In Place of a Conclusion - Question?
If the anecdotal French fry story I told earlier illustrates the banal as a site of negotiation and exchange, the strategy of "coverage" in this recent war also makes apparent the tangle of complicity between the monumental and banal. This tangle asks us to continue to render the relations between monument and banal detail deeply complex. The grandiose terms of this war - "Operation Iraqi Freedom" - already bespeak the master narrative upon which monumentality has historically been erected. But this operation and this monumental narrative were also thick with detail: an oceanic build-up of minutiae of daily life on a constantly running televisual "reality TV-scape" in which "embedded" journalists sent back details of soldier life on the front. We were given to read this latest war through a screen of anecdote - like a sandstorm of stories - culminating in the dragging down of the monument of Saddam Hussein.
At a recent Brown University conference in memory of Naomi Schor, Christie McDonald argued that the soldier anecdotes performed a kind of flip-side response to the "Portraits of Grief" that ran in the New York Times for the year following September 11, 2001. The Times "Portraits" had attempted in every case to find something extremely ordinary about each 9-11 victim. The portraits excavated stories about the way X would put the toothpaste on his wife's toothbrush every morning and leave it for her by the sink, or about the way Y would stroke his niece's hair while he told her fairy tales. That is, these deaths were memorialized though an oceanic build up of daily anecdote in which each victim was remembered not by grand acts or professional accomplishments, but by incidental particulars usually overlooked. Similarly, the war that followed was waged on U.S. sentiment through a barrage of visual and anecdotal detail. So massive was the televisual stockpile of images that the larger, more monumental project (world domination?) was perhaps "overlooked" by U.S. citizens in sentimental thrall to X and to Y as particular suffering soldiers. Here, arguably, the monumentalizing agendas of the war were both propped and obscured by the sandstorm of affective, sentimentalized, details leveled at the televisual screen on the home front under the rubric "LIVE."
Watching television, I began to formulate a question. Had we, the viewers, become monuments - rigidly fixed, seemingly unmoving, in front of our "sets" - overlooking what we saw (and overlooking the significance)? Had we, sometime voters, been bypassed? Before our screens, I felt myself rendered immobile. Seated on a sofa. Staring. Are images, now, the passersby and have we become forgettable sentinals of mythic actions past? If so, time to take action.
1. In his 1931 essay, Benjamin writes of how the naked eye cannot penetrate all details - even quite ordinary ones - of any scene. "We have no idea at all," he writes, "of what happens during the fraction of a second when a person steps out." Photography, however, "reveals the secret" (1979). Thus, photography, under materialist analysis, performs a kind of talking cure through provoking explication of ordinary, generally overlooked, details. That photography also makes the "fraction of a second" available to the archive is less important for Benjamin than the analysis that, through the photo, can be performed. This final point will hopefully gain in clarity as this essay progresses. [Return to text]
2. Richard Schechner defined performance in 1965 as "an ephemeral event" (1988). This approach to performance became a cornerstone of the emergent field of Performance Studies in the 1980s. Interestingly, ephemerality remains. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, another longstanding member of and influential thinker in the field, employed the term "ephemeral" in 1998 claiming that: "The ephemeral encompasses all forms of behavior - everyday activities, story telling, ritual, dance, speech, performance of all kinds" (1998, 30). In 1993, Peggy Phelan, building on Herbert Blau, read ephemerality as "disappearance," writing the often cited phrase "performance becomes itself through disappearance" (1993, 146). In an excellent 1996 essay, "Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts," José Esteban Muñoz turned the table on ephemerality to suggest that ephemera do not disappear, but are distinctly material. Muñoz relies on Raymond William's "structures of feeling" to argue that the ephemeral - "traces, glimmers, residues, and specks of things" - is a "mode" of "proofing" employed by necessity (and sometimes preference) by minoritarian culture and criticism makers (10). [Return to text]
3. Michel de Certeau's L'invention du quotidian was first published in 1974 (Vol. 1, Arts de faire). The book was translated to English as The Practice of Everyday Life in 1984. Naomi Shor published Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine in 1987. [Return to text]
4. For an image to accompany this excerpt, please click here. Another image can be accessed by going to the following link and typing in the phrase "muddy shoes underscore the weariness." [Return to text]
5. This is, of course, a methodological exercise in tandem with post-structuralism generally, though Schor is eager to point out how post-structuralist analysis (pre-1987) so often forgets the historical feminization of the debased detail in order to prop its new, and masculine, literary promise (Schor 6). [Return to text]
6. For Suite Home Chicago see the website. For Cows on Parade see the website. [Return to text]
Benjamin, Walter. "A Small History of Photography" in One-Way Street and Other Writings. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. London: New Left Books, 1979.
Blau, Herbert. Take Up The Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.
Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
Le Goff, Jacques. History and Memory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Miles, Malcolm. Art, Space and the City. New York: Routledge, 1997.
McDonald, Christie. "Grieving in Portraits." Paper presented at "The Lure of the Detail: A Conference in Honor of Naomi Schor" at Brown University's Pembroke Center. April 5, 2003.
Muñoz, José Esteban. "Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts." Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 8.2 (1996): 5-16.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Schneider, Rebecca. "Performance Remains." Performance Research 6.2 (2001).
Schor, Naomi. Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine. New York: Routledge, 1987.
Soja, Edward W. Third Space. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.