Monday, May 22, 2017

Smart Snow: The Intermedia Collaborations of Kathleen Kelley and Sarah Rose Nordgren

"We started from really basic questions about form: 'Can you dance with a poem?'; 'What would it look like to choreograph a poem, using the words as bodies?'"

Sarah Rose Norgren and Kathleen Kelley of "Smart Snow" make choreographed installations, or interactive virtual and material texts, or dance-poetry dioramas, or at least this is what I've been telling people at parties since I saw a preview of their video "Territory" last year. Sarah Rose and Kathleen met in high school, and today they work as collaborative partners, long distance, across multiple media. They join us here to talk shop, and to tell us about the way they came to work together and with multimedia texts. Check out a special trailer for their video "Territory" and the installation "Digitized Figures" here:

Smart Snow 2016-2017 from Kathleen Kelley on Vimeo.

SM: Can you tell us a bit about how Digitized Figures and "Territory" first came into being? Was there video work out there that you were modeling, or did this project feel like something totally new? 

KK: We began working on Digitized Figures in 2013, so it was a long process before it premiered at the Gowanus Loft in Brooklyn in October 2016. It began as a way to formalize our collaboration and try to do something that pushed both of our creative practices by truly merging video, text, and movement. There definitely wasn’t video work that was like what we wanted to do, so we were really just starting from scratch. We started from really basic questions about form: “Can you dance with a poem?”; “What would it look like to choreograph a poem, using the words as bodies?”; and “Can you write a poem that moves like a dance improvisation?” For me, the conceptual themes emerged from this kind of structural approach. It was a very nuanced collaborative process, and we were always trading ideas, video, and back and forth.

Territory was a much more discrete project, and was completed during a week-long residency at Montclair State, where I teach. Visually, we had been looking at a lot of Bjork videos at the time, especially Hyperballad, for inspiration. We had also been talking about the theoretical concepts for years, so we knew how we wanted to approach it and what we wanted it to look like and feel like.

From "Digitized Figures." Photo by Mitsuko Verdery

SM: As a collaborative pair, you merge backgrounds in poetry, dance, nonfiction, choreography, and video editing, to name a few. I recently learned you've also been actual friends since high school. Can you tell us a bit about your collaborative working process? How did your friendship also become an artistic venture? 

SRN: Yes, Kathleen and I have known been collaborating (sometimes formally, sometimes informally) since we were teenagers. We really came of age together as artists, so we’ve developed a shared language over the years that makes collaboration feel both natural and exciting. The fact that I’m a particularly physical writer and Kathleen is a particularly verbal dancer/choreographer allows that crossover to flourish, as does our shared interest in theory and our deep trust and love for one another.

KK: I think that Sarah Rose and I think and dream in a lot of the same ways. Even as teens, we recognized it, and our sense of creative connection has been this ongoing narrative that has been there for our whole adult life. My creative practices always feel like they are in conversation with Sarah Rose, even if I am working independently. On a practical level, we have barely ever lived in the same city, and so Smart Snow has become a way to maintain and nurture our collaborations.

From "Digitized Figures." Photo by Mitsuko Verdery

SM: After being fully funded on Kickstarter, Digitized Figures appeared as an installation last October at the Gowanus Loft. For those of us who couldn't be there, what was it like turning a poetry dance video into an experiential space? What might you do differently in the future? 

KK: We had always dreamed of Digitized Figures living as an installation, so we were so excited to bring it to life as its full self. We had done a work-in-progress showing of the installation version of it a few years before in Boston, which helped us immensely in identifying some important production details. When we finally got into the Gowanus Loft, we were able to make it come to life in a wonderfully rich way. Utilizing the video and the live performers created a calm yet extraordinarily evocative world in the loft. I am really proud of it, and I was so happy to have it live in this way.

I don’t think I would have done anything differently with DF, but I do think that we are going to stay away from live productions for a little while and concentrate on creating film works with more discrete working timelines. Digitized Figures was a monster of a project that took so much work to make happen. We were lucky to have many hands helping out, including the Gowanus Loft staff, a team of interns, Krista Anne Nordgren (Sarah Rose’s sister and the programmer of our interactive touch screens), and Sarah’s incredible partner Brandon.

Still Image from "Territory"

"'Territory' is an exploration of the dual urges...This tension exists on the artistic, psychological and social planes as well as on the material, biological plane."

SM: Because the editing in "Territory" is so seamless, I often forget how small your subjects are (model trees and rocks), and that the dancer is first projected into the diorama and then filmed close-up. Can you tell us more about all the parts of this video? What do dance and poetry have to do with dioramas? 

SRN: This project was a confluence of ideas and influences that have been percolating between us over several years. Kathleen and I have a shared deep love for New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and some of our best artistic brainstorming conversations have taken place there over the years as we wander around the various nature dioramas. Theoretically, the project was also influenced by Elisabeth Grosz’s book Chaos, Territory, Art in which she theorizes the importance of sexual selection (as opposed to natural selection) as the root of artistic practice, a compulsion toward expression and “excess” that we share with other beings in nature. In order for that expression to take place, there must first be a “frame” to mark the space -- much how bowerbirds prepare their stage before they perform. I’m also obsessed with Roger Caillois’ concept of “legendary psychasthenia,” the name he gave in 1935 to the condition of “temptation by space” that he observed in insects that mimic their environment. So “Territory” is an exploration of the dual urges to, on the one hand, frame and individuate and express, and the urge toward self-annihilation and absorption into one’s environment. This tension exists on the artistic, psychological and social planes as well as on the material, biological plane.  

