Bhanu Kapil's new book, Incubation: A Space for Monsters, has just been released from Leon Works. In anticipation for this work (of which I am waiting for in the mail from spd) I offer some thoughts on Kapil's previous volume from Kelsey St. Press, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.
Donald Preziosi defines modernity in a recent lecture given at MOCA in LA:
"Modernity is a relational term, co-existing dialectically with real or imagined pasts and futures. It has always been a utopian concept of time, staging a virtual present suspended between twin desires: between a romanticized and allegedly unfulfilled past, and a longed-for future of progressive empowerment....A present utopia in which past and future are staged as museological artifacts, in which the future is projected as the wish-fulfillment of what aims to reinvigorate that unfulfilled past...Modernity marks a mode of interruption; a discontinuity with what in hindsight are conventionally claimed as anterior states of continuous or continuing social, cultural, historical, political, ethical, and aesthetic development, evolution, or progress, whether real or imaginary...To cite ideas of modernity is to acknowledge sites of contestation which potentially threaten to reveal the very artifice itself of time, and history, chronology, and identity; even the very idea of the nation itself is a phantasm." (Preziosi, Pacified Modernities: Museum Culture as Civic Engagement: MOCA March 10-11, 2006)
Most importantly for this blog entry is the way in which this definition allows for us to acknowledge the relational extent to which our lives might be artificial, phantasmatic. This writing is concerned with how we might investigate what Preziosi termed "sites of contestation." How might we as community members, academics, and artists, investigate the artificialness of our lives? I suggest we look to Bhanu Kapil's Vertical Interrogation of Strangers as a way to think about all of this.
Vertical Interrogation begins with three specific gestures: an epigraph from Helen Cixous' Utopias, an introduction, and a list of questions. In different ways each of these gestures offers us a way of understanding and problematizing the ideas presented in Preziosi's definition. The Cixous quote, the first gesture, exemplifies much of what Preziosi suggests. The Quote:
"Because she arrives, vibrant, over and over again; we are at the beginning of a new history, or rather a process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one another. As a subject for history, woman always occurs simultaneously in several places. (In woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history.)
"I wished that women would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women, other unacknowledged sovereigns, might exclaim: I too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard of songs. Time and again, I too, have felt so full of luminous torrents I could burst--burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put in frames and sold for a stinking fortune."(Vertical Interrogation, Pg. 5 epigraph, excerpted fr. Helene Cixous' Utopias)
By beginning in this way, Vertical Interrogation seems to be staging or framing a specific modernity. "A new history, or rather process of becoming, " resembling the "mode of interruption" Preziosi brings to our attention. From this passage Vertical presents us with Cixous' utopic feminist modernity, one that surely interrupts and detaches women from some other modernity. I might wonder here if this "simultaneity" of blended history and subjectivity is Cixous' attempt at breaking from a patriarchal modernity that supports itself by rigorously attributing a hierarchical, linear, chronological and binaristic structure to its world. If the patriarchal mode has its own kind of modernity with its own "unfulfilled past" and "longed-for future" doesn't the feminist modernity Cixous presents exist in the same way? I want to imply in this statement that because of their similar aspects, of being both utopic modernities, they invite the possibility to share similar fates; both hold the potential to become unwittingly co-opted in polarized non-negotiations.
The second paragraph of the Cixous epigraph is a call for women to write this kind of modernity, this simultaneus interruption to which women and "other unacknowledged sovereigns" have access. Vertical Interrogation's first gesture then, is to forecast an interruption of one modernity by another: A feminist one, which simultaneously blends the subjectivities and histories of women, from a presumably patriarchal one. These ways of reading our world, be they a feminist modernity or a patriarchal one, are inevitably revealed by the numerous ways in which they are projected onto the forms of our world. However artificial, these perceptions and projections of modernities reside in the stuff of our lives. The objects, poems, artworks, fashions, etc. as well as the ideas and time we share are all bound and interspersed with our own modern conception. And so the Cixous quote ends fittingly, addressing the very real artifice of materiality, "burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put in frames and sold for a stinking fortune."
I want to offer the Cixous quote, as well as the next two gestures that begin Kapil's book, as a possible method and context of relational modernity as critique. And really, what is important to me here isn't necessarily identifying theories of modernity, although that could be useful, but rather how one puts to practice their own idea or perception of moderity in a transformatively critical way. The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers first gesture provides the stage for this critical performance. Cixous invokes a break, an "unfulfilled past and longed-for future," an idea of a nation or "unique empire," and suggests that this is related to aesthetic forms: objects, ideas. Preziosi's words become relevant, To cite ideas about modernity is to acknowledge sites of contestation which potentially threaten to reveal the very artifice of time, and history, chronology, and identity; even the very idea of the nation is a phantasm." Cixous is indicting a kind of beauty that is put into a frame (for who has been doing this framing) and at the same time is presenting us with a "site of contestation" that marks a specific convergence of modernities. Implied in this last phrase used in the Cixous quote beginning Vertical (as I will continue to call it) is the tangibly felt artifice of Cixous' modernity in relation to another's. I argue that within this acknowledgment of artifice lies transformative potential.
And thus ready to be transformed we reach the second gesture of Vertical: The Introduction. Many of the ways this book problematizes, or is an example of modernity as a critical device, rely on this Introduction.
In brief, the Introduction explains that for four years Bhanu Kapil "traveled in India, England, and the United States, interviewing Indian women of diverse ages and backgrounds." Kapil asked these women to respond to twelve questions she had predetermined. The interviews were written or recorded and lasted thirty minutes. She states that in editing the responses "she did not attempt to 'clean up' their roughness or rawness in terms of syntax or grammar, spelling, punctuation, or the way in which they filled the space of the page." Kapil continues by explaining that she also answered these questions herself, leaving them on places, on stickers, on scraps of paper, etc. This introduction (within the larger one composed of the aforementioned three gestures) has two main sections; both have concluding sentences referring to stages of the project's conception.
