In case Sandy actually does destroy the entire North East of the USA, I might take this opportunity to reflect upon the significance of the neologism ‘Frankenstorm’, before such academic nit-picking comes to seem insensitive. Indeed, it might already be so, because this storm claimed 21 lives in the Caribbean before moving back out to sea. But this reflection seems particularly poignant given the storm’s coinciding with the final days of the presidential campaign.
The nick name ‘Frankenstorm’ is not just a media buzzword, but a quirky name attributed to Sandy in the first instance by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sandy is the convergence of two tropical cyclones, and the product is the giant monster storm we are all calling ‘Frankenstorm’. The name, of course, references Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. But Frankenstein is not the monstrous hybrid creature in the book, rather Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein, is the creator. Andrew Revkin writing on the NYTimes blog has already picked up on this and noted that “While the echo of Frankenstein in that Twitter moniker can imply this is a human-created meteorological monster, it’s just not that simple.” Ok, so we can’t just solely attribute the huge cataclysm to human activity. That is fine. But the blog’s correct reading of the neologism belies the fact that the media has picked it up and is using it in various ways to refer not to the storm’s creators but to the storm itself or its stormy effects: “Nick-named ‘Frankenstorm’ for its potentially monstrous effect”, for example.
In the recent presidential debates in the US climate change was not mentioned once. This is the first time that climate change has not been mentioned in such a significant debate in the US since the early 1980s. There is therefore tragic irony in the fact that although climate change is decidedly off the mainstream political agenda in the USA, that everyone is referring to the storm that threatens to devastate some of the most populous regions of the nation by a name that by virtue of the neologism’s literary origins, implies it is, in some way, a creation of humankind.
Then of course there is the actual name of the storm, Sandy, which is another topic altogether.
A long time ago I promised to think more about the crown of weeds in King Lear. On October 12, 2012, more than two years since I made that promise, I was given that opportunity in public. I participated in the creation of a tradition at UNSW that involved the actual construction of a weedy crown. On this day Professor Deborah Bird Rose crowned me with weeds to celebrate the submission of my PhD*. Hopefully future students in the Environmental Humanities** will also be similarly crowned! The tradition was the collaborative brainchild of Drs Eben Kirksey, Thom van Dooren and Ms-not-quite-Dr myself and made with the assistance of Diego Bonetto, Sydney’s own King of Weeds. Eben suggested I make a costume to celebrate my submission, Thom was amicable to this idea, I came up with the idea of crowning myself with weeds and Diego helped me select the edible weeds.
On a frosty morning Diego, Carin (from Slow Food Sydney) and myself went walking along the Cooks River and Wolli Creek in search of rogue edible plants. Below are a series of photos that capture the creation of this foraged weedy crown.
My PhD is on the storm in King Lear and during his time in the storm Lear strips naked and then crowns himself with weeds. My favourite interpretation of this crown is from Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 Adaptation Ran (Chaos).
I wanted to make the crown because I like what it represents. It is usually considered an indicator of Lear’s madness or the chaos in the kingdom. But I think the weedy crown represents the promise of an alternative political order. Taken out of its dramatic context, I think a weedy crown can be worn by anyone (of the 99%!) to represent an alternative way of imaging and living in the world. For me this alternative world positions disorderly natural forces (such as weeds, parasites and storms) and the unwieldy patterns of life and death at the heart of a refigured body politic.
This post comes with two disclaimers.
*Firstly, I have not yet received the award of PhD, given all this attention I can only hope I pass!
**I am a student of English at UNSW, not Environmental Humanities but I have been teaching in the Environmental Humanities and it was lovely of them to help mark this occasion. When I do finally receive the award, however, it will be through the English department.
Nevertheless, I am incredibly honoured to have been crowned with weeds by Professor Bird Rose and I can only hope to live up to the ideals represented by this digestible and perishable diadem.
My opinion piece on the current political situation in Australia originially published on 24th February, 2012 in the ‘Status’ section of https://www.facebook.com/jennifermaehamilton.