In making the video, we wanted to again layer analog and digital environments, as well as our respective mediums of text, dance, and video. The diorama and the camera frame serve as the “frames” for the dancer’s environment, and the projected text becomes part of the “space” that she must interact with as she’s pulled between the poles of absorption and differentiation.

From "Digitized Figures." Photo by Mitsuko Verdery

SM: In the literary world we often think of "publishing" as something that happens when a text goes live or gets printed in hardcopy in a lit journal. What does the act of publishing mean for digital works like this one? Does publishing require different acts and venues for each if you? 

SRN: I think we’re still in the process of figuring that out. As a writer, I’m used to signing over First North American Serial Rights for publication -- having a piece “come out” somewhere and then generally not again until it appears in a book. The video world is different, and is centered more around the festival circuit. The existence of YouTube and Vimeo also complicates and changes the traditional “publication scheme.” Recently, I’ve been delving into the international network of Poetry Video festivals and resources, and it quite exciting to discover how much is out there.

KK: For me, “publishing” is not that useful of a concept because dance and video both tend to work on the idea of “sharing” instead. When I make a dance, it tends to have several works-in-progress “sharings” before its premiere, and even after that, I often bring the dance back with changes for new venues and events. Video seems works similarly, in that it is more about people seeing and sharing the work in various contexts, versus it being published. Really it feels like the publishing happens when I take the Vimeo password off it! For Territory, we will probably do that once it shows in its first festival.

From "Digitized Figures." Photo by Mitsuko Verdery

SM: Are there future projects ahead for Smart Snow? 

SRN: Always! Right now we’re mostly focused on getting our existing projects out into the world and discovering how people respond to and interact with them, and we also have individual projects that need our attention. However, we’ve already begun brainstorming about what might come next. The plans are still in the early stages and will keep gestating over the coming months, but viewers can likely expect to see something involving deep sea creatures and experimentation with high-tech fabrics.

From "Digitized Figures." Photo by Mitsuko Verdery

"I am really interested in continuing to explore this sense of environmental lushness that you can achieve through tech."

SR to KK: How do you want the next work you make to feel?

KK: That’s a great question. I just finished a whole research arch that took me from grad school until now, and I am trying to figure out where exactly to go next. I am really interested in continuing to explore this sense of environmental lushness that you can achieve through tech. I see it as a response to the sparse postmodernism that I see so much in dance. I want my next work (and all my work) to feel rich, lush, and evocative.

Still Image from "Territory"

KK to SR: How is your use of language evolving since some of your creative practice has shifted to making with non-linguistic tools (bodies and images)?

SR: My text composition process has been slightly different for each of the videos we’ve made, but it’s definitely a shift from how I compose on my own. In writing, the language (and its structure) is all you have, so it has to carry the full burden of meaning and impact all on its own. Composing the text for Territory, for example, the text got to be more impressionistic as it had the other elements of the video to interact with. In that sense, I think it the process was a little more comparable to writing song lyrics where you have the music and the words supporting and carrying one another. I’ve seen this influencing my personal work too, as I’ve been experimenting with writing essays that rely partially on image. It’s still early, but I’m excited to follow and see where it all leads.

SM: Thanks, Smart Snow.

Smart Snow creates art that pushes the forms of dance and poetry into new technological territories. As women working at the intersections between art and tech, Kathleen and Sarah Rose are interested in the mirrored relationship between technological and evolutionary processes and the “natural” and the “human” inside of digital spaces.

Sarah Rose Nordgren is the author of the poetry collections Best Bones and Darwin’s Mother (forthcoming fall 2017), both from University of Pittsburgh Press. Her poems and essays appear widely in journals such as Agni, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review Online, Copper Nickel, and American Poetry Review. She lives in Cincinnati. 

Kathleen Kelley is an Assistant Professor of Dance and Technology at Montclair State University and the Artistic Director of the intermedia company Proteo Media + Performance, which specializes in art that explores intersection between technology and the body. She is a 2015-2016 LEIMAY Fellow and recent performances include the interactive installation Digitized Figures at Gowanus Loft, a commissioned premiere in the Split Bill Series at Triskelion Arts, and showcase performances in the SOAK Festival, the CURRENT SESSIONS, Nimbus OFFLINE choreography series, and HATCH series. She has a BFA from the University of NC-Greensboro and an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Sarah Minor runs the visual essay series here at Essay Daily.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Estranger and Estranger

Breaking the Rules with Erik Anderson

I got an email yesterday from Will saying,
            “Hey remember, May 15th your day for your Essay Daily article. You up for it?”

            And I said, “shit shit shit shit shit,” to myself as I listed the upcoming shit I have to do and the total abandonment of my Essay Daily duties.  I’m having a guest writer come stay at my house this weekend. I’m helping host the student graduation and scholarship event on Friday. I’m hosting a dinner on Saturday, talking about ecopoetics on Sunday and hosting the reading with said visiting writer on May 15th. I have grading still to do and my summer class to organize, which also begins on May 15th, and in my head, I was like shit shit shit, who signs up to do stuff in May?

