SAA 2014: St. Louis

Rising WatersSo many pleasures at SAA, and so many lingering, insinuating questions. As I was leaving, the music of an imaginary Q&A echoed in my head. I wonder if anyone else heard it? A gentle espirit d’escalier that drapes itself over tired professorial shoulders and sounds in imagination-crammed ears, as we’re waiting to board homeward-bound jets?

Still-audible voices wafted me home through crowded planes and airports.


With Shanti during Irene

In retrospect, I was a bit jumpy this year. The paper session I organized on “Catastrophic Ecologies” is near to my heart as well as my academic work, and I wanted people to like it. My visual aid, a slideshow of pictures of New York City and my neighborhood in Connecticut during Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, trespassed somewhat on academic decorum. I wanted the images to comprise a parallel text of catastrophic aesthetics alongside my reading of Antony and Cleopatra. The slideshow rolled through its forty-odd pictures five or six times during the talk. I wonder how many audience members noticed that one picture was of me, in shorts and sandals, holding my dog in my arms? She’d run barking out of the house toward the flooded street at the end of Hurricane Irene, and I was carrying her home.

(In a can’t-make-it-up coincidence, the rescued dog’s name, Shanti, figured in Diana Henderson’s Presidential Address. She quoted the name from her primary poetic intertext, St. Louis native T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which ends with the Sanskrit word for peace: shanti shanti shanti. That’s the poem from which we lifted the dog’s name – with the intended joke that a puppy brings love but not peace to a busy household, plus a happy near-pun on sea shanties.)

There was a lot of humanity amid the Shakespeare this year. Autobiographical musings filled the Plenary Session and Presidential Addresses, from erotic fantasies in (about?) the Folger vault to mayhem at MIT. The session on Shakespeare and the Humanities brought the Hegel harder that I expected, but I think it was seeking the human side of the human sciences, wanting to know what moves us. That’s what I want to know, too.Short Beach

As always, I flew home chewing on what felt like a too-small slice of SAA. I missed most of the surging tide of Digital Humanities projects, though I did talk about some at the bar. I was taxi-ing to the airport during sessions on Auerbach and on Feminism, but the helpful #shakeass14 hashtag informed me that they featured human stories too. I hesitate to mention the brilliant scholar who fainted during her talk, except to say that in that shocking instant, our knowledge of the dependence of intellect on the physical body was frighteningly redoubled. Even Shakespeareans are human creatures, it turns out. (I’m relieved to say that she reported feeling much better an hour or so later.)

One of the best questions I got after the Flood talk was from a UCSB grad student named Chris Foley, who noted that my swimmer poetics, which puts little bodies into vast seas, emphasizes individual experience, possibly at the expense of human collectivity. That was the question I lingered over throughout the conference.

2014-04-09 08.07.15I’m not altogether sure you can have one without the other. Fleeting entanglements of individuals into and out of collectives make up the great Lucretian / Latourian dances of matter and of society. I want both!

But the collectives I’ve been mulling are academic as much as ecological. There are few collectivity-making machines that I like more than SAA. Each year I rejoin a not-quite-the-same body of shared thinkers, teachers, and writers. Whatever niggling doubts I sometimes entertain about hyper-canonicity or Shakespeare exceptionalism – why not Middleton? Why not Nashe? — mostly vanish in a happy haze of cocktails and conversations.

I loved giving the Flood talk in the catastrophe collective. It was great to share the podium with Randall Martin’s humane exploration of gunpowder ecology in Macbeth, and to listen to Simon Palfrey bring the stylistic fireworks with his fictionalized fragments bursting out of the same play, voiced by Abigail Rokison and co-written with Ewan Fernie. One idea of the session – I wonder how well this sort of thing communicates across a crowded hall – was to push experimental forms within Shakespeare studies, and to splash around in atypical histories, images, and fictions. We wanted the difference-machine of ecological thinking to change our formal as well as analytical methods.

Rivers sharks in the Mississippi

Rivers sharks in the Mississippi are actually floating logs

There was lots of meta-commentary at the conference around the shapes of our profession, past and present. Many people engaged a now-perennial debate: “We must historize, or…what did you say was our other option?” I wonder what an unapologetic pluralism might look like. Historicism is a powerful, indispensable archive and set of tools – but no single key unlocks the kingdom. Wanting to do things with Shakespeare in the world may require a willingness to be errant, to stray, to make discoveries.

SAA collectives are affective and intellectual, human bonds that assemble voluntarily (mostly) and disperse more or less the same way. Political action wasn’t my topic this year, but its imperatives demand attention.

The political questions that we academics must respond to today, it seems to me, are practical and institutional: redressing adjunctification, promoting equitable pay and stable employment, and reshaping humanities departments in a shifting cultural-economic landscape.

Some of my happiest moments at the conference came when I was talking with grad students. I heard a few job-related success stories, which amazing achievements are always welcome in the current climate, and talked about many great projects. The larger professional picture remains grim, but I find it hard to despair altogether about a profession that is helping to produce such smart, self-aware, sophisticated, resourceful thinkers. One task of those of us with stable jobs is to build systems worthy of such excellence inside and beyond the university.

I want a Shakespeare studies that might still speak with the dead but also addresses hurricanes and the squeeze of economic disenfranchisement. I want to confront these forces in varied languages that include the aesthetic, the performative, the overtly playful, and the utopian. Among many others!

