Tuesday, August 14, 2012

surface affects


We went camping on the North Olympic beach a few weeks ago. We came with the intention (in the phenomenological sense) of coming in contact with objects that make us happy. The way we entered the beach as a zone of happiness was with an angle supported by good memories: walks in the hard January wind, watching an atavistic brother climb escarpments like a cutter hoping to feel something, drinking out of tin cups around a drift-wood fire with friends who we met in landscapes of similar power up above Lake Issyk Kul. We like the high Olympic coast because it feels good; we associate it with the wild and infinitely mysterious. Here we are treading close to Kant’s definition of the sublime, and the effect of this is something which takes away our happiness. This is because, as Neitzsche tells us, “a reason is sought in persons, experiences, etc. for why one feels this way or that” (354 in Ahmed 40) and as soon as reason casts its shadow over our feelings our feelings are diminished. Happiness can only be performed when it is sustained not by how we ought to feel but by those more automatic experiences of proximity to unassimilated objects of desire. Here we have affect, which as Sara Ahmed puts it, “is what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects” (29). Affects are what lies between senses and feelings; they are what desire and revulsion are made of. 
I’ve been making my way through the Affect Theory Reader over the summer. So far Sara Ahmed’s chapter on happiness has made the biggest impression. Using figures such as melancholic migrants she points out that normative claims made for happiness (neoliberal American Dreams, nuclear families and so on) sometimes fail to deliver the happiness they promise. Instead minorities encounter homogenous ideals that promise levity but are packaged with ethnic and racial humiliation. She suggests that the sort of “bad feelings” these experiences inspire “are seen as orientated toward the past, as a kind of stubbornness that ‘stops’ the subject from embracing the future. Good feelings are associated here with moving up and moving out. The demand that we be affirmative makes those histories disappear by reading them as a form of melancholia” (50).

Jenn, as always my fixed star, discussed this with me as we walked down the beach toward the Chilean Memorial where Alfred Jensen, his wife, his young son and a crew of 17, succumbed to the ocean on November 24, 1920. Along the way we looked for trash from Fukushima where 15, 867 souls on March 11, 2011 were swallowed by the waves and refuse was spit back by currents, we met a dead deer along the way, soft with rot, there was an eagle in a tree high above the rocks. We had heard that there were inscriptions in the rocks along this shore marking places where the people whose land we now occupy used to encounter whales – something that I’m sure brought them much happiness when it went well. There is a deeper happiness when you get close to the surface of things and see the traces of pain and pleasure they contain and express. I’m implicated in the colonization of this landscape and the political economy that pillages it, but, as Foucault put it so well, “do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant.” There is still happiness in resistance; paraphrasing Deleuze, no reason to despair, just find new weapons.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I have a row of sand dollars drying out on our balcony in Ballard, they remind me of ripening pears on a Moscow windowsill from a Sam Abell photo I saw a long time ago. Beautiful white discs of time, seasoning. A long time ago I collected sand dollars outside of Lincoln City, in Oregon, on a trip to see Uncle Lee and Aunt Mary, it was hard to find the ones that weren’t broken.

Now we live in the Northwest and can see Lee and Mary pretty much whenever we want. We saw them a couple of weeks ago when they were celebrating their 41st anniversary. We stayed at the Thunderbird Hotel in Aberdeen, ate at diners and restaurants famous for wild blackberry pie and as respectable environments for the wives of loggers. We didn’t stay in Aberdeen long enough to get a sense for the depression that Kurt Cobain must have felt when he grew up there, instead we went to the Olympic National Forest and looked at huge Douglas Firs, giant Spruce that have stood in pretty much exactly the same space for 5 or 600 years.

Lee came to gab rather than look, so we spent quite a bit of time talking Segway tours in Berlin, language learning techniques, the purposes one might put advanced study of Chinese culture toward, the prevalence of gluten allergy among Gingerichs, future trips that would involve speaking Spanish, going out to the coast where museums tell the story of seamen lost and found. Mary quoted poems from her childhood, picked ambitious trails, spoke out against polyester, sought out mythical gardens. We went to the coast where we spotted driftwood like giant geckos poking up through the mist. Lee drove, I navigated. We played juvenile tricks on the women. I ate most of a giant cinnamon roll. We had a good time.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ai Weiwei
The original Xinjianger

On our way back to Seattle we flew through New York, saying hi to friends like Harlan, Marilyn and their passel of small girls, meeting for coffee and American Chinese food with old supporters like Gulnar Kendirbai and Morris Rossabi. We also had a chance to stop by Ai Weiwei’s exhibition of photos of an estranged man in New York City at the New York Asia Society.