But I said to myself who signs up for stuff in April and I said the same thing to myself in March. I need to get it together, I said. I said, I could write about ecopoetics or visiting writers or the number of creative nonfiction jobs. But then I remembered the words that had been on my chalkboard—the giant to-do list that stares at me through all of February and March and April and May and even June—Erik Anderson’s Estranger.

I read Estranger on the way home for the DC AWP. This AWP sticks in my head because of the protest marches and seeing the Trump Tower in person and for the relative chilliness of the air and the mediocre hotel room and the too much wine and it the fact I was in DC during the time of Trump and I couldn’t get into the African American museum so I went to the Holocaust Museum where I waffled back and forth, thinking oh my god, Trump should see this and oh my god, I hope he never sees this—he’ll get even more horrible ideas.

Walking around town and looking at so much and talking to some many people felt heightened that weekend and it became a place that formed museum of my mind. In Erik Anderson’s book, he talks to a woman he meets as he hangs out in the museum café. What are museums for? To heighten everything? To arrest everything? To take most things out of context or to give everything some context (Feel free to answer, Erik Anderson)

Erik: The best museums offer agency, I'd say. The worst entrench power. Most museums do both, to varying degrees. 

Erik’s book does what I want all books to do which is make me feel less lonely. Here is a guy who is struggling, according to the narrator at least, with being white and being a writer and being a parent. He’s alternately self-absorbed and so overwhelmed by his sheer love of others and empathy for them that I thought, oh. I wished I’d seen you in DC. If he had been there.

So I woke up and emailed Erik immediately and said, “Oh please is two days too short to answer questions for my Breaking the Rules column on Essay Daily?”
And because he is the kindest and most empathetic person in the world, he said, “Sure. I’m traveling but I’d be happy to answer a few questions.”
He’s traveling. I’m cleaning the house, looking for the moleskin with the notes I scribbled in on the way home from DC and over the past few months as the word Estranger beckoned to me from my ever-haunting chalkboard.

These notes? They make no sense. But then, if asking questions that make no sense isn’t breaking the rules, then I don’t know what is.

So here are the questions, kind Erik Anderson. I won’t blame you if you decided not to talk to me after this.

Nicole: One eyed owl, one eyed Naomi, sentences of present now. “Walking through park in the middle of reveries of the past.” How much does walking make writing? How did Naomi help you shape your understanding of the narrator? Is there structure in walking? In visiting Naomi?

E. Movement, rather than walking specifically, makes writing, at least for me. Or makes it possible, even though I also have a penchant for stillness, for narratives that barely move at all. Driving doesn’t make writing for me, but traveling in other ways does, or can. It unsettles, unsticks. Walking does this, too, of course, but on a smaller, more intimate scale than the car or plane and in a way that’s more livable, even if the environments one walks through are not. Whether there’s structure in it, well, there’s structure in everything. And around it. My particular body, and all the structures and systems that accompany being white and straight and male, shapes the situations I move through. Do we, in a sense, walk in or through and sometimes over others, like Naomi, as you suggest, and do these others shape us in turn? Do others provide a landscape through which to move and come to be? I like where those questions lead.  
N: Lit Crit—Werner Herzog and Thoreau. Plastic cabins. Capitalism. Fights among poets. Facebook. Dissociation. Rocky up stairs. How many people can one writer be? How does one make oneself more multiple? Does one, in order to be a “success,” need to harass and corral all those multiple selves into one AUTHOR?

E. We are each several, no doubt. Multitudinous even. We have to be in order to navigate our varied social worlds. I don’t think we have to collapse that multiplicity of selves, or personas, into a single author in order for the work to succeed, although that could be one way of framing the arc of Estranger, i.e., toward some kind of solidified presence. There are times, though, when selves war with each other, which is what I was more interested in. Reconciling these selves to each other, which also meant reconciling, say, received forms of masculinity with something that had never really been modeled for me. 
N: How does Naomi’s story help the narrator figure out his own?

E. This question made me have a silly thought. If a person breaks his leg in the forest, and no one is around to hear his screams, is he still a person? I mean, yes, of course he’s a person. To himself, anyway. But I’m not such an individualist, actually not much of one at all, that I would argue that in this context his personhood matters outside of his own completely valid experience of it. It’s terrible that he broke his leg, but only, for me, if I can register that he did, that he, like me, is a sentient being, capable of love and pain and much else besides. Can he make that pain walkable for me? Can he draw me toward it? Something like this happens with Naomi. 

N: Walking becomes art when we discover who matters. When walking, does one lose the self and gain others?
E. I’m not sure I’d say loss and gain, exactly, but if I were to, I might say that in gaining others, one gains a self greater than the one that’s lost, that losing a self incapable or unwilling to gain others probably isn’t worth holding onto. Walking – in both the physical and interpersonal senses developing here – does expand one’s allegiances, one’s solidarities, and that’s a larger life, not a smaller one. But again, I’m not about to mount a rigorous defense of the self, though there are lovable things about it. is such handy shorthand, for one thing. But is also mostly that: the shortest and simplest expression of something far less singular and compact. doesn’t really walk alone.

N: Are dads today jealous of their own kids’ more-present fathers?