2014-04-09 07.57.10I suppose it reveals my lack of activist fire that I turn invitations to rekindle the Marxist fire into experiments in form. I recognize that institutional problems require collective solutions, and I’m a happily paid-up member of both the faculty unions on my home campus. But at the end of the day, the force of Shakespeare (and even of Radical Tragedy) for me is aesthetic as well as political.

I’m left recalling an odd departure, the peregrinations of the two-part “Object Oriented Environs” seminar led by Jeffrey Cohen and Julian Yates. (As usual, Jeffrey beat me to the blog.) After whipping their participants into a collective froth of intellectual ferment, with provocations provided by respondents Julia Lupton, Drew Daniel, Eileen Joy, and Vin Nardizzi, the seminar took a collective step back, paused, opened its doors (against SAA regulations, I believe), and took a short walk outside the room. Some participants rode the escalators up and down. This quirky and compelling performance reminded everyone that “openness” need not only be a metaphor.

Looking forward to Vancouver already!Beach


Red Velvet at St. Ann’s


Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge's Moor

Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge’s Moor

Live theater is a machine for intensifying emotion. The show I saw last night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO poured me into my northbound drive home quivering with feeling.

Red Velvet stages scenes from the life of Ira Aldridge, the first African-American actor to play major Shakespearean roles in New York, London, and on the continent from the 1820s – 1860s. Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, which debuted in London eighteen months ago, is directed by Indhu Rubasingham and stars a brilliant, raging Adrian Lester as Aldridge. Theater, this play insists, runs on ambition and emotion. It forces rawness out of human bodies all the way to the back row. I’m still feeling it today.

Formal acting style

Formal acting poses

The core scenario, told inside a pair of flashbacks that present an older Aldridge playing a solo tour in remote Poland, has the young fireball replacing the sick Edmund Kean. The legendary English actor had been playing Othello in blackface to packed houses in Covent Garden. When he can’t go on, the theater manager, a Frenchman with radical politics in his background (Eugene O’Hare), brings in Aldridge to play the Moor. The Kean family company, including the great man’s son, Charles (Oliver Ryan), and Charles’s finacee, Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), respond to the the radical idea of a dark-skinned actor with a range of different attitudes, from tentative support among the younger members to outright revolt from Charles Kean. Ellen Tree, cast as Desdemona and also Charles Kean’s fiancee, is willing to rehearse. They choose the post-storm reunion of Othello and Desdemona on Cyprus (2.1).  In a wonderfully delicate theatrical back-and-forth, she eventually responds to Aldridge’s fireball charisma. They play a few nights to packed houses before virulent, racist reviews shut them down.

The political parable of elite hypocrisy — the older members of the Kean family don’t believe in slavery, mostly, but they do like plenty of sugar in their tea, even though they know about the conditions on sugar plantations — generates its heat as a tale of two acting styles. Ellen Tree as Desdemona and Charles Kean as Iago perform through classical mannerisms, striking poses and staring out at the audience rather than looking at the other actors. Aldrige’s Moor poses too, but he also reaches out his arms and touches them, insisting that they look at his face. Acting is feeling, he tells them. They’ve got to see you feeling it.

The confrontation between Charles Kean and Ira Aldrige drives the son temporarily out of his father’s company. As the unquestioned lead Aldridge lights a fire that can’t be controlled. The first act closes a wonderfully intense performance of the handkerchief scene (3.4) by Aldridge and Tree that’s a breakneck master’s class in acting technique. Watch her strike a pose! Watch his eyes seek out hers! They circle warily. She plays the verse’s rhythm like a perfectly tuned instrument. He barges through some of his lines. But now she distracted! He can’t bear to look when she mentions Cassio’s name! “There’s magic in the web of it,” says the Moor about the missing handkerchief. The magic, this play tells us, surges out of their bodies into the seated bodies in the dark house. The feeling communicates itself through words and eyes and movement. It’s hard to tell what controls it. Maybe it’s that magic square of missing cloth. “The handkerchief” thunders Aldridge as the curtain closes.

Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge's Moor

Rehearsing the murder

I spent the interval hoping that they’d bring Charles Kean back into the company so that I could watch Adrian Lester go toe-to-toe with Oliver Ryan, blazing charisma against controlled form, emotion flowing into reticence, modern against classical acting styles. It didn’t happen, and maybe it would not have worked; certainly the ambivalent relationship sketched between Aldridge and Ellen Tree had a delicacy that such a direct confrontation could not have matched.

The best element in the second half was the opening up of Connie, the Jamaican maid played by Natasha Gordon. She spent the first half of the show pouring tea, listening to sanctimony from the liberal English actors and staying as silent as Chekov’s gun. She went off in the second act when she was alone on stage with Aldridge. “Why did you kill your wife?” she accuses. I took the point to be that if acting works through emotion, emotions so powerful as to reach the high balconies and cheap seats, then Aldrige’s method is about killing his wife, repeatedly, every night. One of the scandals that the racist newspapers peddles, that Ellen Tree as Desdemona has bruises on her arm where Adridge’s Moor grabbed her, becomes in Connie’s hyper-literalism the logical end-point of theatrical intensity. Emotions crave to be made flesh.

