a two-day experiment in writing and community
Matias Viegner and Christine Wertheim
Editors note: This article is a reflection on an annual writers’ conference by co-organizers Christine Wertheim and Matias Viegner. The October 2006 conference Impunities occurred at REDCAT in Los Angeles. For more information on the event go to this link.
This series of experimental writing events the we curate annually at REDCAT was most recently focused on communities and writing, which is to say, between the communities writers imagine in their work, the perhaps fantasmatic community of writers among themselves and the actual communities all of us inhabit; we were interested in how these relationships are constructed and recouped in language and narrative. The first two conferences (in 2004 and 2005) were focused more on formal questions such as conceptual writing and the use of constraint and procedural devices, and while not deliberated, we felt an increasing urgency to forefront not only the question of content but also that of context and the overlap of the two. Ironically, last year’s discussion of constraint marched headfirst into a debate on gender and political content in Oulipian and post-Oulipian work. I imagine no one reading this is without a sense of the global political and social crisis represented by George Bush’s America, or without a sense of doubt about the capacity of literature and art in addressing its enormity. We chose to devote Impunities to the relation between the imaginary community of both the text and the literary imagination and its relation to the real community that they both inhabit and represent.
Last summer, the Maine National Guard sent out life size pictures of soldiers to the families of deployed guard members. They were mounted on cardboard and several photographs of families with their missing soldiers were released to the press, including this one of Ashton Gardner with his cardboard father. In the desire to support the troops and reassure Americans about the goodness of the war, what the national guard proposed was its own imaginary community, in which fathers might be fighting in the Middle East and simultaneously sitting on swings with their children. Officials say the cutouts, known as Flat Daddies or Flat Soldiers, "connect families with a relative who is thousands of miles away." This is the imaginary community of the Bush White House, which imagines an America united both with both their physical families and a very unpopular war, reported to us without irony by the New York Times.
While we recognize the wrong imaginary community, we are not sure what the right one is, and not sure if any single one can fit the bill. Part of our conjecture in Impunities is that to transform the real, we must also transform the social imaginary. When we were beginning to search for participants we found two starting points: Peter Lamborn Wilson and Samuel Delaney, theorists and exemplars of powerful imaginary communities. Temporary Autonomous Zone, published under Wilson’s pen name Hakim Bey, outlines in fragmentary forms the various technologies of a non-hierarchical system of social relationships by concentrating on the present and by releasing one's own mind from the controlling mechanisms that have been imposed on it. Poetic terrorism, temporary impermanence, strategies of disappearance, ontological anarchy, pirate utopias, ecstatic love and delirium lay the groundwork for an always mobile and ever evolving set of deterritorializations that build temporary utopias which celebrate the present moment before disappearing underground often never to surface again in the same form. Delaney's novel Dhalgren exemplifies one of these zones, the city Bellona, cut off from its country and divorced from both reality and reason, a circular city without beginning or end as might be imagined by Borges, with ever shifting street signs and landmarks, peopled with fleshly and lust-driven polysexual citizens. A city not unlike William Burroughs' City of the Red Night or Kathy Acker's Alexandria, whose "community of freaks" consists of the marginalized, prostitutes, criminals, bikers, beggars and fools. Our theoretical touch points include the work of Francois Lyotard, whose work on the collapse of the "grand narrative" emphasizes both a crisis in narrativity and in mastery itself. Also central to our thinking are Gilles Deleuze's strategic concepts of the nomad, minor literature, deterritorialization, chaosmosis, schizoanalysis, lines of flight, and the body without organs. We thought of Monique Wittig's fantasies of radical feminist utopias in which the Amazonian poet warriors sit on the beach sharpening each other's teeth with steel files. We thought of Borges’ Library of Babel, a community of books, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 feminist utopia, Herland.
