[-empyre-] Introducing Ana Valdes

Rustom Bharucha rustombharucha16 at gmail.com
Sun Nov 23 18:45:44 EST 2014

Dear all,

Many thanks to Johannes for introducing me to the group.  I've been
following the exchanges with a strange sense of bonding not least because
I've recently published a book on *Terror and Performance *(Routledge,
2014), which is still burning within me. Listening to your voice, which
come through with visceral intensity in a myriad registers, I sense that we
are in dialogue, and nothing could be more hopeful in an age of terror.
Terror has the potential to annihilate dialogue.  We must fight this
delusion of omnipotent arrogance and absolutism - currently propagandized
by the ISIS in its enactment of violence, which, as Monika rightly
designates, represents itself as 'the ultimate language and the ultimate
law.'  We must refuse this absolutism through an embrace of our own
vulnerabilities in trying to find our voices, stutteringly, hesitantly,
with some faith in our limited capacity to sustain dialogue through doubts,
differences and acknowledgments of 'anguish', as Alan has repeatedly
punctuated his reflections on terror.

And yet, it could be asked: Can there be any reassurance in sharing a
dialogue on terror?  Jon McKenzie echoes this question: 'Does sharing
violence somehow console even as/if it amplifies?' I'm not sure if such
sharing 'consoles', but it helps one to realize that the pain of others is
not necessarily 'unspeakable', 'unutterable', even as it pushes the
possibilities of representation.  Unlike Elaine Scarry, who would valorize
the non-translatabiity of one's own pain, Talal Asad would urge us to see
the pain of others as the very condition of our sociality.  Learning to
live with pain is not just an obligation; it is becoming, increasingly, a
necessity for holding on to the shreds of what it means to be human.

ISIS, Absolute Terror, Performance: this triad of categories, in which we
have been urged to frame our dialogue, catalyzes a clash of colliding
temporalities. If only 'the time' were 'out of joint', I don't think that
we would be facing the trauma of terror that we are facing today; the
reality is that several 'times' are being simultaneously *lived*, in past,
present, future, and their interstices, through different manifestations of
virtuality and invisibility. If ISIS represents both the incendiary and
mediatized NOW, and Absolute Terror invokes a time OUTSIDE time, beyond
questioning, in a pseudo-religious state of a 'realized utopia' (which, as
Ashis Nandy has correctly pointed out, could be another name for terror),
then 'performance' - unqualified, with no accompanying adjectives - would
appear to be almost painfully stark with its familiar associations of
'contingency': always unpredictable, dying in the moment of its creation,
processual, and singularly divested of any absolutist Truth.  This could be
too hopeful a reading of performance, as we will discuss later.

Returning to the collision of temporalities, Jon hits the nail on the head
with his prescient observations relating to 'slow terror', approximating
the 'slow violence' of ecocide and the systematic pauperization of entire
populations through new economic policies driven by neo-liberal capitalist
greed.  Extending the orbit of terrorist mechanisms beyond the likes of the
Al-Qaeda and ISIS, Jon makes us think of the terror of civility: 'With the
best of intentions, government, museums and universities have contributed
to this slow terror, which provides the backdrop for the fast and furious
terror of ISIS, Boko Haram, Abu Ghraib, Taliban and Latin American death
squads.' This focus on colliding speeds encompasses both the terror that
hits/strikes in the blink of an eye, and the terror that moves so slowly
like a Noh dancer crossing the stage with invisible stealth that one
doesn't even see the movement until it is completed with the deafening
sound of wooden clappers.

Multiple speeds ignite the clashing temporalities of terror, which can
simmer in clandestine secrecy, taking ten years or more for any attack to
be planned and performed with botched technical rehearsals along the way,
like the abortive attempt to blow up the Twin Towers in 1993. These
secretive pasts are juxtaposed with the unbearable present of an actual
terrorist attack, which in turn is deflected through the ultimate terror of
terror, which, as Derrida puts it mercilessly, lies in a future that cannot
even be grasped through the grammar of the future anterior.  This terror is
terrifying because it comes from the 'to-come', form an 'impresentable to
come.'  Not only is the worst not over, it may never be over.