The frame-story shows a grand but sick old Aldridge in Poland, proud of the honors he’s received from the Czar, alienated from the London stage from which he was excluded. (Chakrabarti finesses the details of his stage career, but for good dramatic purpose.) The solitary actor lacks co-stars, not to mention a revolutionary French production manager to get him onto the big stage. Being interviewed by a feisty young Polish  reporter, played by Rachel Finnegan, who also plays the actor’s English wife earlier in the show, he slowly makes himself up in whiteface, wig, robe, and crown to play his next role, “the King.” Staring out at the audience as if we were all his evil daughters, he roared out his aging-lion final lines:

They are not men of their words!

They told me I was everything. (4.6)

I can still feel the force of it. Get down to St. Ann’s before April 20th.Lester 2


Practicing the Future of Shakespeare Studies (Columbia, March 7)

We gobbled up the feast of futurity at the Columbia Faculty House yesterday, thanks to the inspired organizational labors of Zoltan Marcus and Ashley Streeter, and the provocative papers of, from morning til afternoon, Mario Di Gangi, Zach Lesser, Alan Stewart, Margaret Litvin, Jean Howard, Ayanna Thompson, W. B. Worthen, and Adam Zucker. Ancillary commentary provided by session chairs, which were Andras Kisery, me, Naomi Leibler, and Tanya Pollard. Plus an amazingly large and engaged audience for a long Friday of talking and thinking!

At day’s end we were all asked to pronounce final thoughts on the future as we see it, in under two minutes. Here’s what I said, ventriloquizing everything I’d heard into a common voice –

These are some things Shakespeareans like (taken out of order):

1. eccentricity

2. shifting scales

3. “partial” historicism

4. dialectical historicism

5. “unfixed” things

6. Databases

7. Digital Humanities

8. disidentification

9. mediated authorship

10. communities of practice

11. co-writing

12. porous skins

13. the “social”

14. postprint Shakespeare

15. remediation

16. France

17. the word “niddicocke”

18. jokes we can’t quite understand

Plus a shorter list of things we don’t like:

1. passive consumption of social science

2. naive empiricism (though empiricism as such is OK)

3. anecdotalism

4. single authorship

5. Prospero-to-Caliban models of influence

6. evolutionary psychology (mostly)

7. small, homogenous sample sizes

8. textual transcendentalism

9. “perfect mastery”

And one big thing about which opinions are mixed, qualified, and otherwise in flux –

1. Historicism (!)

I especially like that, in my unreliable summary, the future contains twice as many things to like as to dislike. The overwhelming spirit of the event, tangible to me even through the nasty head cold I was fighting all day, was of generosity: if not quite, O brave new future!, than at least with real curiosity and without any desire to trammel up the consequence and skip past any of the narratives beginning to unfold.

I was somewhat struck by the relative absence of some of my own hobby (sea-)horses, especially ecocritical and “new materialist” modes (some of which I’ll talk about on Wednesday at Hofstra), though Mario did start us off with a smart quick engagement with Jane Bennet via affect theory.

No single day or small group of speakers can predict the future, of course, and throwing darts at Shakespeare’s moving image may be a fool’s errand. But the erudition, wit, sympathy, and passion displayed yesterday made me quite optimistic about the next 450 years of Shakespeare studies.



#RisingWaters, Pirate Utopias, Antony and Cleopatra: Talk at Hofstra March 12

#rising watersNext Wed March 12, I’ll be giving a talk at Hofstra University about flood, storms, Shakespeare, and disorderly utopias. With pictures!

The talk will be held in the Spiegel Theater, Room 0150, at Hofstra University, from 11:20 am – 12:40 pm. Open to the public — please come!

Here’s a little taste out of the opening –

Catastrophes demand responses. It may not be practical to answer Superstorm Sandy with photographs, pirates, or Shakespeare – but faced with disaster we must respond. We also want to rebuild, but that’s a lesson that perhaps Antony and Cleopatra can help us unlearn. This talk seeks in Shakespeare’s Mediterranean tragedy a model of the conflict between ordering fictions and flood. It examines Shakespeare in dialogue with contemporary ecological theory and in front of a slide-show of images from hurricane Sandy, including some from the amazing Rising Waters show currently at the Museum of the City of New York. My contention this morning is that the play’s tragic structure contains a vision of enmeshed survival, an impossible anthropotechnics of watery coexistence. The titular lovers span the land-sea boundary – Antony as dolphin, Cleopatra as crocodile – but today I’ll unpack through the sea-lord Pompey a less tragic and more oblique response to the surrounding water. Utopian piracy models a risky and unstable engagement with water and land that I explore under the sign of “swimmer poetics.” It’s a way of being-in-catastrophe that leaves the taste of salt on skin, asking for porous rather than rigid boundaries. Searching for a necessary futurity within destructive change, Pompey’s mastery of oceanic flux invites us to expand the politics and poetics of flood beyond the Nile valley. The play’s structural entwining of pirate utopia and watery dissolution proposes no sustainable plan for rebuilding. Instead, it gestures toward tactics of post-sustainability for enduring catastrophic immersion.

