Friday, April 29, 2011

make the familiar strange

Glenn Ligon, Untitled, 1992
When I have taught Black Boy to my 9th grade Honors classes, I have begun outside of the novel... first with the Prologue to Invisible Man.
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it it most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you're constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren't simply a phantom in other people's minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It's when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your firsts, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful. (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Random House: New York, 1947), pp. 3-4)
We read Zora Neale Hurston's piece, "How It Feels to Be Colored Like Me."
I do not always feel colored... I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background...

But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red, yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knifeblade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two, still a little fragrant. In your hand is the brown bag. On the ground before you is the jumble it held -- so much like the jumble in the bags, could they be emptied, that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the contents of any greatly. A bit of colored glass more of less would not matter. (Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels to Be Colored Like Me," 1928)
We also read a piece that comes from my Facing History and Ourselves course resource book. This short piece describes Jesus Colon's memory of failing to assist a white woman struggling with her children and luggage on the New York subway. He feels that he not only failed the woman and her children, but that "I failed myself. I buried my courtesy early on Memorial Day morning."

We also do a project making "Identity Boxes" -- using a shoebox to represent how others see you (outside of box) vs. how you see yourself (inside of box). Notwithstanding all of the other creative projects we do throughout the year, this particular one always seems to move the students the most. We brainstorm a web of identity on the board -- age, gender, race, likes/dislikes, birthplace, career, income, etc. The students begin to consider identity as something multi-faceted and fluid... and as deceptive -- parts of it visible and other parts of it so discreetly hidden that you yourself may not even know they are there. We talk about how identity changes from situation to situation, moment to moment... how you are a daughter at home and then a student at school and then a friend (or a a delinquent) after school.... and they see the layers, the mutations, the 'jumble.'

And where do words fit into all of this? Right in front, it seems. For, what are you when you are inside of that box, but you are simultaneously and most concretely -- physically, linguistically, contextually -- outside of that box? And it is the outside of this box that is plastered with words (often not emanating from you...unwanted words), with 'distorting mirrors' such that those around you 'see only [your] surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination'... when it is the outside of this box that causes you to be what you do not necessarily feel to be... when you are jumbled inside the brown bag but the bag is 'thrown against a sharp white background'... and it is in this the palpable, precisely spelled out contrast of black on white that all becomes reversed... that you exist in the words... but also slip into the spaces.

Once we are well into Black Boy, I begin class one day by projecting the Ligon image above on the board and asking the students first just to observe as much as they can in their journals without attempting to make any conclusions or inferences. "There is a lot to see," I say, the irony of the words ringing in my ears... echoing inside of my paper bag.

After they write alone, then discuss their observations with peers, we process together as a class. They start with the blurring of the words near the bottom of the image, the repetition of one single phrase, the odd line breaks. They often need to be guided towards the recognition of Ligon's sampling of Hurston's phrase, the time difference between her essay (and the use of the word colored) and the making of Ligon's image, the typography of the letters themselves (stencil-like.)

Nor do they always consider the statement about identity as one that only exists through the testimony of refutation.  It is a statement in the negative, affirming what its speaker is not, and only implying what he is. "If he does not always feel colored, then what is the implication?" I ask my students. That he usually does feel colored. He is what he is not... usually. Though sometimes he is what he is. And none of it is clear, as everything blurs at the bottom of the image, blurs at the repetition of the phrase in an attempt, perhaps, to legitimize, an invisible existence. As Ben Davis writes in his review of the current retrospective of Ligon's work at the Whitney, Ligon's art "does not sit easily within such clean lines. Almost all of his art functions as a kind of conceptual double-negative, engaging with the subject matter of identity only to undercut the supposition that he is saying something clear-cut about it, offering a loaded reference, and then holding it at ironic distance." (Ben Davis, "Glenn Ligon and Post-Civil Rights America,", Apr, 21, 2011)

Words obscure as much as they explicate. We announce. We posit. We state. We assert. We translate, justify, profess, proclaim, swear, confirm, contradict, and repeat. And while our identity may be fluid, our words "return compulsively to the same questions again and again." (Davis) In this particular case, Ligon does not even speak through his own words, but through borrowed phrases from Hurston (in this case), Ellison, and Baldwin. And his borrowed words do as much to complicate the issue as they do to reveal who he is. Our picture of Ligon is not any clearer after viewing his images, but perhaps our sense of the failings of language itself is. And then we peer at the surfaces and wonder what is being said 'between the lines,' everything existing in the silent moments amidst the conversation, the white absences on the page, the in-between that speaks "a first-person voice... while registering the denial and relentless silencing of that same voice." (Richard Meyer, "Borrowed Voices: Glenn Ligon and the Force of Language," in Judith Tannenbaum (ed.), Glenn Ligon: Unbecoming (Philadelphia: UPenn Institute of Contemporary Art, 1997)) 