"The project as I thought it would be: an anthology of the voices of Indian women."
"The project as I wrote it: a tilted plane."
Between these last quotes, Kapil reveals ambiguities that impel us to question borders or interfaces relevant in aesthetics and authorship. Directly put to the question in this introduction is who the author might be. Is it Kapil, or is it the women she interviewed, or, maybe most importantly, is there a difference between the two? In fact, if we combine this question with the previous Cixous epigraph it might suggest the "simultaneity" of a feminist modernity. The least of which this introduction does is to call into question the very troubling idea in western aesthetic thought of what/who or when is an author? If we cannot specifically call Bhanu Kapil the author of this work, what then might we label her as? Editor? Curator? Collector? Idiosyncratic collector?
What then constitutes authorship? What constitutes an anthology? What does it mean to question such seemingly obvious and culturally prolific constructions? This gesture, towards specific ambiguity could be an acknowledgement of our world, our current modernity in relation to others, as artifice and therefore a world able to be transformed, and mythologically broken away from.
David Harvey's Essay "Modernity as Break" proves useful in demonstrating how Vertical's introduction makes the book an appropriate subject for a performative investigation. Harvey addresses two sides of the discussion around modernity. In his words, the first side, "One of the myths of modernity is that it constitutes a radical break with the past." And, "The alternative theory of modernization (rather than modernity), due initially to Saint-Simon and very much taken to heart by Marx, is that no social order can achieve changes that are not already latent within its existing condition." These two sides converge in what Harvey terms "Creative Destruction". He writes, "So if modernity exists as a meaningful term, it signals some decisive moments of creative destruction." The essay describes in detail how, in the years following 1848 in Paris, a Creative Destruction overtook the city. He explains the work of Baudelaire, Flaubert, Daumier, and Haussmann, illuminating how their massive revolutionary undertakings break with that which preceded them, as well as showing how all of these men followed in the lineage of Balzac. By acknowledging this lineage, Harvey exposes what was latent in 1848 Paris. Harvey is providing us with a way to see both the latent conditions Marx and Saint-Simon speak of and the Myth of the Break that is necessary for revolution.
As I pointed out earlier, the Cixous epigraph implies a feminist utopian modernity that breaks from a patriarchal mode. While the epigraph provides us with a Myth of the Break necessary for revolution, Vertical's introduction elaborates on a collaborative and dialogic method for looking into what might be latent in a population. My effort here is to keep the massive scale of the previously mentioned Parisian projects in mind in this entry because I don't believe they have ever left. They loom as refurbished furniture, their revolution commodified and reproduced with new fabric. I posit though that with this notion of creative destruction in mind, Kapil's work finds a transformative critique through an investigative socio-poetic modernity. Vertical investigates the latency that she as the participant, author, editor, curator, et al. or none, suspects to exist in the multiplicitous and simultaneous convergence of post-colonial Indian women. The evidence of what is latent resides in the questions and answers of Kapil and the women interviewed. Kapil, through the nomadic collaborative gesture of interviewing and recording this social group, intuits the possibility of "render[ing] very visible, processes of change in an embryonic state."(Harvey, Paris: Capital of Modernity)
In this reading I am attempting to understand Vertical as Creative Destruction. Before a reader gets to the first response they are equipped with the Myth of the Break (Cixous epigraph) and the promise of what is latent in the population by the books investigatory position (the introduction). And so here just before the reader sets out into the text body, (these gestures being limbs, possibly to allow for the most flexible movement of the body) Kapil provides us with the third gesture (limb): The list of questions.
"1. Who are you and whom do you love?
2. Where did you come from / how did you arrive?
3. How will you begin?
4. How will you live now?
5. What is the shape of your body?
6. Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?
7. What do you remember about the earth?
8. What are the consequences of silence?
9. Tell me what you know about dismemberment?
10. Describe a morning you woke without fear?
11. How will you / have you prepare(d) for your death?
12. And what would you say if you could?"
As they are framed in nomadic, post-colonial, deeply personal, difficult, and introspective ways, these questions stem more from Kapil's "tilted plane," than an "anthology of the voices of Indian women." In their idiosyncratic selection, Kapil problematizes the positions of Cixous' utopian feminist vision by removing it from the realm of the theoretical and translating it into the world of her experience. What is ulimately relevant is how this idiosyncratic, experiential, and poetic version of Cixous' utopia cannot be easily categorized or periodicized as simply another modernity. Here Bhanu acknowledges her own subjectivity as the nomad interviewer, translator, collector and curator. Through these twelve questions the reader is left suspended between the idealized version of a blending of every woman, and a specific human subjectivity.
The third (limb) gesture of Vertical also presents the architecture for investigating what might be a potentially powerful force latent in this social group. It is within the answers to these twelve questions that a Myth of a Break gestates. I return to Donald Preziosi's lecture, his conclusion states:
"Reckoning with our embeddedness within this world order entails foregrounding its artifice so as to articulate more powerfully nuanced possibilities for engaged civic responsibility. This is at base an ethical issue, entailing a permanent critique of one's own historical era and its artifice: modernity not as periodization, but as critique: as mode of continually reconfiguring our relationships to our own present."
Kapil, in her preconception of a poetic experiential project(ion) has equipped a reader with the tools of seeing modernity the way Preziosi so succinctly describes, "as critique." The three gestures (limbs): the epigraph, the introduction and the twelve questions combine to form an admittedly "tilted" entrance into an idiosyncratic and nomadic museum. For readers, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, provides the "creatively destructive" occasion that is "continually reconfiguring our relationships to our own present."