E. Too early to tell? I don’t know what my son will think of me, and my parenting, when he’s my age. Is he going to wish for a different kind of father, less emotional, more distant? I’m not sure we ever get what we want from our fathers, or our mothers for that matter. Either we expect too much of them over time, or they’re not equipped to give the things we need, especially when we become adults. But your question is about me: do I wish my father had been more like I am as a father? In many (but obviously not all) ways he was, and is, that father. That said, there were a lot of things that were difficult for me, and some that remain so, that probably didn’t have to be. He’s not to blame for that, and had I been my own father I’m not sure I could have helped me any better. But the conversation, I think, would have been different.

N: Page 114, you write about distance and Thoreau. How far is Thoreau away, now?

E. I started to respond that the Thoreau who estranges himself from his life is far away, but then I remembered just how far away I am at the moment, in thousands of miles – and with no cell reception – from my daily life. So that notion from page 114 of transgressing one’s limits is still very much with me, but it’s no longer the crisis it once was, that gave rise to Estranger. I don’t, most days, feel the need to dissociate from my life, which is a good thing, because that urge can easily become unhealthy or unsustainable. I still love the Thoreau of the unfathomable pond that he fathoms nonetheless, of the wild woods he settles, and of the imponderable question he still tries to answer. That distance or tension between what we accomplish and what we attempt – that always feels close, and true. 
N: Are you still talking to me? 

E. Are you still talking to me? Are my answers absurd, or absurdly obvious?

Erik Anderson is the author of a book of lyric essays, THE POETICS OF TRESPASS (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2010). He teaches creative writing at Franklin & Marshall College, where he also directs the annual Emerging Writers Festival. ESTRANGER (2016) is Anderson's second book of nonfiction and the fourth selection in Rescue Press's Open Prose Series.

NICOLE WALKER’s is the author of two forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story and Where the Tiny Things Are. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Alison Hawthorne Deming: Umberto Eco and the Absolute Fake

I first read Umberto Eco’s essay “Travels in Hyperreality” twenty years ago. Lately it’s been bubbling up from the tar pit in my mind, along with saber-toothed cats and wooly mammoths fallen into the suck of that miserable slough. The politics of the time have that hot asphalt pit feel to them. And so I thought perhaps this is the moment to commune with late linguist, medievalist, best-selling novelist, philosopher, and semiotician and have a laugh or two about our current malaise. I remembered that Eco had traveled from Italy to the United States in the 1970s (though the essay didn’t appear in English until the late 1980s), visiting many hallmarks of our national bipolar condition to assess what indeed it was, this American character, that obsesses us and many beyond our borders. Disneyland, Fisherman’s Wharf (nothing to do with fishermen but sporting four waxwork museums), the Pietà of Forest Lawn Cemetery, Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not!” Museums, New York’s School of Holography where he found Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, the laser projected hideaway where the laser-projected Superman goes “to be alone with his memories.” “Between San Francisco and Los Angeles,” writes Eco, “I was able to visit seven wax versions of Leonardo’s Last Supper.”

After hitting these hot spots of hyperreality and many more, Eco concluded that Americans love the fake more than they do the real. Americans demand a refreshing cool beverage on every street corner, “the real thing and to attain it must fabricate the absolute fake.” If Eco were around today, he would love the signifying bumper crop, the apotheosis of fakery, that is the Trumpestuous Regime. What we wanted was an end to stalemates and injustice; what we got is a freak show of greed, mendacity and mean-spirited grandstanding that has, for some inscrutable reason, been dubbed a “populist” voice. Who really wants to dirty mountain streams, kill wolf and bear cubs in their dens, ruin the planet for future generations, defund scientific research along with arts and culture, taunt an adolescent totalitarian to the brink of nuclear war, bully women and refugees, and build a pointless wall that will do nothing to stem the flow of illegal drugs marketed by outlaw multinational cartels that feed America’s boundless appetite? The people? Really?

Let me be clear (which I fear is what the White House press secretary says when he is about to sling the lie his boss pays him to sling); let me be cleared of this duplicity (is what he must say to himself in his hours of insomniac remorse). Let me be clear: I grew up in another America, an Old New England that still revered what Wordsworth feared was lost when he wrote “plain living and high thinking are no more.” Growing up in post-World War II rural Connecticut, I still felt the glow of American virtue hovering over my hometown with its promise of beneficence, despite the proliferation of nuclear weapons—a Nike missile silo right in our hometown. But all of that hypertrophy of weapons seemed unreal to me. What was real? Our family never went to Disneyland or Disneyworld. We were late to acquire a television and when we did it was kept in the basement, near the nether region where the monsters lived. On Saturday mornings, I watched a show about a black stallion named Fury and the boy who loved him. It almost felt like a moral failing to be watching TV in our house—one likely to be punished by the monsters who always hid on the other side of an invisible wall. Other kids came to school on Monday mornings all excited. Did you see “Toast of the Town”? I had no idea what they were talking about. Toast? See? What did everyone know about this but me? How many years was it before I understood this was the name of Ed Sullivan’s show? Our family read books and wrote them, planted gardens and transplanted laurel bushes from the woods down to the terrace. Our family built stone walls, wrote plays and stories and thrillers. Our family played classical music and showtunes on the Victrola. Our family took modern dance lessons, acted in plays, directed plays, attended the annual light opera company production of Gilbert and Sullivan, the equity company performance of “Medea” and “My Fair Lady.” Our family visited the American Museum of Natural History and Statue of Liberty and Bronx Zoo. Let me be clear: all of this is true. I fell in love with Charles Dickens and Eugene O’Neill and James Baldwin. I fell in love with Ofelia and Dido and Hester Prynne. I was stunned that human suffering could be lifted up into art. This was real to me.