How can we ever tell others who we are? How can we take a simple word like 'love' and define it? If it were so simple, then thousands upon thousands of pages would not be devoted to defining, expressing, encircling it. We even feel inadequate when we try to express our deepest emotion for another person through the overtaxed and insufficient phrase, "I love you." No, I am not trying to suggest that genuine love cannot be expressed in other ways. Through the simple touch of a hand upon a cheek. Through the devoted focused look into another's eyes. Yes, of course there are other ways. Communication exists on many levels. Yet, we must always return to words. And so often they complicate.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet (Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Act II, scene ii)
Or as Saussure explained: "The value of a word can never be determined except by the contribution of coexisting terms which delimit it: or, to insist on the paradox already mentioned: what is in the word is only ever determined by the contribution of what exists around it... You must approach the word from outside by starting from the system and coexisting terms." (Ferdinand de Saussure, "Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics," 1910) And so we end up speaking in blurred terms that obscure the white space in which we hover. The words gain meaning only by their neighboring words and hold no real significance in and of themselves.

Where are we located then? Or are we familiar only in the strange, estranged within the familiar? Perhaps we find ourselves in the daydream, in the fantastical supplement to reality which cannot be reduced to the semantic, the semiotic because "[i]f you seek simply the sententious or the exegetical, you will not grasp the hybrid moment outside the sentence --not quite experience, not yet concept; part dream, part analysis; neither signifier nor signified." (Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), pg. 181) In this space of fantasy -- at once guilt and pleasure -- in this 'problematic space' where meaning 'outside the sentence' is performed exists not one voice, but many. As Bhabha reveals, 'outside the sentence' does not exist in a dichotomous relationship with an inner voice. They are not clear and distinct polarities, just as black and white are not and become a blurred space of 'slippage' as the words become spatial. And in this ambivalence, in this 'third space' arises a new question "about the subject of discourse and the agency of the letter: can there be a social subject of the 'non-sentence'?" (Bhabha, pg. 183)... and is it this sort of contingent agency , this silent but resolute voice, that speaks through Ligon's work?

Bhabha writes of how we cannot look directly at words or text or visual articulation for meaning. Everything expressed remains incomplete and also implicates us in our desire to find meaning, to situate perception and difference definitively in the first place. And this desire "splits the difference between Self and Other so that both positions are partial; neither is sufficient unto itself." (Bhabha, pg.50) Words are opaque. Words navigate us to forget as much as they remind us to remember. To find ourselves, to place our voice, to listen to the subject beyond the narrative, we must travel "in the passage between telling/told, between 'here' and 'somewhere else'..." (Bhabha, pg. 150) to a place in which we feel fundamentally alienated and uncannily strange to ourselves.

In his poem, "A Man Meets a Woman in the Street," Randall Jarrell writes of how he follows a strange and beautiful woman, the embodiment of 'his type,' of a romanticized fantasy.
Imprinted upon me
Is the shape I run to, the sweet strange
Breath-taking contours that breathe to me: "I am yours,
Be mine!"
Like a very typical "everyman," he wishes for each day to be different... until the end of the poem when he admits/realizes he has been following his wife all along... until he decides to begin the day
Not with a man's wish: "May this day be different,"
But with the birds' wish: "May this day
Be the same day, the day of my life."
In our "thirst for inter-subjective confirmation of the self," in our desire to dispose of our own familiarity, of our all-too familiar selves, we seek the strange... and sometimes avoid "being" -- whether that being is "'human being'; 'being' as existence; 'being' as the carrier of an adjective (being married, being tall, being American -- having the qualities by which others know us); [or] 'being' inside (having a psyche)." (Stephen Burt, Randall Jarrell and His Age (New York: Columbia Press, 2002), pg. 47) Jarrell rediscovers familiarity by making it strange. And perhaps that is what is wonderful about the continual strangeness of language, of its inability to locate anything precisely, of its slippages and blurred spaces. It can always make us see anew. It can make the familiar strange again... and again.

Carson Fox, I Know About Your Broken Heart, wire, artificial hair, 25.5" x 106", 2004

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