Critic Cindy Carr's work on the effect of gentrification on what was once called the avant-garde influenced us greatly. In her article “The Bohemian Diaspora” in her book On Edge; Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century she traces the rise and fall of the bohemian fantasy of the NY’s East Village, the setting of many of the novels by our participant Sarah Schulman. "That historic institution once called ‘bohemia,’ says Carr, “has been so intensively exploited that it's had to become invisible. For the first time in 150 years, bohemia can't be pinpointed on a map. The dematerialization of the artist's milieu has had a devastating impact on the entire culture—more intangible, and therefore more insidious, than the problems posed by shrinking corporate and government funding, the march of the real estate developers, and the debilitating war over free expression. Dissent cannot happen in a vacuum. Nor can social or aesthetic movements grow in one. Community is the fabric that sustains experiment, stimulating that leap into the void and maybe even cushioning a fall.”
In assembling the participants, we aimed above all for variety and polyphony. For everyone we could invite there were two more we would have liked to. Each of the people we assembled iterates powerful ideas on community, identity, agency, and the imagination. Just a few we’d like to point out from the outset are:
• Shelley Jackson's Skin project, a community of words inscribed on its 2,000 participants bodies in the form of tattoos, each person becoming a word, each word a person, and the full group composing a story which only they will know in its entirety.
• The imaginary communities of Naropa University, home of the Jack Kerouac school of disembodied poetics, one of whose founders, the poet Anne Waldman, presented her embodied poetry of resistance and brings with her echoes of another community, the Beat movement, and still another, the New York School.
• The fantasmatic community of terrorist cells and political activists represented in the Renee Gladman's book The Activist.
• The fantasy of rescue at the heart of the literary art journal LTTR, one of whose editors, Emily Roysdon, presented her installation on personal dependency. LTTR of course stands for Letter, but also for Lesbians To The Rescue, the rescue from the mess the rest of us have made.
• The eco-community of the revitalized Los Angeles River, both as imagined by poet Lewis MacAdams in his book The River and actualized by him in the group he founded, Friends of the LA River, which has spearheaded actual political changes to protect and restore the natural and historic heritage of the Los Angeles River and its riparian habitat through inclusive planning, education and wise environmental stewardship.
• The Flarfists, a virtual community characterized by the intensity of their interchange online and whose textual production, originating in the Google search poem, defines not only new forms of collaborative writing but also new forms of authorship and readership; much like the literary communities of the Oulipo, the subject of our conference last year, and Ubuweb, a virtual, conceptual, and pataphysical community also on the internet.
• Seshu Foster's Atomik Aztek rewrites time and imagines an America in which the Aztecs, after defeating the Spanish, go on to conquer all of Europe and found what is today a global culture of human sacrifice.
Among the questions we posed to our participants are: What role does writing and narrative play in the invention of alternative communities, identities and politics? How does such writing address existing communities? What are the methodologies of the oppressed, the voices of the silenced and the technologies of otherness? How do imaginary communities or fictitious authors solve real problems? Do artistic communities exist anymore? And can they still effect change? We are awash in alternative figurations of the post-human subject - nomads, creoles, cyborgs, gypsies, pirates, ghosts, impersonators, terrorists, transsexuals and clowns. How are these alternative identities imagined and articulated in language? Do such literary technologies of the self-help us negotiate with real powers, or do they always remain in the realms of 'fiction'? To transform the real, must we first transform the social imaginary? We believe that subjectivity is not a universal and homogeneous phenomenon. Locations do differ and differences do matter. Furthermore, axes of difference, like class, race, gender, ethnicity, age and place, interact with each other to produce many heterogeneously embodied subjectivities. Against the flight into abstraction, how can these different, and often unrecognized, specifically situated perspectives be rendered visible? Imagining new forms of subjectivity is one means of resisting dominant modes of representation. Forgetting to forget injustice and symbolic poverty may be an even more powerful form of rebellion. How can we activate memories against the stream, and liberate the peripheral consciousnesses of subjugated knowledge? Impunities welcomed the gathering of those cultural vagabonds who set into motion our collective fantasies of escape, oblivion, arrival, and transformation.
Son with his Flat Daddy