Here's the flyer

Here’s the flyer

My talk hazards the claim that this play’s urgent and doomed efforts to reconcile humanity to inhuman spaces speaks to present ecological dilemmas, and in particular to our recent floods. I assert, more in hope than anxiety, that literary criticism can develop a flexible language to respond to our new century’s rapid-fire environmental disasters. I will begin by re-reading one of the most famous speeches in the play as an ecological lament. Mark Antony’s exhortation, “Let Rome in Tiber melt” (1.1.34), floods the eternal city with a melancholy environmental vision. From an ecological view, Rome will melt into the Tiber, as New York will slide into the Atlantic – it’s just a question of time. Reconsidering catastrophic floods as violent encounters with nonhuman environments brings human bodies in intimate touch with disaster. Connecting this dramatic pattern to multiple eco-theoretical models, including Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, Peter Lamborn Wilson’s pirate utopias, Peter Sloterdijk’s global spherologie, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s prismatic ecology, I explore flood as the inhospitable matrix of Antony and Cleopatra. Pompey’s domination of the sea and his alliance with “famous pirates” such as Menas presents a fantasy of sympathetic encounters between human bodies and alien oceans. Pirate utopias are not comfortable places, and in fact they may not be places at all, in the sense of stable locations toward which we can steer ships. The utopian vision captured in Pompey’s boast, “The people love me, and the sea is mine” (2.1.9), responds to catastrophe with mobility and desire. We need Pompey’s loving cry. I know I need it. Each day, I look out from battered shorelines, walk through changed seascapes, imagine the next storm roaring up the street that I’m walking down, near the little beach on Long Island Sound where I live. I want to say what Pompey says, but I’m not sure I can.


Antony & Cleopatra at the Public

A&C3About half a minute into the performance, when  Jonathan Cake’s impossibly tall and shirtless Antony strained heavenward while commanding Rome to melt into the Tiber, my eleven-year old daughter Olivia, seeing the play for the first time, whispered to me: “This guy is completely insane.”

She loved the show, which calmed down after a frenetic start — but she also had a point. Divine intoxication, giddy love, prophecies, Caribbean music, the loyalties of shrewd underlings from Menas to Enobarbus: the best parts of this production grabbed things and then tossed them aside. “Here is my space!” Antony roared. For this production, the space was Saint-Dominique, 18th century Haiti before the revolution, complete with lovely creole music and a final turn by Enobarbus as voodoo ghost.

Toto Bissainthe

Toto Bissainthe

With a cast of nine, it was the most intimate Antony & Cleopatra I’ve seen. Roaming around the small space of the Public’s renovated theater, the bi-national cast — four Brits and five Americans, under the direction of McArthur grant wunderkind Tarell Alvin McCraney — worked multiple parts to bring the emotional intensity. Maybe the most engaging element of the show was the four-piece band that played in an upper corner of the stage, including a haunting, repeated version of “Dey” by the 20c Haitian singer Toto Bissainthe. (Click the link and listen!) It’s become standard-issue to stage this play in the British colonial Empire, and dressing the Romans in 18c European costumes wasn’t the freshest move I’ve seen. But I enjoyed the sonic shift to Francophone Haiti, and especially the music.A&Cposter

The most radical changes to the text, beyond the usual assortment of cuts, involved Chukwid Iwuji’s Enobarbus. He opened the play by narrating, from a position in the audience, the famous description of the barge Cleopatra sat in, “like a burnished throne” (2.2.200-27). Throughout the play Enobarbus served as narrator and scene-changer, as well as Rome’s primary Egypt-praiser. Even his death, in which he bemoaned his treachery to Antony until his heart broke, did not stop him from continuing to announce the final scenes as a ghost. He also spoke two major speeches that the play gives to other characters. He appropriated the Roman solider Philo’s opening attack on Antony, “Nay, but this dotage of our general’s / O’erflows the measure” (1.1.1-10), which Enobarbus spoke a little later in the action, after a short scene introducing the lovers. Finally, at the end, Enobarbus grabbed Caesar’s play-closing lines, “No grave on earth shall clip in it / A pair so famous’ (5.2.355-65). These additions to his part seem strange to me: Enobarbus, who not incidentally was the only actor of African descent to play a Roman part, though all the Egyptian-Haitians were dark-skinned, clearly seemed intended to span the cultural divide. When he (as Philo) attacked Antony’s folly just after he (as Enobarbus) had celebrated Cleopatra, I felt the dissonance. I like imagining Enobarbus as the emotional heart of the play, and Iwuji’s performance was charismatic and persuasive. Perhaps he was asked to do too many different things? Or was that the point? That living in and loving both sides of this pre-colonial bi-cultural drama is always too much?

Egyptians and Enobarbus

The driving force of this play is always  the two lovers, and here I think the Anglo-American cast worked well. Unlike the Bridge Project, which at times seemed  an exercise in showing off British strengths and American weaknesses, the combination here of the tall, commanding, English figure of Cake’s Antony against the short, dark, powerfully empathetic first-generation Angolan-American Joaquina Kalukango as Cleopatra was great. At first the height differential was so vast as to seem ludicrous — this Antony could almost look his Cleopatra in the eyes while on his knees before her — but the actors played up each other’s forcefulness. Each was most effective when lamenting the other’s absence: Antony in Rome telling Egyptian tall-tales, and Cleopatra back in Egypt, imagining the “happy horse” that bears the weight of Antony.

Mr Darcy might say of this Antony that he smiled too much, but I think Jonathan Cake’s gorgeous smile — wide, gleaming, inviting — made his performance. Why not have one other gaudy night, he seemed to say? A cure for all his sad captains, Cake’s Antony bounded across the stage, performing rage and botched suicide when necessary, but at his best when smiling.