If many theatre scholars have turned a bit too rashly to Artaud's famous
lines in order to evoke the terror of our times - 'We are not free.  The
sky can still fall on our heads.  And the theatre has been created to teach
us that first of all' - I think they could be jumping the gun. The point is
that the sky *can* still fall on our heads. What has fallen are the Twin
Towers, with one solitary Tower being resurrected in record time with due
deference to the undying never-say-die triumphalism of American
capitalism.  The sky has yet to fall.  And it is in this interim of the
'not-yet' that terror resides and mutates.

More than ever, we need to differentiate between metaphors and reality,
even as they tend to be conflated within the anxieties of our times, as we
mimic far too painfully - and unproductively, to my mind - the frenetic
pace of terror, trying to catch up with the latest atrocity as if we were
running a race against time.  Better to 'slow down', as Johannes put its,
thereby allowing us ' to reflect and listen.'  But this advice is prefaced
with the telling remark: 'My personal feeling today.'  Can slowing down be
made into an daily practice, a new habitus of being?  Can listening be
factored into our need to be heard?  Erik puts it perceptively when he
risks saying that 'the only real (sustainable) antidote to genocide that I
have ever been able to imagine involves the stillness of

Erik also has many wise suggestions in response to a key question that has
preoccupied our group: Can there be valid artistic responses to terror?
This is where we are compelled to open the multivalent world of
'performance', in which far too many colliding representations are
subsumed. Our correspondence has engaged with multimedia verbatim theatre,
installations, soundscapes, dramatic texts, poems, but also with beheadings
perpetrated by the ISIS and consumed on prime-time TV.  Ana has described
these beheadings as  a kind of 'choreography', with its Grand Guignol on
YouTube being compared to other kinds of public exhibitions of violence in
the past including executions by the guillotine during the French
Revolution and the lynching of blacks in the southern states of the United
States.  In a telling afterthought, James Barrett has reminded us that
public beheadings and 'crucifixions' of citizens and non-citizens in Saudi
Arabia are a regular feature of public life, and yet there is no global
outcry over this normalized barbarity.  Why this discrepancy in media
attention and public outrage?

The question that has troubled and haunted me since the writing of my book
is whether or not we should even use the word 'performance' to address
these atrocities.  Or, to inflect my position, the question could be posed
differently:  What are the limits of performance?  I am only too aware that
such questions can be easily critiqued, even as I persist in asking them.
After all, it is only too clear that the beheadings orchestrated by ISIS
have been ruthlessly stage-managed, timed, costumed, with Alan declaring
that they represent 'a theatre of the real, degree zero.' One could further
argue that these beheadings are *intentional* acts rejecting the
indeterminacies of improvisation; they have probably been rehearsed and
scripted in advance; they are made public with a global audience in mind,
not privatized murders; above all, they have been massively mediatized and
networked.  None of these performative circumstances can be refuted.  But
do they add up to the implacable, over-confident assertion that what we are
seeing is a 'performance'?  For whom are they a 'performance', or, more
specifically, 'theatre'?  Does this apply only to those who 'believe in the
religious ideology of ISIS', as Alan assumes, even though there is no
empirical evidence to suggest that this is, in actuality, the case?
Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that it is 'we' - representatives
of a spectrum of dissenting views whose liberal assumptions are
antithetical to the ideology of ISIS - who are in a better position to
claim that these beheadings are performances.

