‘Art and Trouble’
A figure stands to one side, headphones on, tuned to the random speed and shuffle of an Ipod playlist. The figure bobs and weaves to the rhythms unheard by others around her. Another figure approaches. There is a moment where an exchange of looks occurs between the figures. The moment intimates the possibility of a connection, even if it is only the fragile sort of connection offered by two strangers meeting. It is the kind of moment with which we are faced everyday in the modern world, the kind of moment that vanishes as the headphone-clad figure moves away – into an elevator, out a door, down a street – and the other figure moves in the opposite direction. The figures may never meet again. If they do, there may be a slight acknowledgment, usually indicated by a cautious smile or a nodding of the head, that they’ve perhaps seen each other before. A door closes, another path is taken, and the bob and weave of the ever-shifting, customized playlist registers through the figure tuned in to the armored privacy provided by an individual soundtrack.
But what if the moment, that first moment when the figures first met at the elevator, door, or street were to be put on stage? Would an audience believe in the awkwardness of the moment, in the subtle insistence on avoidance and closure – qualities that our society has prized in the paradoxical age of communication and information- exhibited by the two figures? What sounds and voices and conversations could be imagined on a stage where the performance of everyday life has conditioned late capitalist Western societies in particular to demand increasingly personal and idiosyncratic rights to their own private pleasures and freedoms at the expense of contact, connection and empathetic response to other human beings? Could such a moment be seen as an illustration, however minute, of the level of convenience most citizens experience during a time of war lived as if it were a time of peace?
Let’s look at the moment again, re-framed and placed in a different context. This time the figure with the headphones bobs and weaves to ululations, beats and harmonies of another continent- somewhere in the vastness of Africa, Asia, or South America. The second figure approaches. They exchange looks in front of a slow-moving elevator of a building that has seen better days, a building that perhaps once was a model building for a newly imagined prosperous future. Perhaps there is a placard on the wall behind the figures. The placard may read “Look elsewhere for counsel.” The elevator door opens. A sudden, inescapable noise. A blast of light and debris. The figures are left on the ground, caught unawares by an unknown bomb. The Ipod is shattered. The placard rests on the lifeless body of the second figure. From somewhere in the building, a cry is heard, and then more, and then so many that the sound is deafening.
These two moments nearly identical are separated by situation and circumstance. As an audience of witnesses, we view the events through the context in which they are placed by the author. Assumptions are readily made. Perhaps the audience believes the first encounter takes place in their neighborhood, and the second in a remote country somewhere far away. What would make an audience have such assumptions? Is the first encounter indicative of peacetime? Is it safe to assume that because there are no air raid sirens, blackouts or anything seemingly inconvenient present in the first encounter that everything is all right? And what is it about the second that unsettles, even before the unfortunate tragedy occurs?
But let’s go back to the first figure in the first frame, the figure with the headphones on. It is this figure that serves as icon of the seemingly indifferent stance a society or even a whole country may take toward another. The figure clings to its customized sonic cocoon, tenaciously invested in a concept of security afforded by a get-spend-and be-comfortable mentality that our consumer culture has prized to enable the elevation of kitsch sentiment to patriotic levels. If this figure were to leave itself exposed, open to the possibility of discovery or loss, would it be willing to embrace another being, or even risk change? What if the two distinct yet nearly identical moments described above happened in the same neighborhood, as in fact they do every day all around the world?
In his book Guernica and Total War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), critic Ian Patterson asks “How can our powers of thought – of language, of art – cope with the enormities of war?” It is a question that fuels Patterson’s argument as he tries to discern how artists have responded to terrifying, inexplicable, total acts of aggression on their immediate and global communities. What, in effect, is the artist’s duty to society? And what happens when a society, such as ours, has increasingly found itself in a position of desensitized apathetic moral indifference to not only images of but the acknowledgment of horrific violence and abuse in the world? What, in effect, can artists do to wake us up?
It’s a tall task to ask artists to do anything. History teaches us that even during some of the darkest times when entire countries were figuratively under the gun, many artists and writers, while not oblivious to circumstance, nevertheless carried on in blinkered fashion with aesthetic concerns over technique and style and even ubiquitous quests for fame –the monster aura that plagues and seduces artists. The central concern of the artist, of the writer, is often, at day’s end, the work itself. The obsessions turn inward as much as they do outward. Trouble in the world (and there always has been to greater and lesser degrees) is transformed into acts of comedy, tragedy and inventive dramatic speculation on the page and later on stage. Some writers are avowedly political, and wear their politics on the skins of their characters in the hope that their audiences will find a way to think about the state they’re in. Other writers suspend reality altogether and create an escape hatch of illusion where history is unshackled and dreams, possible and impossible, overrun the dramaturgy of ritual and spectacle. Then there are those writers that see history as a genuine agent of hope and damage and change upon their characters – writers who place the trouble inside and outside the skin and soil of their characters and landscapes.
Duty rises itself up in any number of ways for artists who deal in words and shapes and languages in and out of translation. The very act of writing fiction, after all, is centrally engaged with dislocating language from everyday usage and thus undermining the cultural status quo. Short story writer and poet Etgar Keret speaks about “breaking the force of nature or habit” to describe how the moral imagination of a writer works. Indeed, artists interpret the call to duty in myriad ways, but what is essential to trouble is not only its activation metaphorically (its illustration, as it were) but its interrogation through formal courage and daring.