My hall-of-self-refracting-mirrors moment reading Eco came when he visited the Movieland Wax Museum, a fake of the original fakery at Madame Tussaud’s, that offered a fake Dr. Zhivago as played by Omar Sharif, the fake name for the actor born Michel Dimitri Chalhoub in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Catholic family (the actor later converted to Islam). The film was shot in Spain because the Soviet Union would not allow the British filmmaker on Russian soil. So, one wax statue, with a little 21st century google assist, becomes a multinational pandemonium of ideologies, all of which are in some manner fake and all of which are in some manner real. What is a sane person to do to feel grounded in reality? In some respect this all seems like good fun, considering that our nation is the entertainment capital of the world. Our culture has been trained to enjoy the game of blurring the line between the real and the fake.

Exeunt all.

Enter Trump, who, with pathological heartlessness, a defect of character that renders him incapable of empathy, has spent his first 100 days in office as impresario of a shit show of unbridled ignorance and mean-spirited lies in the homeland along with spectacularly poor judgment in international affairs. Eco said Americans wanted “the absolute fake” and now we’ve got it. When Trump says, “Fake news,” the resistance jokes, “Fake President.” But alas “the furious hyperreality” (Eco’s phrase) of this American moment is all too real. Who’s laughing now?

Absolute is about certitude. In alcohol, absolute is about being pure and simple (no added water). In philosophy, absolute is about being free from all external restraint or interference, “free from,” says OED, “conditional forms of knowledge or thought.” In physics, absolute zero is the lowest temperature possible, when nearly all molecular motion ceases, the point of lowest internal energy. Absolute zero is thought to be -273.15 degrees Celsius. But absolute zero is a quantum state: it is impossible to reach. The “absolute fake” is that pretense of reality that asks for no stripping away of the mask that reveals it to be fake. The absolute fake lives by the lie that dares not speak its name. The absolute fake is bone-chilling and perilous to life.

Eco visited the San Simeon castle of William Randolph Hearst, finding another dimension to his rubric’s cube analysis of American character. This is the Xanadu of Citizen Kane, which film Orson Welles modeled on the famed newspaper magnate. Hearst filled his Xanadu with a stash of old world captures:
Hearst bought, in bits and whole, palaces, abbeys, and convents in Europe, had them dismantled brick by numbered brick, packaged and shipped across the ocean, to be reconstructed on the enchanted hill, in the midst of free-ranging animals. Since he wanted not a museum but a Renaissance house, he complemented the original pieces with bold imitations, not bothering to distinguish the genuine from the copy. An incontinent collectionism, the bad taste of the nouveau riche, and a thirst for prestige led him to bring the past down to the level of today’s life; but he conceived of today as worth living only if guaranteed to be ‘just like the past. . .’
The bedroom contains the authentic bed of Richelieu, the billiard room has a Gothic tapestry, the projection room (where every night Hearst forced his guests to watch the films he produced, while he sat in the front row with a handy telephone linking him with the whole world) is all fake Egyptian with some Empire touches; the Library has another Italian ceiling, the study imitates a Gothic crypt, and the fireplaces of the various rooms are (real) Gothic, whereas the indoor pool invents a hybrid of the Alhambra, the Paris Metro, and a Caliph’s urinal, but with greater majesty.
These acquisitions and imitations offered Hearst a depth of cultural reference of which America seems incapable with its veneer-thin history. It seems the project of an imagination starved for context, craving history to make oneself relevant, waging a battle in the soul between real and fake, material wealth and spiritual poverty, a lofty perch from which the view must remain confused--and so the voracious need continues. That thin veneer of American history, of course, is not the whole story. The woodland, plains and desert societies of our continent’s indigenous past are our Rome and Athens, but our sense of history remains foreshortened by the stultifying reality of the founders’ exploitive violence. There has always been something vicious in the heart of America. Perhaps it is what has called us to our virtue: can’t we do better than this? How do we choose to define ourselves now? We must never stop asking.


Alison Hawthorne Deming’s most recent book is the poetry collection Stairway to Heaven. She was recently appointed Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona, where she teaches in the Creative Writing Program

Monday, May 1, 2017

Lorraine Berry on Didion, the South, and Race

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

It has always been good news when Joan Didion publishes a new book. For many of us, Didion is the grande dame of literary nonfiction. Any opportunity to read new material from the 83-year old writer is welcome.

Except, the new book is not new material. The writings that comprise South and West are notebooks that Didion compiled for two different writing projects that she never completed. “West” are her notes on California that she was putting together when she was intending to write something on the kidnapping drama of Patty Hearst. The majority of the new book’s content, however, is the close to 100 pages in notes that she took about the “South,” the result of a one-month road trip she and husband John Gregory Dunne took in the summer of 1970, which began in New Orleans, took in several locations in Mississippi and Alabama, and then returned to NOLA.

