Sunday, September 11, 2011


I went to see a jazz poetry concert last night put on by the group City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. It featured several exiled writers reading work, usually in collaboration with the band Tarbaby and the saxophonist Oliver Lake. I can't say that I'm a huge jazz fan--I like some Miles Davis stuff like In a Silent Way--nor can I say that I'm a huge poetry fan (I like some poets, but it's never the literature I turn to for fun or pleasure; I'm a fiction man, myself), so I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed basically the entire program. While Lake's soloing took a little getting used to, composed as it was of as many squawking and clicking noises as it was actual notes, I could immediately appreciate Tarbaby's ability to see totally free and trending toward chaos before suddenly shifting into moments of breathtaking ensemble playing. Hind Shoufani was the star poet of the evening, in my opinion: her performance enhanced her words--which would have been potent enough on their own--without becoming a kind of tedious or pretentious "performance" that detracted from the impact of the poem, which unfortunately could not be said for all of the poets.

However, there was one giant distraction that plagued the entire evening for me: an enormous screen behind the performers projecting the livefeed being streamed of the event. I kept thinking about Baudrillard's The Transparency of Evil and his discussion of the televised event doing away with the need for spectators, the soccer game played in the empty stadium with spectators only seeing the game on television. The screen last night, so much bigger than anything else, with the performers digital selves looming like giants over the flesh-and-blood performer was a temptation. It was so hard to continue to look at the person reading, at the band members playing, when the screen showed so much more of them: the angles would change, the performers would each get a closeup, etc., etc.   In the context of the concert--one that started with a pointed reminder to turn off all cellphones and to cease texting for the duration of the concert, while at the same time reminding us we could follow the events in real time on Twitter--the screen, the presence of the internet feed standing over and above the actual action, dominating the stage, the focal point of the concert, really, seemed obscene, in the sense that Baudrillard outlines in The Ecstasy of Communication:
Obscenity begins when there is no more spectacle, no more stage, no more theatre, no more illusion, when every-thing becomes immediately transparent, visible, exposed in the raw and inexorable light of information and communication.
We no longer partake of the drama of alienation, but are in the ecstasy of communication. And this ecstasy is obscene. Obscene is that which eliminates the gaze, the image and every representation. . . .
It is no longer the obscenity of the hidden, the repressed, the obscure, but that of the visible, the all-too-visible, the more-visible-than-visible; it is the obscenity of that which no longer contains a secret and is entirely soluble in information and communication.
At one point, the camera was pointed in such a way that there appeared an infinite regress within the screen, a screen showing a screen showing a screen showing a screen and so on until the image quality didn't allow me to see any more screens. The temptation made obvious in the language of the temptation, the visual: you can see so much more on the screen. . .

Everything about the screen, the constant temptation that was more visible than the events being shown on the screen (despite our seats being about ten feet from the stage), offered to manage our experience of the concert more effectively than we could ourselves. When several of the poets read in their native language, the screen became ever more of a temptation, projecting English words over the image of the performer. I felt guilty when I forced myself to keep looking at the poets, reading in languages I don't speak or read or hear.The screen would tell us who to pay attention to and when (by changing angles and zooming in on the person who was most important at that particular instant), but it would also help to transport the seduction of hearing language (even--or, perhaps more accurately--especially if it was a language you couldn't speak) into information and communication, converting possibility into fact, into something whose meaning, always already fixed, could be given to us on a screen. Even the interactions of the musicians with the poet, a force that would, in its impossibility to be fixed, aid seduction, was drained of energy. The flat, determined meaning of the poem on the screen reflected back on the music and coloured it with same meaning. Interaction, obscurity, spectacle, theatre were all denied. Baudrillard emphasizes the value of these in-visible characteristics to the process of seduction, the signs that won't signify, the words that won't give up their meaning:
All these terms, torn asunder at the cost of unbounded energy, are ready at any moment to extinguish one another, and collapse to our greatest joy. Seduction hurls them against one another, and unites them beyond meaning, in a paroxysm of intensity and charm. . . .
Seduction only comes through empty, illegible, insoluble, arbitrary, fortuitous signs, which glide by lightly, modifying the index of the refraction of space. They are signs without a subject of enunciation, nor an enounced, they are pure signs in that they are neither discursive nor generate any exchange. . . . As such the signs of seduction do not signify; they are of the order of the ellipse, of the short circuit, of the flash of wit (le trait d'esprit). . . .
Such is the gaze, whose force resides precisely in it not being an exchange, but a double moment, a double mark, immediate, undecipherable. Seduction is only made possible through this giddiness of reversability . . . which cancels all depth, all in-depth operation of meaning: superficial giddiness, superficial abyss.
On a night that promised so much giddiness, such an abyss to lose oneself in, to be seduced by, the presence of the screen was disappointing, one more browser window on my laptop, only now intruding into the rest of my life. At a moment when it seemed the Real might irrupt, the hyperreal appeared, once again, in its place.

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