Caesar dancing

Joaquina Kulukango’s Cleopatra lacked height, and perhaps political gravitas — the small scale of the production emphasized emotional connections, not realpolitik — but I loved her fast-changing emotional power. Olivia’s favorite scenes involved Cleopatra and the Roman messenger, who was coached in how to describe Antony’s new Roman wife Octavia by an Egyptian character who might be Alexas (as in the text) but was played by the same actor as the Soothsayer and Mardian the eunuch. Why not play along, coached this Egyptian figure, who also sang the Haitian music at other points in the production? Why not just play? The core temptations of this Haitian Egypt were music, water, and volatility.

They lose the world to Caesar, who never smiles and never plays, but really the world always belongs to Caesars. Samuel Collings as Octavius was direct, well-dressed, and narrow in both physical form and in attention. Perhaps his strongest moment came after Antony’s death, when he came onto a stage full of mourners and asked, “Which is the Queen of Egypt?” (5.2.111). He was all focus, no distractions. What difference  could it make to him which one was Cleopatra?

The worst cut of the production was the Clown, who never showed up in the final scene.  Charmian brought in the asps in water, hold the figs, and I was disappointed because I’d been looking forward to seeing Kulukango’s intense focus directed one last time at a disorderly subject. She hit Cleopatra’s “immortal longings” perfectly: still, haughty, tense as a guitar string. I would have liked to have seen her work harder for release.

Overall, great stuff, especially the music and the two mad leads. Get down to Lafayette St before March 23! A&C1


Instructions (for Oceanic New York)

Back when it was really cold out, wedged between #RisingWaters and “Cry, Trojans,” I had a great visit with Marina Zurkow to discuss our collaboration for the Oceanic New York book. I’ve been meaning to write up my notes since then. Busy times!

As treasures start rolling in from Oceanic depths, I’m thinking more about the shape of this book project. There’s no way to capture the fluid dynamism of the event itself – but formal play and poetic experiments can gesture toward that multiplicity in different media. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway.

My notes say Marina & I were thinking about “Instructions” as a generic term — I was thinking about Marvell’s political satire “The Last Instructions to a Painter” (1657), and Marina was talking about a project she’s working on with Una Chaudhuri that will appear, in some form, at BABEL 2014. In the Oceanic New York context, I like the idea of instructions as imperatives: this is what we must do now, in our watery city. Not to save it, but to live in it.

So: a half-dozen waterlogged thoughts, based on my notes from 1/23/2014:

1. To make marshlands a pastoral space, add boats. Plus some shepherds. A few songs?

2. Look closely at asphalt borders: curbs, potholes, parking spaces, driveways. The way in is the same as the way out.

3. The best way for making soft edges on squares is friction. Lots of friction.

4. Look at Newtown Creek and see History. (Ignore the smell.)

5. If you’re floating in an inflatable raft in Buttermilk Channel during a hundred-year’s flood, and you’re blowing as hard as you can into a little plastic nozzle in order to keep the raft full and buoyant, you’re matching two fluid flows against each other. The idea is to use the flow of air from your lungs into the plastic raft to counter the flow of salt water into New York Harbor. It might be possible, for a little while.

6. Drowning, as Sebastian Junger explains in The Perfect Storm, is a form of radical experimentation, being up against the “Zero-Limit Point.” “Holding our breath is killing us,” Junger reasons the body might say to itself when underwater, “and breathing in might not kill us, so we might as well breathe in” (142). He’s describing New York City as well as George Clooney.

At some point I’ll want to think more about porousness, marshlands, that messy mid-point between Utopia Parkway and dystopian visions. There will be more instructions to come. Maybe some swimming lessons too?


Pig Iron’s Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night banner (spray) The aggressive, over-the-top staging of Maria’s wedding to Sir Toby near the end of Pig Iron’s great production of Twelfth Night down in the Lower East Side almost ended up with Charleigh Parker’s big body in her wedding gown — an inspired bit of casting to see a true “giant” in this role —  lurching into my too-long legs as they stretched out into the aisle. Parker’s Maria  launched herself down from the stage and I pulled back my legs as she blasted up the aisle. It was that sort of show: loud, fun, physical, not just in your face but almost in my lap. I’ve never seen this wedding staged before, never felt a production so clearly committed to putting the gullers and drinkers at the play’s heart.

Minute to minute the show floated for over three hours on sheer brilliance from The Only Band in Illyria, a six-piece wonder of Balkan gypsy magic.

Sir Toby

Sir Toby

The band started up right in front of my seat in the front row and played for 20 minutes or so before the opening curtain. Violin, stand-up bass, accordion, two different drums, tuba, and trumpet. During the show the musicians kept hiding under staircases & popping out to punctuate the comedy. I bought the CD at the interval & listened on the foggy ride home. My favorite tune, of course, is “Salt Water Thief” — but it’s hard not to love “Nothing But Madman (Toby’s Tango).”

I’ve seen a lot of good productions of this play, including two brilliant all-male versions, from Propeller and more recently the Globe’s traveling version with Mark Rylance. Pig Iron didn’t hit Propeller’s melancholy, and none of the players quite matched Rylance’s coiled-spring intensity. But the fun they (and we) had! I especially loved the company’s principal members, director Dan Rothenberg, James Sugg as a wonderfully louche Sir Toby, Dito van Relgersburg as a towering Orsino who managed to be both charismatic and goofy. Sir Andrew sported a faux-hawk and rode a tricycle to deliver his challenge to Cesario: really, what’s not to like?