The ability of writing to awaken an audience or reader has as much to do with an intense engagement with the materiality of writing itself as it has to do with illuminating a subject. All human interaction is political. There’s no getting around the fact that languages are part of the way nations and civilizations order, regulate, and understand the world around them, and that writing, visual and verbal, is an integral part of how societies structure themselves and use and abuse those structures to engage with others. All writing, therefore, is political, whether it seeks to make a political pronouncement or not. A writer who through his or her work chooses to write in an apolitical fashion, thus, has made a political choice to refuse engagement with the reverberations of the world. Writers in a free society have choice at their disposal – so many choices about what to write and not to write that scrutiny sometimes falls by the wayside as the market demands more and more product and some writers choose to meet the market’s needs, for good or ill. The matter of choice, though, is crucial. If you are a writer in a free society, which grants its freedoms without threat of manifest censorship, imprisonment or dire physical or emotional duress (healthcare, insurance and sustainable housing notwithstanding), what you choose to write reflects what stories you wish to offer the world. Why this story now? Sometimes the act of writing is simply driven by the sheer pleasure of entertaining a story, of putting it into being and seeing it through. But what is the need of the story beyond its immediate, personal connection to the writer’s aesthetic or psychological concerns?
This is not to intimate that writing should take on a mantle of importance in order to address the world, but the choices a writer makes when writing, especially when rewriting and, thus in the critical realm of the thought process, are conscious and are connected to the world at large, if only as a point of reference. As a citizen and artist, the writer in the free society chooses whether he or she wishes to replicate existing narratives, transform them, counter cultural tendencies to reducing people to their differences, attempt to re-dress the errors of the past, or to create new visions for a possible world. Whether you’re up to your elbows in activism and/or party politics or whether you’ve chosen a position in society as an intensely curious and skeptical outsider, the writer’s job remains. The job – the grunt and sweat of it, the joy and distress of it, often labored for months and years without financial reward, is to address the politics of humanity and in that address try to figure out how we are part of a stream of history.
Let’s look at the second frame of action again. If the writer only shows the blast, the shock of the bomb in the elevator, then only a fraction of the story is told. The shock, however devastating, is only an effect to urge a plot into action. But the real story is the story of the two figures left lying on the ground, and those affected elsewhere in the once prosperous building. The politics of the story, therefore, is in the human drama of those impacted by the random act, and in the drama of the individuals who engineered the tragedy.
In recent history, however, the images and stories most consistently fed to our Western audiences in the general mass media have been driven by shock tactics. A fraction of a story is told while another fraction or fragment is told somewhere else. Along the way, I suppose, our audiences are being asked to put the stories together, but often they don’t. It’s not because they cannot grasp nonlinear, associative work. Our lives, after all, are nonlinear, unpredictable, often chaotic and seemingly random at best. Theoretically, therefore, our audiences are inured to post-modernist strategies, be it at the level of storytelling or the functions of empire. The task, however, of seeing behind shock and awe, beyond smoke and mirrors, has become increasingly taxed as our societies center on the micro-gaze of an Iphone image, Blackberry message, and smaller and smaller bits of information conveniently placed at our fingertips so that the actual effort of looking beyond the frame of reference, beyond the limits of the moment of shock, are sufficient cause for fear and anxiety. An undiagnosed culture of fear has led to a culture driven by a need to inoculate and immunize itself from “strangeness:” headphones on, comfortable in its own comfort, bobbing and weaving to each individual compass irregardless and/or fearful of the world around it. Thus, increased tensions continue to surface amongst the realities and issues surrounding the displacement of peoples, broken and shifting borders, exile and immigration and the loss of homelands.
The digital technological screen on which we on this continent have viewed the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is by nature amoral, which can lead to an equally amoral, distanced, highly mediated perspective – what has been dubbed the “Abu Ghraib effect” by cultural critic Stephen F. Eisenmann in his book of the same name (London: Reaktion Books, 2007). This “effect” lessens cultural understanding for the human impact of a story and re-centers the energy around the viewing and reading of a story around its moments of shock, each more flamboyant and outrageous than the next to the point where all meaning is lost. Think, for example, of an entire TV and film industry devoted to a genre of forensically detailed torture porn (be it on reality TV, network programming, or on film and DVD), to anguished and anxious violations of the flesh enacted for the titillation and pleasures of viewers, who are seemingly immunized to the realities of suffering. Whether it be “CSI,” “House,” or “Dexter,” the cultural taste for the outré – for extremity – has made mild, tame material seem genuinely outré and out of the norm. I am not advocating here for a culture of Nice driven by a sanitized, censored vision of the world totalitarian in its efforts to cleanse and enact erasure, but rather for and toward a re-engagement with the realities of human drama, the specifics of stories and bodies anchored to history, experience and languages connected not by outsized and terrible moments of shock, easily maneuvered through broad political acquiescence by the turn of a knob, flip of a switch, or scan-and-shift of a microchip, but by an unmediated struggle to understand emotional and cultural dislocation, and the political legacies that have shaped communities and societies, and how those legacies, in turn, shape the lives of future generations.
We cannot escape politics. We cannot escape trouble. A writer’s life and art is bound to both, sometimes in equal measure. If we choose the politically naïve path, then we readily give up the power that our commitment to society and its evolution holds – through our breath, through our words, through our languages, multiple, broken, re-translated, beat-boxed, disembodied (through recording), or reverberating through hidden tracks of fields of sound yet to be discovered. .
As we re-see the first frame now, the first encounter between the figure at the elevator and the second figure who approaches, let us ask ourselves: will the moment remain tenuous, fragile, affected by the fear of strangeness, or will the headphones, however pleasant and comfortable in their sonic safety and pleasure, be cast aside, a least for a moment, and allow for a possible connection between two people, whether they are on this side of the continent or another?
 This text was originally written for and delivered at the closing ceremony of the 2008 SPARC New Voices Festival in Richmond, Virginia where the author was playwright-in-residence. Keret and George Saunders, “Imagine That!” in PEN America Issue 8: Making Histories, ed. M. Mark, (NY: PEN American Center, 2008), pp. 101