I question this position, even as I realize that it would be a lot easier
to simply accept beheadings as performances.  In a related series of
question that I have addressed in my book, I ask: Is the act of killing a
performance?  Are suicide bombings and self-immolations *intrinsically*
performative? I have tried to tread this mine-field of aporias and enigmas
as carefully as possible, trying to disimbricate the action of killing from
its effect/affect, and also by questioning the different subject positions
and locations by which the very epistemology of 'performance' can be
affirmed. For whom is 'performance' (as we understand the word in
Euro-American academic contexts) an intelligible and socially acceptable
category with universal significance?  We may need to insert into the
discussion different understandings of performance, along with different
resistances and capitulations to the idea of performance.  Without closing
the possibility of interpreting any act of killing as performance, I would
prefer to ask, 'At what point does it become pertinent to name the act of
killing as a performance?  And at what point does it cease to be a
performance?  What are the cut-off points and exits, the backstage life of
'the real', that collectively contribute to that massively uninterrogated
dimension of 'non-performance'?  At what point does it become imperative to
highlight that an act of killing is an 'atrocity' - nothing more, nothing
less - and that it needs to be identified as such and condemned beyond its
representational immediacy, terrifyingly lethal as it may be.

What could lie at the heart of my deep reluctance to naming performance in
the context of beheadings?  Very simply, I would say, Have you ever faced a
moment in your life where your mind is telling you to say something within
a prescribed hermeneutics, which is easy to demonstrate and prove, but,
somehow, in your bones, it 'doesn't feel right'?  In a different register,
I would say that there is in me an ethical revulsion to the idea of using
performance as a category for what is better designated as brutality, a
killing in the flesh, not just representational but actual, where it is not
possible to have a dialogue with the dead on what performance means.  At
some level, this revulsion has an aesthetic dimension. Here I find myself
in deep sympathy with Erik's nuanced, yet inflexible resistance to what he
calls the 'bad art' of terror.  'It is imperative,' as he says, 'that we
don't respond to the bad art of terror or art stunted by trauma with
louder, counter terrorist or re-traumatizing cliches.  This runs the risk
of keeping the disaster alive, Frankenstein fashion... These beheading
videos are bad art.'

This description has an ironic resonance for me as I recall an interaction
with that ultimate survivor of the radical cultural politics of the 1960s,
Peter Schumann of the Bread and Puppet Theatre, who in a workshop conducted
in the village of Heggodu in Karnataka, proudly affirmed, 'We do bad art.'
I had to remind him that regardless of the criteria surrounding the word
'bad', the point is that he did 'art' - highly German Expressionist for all
its Vermont-inspired local inflections.  In contrast, I would say that
beheading videos are not 'art'; they are atrocities in their own right, and
need to be seen for what they are.  As 'art', do they need to be
re-seen/re-viewed?  Do they warrant such attention?  Or, in their ceaseless
relays on mediatized corporatized television channels and social networks,
which we consume against our will, do they not affirm the terror of
repetition, which can only result in the deepening of the banality of evil
in our times?

9/11 may not have been a cliche when it happened, but it certainly became
one by the time it was seen for the nth time, interspersed with
commercials, visuals, talk-shows, illustrations in books and other
replications.  We need to differentiate, as Derrida does, painstakingly and
with acute care, between 'the heart of the event' [relating to 'September
11'], which demands '*unconditional* compassion' for the victims and
'indignation' over the killings, and 'the interpreted, interpretative,
informed impression, the conditional evaluation that makes us *believe*
that this is a major event.' Such discriminations are being steadily eroded
today as 'the real' seems to have no intransigent life outside its
more-often-than-not misinformed mediatization.

Countering this mediatization in his typical, laconic, matter-of-fact way,
Noam Chomsky has suggested, 'Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism.
Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it.' When I had
included this statement in the postscript to my book, I had expressed some
scepticism that this 'non-participation' was possible, particularly since
we seem to have 'advanced' far beyond the 'manufacture of consent' which
Chomsky had formulated in what appear to be more innocent days of
mediatized state and corporate propaganda.  How can one not 'participate'
in terror today?  It surrounds and pervades us through a multitude of
languages and sound-bytes, penetrating the epidermis of our skins, invading
our imaginaries.