The Only Band in Illyria

The Only Band in Illyria

Sir Andrew, Olivia, Maria

Sir Andrew, Olivia, Maria, Cesario

The Times review seems to have fallen under the spell of Chris Torn’s Malvolio and his slow burn-into-rage in the final moments. I was more taken by his first smile, when reading Maria’s letter has convinced him that his mistress loves him. He reads in a post-script that she wants him to smile, and so he tries, painfully, slowly, the movements spreading, cracking, opening up his face. It made him look like a fool — but that’s the best thing to be in this play.

Nothing quite like a truly festive comedy. Get down to Grand Street before Sunday if you can!




You Must Change Your Life: Sloterdijk’s “anthropotechnics”

You Must Change I’ve been looking for the last piece of the theoretical puzzle for the shipwreck book, and I think this big book on “anthropotechnics” might help me out. Peter Sloterdijk’s not writing about catastrophe, nor about the early modern ocean, but his focus on practice and vertical distinctions, on “the distinction between the practising and the untrained” (3) strikes a chord. “It is time,” Sloterdijk writes, “to reveal humans as the beings who result from repetition” (4). “[T]he future should present itself under the sign of the exercise” (4). He’s not writing about seamanship or the shaping force of maritime labor exactly, but…

By anthropo-technics, Sloterdijk means a labor of self-shaping, of cultivating a repeated practice or set of habits as a way to transform or transfigure the human condition. It’s a “de-spiritualisation of asceticism” (61), a form of “acrobatics” (125) or a reworking of “philosophy as athletics” (194-96). Self-shaping labors create a bridge between natural limits and cultural forms: “In truth, the crossing from nature to culture and vice versa has always stood wide open. It leads across an easily accessible bridge, the practising life” (11).

The models for these techniques come from ancient monastic and athletic orders, but the rebirth Sloterdijk uncovers comes through a series of late 19c figures: Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” from which he gets his title; Nietzsche’s Ubermensch as bridge or transition; Foucault’s “care of the self”; Kafka’s “Hunger Artist“; even the revitalization of the Olympics in 1896. At times this somewhat rambling book, which touches on a massive variety of references, from Hercules at the cross-roads (“the primal ethical scene of Europe” 417) to post-Communist eastern Europe, implies that this human-shaping process is distinctly modern, or at least that its forms are changing as we enter the 21c. For Sloterdijk, Nietzsche alone in the later 19c “unconditionally embraced the primacy of the vertical” (177), and it is that vertical impulse, the desire for self-mastery, and the consequent “de-passivizing” (195) of human existence, that this book celebrates.

I don’t buy the now-you-see-it historicist novelty, but the value Sloterdijk’s analysis accords to incremental efforts of skill and practice that gradually, perhaps invisibly, shape the way the body engages its nonhuman environment, seems important. I think of the ocean-going sailor, that favorite literary symbol from Odysseus to Ishmael, and the way these figures use technology-driven alliances, networks, human and nonhuman creatures and objects working in concert and in tension to survive in unfriendly waters. The mariner’s metis is an anthropotechnic practice, though perhaps it owes more to its surrounding environment than, say, the acrobat’s balance.Apollo

Reading seamanship in moments of crisis as an anthropotechnics, an attempt to follow the unrefusable command the fractured torso of Apollo gives Rilke — you must change your life – suggests that shipwrecked sailors shape themselves in two senses: they become vessels of survival, body-sized rafts in turbulent waters, and they also become vessels of meaning, symbolic buoys in violent seas. Think of Ishmael, on the “margin” of the Pequod’s wreck, “slowly drawn towards the closing vortex” but entangling himself with that last vertically-moving object, the “coffin life-buoy” that “shot lengthwise from the sea” to preserve him. His odyssey of practice matches a slow accumulation of skills and knowledge alongside his doomed captain’s quest. To survive alone, to escape to tell the tale, is a form of life-changing.

It’s a tribute to the spell of any major theoretical work that while you’re reading it, it seems universally applicable. I’ve been seeing anthropotechnics everywhere, from my local YMCA pool to the crowded lanes of I-95. Isn’t this what literature and philosophy is for: to teach us how to live?

Sloterdijk’s massive book ends with a plea that a practiced life respond to “the global crisis” (444) through the “return of the sublime” (446). He asks that we invoke not the lost Golden Age of perfect abundance but instead imagine a new Silver Age, one step down the ladder but still above Iron and Lead. “Critique,” he notes, sounding somewhat like Latour (who he cites just once), “is replaced by an affirmative theory of civilization, supported by a General Immunology” (425). As a way of responding to the ecological and human disasters Sloterdijk links to globalization (447-48), General Immunology has an utopian flavor, including a pun on the ethical heart of the Marxist left, “co-immunism” (452), which he connects to a “horizon of co-operative ascetisims” (452).

poster_torso-apolloI’m not clear exactly how he moves from individual anthropotechnic practices to these massive co-operative forms. But it’s fun to imagine it!



Isle of Tempests


First printed map with image of Bermdua, 1511

[From chapter 3 of Shipwreck and the Global Ecology]

No island is an island.