Ok. I think I see through the media storm and have formed some kind of opinion. Here it is. I’d prefer Rudd over Gillard, Gillard over Abbott and Bob Brown over the lot of them. Rudd may be a foul mouthed autocrat, but he is putting a lot on the line for what he believes in and, doomed as it may be given the current situation (just as it was when he refused to capitulate on the mining tax), that is something clear and easy to respect. But Rudd will lose on Monday and probably should. And so will Gillard at the next election. And then we’ll have Abbott. And then … pie in the sky with silver lining … that situation will become so obviously and immediatlely untennable we will band together, demand a referendum for a representational government (à la N.Z.) and, while we are at it, republic (à la almost every other place colonised by the British) and kick his speedo clad arse to kingdom come. Snap election. Greens with 30% form coalition with newly formed Indigenous Party (18%) and some specialist party like No Coal Seam Gas Party (3%) and Bob Brown is president by October 2013. Our current model of government has completely failed. Viva la revolution, amigos.
Almost ten months on, the hodge-podge of incomplete thoughts that make up the post “Baby Love #1” seem quite distant to me. I remember writing that post. It was an interesting experience because I remember feeling clear headed and like I was going to solve all the problems of the world and produce an amazingly coherent theory about why mothers become obsessed with babies. But, when it came down to it, I couldn’t finish the post. I couldn’t finish the post, I guess, because I wasn’t convinced of the theory and also my using Rilke’s poem as a way of seeing the world was wrong. There was something missing in the poem and missing in my view of the situation.
The problem, I think, was that I thought Rilke was right. I believed that idea about love and creaturely openness, expressed in the Eighth Elegy, was what formed the basis of my reflection on those mothers’ interaction and obsession with their babies. But Rilke’s poem does not serve as a theory for how the world works, it is just one view. In fact, while I love the poem, I think in some ways Rilke expresses a fundamentally pessamistic idea: love makes you feel like you can do anything. But, he argues in the poem, the feeling of love is an illusion, love cannot truly open you up to the world, it makes you feel open but you are kidding yourself. You’re blinded by your lover and really you are caught in a narcissistic feedback loop with your lover, looking at the reflection of yourself eyes in his. Likewise babies only have this openness when they are tiny, before they have language; they are born open and the process of growing, aquiring language and social skills makes them close off. In other words experience this open wonderousness until their mother or father stops them from doing something in order for them to become social.
Rilke says:”A child, at times, may lose
himself within the stillness
of it, until rudely ripped away.”
I read this as, the child may lose himself in the wonder of the open, a pure imaginative space beyond politics and beyond laws but it is rudely ripped awhen a mother or father stops the child from doing whatever it is he is doing and, worst case scenario, shames him for doing it; “it” being something we may recognise as socially unacceptable like playing with himself, wearing a ballet skirt, wantonly breaking toys or pouring chocolate sauce all over the chesterfield.
But this does not take into account the experience of the mother or father marvelling at the child’s deviance and assumes the mother or father will always shut down the dream life of the child in an attempt to make them properly social. And, what’s more, that the shutting down of the dreamlife will always completely succeed and nothing of that daydream or open deviance will survive the force of the law of the father or mother. But the point is, I guess, that the child might not obey them. They might go and grow in all kinds of crazy directions, and they could remain open. Just as lovers may not necessarily just enjoy how they look in their lovers eyes and use that same gaze upon the wider world. Its all a matter of what we do with it and how much we are willing to risk. Getting completely and entirely lost in the lover’s eyes or clamping down on a child with an authority so airtight they can do nothing but grow up in the exact same way as the parent are only two of a range of possibilities here.
I worked at a chalk art festival in Parramatta last october. We had a large wooden snake, a bucket of chalk, a bucket of water and a large sponge on the street, specifically for kids to come draw all over. One kid, three or so, kept going to the bucket to get the sponge and his father kept stopping him. The kid kept going to the bucket and the father kept stopping him. Other kids would pick up the sponge and wash down their section and carry on, and this kid would go to the bucket and his father would stop him. On about the fifth attempt the father said to this kid firmly, all of three, ‘Do not touch the sponge. We all need rules and boundaries in this world and this is one of them. This is your boundary and you cannot use this sponge.’ I dreaded to think what would happen to the little boy if he even cast his eyes on a pink tutu. I also thought that in some instances yes, the experience of childhood wonder is broken by the parent but, even if the little kid didn’t get his hands on that sponge, he could in years to come. And, most parents didn’t stop their kids from picking up the sponge, getting completely covered in festy chalky water and making a mess everywhere.
