, thou art my God,
early will I seek thee,
my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land
where no water is;
to see thy power and thy glory,
so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary.
Because thy loving kindness is better than life,
my lips shall praise thee.
Thus will I bless thee
while I live:
I will lift up my hands in thy name.

Glory be to God.

You are home,
home at last.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle

"Don't you hear that screaming all around you? The screaming men call silence."

Nearly a quarter of a century after its first release, Werner Herzog's masterpiece 'Every Man for Himself and God Against All', better known to some as 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser', the title adopted for the film's American release, remains one of the most poignant, thought-provoking and haunting examinations of the human condition on film. The film 'Kaspar Hauser' is based on the true story of a mysterious foundling (Kaspar Hauser) abandoned and discovered in the town square of Nuremberg in the 19th century, with a letter stating that he desired to be a cavalryman. Kaspar Hauser spoke merely a single sentence, and it was later discovered that he was raised in a dungeon with scanty light for seventeen years, and no knowledge of the outside world -- he had never seen a house, a tree, or even another human being (though he was left bread and water at night by a mysteriously cloaked gentleman). To this day, the reasons as to why he was kept in a dungeon, then abandoned in a town square and eventually murdered remain an enigma, though curious theories and speculation about his origins and tragic fate abound.

However, perhaps what is most intriguing is the hold the story of Kaspar Hauser has had on the human imagination for years to follow, and the way it has catalyzed social and anthropological debate as well as some of the most thought-provoking creative responses in the form of books, film, music and art. Werner Herzog's film is concerned with depicting the interaction between Kaspar Hauser, a man he portrays as being close to 'nature', (i.e. someone as yet untouched by the manacles of society, someone whose actions are governed by instinct as opposed to the dictates of norm and expectation), who confronts a culture at once appalled and deeply fascinated by the aberration that he represents, and which seeks to to bring him back into its fold by introducing him to language, reasoned thought, and the rules of etiquette and art. Yet through his sympathetic depiction of Kaspar's struggle and his resistance to being moulded by society, Herzog questions the very foundations of society, as well as the supposed moral and intellectual superiority of those who consider themselves to be the guardians of civilization and hence, truth. One cannot help but wonder if the people who try to reform Kaspar are not, after all, the ones who are in some way deformed and in need of reform; whether somehow in his innocence - or what may equally be termed his ignorance of the world - Kaspar does not give expression to the true, untarnished nature of human existence, and therefore, if he might not have some greater access to the truth. The death of Kaspar Hausar at the end of the film as well the concomitant dissection of his body in order to determine the physiological cause of his deviance, suggests not only the ultimate and tragic triumph of society over both the individual and nature, but also equally the need for society to classify 'difference' as somehow 'disorder'. For the medicalization of Kaspar's 'difference' at the end through the the employment of the empirical method and the language of reason not only renders society's 'neutral' judgment on him as somehow immune to questioning, but exemplifies its ultimate control over him even in death.

However, it is interesting to note that Kaspar Hauser himself does not question the very society that seeks to control him and eventually causes his demise, rather it is ironically the way Werner Herzog (a product of civilization himself) documents the conflict between Kaspar Hauser and society that makes us question the latter. And this begs the question as to how possible it is to question a system whose internal logic you are not grounded in or somehow understand? Must reason alone be employed to counter the arguments put forth by reason?

Yet I think what is most remarkable about this film is its belief that through the examination of an anomaly in Kaspar Hauser, i.e. an outsider, we begin to approach the truth of our own humanity and society, the truth of our origins and state of being. For are prophets not often the outcastes who sit at the margins of society, holding a mirror that force us to look at ourselves, at a vision at once awe-inspiring and terrible. For in that moment of recognition, as in the moment when one might first encounter God, is there not an equal amount of fear and joy, might we not wonder if in fact that screaming all around us is not what men call silence...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Victory in Defeat: Obama's Enduring Legacy of Hope

Though Obama was victorious in the North Carolina primaries last night and lost by a slim margin in Indiana (May 6th, 2008), the political pundits cite troubling exit polls that suggest that supporters of Hilary Clinton are far more likely to vote for the Republican nominee John McCain if Barack Obama were to be the democratic nominee, than supporters of Barack Obama are to vote for Hilary Clinton. According to exit polls in Indiana, 50% of Clinton's supporters claimed that they would NOT back Obama in a general election; even in North Carolina where Obama was successful last night, 55% of Clinton's supporters say that they would deny him support in a general election despite the fact that Clinton and Obama concur on issues of policy far more than they do with their Republican rival McCain. Though Clinton commanded 60% of the white vote in North Carolina, Obama held a mere 39%. However, Obama was victorious because of the overwhelming support of a sizeable black community in North Carolina (nearly 91% of African Americans in North Carolina voted for him).

Unfortunately, these statistics suggest that the democratic primaries have increasingly become about the politics of identity rather than about the political vision of the respective candidates, with African Americans overwhelmingly supporting Obama, and white women overwhelmingly supporting Clinton. People are invested in this election like never before, certainly because of two brilliant and inspiring candidates, but also equally because the elections have forced people across the U.S. to examine themselves in the mirror, to ask that question that has always fascinated humankind: Who are we? Yet Obama has tried to reframe this debate by suggesting that it is less about who we are individually as people, and rather about our shared values and aspirations for the future. The real question according to Obama is: Where are we going? He has become a spokesman of what I like to think of as the 'politics of humanity', a grassroots-driven politics that seeks to transcend divisions by being grounded in commonly held values. In this understanding of politics, perhaps, lies Obama's genius, for in his attempt to define a vision for tomorrow based on the commonly held human values of peace, equality, justice, and freedom, he is ultimately addressing the question of 'Who we are'. For how can the question of the fate of a nation (i.e. where they are going) be severed from the identity of its people (i.e. who they are)?

Yet, as we know, the politics of identity can also be used to divisive ends, and it is probable, given the toxic political climate of the past month, that Hilary Clinton is likely to use the numbers above to suggest that she would be the best candidate to ironically 'unite' the democratic party and defeat McCain in the general election. Perhaps there is some truth to the fact that America is not yet ready for a black president as some suggest, and perhaps Obama will not get the nomination this August. Yet I believe that the legacy of Obama's campaign of hope will endure, that there is victory even in potential defeat, and it is as George Edward Woodberry once remarked,'defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure."

For during the course of this primary contest alone, Obama has transformed politics into a grassroots-based peoples movement, one that has engaged thousands of disenfranchised people otherwise at the margins of the political spectrum, and ignited the burning ideals of the youth who dare to dream of a better future. He has spoken with humility and endearing eloquence about the core values that unite us as human beings, about how politics is about 'people' rather than the politician or the state, that 'we' are in fact the true agents of social change. And perhaps it is a testament as much to the greatness of humanity as much as to Obama, that people -- the young and old, black, white, brown, Muslim, Catholic, Jew, the poor and the rich can stand as one and with their ardent voices raised to the heavens cry -- "Yes we Can!"