They are undeniably real things, out there in the ocean, but they do not mean what we want them to mean. Visible, solid structures of coral, rock, and dirt assert stability amid the tumult of great waters. Over human lifetimes, islands remain fixed. But they are never isolate, not since the oceans have become trade’s highways. Isolation is impossible on the global ocean. The symbolic force of islands, their role as havens and helps for lost sailors, never tells the full story. Islands appear as wished-for sanctuaries for shipwrecked sailors, but as in the The Tempest and Robinson Crusoe they often prove as treacherous as the waters themselves. In John Donne’s phrase, “no man is an island” because there is no separation of any human from the divinely-ordained whole: “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.” Donne’s famous phrase describes human coextension as a landed, continental phenomenon, in which human belonging to a divine whole fashions a corporate “Europe” matched against the “washing” pressure of the sea. The sailor in the poet perhaps recognized an oceanic countermeaning, in which isolate existence founders not just on continental unity but on thalassic interconnection. The geographic and cultural histories of islands insist that these remote places cannot remain isolated. The pressure to connect that characterizes maritime space, which Mediterranean historians Peregrin Horden and Nicholas Purcell describe through the term “ready connectivity,” helps reimagine oceanic vastness as a system of nodes and spokes. Islands in the deep oceans, their locations mapped onto shipping lanes by the patterns of the trade winds, became newly visible and connected in transoceanic context. Isolated and connected, these islands both cause shipwrecks and rescue survivors.

No location in early modern English history reveals the paradox of the oceanic island more clearly than Bermuda. It appears in historical and poetic records less as island than sea-land, a collection of rocks that is also part of the ocean. The imaginative history of these islands from their poorly documented entry into the European record in the early sixteenth century to their status as long-lived English colonies in and after the seventeenth century produces a literalized metaphor of dual connection to sea and land. As English sailors expanded onto the Atlantic rim, many writers and propagandists extolled the supposedly fertile soil of the New World. Bermuda’s beaches and reefs provide an oceanic counterpoint to this fantasy. The history of Bermuda adds salt-water particularity to England’s early colonial experience, supplementing land-based legends with a story that was disoriented by the ocean, marked by shipwreck, and never straightforwardly progressive. A mid-Atlantic chain of islands and reefs geographically separate from both the connected arcs of the Caribbean islands and the river-fed hinterlands of the North American continent, Bermuda sat near the heart of the early English experience of the Atlantic world. It was the land-sea on which England’s North American ventures first wrecked, and the strange strand on which they salvaged themselves.

George Somers, map 1610

George Somers, 1610

Norwood map bermuda

Richard Norwood, c 1618

The key to a Bermuda-inflected analysis of early English settlement on the North Atlantic rim is the power of oceanic disorientation. As the shipwrecked arrival of the first English settlers shows, this space confounded expectations, resembling neither the utopian fantasies of Virginia Company propaganda nor the riches of Spanish Mexico. The bare sand beaches and gentle climate sheltered the survivors of the Sea-Venture wreck in 1609, and even provided them with enough provisions to rescue the starving colonists at Jamestown when they arrived there, nine months later. But the redemptive narrative of Bermuda that the Virginia Company would trumpet in subsequent years overlooks the alien qualities of the island. Bermuda would become England’s second New World colony, and remains today its oldest colonial possession, but it never produced the bounty the Company wanted. As Michael Jarvis puts it in the opening pages of his award-winning history of the island, In the Eye of All Trade, Bermuda’s perspective on the Atlantic system was comparable to the view “from the deck of a ship.” From this unstable platform, the Americas appear as oceanic as continental. Bermuda’s maritime connections, and eventually its short-lived prosperity during the tobacco book of the 1620s, connected the island to the English economy, but it remained a wet, disorienting outlier.

[...followed by readings of Strachey, Jourdain, Norwood, Rich, Waller, and Marvell. Plus repeated gestures toward The Tempest]

#RisingWaters and “Cry, Trojans”

#rising watersTwo aesthetic treats a week ago Thursday: #RisingWaters at the City Museum, and Cry Trojans by the Wooster Group at the Performing Garage. In different ways, both about the cold pressure of beauty, both a bit disturbing, and both still have my head spinning.

“Cry, Trojans” has stirred up some controversy among my fellow theater-goers, and my thinking about it owes much to the spirited FB-insightfulness of Holger Syme, Karl Steel, and Alison Kinney, though in the end I liked the show more than each of them did. Plenty of reasons not to like it: it is slow, opaque, and willfully cavalier, filled with hackneyed Native American stereotypes. The Woosters play the Trojans, in this compressed version of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, as Red Indians, complete with singing and dancing. (The show originated in 2012 in the UK, when the RSC played the Greeks. I blogged about it then, thinking about the controversy it caused among the Shakespeare conferencers. The New York version mostly cuts the Greeks, showing short clips of the 2012 performance to fill in the plot, and having a few actors briefly assume Greek parts with masks. The action is all in Troy.)

Tom Cartelli smartly parsed the Wooster 2012 show in a Shakespeare Quarterly article that explores the company’s willful strangeness, disorienting strategies, and efforts to re-make the Trojan War through a film about an Inuit Legend. I pretty well agree with him, but I also thought a lot, this time especially, about what Splendor in the Grass, the 1961 Elia Kazan film featuring the gorgeous young stars Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, was doing. Scott Shepherd’s Troilus stares up at Warren Beatty on video monitors with a quizzical look: am I doing it right? Is this what love is?