The publication of these notes has been greeted with rave reviews. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times calls the two essays “dazzling” and says that Didion proves “prescient” in painting portraits of the types of people who would vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post admits that the stultifying heat that Didion complains about in the material defeated her, still, “But these excerpts have value. They give us a renewed sense of the writer, now 82, in her creative prime. And, often enough, they remind us of her brilliance as a stylist, social commentator and observer.”

In review after review, critics recognize that the pages have an unfinished quality to them and say that it’s obvious that they are notes to a project that was abandoned. But all of them say that the notebooks serve the greater purpose of showing us the attitudes of people in the South in 1970 that were apparently in play when Donald Trump was elected president. In his foreword to the book, Nathaniel Rich tells us that “Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.”

Consider me baffled. Other than the clear motive that anything with Didion’s name on it will automatically sell copies, thus making money for both her publisher and for Didion, it isn’t clear to me what purpose the publication of 47-year old notes serve. They are serviceable notes that, with a lot of research and a variety of other voices added to them, may have contributed to our understanding of that geographical and cultural entity known as “the South,” but, as the notes stand now, they serve to show that even the most seasoned reporter will find exactly what she is looking for when she had made up her mind to find it.

Most people who read Didion are going to have their views of the South confirmed, will have none of their views challenged, and will have learned almost nothing new. Add to that the additional kicker that Didion’s notes were gathered in 1970—47 years ago—and the further folly of this book is exposed. So why would cultural critics in New York, Washington DC, and Los Angeles laud it?

Didion performs a valuable service for white people in this book. By writing about the peculiarities of Southern racism, about how open people still felt about being able to express their racism in 1970, how casually they express it, it lets anyone who doesn’t live in the South in 1970 off the hook. “I may be racist, but I don’t call someone by the n-word or refuse to allow a black plumber into my house,” one expects some people may be thinking as they read through the stories Didion tells.

This is not to say that the system of legal apartheid that resulted in separate accommodations for “whites” and “coloreds” was not a horrific system that offends every principle America supposedly stands for. Of course, that system did not exist de jure in the north, but while Southern racism may have been enforced with signs that declared what could not be accessed by people of color, up north, neighborhood covenants, the use of blackballs to block memberships in social clubs, and the systems of “good old boys” who hired friends of friends, all maintained segregated systems under the guise of a system of merit in which merit was heavily weighted toward the white man (and it was always a man) who could get into the right school, the right social club, and who could get a loan to buy a house in the right neighborhood.

I have spent most of my life living in the north, first in the Pacific Northwest, and then for the majority of my adult life in the college town of Ithaca, New York. Ithaca is a city that had coasted for two decades on the humble-brag that it had been named by Utne Reader as the country’s “most enlightened” city. I can tell you that racism was present, it was just hidden in codes that you had to listen for carefully. One time, when my daughter was assaulted at school, other parents wanted to know the race of her attacker. When I asked “what difference” that information made, I was told by several white parents who considered themselves to be liberal that black children who grew up with single mothers didn’t know how to behave. Since I was myself a single mother, I spent a good deal of time shaming my interlocutor for their racism. You could also pay attention to lawsuits that were filed by homeowners in 2004 because their homes had just been redistricted so that their children would attend the local elementary school in which the vast majority of students were black, on the basis that the redistricting would lower their property values. And then you might ask yourself why a city as enlightened as Ithaca was so segregated that the majority of its students of color all attended the same elementary school when there were eight in the district. Could it be proof that the city was segregated?

I am not without empathy with those who hold onto a belief that the South is the repository of American racism, its refusal to acknowledge the reality that less than two centuries ago, people here thought that it was their God-given right to own other human beings. My memories from childhood—I was born in 1963—was of my father speaking to me of the horrors we saw on television as we saw the violence committed against people who were demanding their voting rights. And I remember when the Jackson, Mississippi killings happened just a couple of weeks after Kent State, I remember crying as I told my father that I thought that in the South, “all they did was kill black people.” But, as I grew up, and learned to notice the more subtle forms of racism that existed around me, I realized that the north (and the Pacific Northwest, home to white separatist movements) could not claim the moral high ground on this issue.

Still, when my partner and I opted to move to northeastern coast of Florida in order that I could live just a few blocks away from my widowed mother, I had managed to convince myself that I wasn’t moving to the “South;” I was moving to Florida, and I associated Florida with the cultural diversity brought to it by its large Hispanic population and the influx of tourists who come to this state looking for a happy time.

But, as I discovered, Florida is divided in a similar way that the state I grew up in—Washington, is. Western Washington, west of the Cascades, is progressive and votes Democratic. East of the mountains is much more conservative and votes Republican. Florida is divided north and south. The farther south you go in Florida, the more cosmopolitan it becomes, more culturally diverse, with pockets of Democratic districts. Parts of northern Florida, on the other hand, are known as the “Redneck Riviera.”

