“From that moment the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.” (Seamus Heaney)
“Are Gang Injunctions the new Guantanamo?”
“Ali Abdullah Salih says: Yemen is not Egypt or Tunisia. Qadhdhafi says: Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia. Mubarak: Egypt is not Tunisia. You fools: the entire Arab world is Tunisia.”
“Echo of the permanent saying of the Bible: the condition—or incondition—of strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt brings man closer to his fellow man. Men seek one another in their incondition of strangers. No one is at home. The memory of that servitude assembles humanity.” (Emmanuel Levinas) [Levinas is referring to the refrain in the Bible of “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” At the Passover seder, Jews say that in every generation, each person should feel as if they themselves have left Egypt.]
Comparisons are odious, right? But not more odious than Seamus Heaney’s North, which is a pure example of the most ideological political poetry. Jack Spicer said in 1965: “You can start out with an idea that you want to write about how terrible it is that President Johnson is an asshole, and you can come up with a good poem. But it will be just by chance and will undoubtedly not simply say that President Johnson is an asshole.” The poems in North attempt to be about the Troubles, but they are about how Seamus Heaney is an asshole. I refuse to link or quote from Heaney’s poem “Acts of Union” because I refuse to give oxygen, as Thatcher might have put it, to this politically offensive and dangerous ideological poetry. But if you look for the poem on Google you will find that Heaney is willing to compare the British imperialist penetration of Ireland to his penetration and impregnation of (one imagines) his wife. I almost encourage you to look up this poem because its offensiveness beggars belief.
The outdated dichotomization of the poet searching for some images and symbols for a predicament they hope to adequately fit offends me on account of Spicer, but also on account of Walter Benjamin. Isn’t such a project always going to tell you more about the poet’s particular ideological position than anything about the political situation he is attempting to “capture”? But isn’t that idea of “capture” equally offensive from a purely political, non-aesthetic standpoint? When the Trotskyists start analyzing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere in terms taken from (say) the Russian Revolution, one balks because they are clearly not attending to the historical particularity of these uprisings and allowing that particularity to speak.
Nonetheless comparisons and linkages do seem to be powerful. Steve McQueen’s film Hunger is very clearly not a film that is meant to be “adequate” to the Troubles or even to Bobby Sands. But Hunger seems “adequate,” I would say, as a piece of political art about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and modern instances of prisoner abuse, of sovereign exception, of internment, of population control. Thatcher’s ghostly voice in Hunger (I wonder if the credits should not include Margaret Thatcher playing herself) reminds us that the power of the state haunts and repeats.
It is powerful and political to say something like “everywhere is Tunisia” even when that’s obviously false. Bobby Sands is not a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay and a film that uses him to make a point about Guantanamo risks a violence to Bobby Sands’s memory and to the political particularity of the hunger strike. But it’s a risk that McQueen is conscious of taking, I think. The overly conscious formalism of Hunger, even the method acting taken to its deepest extreme, reminds us that this is a film, made by a director. McQueen’s overt isolation of Loachian political discussion into a single, still, 17-minute take tells us that McQueen is very skeptical about the project of providing representation for that kind of discussion in film. At the moment where the film comes closest to seeking adequacy to the particularities of the Irish predicament, McQueen refuses mise-en-scene. With the intense lyricism of the filming of Bobby’s last days, which features the first appearance of non-diegetic music and the idyllic imagining of Bobby’s story of the foal, along with Fassbender’s intense method acting, one leaves the cinema deeply aware that this was a film made by a director in a particular time, with actors in a particular time, speaking to viewers in their present and bodies in their present.
The crisis of humanism in our times undoubtedly originates in an experience of human inefficacy accentuated by the very abundance of our means of action and the scope of our ambitions. In a world where things are in place, where eyes, hands and feet can find them, where science extends the topography of perception and praxis even if it transfigures their space; in the places that lodge the cities and fields that humans inhabit, ranking themselves by varied groupings among the beings; in all this reality “in place,” the misconstruction of vast failed undertakings—where politics and technology result in the negation of the projects they guide—teaches the inconsistency of man, mere plaything of his works. The unburied dead of wars and death camps accredit the idea of a death with no future, making tragicomic the care for one’s self and illusory the pretensions of the rational animal to a privileged place in the cosmos, capable of dominating and integrating the totality of being in a consciousness of self.
McQueen takes a chance for humanism with his speaking to Bobby Sands in speaking about Guantanamo Bay. He is talking to a ghost in an attempt to understand the present. When we say Belfast is Guantanamo is Oakland, when we say Tunis is Cairo is Madison, aren’t we just speaking against the univocity of global capitalist imperialism that cause this human inefficacy–and speaking in favor of a future humanism to come in which we will be able to speak to these distant others in these distant places without metaphor, in a language that does not do violence?