Do activism and art practice have the capacity to short-circuit the
consumption of terror?  Are are they more likely to ignite its metastasis?
These are questions that I will need to take up later as this letter has
gone on for far too long - questions that also need to be linked to
practices of resisting terror through reinvented forms of non-violence and
justice positioned outside - and against - the law.  For the moment, let us
acknowledge 'our own complicity in the production of "common sense" around
terror,' as Alan has put it so succinctly in his introductory note.  Terror
is not just about killing others; it is about letting others die.  No one
has expressed this excruciatingly painful truth more exactingly than
Derrida: '[D]oes terrorism have to work only through death?  Can't one
terrorize without killing?  And does killing necessarily mean putting to
death?  Isn't it also "letting die"?  Can't "letting die", "not wanting to
know that one is letting others die"... also be part of a "more or less"
conscious and deliberate terrorist strategy?'  I leave you with these



On Sat, Nov 22, 2014 at 11:40 PM, Alan Sondheim <sondheim at panix.com> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> I'd like to introduce Ana Valdes, guest for the next week of empyre,
> ISIS, Absolute Terror, Performance
> Ana was critical in the empyre discussion we hosted on Pain, Suffering,
> and Death in the Virtual; a social anthropologist, her work and writing
> combine universes of politics, theories, and media; we have learned so
> much from her. Welcome Ana!
> *
> Ana Vald?s was born in Uruguay, South America, in a family of Spanish and
> Italian emigrants, raised by German nuns. She studied Geography with
> German maps from 1942 and she believed firmly that Belgium, Netherlands,
> France, Norway and Danmark were a part of the Germany. In the maps the
> nuns used Germany was almost the whole Europe.
> She was put in prison when she was 19 years old for her political views.
> Ana belonged to a guerilla group called Tupamaros, at that timeshe
> believed in the weapons as a way to change things. She has changed her
> views, radically, and has been a member of the pacifist group Women in
> Black for years. After 4 years in prison she was deported to Sweden where
> she became at least an adult. She studied Anthropology and worked on death
> and blood ceremonies as these. 1982 she published her first book with
> short stories, awarded by Sorbonne University. She has written and
> published more than ten books and some of her short stories have been
> translated into English, French, Greek and Italian, Faber and Faber and
> Serpent's Tail has published several collections with her work, ?The
> Garden of the Alphabet? and ?Columbus's Egg.? She is a bilingual writer
> and writes both in Swedish and in Spanish. Ana has also been an
> independent curator and worked with Swedish visual artist Cecilia Parsberg
> in Palestine, they created the network ?Equator?
> (http://www.ceciliaparsberg.se/equator). She has participated in several
> debates about violence and representation with Jordan Crandall, ?Under
> fire? (http://www.wdw.nl/wdw_publications/jordan-crandall-under-fire-2/)
> She has been a member of -empyre since the beginning and guest moderated
> several times, her topics related to the representations of the Arabs in
> the contemporary world, the Crusades, and to urbanism and resilience. Her
> latest book, ?Your time will come, has been published in Swedish and in
> Spanish and it's about her time in prison, the torture and the resistance
> to break. About that, Counterpunch published an essay where her
> experiences were used
> (http://www.counterpunch.org/2006/03/28/torture-works/). Ana has been in
> Palestine several times and saw how the civilian population suffers, she
> left Gaza one week before Rachel Corrie was murdered, and was in Jenin
> with Parsberg when the Israeli army left the town after ten days of
> attacks, death and mayhem, it was the Palestinian Ground Zero
> (www.ceciliaparsberg.se/jenin).
> http://www.twitter.com/caravia15860606060
> http://www.scoop.it/t/art-and-activism/
> http://www.scoop.it/t/food-history-and-trivia
> http://www.scoop.it/t/urbanism-3-0
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu
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