Here, I’ve discovered segregated graveyards in which Confederate battle flags decorate the graves of veterans of the Civil War. When I walk around the ruins of the Bulow Sugar Plantation, which was burnt to the ground by the Seminoles in the 1840s, the historical placards explain the process by which sugar cane is made into sugar, but it is only mentioned on one sign that the labor was performed by slaves. At an event marking the dedication of a restoration project for what had been the largest sugar mill in Florida in the 1830s, the historical minutia that is known about the factory is quite extensive, but no one can tell me how many slaves were held on the property, even though it is acknowledged that the man who owned the land the mill was built upon was a slave owner. I was unable to find the information at a separate website, which informs me that the builder of the sugar mill, Richard Oswald, made his fortune through slave trading. This area’s land was worked by slaves, but their labor, if it is mentioned, is an afterthought by the nice people who usher visitors around the site. I become convinced, however, as I’m walking the tour with my partner that the people of the historical society are pained by this information. While slavery is a huge component of Florida’s history, the good folks of the historical society have not figured out how to raise money to save the historical artifacts of Florida’s past, which are soaked in the blood of the enslaved people who toiled under horrendous conditions.

And my partner and I have both been present when white people have said to us directly comments that were racist, homophobic, or sexist in nature. And we’ve done the right thing when confronted with these people. Not because we deserve plaudits for doing so, but because that’s what you’re supposed to do. There’s no doubt in my mind that people have fewer filters here in northern Florida when saying racist things. So, I also have no doubt that in 1970, Didion found it easy to find white people who would say the sorts of racist drivel that convinces people living up north that the white residents of the South are some form of backwards life form. But Didion’s notebooks show such a series of problems with her methodology that I was gobsmacked by the inability of 2017 reviewers to notice any of them.

Didion only spent a month traveling through the “South,” time that was divided in New Orleans, Alabama, and Mississippi. New Orleans and Louisiana have a different culture from Alabama and Mississippi, to start with, so even lumping the three states together is problematic. The idea that “California” can be called the “west,” is also problematic. Leaving aside the problem that Orange County Republicans and Humboldt County pot farmers have little in common in California, Washington and Oregon have spent most of their existence distinguishing themselves from California, which has been regarded by its northern neighbors as a hegemonic culture that demands access to the Pacific Northwest’s water so it can water its lawns and wash its cars, even if Oregonians and Washingtonians have to go on water rationing to accommodate that, and that Californians have a nasty habit of driving up housing prices wherever they move to. If you expand the west to include the mountain states, California as “the west” is even more problematic.

Didion does the same thing when she decides that the three states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama are the “South.” While she has notes about New Orleans, Pass Christian, Biloxi, Clarksdale, the Delta, and a host of other locations, and in the descriptions of these places, she is making notes that make it clear that these are not the same place—the words she uses to describe New Orleans and its residents as being characterized by “its peculiar childlike cruelty and innocence” are not the same used to describe the “good old boys” who make jokes about seeing pornography when their wives are out of town in Birmingham. Even within the writing, New Orleans is not treated as part of this entity she calls "the South." But all the distinctions that she is noting among planters in the Delta and businessmen in Birmingham and her exotic characterization of New Orleans collapses under a geographic term that doesn't explain to readers why they can all be called "the South."

But the biggest, immediately noticeable problem in Didion’s notebooks is that she only speaks to white folks. She talks to a lot of different people, but with the exception of a brief acknowledgment of two people who work for one of the prominent people she is staying with, Didion only speaks with white people and the topic that she asks them about is race.

What reading her notebook on the South indicates is that Joan Didion went to the South looking for conservative whites who she was hoping would say the sorts of shocking, racist remarks that she could write down in her notebooks and report in her pieces for publications on either of the coasts. And of course, the conservative white people she went looking for were exactly where she expected them to be

For all of Didion’s implying to her readers that she is a west coast liberal and an enlightened soul, she makes no efforts to interview the black residents of any of the three states she visits. She mentions on more than one occasion that people of color are present while she is meeting with various white people—friends of her and her husband’s, or officials in the towns she is visiting, or well-known writers, even celebrities. But each person that she speaks to in all of her notes are white people. Those white people all have opinions of black people, who they see as either “happy” and content to be their tenant farmers or domestic servants, and who they assume paternalistic attitudes toward in a “kinder” recreation of the master-slave relationship that was in place up until 1865. Or, she speaks to white people who go off on tangents about black people who don’t accept “their place” and who have brought in the federal government to tell the states and local municipalities to change in order to accommodate the demands of people of color.

Didion allows white people to explain how they can be good liberals and still object to sending their kids to integrated schools, and that information may remind readers of the perpetual excuses that white people make for why black expectations that discrimination end today is often coded by white people as “angry” or “impatient.” Didion speaks to white planters in Mississippi who appear on every level to be decent human beings. But when the topic of school integration comes up, Didion allows them the luxury of maintaining that aura of “goodness.” As they explain it (pg. 96), “we have tortured and tortured over what to do with our children, and our tentative decision for now is to send them to private schools, even though that is against our ideals. I can’t sacrifice my child to an ideal.” Didion lets them explain that they would be less opposed to sending their children to an integrated school if there was more time, but the children will change schools on February 2. And their response is, “Why can’t they wait?” If this reaction sounds familiar, it is because the refrain of “wait” was addressed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was "well timed" according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never".
King wrote from his jail cell. And if you are not familiar with this passage, perhaps it’s because it’s also true that King is only quoted by white people in general when it backs up their beliefs that black people are too angry and too violent.

