Figures of the Migrant in the Arts I


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Last week I gave a plenary talk at a wonderful conference at Le Mans Université, France. You can see the program here. The event brought together many important studies of migrant literature, poetry, film, and performance art. We are without a doubt witnessing an explosion in the creation of migrant histories and arts of all kinds today. Migrant histories and arts have been actively destroyed for most of history. Today, the number of films, images, texts, and artifacts produced by and about the world’s increasing number of migrants is increasing so fast now it is hard to keep up. This conference, which will be collected as two volumes of essays (in French and English), is part of the larger project of taking these migrant arts seriously and defending their validity and importance to the academy and to the public. Below is a survey and a bit of commentary on some of the works discussed at the conference.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)

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The magical realism of the book is that a series of doors open up that transport people across the world. Walking through the doors is described as both a birth and a death. This is an interesting way to think about movement not only as an extensive transit between point A and B but as a magical intensive or qualitative transformation of the world and migrants through migration. It is a story of migration as intensive transformation and not merely as transit.

La Cour de Babel, Julie Bertuccelli (2013)

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Rather than focusing on the suffering of migrants, La Cour de Babel tries to document the material conditions of a new migrant cosmopolitanism among high schoolers learning French. How can new friendships and alliances be built from the starting point of heterogeneity and movement and how might this provide us with a model and challenge for thinking about a new cosmopolitan and pedetic society?

Le Havre, Aki Kaurismäki (2011)

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There are so many amazing things to say about this film. It is shot in a New Wave aesthetic, by a director who does not even speak French. Its treatment of migration is both historical and highly contemporary at the same time. Importantly the film uses a number of incredible shots that open up the subjectivity of the migrants. In particular, when the migrants are discovered hidden in a shipping crate the camera locks onto their faces for several seconds without action. There is no sound in the scene. Just faces looking back expressionlessly at the police, media, and medics. The action image is stalled. The time-image is paralyzed. The photograph-like duration of the shot exposes the movement of the camera itself as the material conditions of the image. The image becomes migrant at the same time as the migrant becomes image. In order for the lived duration to pass the body of the migrant must move just as the camera must move for time to pass. The passage of time is the effect, not the cause of motion. This film gives us at least one crucial feature of a new migrant cinema: the primacy of the migrant image as a mobile image, which emerges precisely at the moment that the action and time images in modern cinema are completely unraveled.

More to come…

Material Ecology: Neri Oxman’s Generative Design

Oxman’s design takes seriously the ecology and movement of matter.

Designer and architect Neri Oxman is leading the search for ways in which digital fabrication technologies can interact with the biological world. Working at the intersection of computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering and synthetic biology, her lab is pioneering a new age of symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, our products and even our buildings.

Poetry in Motion: On A.R. Ammons’ “Corsons Inlet”

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The stanza formation ripples, rises, and falls like waves. The poem both speaks about and performs the movement of the sea, dunes, reeds, birds, and fish at the same time. Form yields to the material process of undulation and continuous deformation. Life and death become the Janus faces of entropy.

In nature there are no straight lines. It is a simple idea but profound. The “pulsations of order” in the minnows, the dunes, the reeds, the inlet, all reveal the metastability of form. Form is a “kinomorphic” process of undulation and metastability. The poet discovers all this in media res, by walking, in motion (pedesis). This is not chaos, but a kind of entangled relational dance of which poetic form does not capture or “wall in” but tries to respond to. There is no prison house of language but a becoming of poetic matters. Poetic form becomes mobile, drifting like sand dunes.

The use of colons allows for a rhythmic continuity without period breaks. Waves rise and fall, minnows gather and disperse, and colons punctuate without stopping the flow. The subjective “I” does not disappear but in Ammon’s poem enters into the flow of poetic matters: “I think in eddies.” The “I” emerges in and through the eddies. Ammons does not think “about” eddies. The preposition “in” is not a representation. I think in the middle or in the midsts of, or through, eddies. I think in the folds of flows. The poetic matter is folded up flows: flows of thought, flows of sand, water, and flows of ink and electricity, pooled up into little colons that hover like the wind just above the period.

The period sinks to the bottom of the line like a rock dragging the whole thing back down to a stop. But the colon resists and floats just above. The colon is like a vertical ellipsis dragging the poem and the speaking body up out of the line into the eddies of air—throwing the lines into the next line like an air bridge.

The colon holds together and entangles only regionally independent clauses. The Greek kôlon, is a limb or tentacle, an extension, like a root, branch, or prosthesis that reaches out and entangles itself with others in a knotwork, meshwork, or mangle. In Ammons poem, the poem becomes a living and decaying tentacular rootball: khthṓn, from the ground or soil.

But the colon does not originate in grammar or even in Greek language. What are the immanent material conditions for the twisted tentacular colon? The earth already produces mineralogical veins, vegetable branches, and animal appendages. There are only colons because the earth is already tentacular and knotted. There are colons because there are  bayberry roots and crab legs. The colon appendage keeps things moving with wings, fins, fins, and roots. This is not determinism or even metaphor. The colon really is an appendage. Crabs do not necessarily produce or lead to poetic colons in any linear sense. Yet, they are the material and historical conditions for the colon. Is there a world in which there are colons and no earthly appendages? The colon is just one more mobile appendage on a different creature. The poem creature.