WOOSTER 1The Red Indian caricatures are pretty extreme, but, as the 2012 program noted, the Woosters are thinking partly about the fantasy America of the German novelist Karl May, who wrote late 19c novels about the American West without traveling there. I also think about Kafka in Prague and his “Wish to Be a Red Indian”:

If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse’s neck and head would be already gonewooster 2

“Cry, Trojans” seems to me an experiment in extreme mediation. I love its intensity, its manic energy, its recklessness. In 2012, I argued into the night about how the Wooster-method speaks to our age’s deep engagement with video screens as self-structuring devices. What else do wee see in our iPhones? This time, without the RSC Greeks and their professional counterpoint, I thought about the love story. The Wooster lovers are knowing and smart, but still can’t help being steamrolled by the oldest love story in the book. As in Shakespeare’s play, I think the Wooster production is partly about the overwhelming power of generic forms, even (or especially?) after we’ve stopped fully believing in them.

Or maybe I enjoyed the show so much because I was still in the afterglow of #RisingWaters at the City Museum?

There’s more to tell about last Thursday, the start of my spring semester. My day started at 5 am, when I turned the shower knob, and nothing happened. Frozen water in the pipes: some metaphor for the first day of class!

After teaching, and remotely helping with plumbers (all thawed nicely by mid-afternoon), I got to #RisingWaters around 3 pm, driving through a small snowbank to find street parking on 99th and Madison. I love the Museum of the City of New York, up on 103rd St., teetering on the northern fringe of Museum Mile. This show drew its images from an open call for photographs of Sandy that generated 10,000 images from over 1000 photographers, professional and amateur. The show opened on October 29, the anniversary of the hurricane’s landfall, but I’ve only now been able to get to it. Disturbingly gorgeous, raw, intimate. I’m plotting my next trip there already.

Mirror of the Sea?

Mirror of the Sea?

Two pictures in particular  struck me, both from the Rockaways. (The show has images from all over New York and New Jersey, including some heartbreaking images of Mantaloking, NJ, where I spent many happy summer days at the beach as a kid.) One was taken from inside a porch or maybe front room of a small house, looking out from inside a screen door. The screen’s gone, and water cascades over and through the lower half of the door in a glimmering, curving arc. A beautiful waterfall, pouring into someone’s home.

The other picture I remember was simpler: on a beach in Far Rockaway the day after the storm, someone arranged driftwood to form a pattern in the sand where a house used to sit: “THIS IS GLOBAL WARMING.”

I bought two catalogs, Amy Medina’s Salted Wounds and the Wyatt Group’s #Sandy, a book of iPhone photos. Much to look at and think about. What is the relationship between beauty and destruction?

Driving downtown after the show, thinking about Sandy, I stopped for a half hour on E. 79th street. It wasn’t my idea. A couple guys double-parked a blue van, grabbed paint cans & a ladder, and went into an apartment to do some work. I came along a few minutes later, but couldn’t get past them. A snow plow maybe five cars in front of me couldn’t get its blade in between the double parked van on the right and the parked cars on the left. So we waited, maybe 20 cars spilling westward all the way to Park Ave. A couple of us got out of our cars, talked to each other, talked to the snowplow driver, tried to convince him to back up and pull behind the blue van so that the rest of us could pull around. That didn’t seem to be working at first, but eventually he agreed to give it a try. While the plow was trying to back up the guys with the ladder came back, loaded up, and we all drove away. Block party in Manhattan!

RisingWaters1CMNYI made it downtown on time for green matcha tea at Cha-An on East 9th street, around the corner from the apartment I lived in during the early 1990s. Talked there with Marina Zurkow about some collaborative writing we’re doing for Oceanic New York about flood, disruption, engaging with environments. I came away with a few good ideas: “Instructions” as a genre. Soft-edged squares. Blowing water into an inflatable raft during a flood, which means physically expanding one small fluid body until the expansion of a bigger fluid body subsides. We talked about marshes, barrier islands, the Rising Waters show, an amazing petro-project she has going up at Rice this spring.

I parked in the snow in front of the Performing Garage at 33 Wooster for the 8 pm show. A delicious rye and orange bitters martini put me in a perfect mood, despite the cold wind outside and small folding chairs in the theater.

Some parts of the show were the same as in 2012, though I wasn’t surprised this time by the weird, half-alienated charisma of Scott Shepherd’s Troilus. I spent more time, this time around, thinking about Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. Doomed Hollywood lovers as models for  classical literary avatars? If Hollywood, Homer, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and any number of other artists and genres were getting mashed together in the small space of the Performing Garage, why was I moved by such a hyper-technical, ultra-referential performance? The show stopped for 10 minutes in the middle of the first act because of technical difficulties with the very complex sound system. Not a problem at all, at least for me.

The German Wild West

The German Wild West

The new title, “Cry, Trojans,” comes from Cassandra’s mad lament, her foreknowledge that the city will burn. It matches our foreknowledge of the destruction of Native American culture and its transformation into global kitcsch like May’s novels. But the lingering force of the play for me was in Troilus and Cressida’s semi-expressive faces looking up at Beatty and Wood on the glittering screens, matching their bodies into the stars’s postures, fitting desires and emotions into pre-arranged molds. They might not want to do it — we might not want to admit to it — but it happens. This show, in all its strange, at times awkward, mannered presentation, insists that there are no unmediated stories.

I left energized, happy, driving home in the snow after a long day.sandy-book-cover3