That same complaint, that the "time for waiting is long-past" has come from the people of color who have taken to the streets as part of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, a movement that arose out of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer. But white people who have insisted on interpreting “Black Lives Matter” as an anti-police movement insist that the movement is angry and violent, even going so far as to invent crimes committed by BLM activists. The reaction to Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has chosen to protest the treatment of blacks in America by kneeling during the American anthem, has led to his being blackballed by the NFL, and fans have voted him the most hated player in NFL—more hated than Rae Carruth, the football player who murdered his pregnant girlfriend rather than pay child support. Again, people of color are told not to be angry, to slow down, and things will come to those who wait. In an incredibly condescending article by Peter Beinart, it was suggested that the Charlotte families who forgave the man who killed the nine churchgoers was the “correct way” to win over the hearts and minds of white people, who just need “time” to accept black demands for justice.

So, perhaps if the notebooks had been kept as notes that would become the basis for a book, there would have been a notebook that included interviews with people of color. Although it’s not clear who those people would have been. But, in her first foray through the South, Didion does not speak to any black people about their experiences of living in the South, of what it’s like to live with white people who believe the crap that comes out of their mouths and that Didion dutifully records.

Didion continually treats the people of color in the South as objects. They are objects of observation and they are objects of discussion, but never once do they get to offer to Didion their views of the states they live in. Instead, Didion hangs out with wealthy whites whose casual racism Didion copies down as confirmation that the South is somehow different from California. At one point, she notes that it’s only a few weeks after the riots in Jackson, Mississippi in which college students were killed by the police, but the discussion she hears is about law-breaking students. Doubtless, in the same social circles in Ohio, conservative whites would have said similar things about the students killed at Kent State.

If Didion’s failure to speak to anyone else but white people goes unremarked by critics, it’s the writing about New Orleans that I find even more troubling. Her writing about New Orleans is singled out for praise in virtually every review I looked at. Kakutani raved:
The other reason that readers will find this volume so fascinating is that it shows Didion at work, as a writer and reporter, gathering details, jotting them down and running her observations through the typewriter of her mind. Even these hurriedly written notes shine with her trademark ability to capture mood and place. Of New Orleans in June, she writes: “The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: The atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.
Frantz Fanon, the Creole philosopher who articulated theories of colonialism and anti-blackness in the 1960s, gave us a language with which to recognize when writers are using paternalistic, racist, and imperialist assessments to describe “child-like” natives. And I mention Fanon because, as an intellectual in the 1960s, I have to assume that Didion must have been familiar with his work. So why does Didion write about New Orleans like she was trying to make it into Fanon’s next textbook about white colonialist writing:
It was a fatalism I would come to recognize as endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life. Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die, domestic arguments would end in knifings, the construction of highways would lead to graft and cracked pavement where the vines would shoot back. Affairs of state would turn on sexual jealousy, in New Orleans as if in Port-au-Prince, and all the king’s men would turn on the king. The temporality of the place is operatic, childlike, the fatalism that of a culture dominated by wilderness.
One wonders if Didion did not picture herself at that moment as Marlow readying himself to travel up the river into the Heart of Darkness to find Kurtz? Frantz Fanon wrote specifically in The Wretched of the Earth that the common complaint written by whites about the natives is about "their slowness, their laziness, and their fatalism.” Above, I had noted that she characterized New Orleans by its “peculiar childlike innocence and cruelty.” That type of writing about New Orleans is praised by critics who see in it some form of Didion’s brilliance, but which I now see as verging between the nonsensical and carrying about it a tone of supremacy that is deeply troubling.

Didion locates New Orleans as a town on the edge of wilderness. She writes, “in New Orleans, the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness and not as an escape from civilization and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect.”

Parsing that sentence, I see the insistence by Didion that the western wilderness (redemptive?) which was taken from the Native Americans in a series of bloody wars is superior to the wilderness close to New Orleans, which is too jungle-like and overgrown and which threatens to take back over the colonial town on its border. And I can’t help but see Didion’s criticisms of New Orleans, which has had a diverse population for a long time, including a large population of Creoles and mixed-race people, as being her wanting to say she finds the place distasteful, but is trying to find a more artful way to express it. (She mentions in the paragraph prior how a drive outside New Orleans had resulted in her feeling so dirty, she had taken a half-hour shower “trying to wash myself clean of the afternoon".)

It make sense that she chose not to do anything with her notebooks when she got back from her trip. It’s clear that Didion did not do any serious research in the South. She went looking for racist white people to explain to her their attitudes toward black people, and they told her what she wanted to hear. Perhaps when she got home, she realized that she hadn’t learned anything of value. Not because she hadn’t found the conservative white people in the South who told her the racist things she expected to hear, but perhaps because she realized that the only difference between those people and the white people she hung out with in California were levels of politeness. What bothers me, however, is the reception of the book, which has been largely positive, and which insists that Didion has captured something about the South that says something new by revealing that nothing has changed with respect to what white people in the South think about race. Perhaps the most valuable lesson to be learned from this is that cultural critics in the west and the northeast haven’t changed in their desires to have easy explanations for racism given to them, especially if it’s artfully done.


Lorraine Berry has written for THE GUARDIAN, LITHUB, SIGNATURE, DIAGRAM, and a host of other publications. After teaching creative nonfiction at one of the SUNY colleges, she moved to Florida to be close to her widowed mum. When she is not reading or writing, she can be found walking the beach or at the bird sanctuary, hanging out with sedges of herons and flings of sandpipers, and determined to memorize the collective nouns for all birds in the area. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW.