Monday, June 4, 2007

Report on refusal

In my post on Bruce Conner's REPORT a few days ago, I read the film's stroboscopic blank spot as a limit of representation, as a manifestation of representation's limits. There's a passage in Juliana Spahr's newest book, The Transformation, that addresses this topic as well, and that I think is worth mention. Where questions of representation, of language, of explanation, of defintion constitute the book's displaced and decentered "center," they come to one of their many heads in relation to another, more recent, national tragedy.

"Basically, langugage itself became impossible" in the aftermath, in the seventh section of The Transformation. Approaches to language taken up by the avant garde, Spahr writes, that were designed to critique power, to provide ways of thinking that resisted the structures of power, no longer made sense, no longer worked their resistance, when "all the government officials avoided clear language and stuttered."
It was as if the government that currently occupied the continent had taken over one of the few remaining tools of resistance, the very tools of fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on, and even used them, leaving not only the poets but also the organizers and the activists empty handed.

This impossibility of language takes the form of an uncertainty, a confusion, that, while it precedes the national tragedy, takes a different direction, takes on a different charge in this aftermath. Spahr articulates an uncertainty of what, or even how, to think within this place where language has become impossible.

It — this confusion, this uncertainty in the face of language's new impossibility — is also framed as a refusal. Spahr writes, of herself and her domestic collective community: "Even though they were trained ... in close reading, trained in making sense out of nonsense, ... they refused the sense." Elsewhere, "they refused to understand" what was happening around them. This refusal's form works throughout the text, in its refusal of specifics, particularly of descriptors and proper names, and of the official language used, by the "government that currently occupied the continent" to describe the tragedy, which, in this account has no name. The question of what to call this event, how to think it, how to describe it without using the language used by the government is left unresolved, presented as a problem of naming, of definition, of representation. To call it anything is to participate in the construction of a particular interpretation; thus, refusal.

There is a resemblance here, between this refusal of representation and Conner's use of the blank spot, but it comes with a difference. Spahr's text explicitly theorizes — even as it resists the temptation to a solid and non-problematized theory — the impossibility of language and of representation, where Conner's film does not. The difference is of effect, and of the ideal readers constituted by these texts. Where Spahr's work is at its base critical, where The Transformation intellectualizes the question of a refusal of representation, Conner's film is an act of mourning that calls upon its reader in emotional terms, even as it comes to problematize representation, and ultimately to refuse it.


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