For those still in the dark, Ai Weiwei is a great Chinese Surrealist and social critic. During a time of punk without punk like glasses without lens and friendship without friendship like tai qi without feeling is pervasive across China. Ai Weiwei is a last great noble cat with the poise and beautiful flowing beard of a dynastic sage. He is quiet, thoughtful, conscious. He smashes priceless Han urns and builds Olympic stadiums as a master chef would craft rare Yunnan delicacies. He knows that the Chinese game is rigged toward those close to the powers that be. He’s a crafty, serious player.

Ai Weiwei is from Xinjiang (the New Dominion) in Northwest China where his father Ai Qing, the most famous poet of the twentieth century in China, was sent to clean toilets during the Great Leap Forward. He lived in a beige house made of desert clay in the beige army garrison Shihezi (石河子), a town built from nothing but water from the Heavenly Mountains and the sweat of thousands of farmers and herders on the high desert 100 kilometers from where I spent the past year. It was there that he learned how to use his hands and think about how to use them. As he says: “I’m grew up in the desert, so the images that I choose to take or not take somehow reflect my conditions back there. There’s still a choice before you push down the button. (Coming from the desert) means you don’t have equipment. You don’t have a sense to record anything. It’s a very simple life -- it’s only what you see and what you can remember when you open your eyes and before you close them.”* Looking at his pictures from his 11 years in New York City where he went three years after his family was rehabilitated to Beijing following the demise of a senile Mao Zedong, I can imagine that in the US he learned to speak his mind and try on ideas. It’s hard not to see a strange style in his straight-ahead appearance, a 20 year-old wearing his traditional Chinese cloth shoes, his olive green double-breasted People’s Liberation Army winter duster in the steel jungle of Times Square, in the junkie wasteland of the Lower East Side, in MOMA trying on André Breton, hobnobbing with Allen Ginsburg and great Chinese purveyors of “Northwest Style” like Wang Meng and Chen Kaige who also started from the beige earth of Northwest China.

Eventually Ai went home to bury his father and start an art renaissance in Beijing. He began to write what he felt. Ai Weiwei was just released from prison after three months of hooded confinement as close to spiritual death as is physically possible. I can imagine that he must have thought about what it felt like for his father a maroon in a Chinese desert, cleaning toilets, digging out a home for free thought with his bare fingers.

*From Ai Weiwei: New York 1983-1993, “Interviews,” Trans. Stephanie H. Tung with Alison Klayman, Chambers Fine Art, Beijing, 2010, pp. 40-41.

Photos from Ai Weiwei’s Google+ account

For more on Ai Weiwei.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

seattle america
one year later, some things that we just love:

the way the bass fruitbat sings high

record stores

whale watching

public tightrope walking

public fires (/w dog)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

the kyrgyzstan stills:
The Heavenly Mountains
Apart from the food the best thing we've experienced in Kyrgyzstan is the extreme beauty of the Western Tian Shan mountains. A few days ago J. and I headed up into the backcountry in a 1950s era all-wheel drive Soviet mini bus piloted by two greasy Russian twins. We carried a tent, half a tank of propane, a giant tea pot -- all of which were rented from a little Kyrgyz girl who spoke perfect English nervously to me. We also had a key supply of nuts, yogurt, Kyrgyz bread, Russian pickles (turns out Russians are the king of pickles! Am I wrong?), and a giant log of smoked cheese.... We were on our way to Altyn Arshan, home of fabulous herds of horses, cigarette mad nomad boys, Russian mushroom pickers, and crazy city folks with tons of stuff in their kits. The quintessential feature of the place, of course, was the piping hot springs which sent us into shock for several hours every day (so good, so hot, Russians are the kings of hot springs. Am I wrong?). We camped up a the river in a little grove of trees and set off for one of the nearby glaciers early (this means 9:30 am). It was fabulous walking through those pastures through herds of semi wild horses and dogs, listening to the marmots call, bear track spotting. We didn't make it to the glacier but we had a great time, totally alone in a wild country, dreaming of nothing but being there.

Monday, July 12, 2010

the China
stills: Part II (Romantic Tourist Version)
July 12, 2010 My nose is peeling from a hard hike up Mt. Kongur to a massive glacier at about 4500 meters. The dark comfort of a dung heated yurt has never been more inviting. We've bused through the sands of the Taklamakan in searing heat with air-conditioning blasting like a Uyghur action movie gone terribly wrong. We survived the filth of Hotan hotels on and on because we were so intregued with how Uyghur medicine works, how carpets are made, how small pebbles of jade change hands and what reading Arabic means to people. We've observed Uyghur jokers at the zoo and cool cats doing the mukam in Yarkan. We're collecting artifacts of the Old Town in Kashgar. We sat for hours in an old stone fort in the High Pamirs thinking about why Potlemy mentioned the place over 2000 years ago and why Tajiks look so noble. We stayed in a stone yurt swaping glances with an old Kyrgyz gentleman and remarking on the 7500 meter mountains all around, and how hard 20 year-old Kyrgyz women work. We're still in China until Wednesday when we will possibly try our hand at Kyrgyzstan.

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