What’s more, the capacity to marvel at how kids both break rules and love each other was what those mothers were captivated by (see previous post); they were captivated by how they had told the kids not to do something and then they had promptly done it anyway and also they marvelled at how they also had not explicitly told the kids to be kind to each other and love each other, and they were kind and loving anyway.
So, what am I saying? Well, rather than the mother’s marvelling striking me as frustrated, stifled and myopic, I now see it more as something quite amazingly open itself: the gazes of the child, mother and lover very similar in this respect. The trick is, I guess, to get it off those discrete objects and to spread it wider and further and to not feel pressured to shutdown by those whose gaze is not as open as your own. The trick is, basically, not to be like the mother in Black Swan and instead to remember the opennness you felt as child, or the joy you feel when a child remembers to break the rules or the pleasure you divine from looking at a lover, and see those feelings as the foundations of how we can look out at the world as a whole. And, what’s more, the very fact that Rilke became a poet is proof that such a gaze is possible.
[Correction: Thanks to CMJ for proofing my posts! I wrote baby, lover and mother are verisimilar in this respect. But I meant “very similar”!)
This post was drafted on the 5th May, 2011. It is incomplete. I need to revise my thoughts on this a little bit and will write a follow up post soon…
Once upon a time I was sitting in a cafe in Newtown and a group of three women were talking loudly about their toddlers. Their conversation was relentless. They described in extraordinary detail how the toddlers behaved. For me, who knew neither the women nor the kids, the conversation had no intrinsic meaning. I couldn’t understand what held their interest in the conversation because I did not know who they were talking about. I found the conversation tedious and repetitive, but also incredibly distracting; I could not concentrate on what I was reading and I could not help but eavesdrop. For the brief time I was within earshot of their conversation, I became obsessed with their obsessive conversation, and their attention to detail in recounting what the toddlers had done. Their interest in/love for/obsession with their kids had manifested into an extraordinary photographic/filmic memory of their behaviour. The crux of their interest, however, was not in the kids’ actions themselves (she did a poo, he blinked his eyes), but rather in how their kids’ behaviour was becoming socially and culturally meaningful. That is, the kid was told not to do something and she promptly did it, knowing it was going to get in trouble, as if courting the attention. Or, the kid saw another kid in distress and he went over to her and gave her a hug. This interest, the memory, the detail, the knowledge of the becoming-social person at once enlivened me and caused incredible despair.
On the one hand I thought ‘it is amazing that these women can recall all this information and are so specifically interested in its social meaning’, and then on the other hand I thought, ‘why is their interest so myopic, fixated not on this little blob of barely self-conscious flesh in front of them?’ or, to put it another way, ‘why do they have this effortless interest in their toddlers and not in the military-industrial complex, climate change, the obstacles to saving the whales/world peace?’. Now, for all I know this group of women were highly politically engaged individuals. But the focus or passion for the toddlers had a unique quality about it; there was an enviable clarity and enjoyment in these toddlers’ actions.
I had sort of forgotten about this moment and also about my short-lived side project of trying to figure a way to bottle that focus re-sell it to consumers it in a way that would make them attach to different objects, more objects, in the same way (ecstasy? acid? magic mushrooms?) and then I read a poem that stirred my memory.
A few weeks ago I read a poem that had three effects upon me: it diffused a general malaise, it began my research for the final chapter of my thesis and brought this moment with the mothers and toddlers back to the front of my mind. The poem is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Eighth Duino Elegy: click here to open it in a new window.
