Self Portrait With Reflected Glimmer
This post is the fourth and final section of the talk “Diagonal and Self-Possessed: Group-Portrait with Liminal Figures,” which was given as the keynote address at the 2017 Thinking Its Presence conference, hosted by the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
In that glow or glimmer is marked the poetic justice required to tell narratives of sight and sound in transformation. To be in surplus of a scene is to be simultaneously attached to the setting and estranged from it. Looking back at episodes past, both lived and unlived, I can view such excess as a value, as that which makes something accessible to experience out of a general diminishing, a glimmer reflecting that unremarked violence at the picture’s margin that gives surface reality a neutral semblance. My conflict is this: the impossibility of a viewpoint poised at the places that determine for me an inclusion in, or exclusion from, categories greater than the individual, but that so dislocate me from my surroundings as to resist too easy allocations of meaning…. An ethics. There is no mystery other than the values a self attributes to the situational world where, under a dimming glow, symbolic actions have a stake in escaping the instrumental life. The quality of light and subjectivity that is a provisional glimmer reminds us that the world can be readily stripped of its halo. When “all that is solid melts into air” and we are made to see the “real conditions” of our lives, the syllabic self seeks reflection in settings of experience and experiment that cover a ground if only as a temporary residence. That transience may quicken us to substitute the vanishing with so many constituent parts, reanimated. The artwork or poem—even when deprived of a halo, even when released from its fixity and essence—is not without the radiance of a convenient forgetting, as when, in any quest-account the amulet found “is really a re-finding” (Sigmund Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, 1905). In its unhurried measure, inasmuch as speed for speed’s sake endangers the sensual opportunity of the world and, everyday—because so beckoning—its recurring custody… the words exact a style of integrity. You can hear its command: Do we want humanity at the service of justice, or justice at the service of humanity?
In Wartime Kiss, Alexander Nemerov describes the act of making history, of being in the presence of the past, as a search for fragments—for images, for archival documents, for connections—that “feel…like a disturbance on the surface of things” (Alex Nemerov, Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s, 2013).
Mexican artist Magali Lara provides an attendant animation of that disturbance in terms of self-estrangement, the custody of that which is prone to perish and guaranteed to die, a cellular striving ever to be more when patterns of the organism structure the imagination—life or life-like varieties in mutual and ever regenerate transfigurations.
My desire is to assemble scenes and daydreams in search of a surrogate autobiography, memoir by other means, group portraits with liminal figures that make possible an understanding of our involvement with others, both familiar and unfamiliar; an ephemeral archive. I want this immigrant couple, from the perspective of the present, and the vantage point of Griffith Park in 1970, to gaze back at me with the historical consciousness of a present that views the past “only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.” The experience of departure, disappearance, and the fleeting social relation that is the premonition of demise, adjoin to Walter Benjamin’s well-worn but always stunning formulation, whereby “[t]o articulate the past historically [is] to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”). I want the alternate futures that might have been possible for them once looming below in the city expanse to stagger now the conclusions of our historical circumstance, the present, as being anything but composed of so many loose ends, false starts, scrap remainders of experience or public opinion, the stuff of self-conscious gestures, cruel ironies, unsubstantiated exchange or contrasts, a frame through which to view of the horizon of relations.
Wittgenstein famously described certain phenomenon as such a “wonder at the existence of the world” that one is “inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’ or ‘how extraordinary that the world should exist.’” The philosopher of family resemblance came to see that “these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical [only that he] had not yet found the correct expressions.” What he sought in those terms was to “go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language.” Ethics and aesthetics were for Wittgenstein this “absolutely hopeless” inclination to brush up “against the walls of our cage.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, “A Lecture on Ethics,” Philosophical Review 74, no. 1, 1965). That is to ask whether it is possible to be both autonomous and foreign to myself, diagonal and self-possessed.
It never really works. The liminal figures I evoke in my doubling evanesce as suddenly as they appear, convenient placeholders of an action, or the projections of experience, both foreboding and hopeful. One day I’ll have to line the words and images of my surrogate selves into a lecture that—like Magali Lara’s animation—so produces irrepressible life as to ask whether those apparitions make legible an emotion, or so ground it as to be sufficient to its life form. That is, to speculate, with Judith Butler, about my refusal to grieve the masculine as a possibility of love (Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, 1997); to wonder, with my liminal figures, about the everyday evictions from an already impermanent home that makes of my racial identity an uncanny kinship with others. If I fail to see myself in the picture, at least I can find a provisional solace again in the amber glow, in a fight for fluency, in the finding and re-finding, in the quest for the correct expression, my disturbance on the surface of things, an ephemeral archive: “All that I can see / And all that I can hear / Are surrounded by these walls….” “How extraordinary that anything should exist.”
An art historian, curator, and editor specializing in Latino and Latin American art, Roberto Tejada was born in Los Angeles. He earned a BA in comparative literature from New York University and a PhD in interdisciplinary media studies from the English Department at the State University of New York at...