I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning
to the sea,
then turned right along
   the surf
                         rounded a naked headland
                         and returned
   along the inlet shore:
it was muggy sunny, the wind from the sea steady and high,
crisp in the running sand,
       some breakthroughs of sun
   but after a bit
continuous overcast:
the walk liberating, I was released from forms,
from the perpendiculars,
      straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends
               of sight:
                         I allow myself eddies of meaning:
yield to a direction of significance
like a stream through the geography of my work:
   you can find
in my sayings
                         swerves of action
                         like the inlet’s cutting edge:
               there are dunes of motion,
organizations of grass, white sandy paths of remembrance
in the overall wandering of mirroring mind:
but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events
I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting
beyond the account:
in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of
       more or less dispersed;
disorderly orders of bayberry; between the rows
of dunes,
irregular swamps of reeds,
though not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all …
predominantly reeds:
I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,
shutting out and shutting in, separating inside
          from outside: I have
          drawn no lines:
manifold events of sand
change the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape
so I am willing to go along, to accept
the becoming
thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish
         no walls:
by transitions the land falls from grassy dunes to creek
to undercreek: but there are no lines, though
       change in that transition is clear
       as any sharpness: but “sharpness” spread out,
allowed to occur over a wider range
than mental lines can keep:
the moon was full last night: today, low tide was low:
black shoals of mussels exposed to the risk
of air
and, earlier, of sun,
waved in and out with the waterline, waterline inexact,
caught always in the event of change:
       a young mottled gull stood free on the shoals
       and ate
to vomiting: another gull, squawking possession, cracked a crab,
picked out the entrails, swallowed the soft-shelled legs, a ruddy
turnstone running in to snatch leftover bits:
risk is full: every living thing in
siege: the demand is life, to keep life: the small
white blacklegged egret, how beautiful, quietly stalks and spears
               the shallows, darts to shore
                            to stab—what? I couldn’t
       see against the black mudflats—a frightened
       fiddler crab?
               the news to my left over the dunes and
reeds and bayberry clumps was
               fall: thousands of tree swallows
               gathering for flight:
               an order held
               in constant change: a congregation
rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable
          as one event,
                      not chaos: preparations for
flight from winter,
cheet, cheet, cheet, cheet, wings rifling the green clumps,
at the bayberries
    a perception full of wind, flight, curve,
    the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness:
the “field” of action
with moving, incalculable center:
in the smaller view, order tight with shape:
blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed: carapace of crab:
snail shell:
            pulsations of order
            in the bellies of minnows: orders swallowed,
broken down, transferred through membranes
to strengthen larger orders: but in the large view, no
lines or changeless shapes: the working in and out, together
            and against, of millions of events: this,
                         so that I make
                         no form of
orders as summaries, as outcomes of actions override
or in some way result, not predictably (seeing me gain
the top of a dune,
the swallows
could take flight—some other fields of bayberry
            could enter fall
            berryless) and there is serenity:
            no arranged terror: no forcing of image, plan,
or thought:
no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept:
terror pervades but is not arranged, all possibilities
of escape open: no route shut, except in
   the sudden loss of all routes:
            I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will
not run to that easy victory:
            still around the looser, wider forces work:
            I will try
       to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.



(Thank you to Andrew James Brown @caute for sharing this poem with me)

The Return to Lucretius II

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Lucretius’ method of philosophical poetry is a radical departure from the Greek tradition of philosophy from Thales to Aristotle and Epicurus (with the rare exception of Empedocles, Parmenides, and Xenophanes). Almost without exception, Homeric-style poetry was reduced to irrational and sensuous mythology by Greek philosophers eager to define their new abstraction and idealism against the straw man of the old Homeric tradition. It is therefore completely unsurprising that today Lucretius can still only be invoked as a philosopher reducible to the “real” Greek master: Epicurus. By doing so the Western reception of Lucretius has reproduced the same Greco-centric and idealist tradition that vilified pre-Greek and Homeric poetry, sensation, and true materialism. 

Western philosophy, even in its most materialist moments, has in one way or another been defined by a hatred of matter and the body. Lucretius alone is the first to produce a true and radical materialism of sensation and the body. However, like Homer, Lucretius also paid the ultimate price for his materialist sins and was exiled from philosophy—only to be resurrected as a lovely poet of the Latin tongue or as a slavish imitator of the great master Epicurus. Never has Lucretius been read as an original philosophical poet of a radical materialism that goes far beyond anything achieved by Epicurus. My three volumes of Lucretius are the first books to show precisely this. 

Lucretius refused to use Epicurus’s Greek terminology when many other Roman Epicureans and authors such as Cicero did so often and easily. The Romans are famous for renaming Greek gods, i.e. the Greek Aphrodite becomes the Roman Venus, Zeus becomes Jove, and so on. However, it is also well known that there is no strict equivalence between Greek and Roman deities. The translation was, as translations always are, a transformation that resulted in new stories and a shifting fluidity of roles between gods.

This, I argue, is what happened with Lucretius. De Rerum Natura is not Epicurean dogma. It is an original work of philosophical poetry that by translating Homeric mythology and Epicurean philosophy into the Latin vernacular transformed both of them into an original philosophy based on the primacy of motion. Scholars have noted the tension between Lucretius’s poetic style and Epicurean doctrine before, but none have suggested that it indicated anything original or new as a result. This is the original aspiration of my three-volume work on Lucretius: to unearth a new Lucretius.

In the first volume, I located a systematic ontology of motion and a new materialism beneath the atomist and “Epicurean myth” of Lucretius. In the second volume, I present the reader with a kinetic and materialist theory of ethical practice.