Firstly, a confession. I don’t know Rilke’s work very well. But anyway, I encountered this elegy in the first chapter of On Creaturely Life, a book that was recommended to me recently. I am interested in the idea of human exceptionalism, or ‘what separates us from the animals’. Generally the idea of human exceptionalism is framed in the positive: humans are different from animals and better, smarter, more productive. Why? Well, we have reason, language, technology and, an example after my own heart, cooking. But the flipside of human exceptionalism is that we are different from animals and worse, lesser, lacking. We are different because we are not fully formed, all those elements that separate us from the animals–reason, technology, language, cooking–are compensation for that lack. We can understand this as a kind of negative exceptionalism. I am interested both manifestations of this distinction but especially in the latter: what we lack and how we compensate for it or, to put it another way, why cats, dogs and birds are better than us and the weird ways we over compensate for our crapness.
For me, Rilke’s poem came some way to articulating an aspect of the human condition that is closed, myopic, fixated, that orders the universe and in doing so misses out on so much of the potential joy and wonder of that universe. And certainly this is how that was framed in On Creaturely Life:
“Man is forever caught up in the labor of the negative–the (essentially defensive) mapping and codification of object domains that allow for certain sorts of desire and possession but never what Rilke posits as the unimaginable enjoyment of self-being in otherness manifest by the creature.”
The example that struck me most powerfully was how love comes close to this experience of a self open to the world, yet falls short:
Lovers are close to it, in wonder, if / the other were not always there closing off the view….. / As if through an oversight it opens out / behind the other……But there is no / way past it, and it turns to world again.
When in love with another, one experiences ‘self-being in otherness’, the loved object dissolves ones sense of self and opens their world up. Beautiful, right? But this is a very specific version of love and certainly depending on your point of view, could be read as narcissism and projection. But, to take Rilke seriously is to believe that the self can be open and that the experience of love gives us a glimpse of the open. But, tragically, our fixation on the object of love means this openness is not generally applicable. We open up to our object and that is all. While I feel like there’s a kernel of truth in it for romantic lovers, I feel as though the same can be said for parents and children. The parent sees a world of open possibility in the baby or toddler, finds incredible joy and interest in this world, but in the world beyond the child that the child has to learn to live in, thwarts the possibility of that child remaining open forever. Why I think the poem stirred my memory is that I think the interest that those mothers took in their kids’ becoming-social behaviour was right at the edge of the open and the closed: a world of possibility in the child and a world destined to tragically repeat itself in the child learning how to be social in the same way everyone has learned to be social before her.
… and there I left it. Open ended. Life’s different now. There is more to say on this topic. BRB.
It feels like just yesterday that I said my last goodbye to Dad, but when I think seriously about it, a lot has happened since the 16th September, 2009. I learned how to organise a funeral, I thought a lot about death and mortality and politics and society, I started writing my thesis again, I produced a play and took it on tour, I started to learn how to play a ukulele, I started to learn how to keep a garden alive, I started to learn how to collaborate properly, I became a vegetarian, I travelled abroad with my mother, I travelled abroad alone, I became an artist, curator and writer, I learned to take risks, I reopened myself to the world, I fell out of love, and I fell in love again.
When I think about it now, I think these activities of the last two years of my life are motivated by grief. I had to find ways to stay alive and present in the world in the face of such loss. I had to figure out what to do in order not to fall over in a heap.
Dad died two years ago today. I remember when he died cards came from everywhere expressing sympathy, but sometimes we received empathy cards. Often the empathy cards would say quite clearly that while they are sorry for the loss, they wanted us to know that ‘it doesn’t get any easier’. I felt as though such cards were welcoming mum and I into an exclusive club; a club for those struck by insurmountable grief, giving us the opportunity to suffer terribly forevermore along with them. This filled me with fear and dread: ‘It never gets any easier?’ I thought, ‘How will I survive?’ Two years on I guess I can say that they are right, it doesn’t get easier having lost the person. That person has gone and, as we know, no amount of wishing or hoping brings them back. But what those cards didn’t say was that if you can find a way to keep that person alive through yourself, that difficulty becomes manageable; they remain alive in the way they guide your actions, in the way you trust what they taught you and act accordingly. If this is true then I have my father to thank for the last two years of my life even though he wasn’t to help me through them. These were two of the most difficult and incredible years of my life so far. I wish he was here to share them with me, but that is impossible because since he died I have lived for him, rather than with him.