Saturday, 4 December 2010

Earth Alienation

In 1957, an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe, where for some weeks it circled the earth according to the same laws of gravitation that swing and keep in motion the celestial bodies—the sun, the moon, and the stars. To be sure, the man-made satellite was no moon or star, no heavenly body which could follow its circling path for a time span that to us mortals, bound by earthly time, lasts from eternity to eternity. Yet, for a time it managed to stay in the skies; it dwelt and moved in the proximity of the heavenly bodies as though it had been admitted tentatively to their sublime company.

This event, second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom, would have been greeted with unmitigated joy if it had not been for the uncomfortable military and political circumstances attending it. But, curiously enough, this joy was not triumphal; it was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery which rilled the hearts of men, who now, when they looked up from the earth toward the skies, could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first "step toward escape from men's imprisonment to the earth." And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American reporter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk for one of Russia's great scientists: "Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever."

(Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition)

So, at 3.35pm on April 29, 2008, the Zeus IV appeared in the Californian sky. Accompanied by six chase planes, the space-craft swept down to a perfect landing, guided by its on-board computer to within 50 meters of President Quayle's reception podium. The stunned silence was broken by an immense cheer when two of the astronauts were glimpsed in the observation windows. The crowd surged forward, waiting for the hatches to open as soon as the landing checks were over.

Despite the warmth of this welcome, the astronauts were surprisingly reluctant to emerge from their craft. The decontamination teams were posed by the airlocks, ready to board the spaceship and evacuate its atmosphere for laboratory analysis. But the crew had overridden the computerized sequences and made no reply over the radio link to the urgent queries of the ground controllers. They had switched off the television cameras inside the craft, but could be seen through the observation windows, apparently tidying their cabins and changing into overalls. Dr. Valentina was spotted in the galley, apparently sterilizing her surgical instruments. A rumour swept the review stands, where President Quayle, the Congress and invited heads of state sweltered in the sun, that one of the crew had been injured on re-entry, but it soon transpired that Dr. Valentina was merely making soup. Even more strangely, Professor Kawahito was seen setting out six parallel chessboards, as if preparing for another tournament.

(J.G. Ballard, "The Message From Mars")

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

"What happened? I did not die."

Re-watching Sidney Lumet’s film “The Pawnbroker” recently, I was reminded of its exemplary treatment of the relation between embodiment and trauma. Two brief things to say. One, Lumet’s film gives us a clear articulation of Cathy Caruth’s notion of an “unclaimed experience.” The film does this by privileging the body as the vehicle of expression for a past that cannot be resolved in spoken language. Instead of being the locus of all movement and orientation, Sol Nazerman’s body is a manifestation of what Caruth terms “the missing of experience.” Indeed, the use of flashback editing in the film is a literal stamp placed upon the body of Sol Nazerman. In his skin, Nazerman’s body becomes a porous opening to a past that has yet to be brought to abstract unity. The body undercuts this cognitive shortcoming through its mute articulation of Nazerman’s history of trauma. In its incongruities and disruptions, the body speaks a language that is peculiar to the experience of trauma. What is striking about Lumet’s treatment of trauma memory in the film is the sense of the simultaneity of the past and the present. Here, Merleau-Ponty offers some guidance on this tension:

Our body does not always have meaning, and our thoughts. . . do not always find in it the plenitude of their vital expression. In the cases of disintegration, the soul and the body are apparently distinct; and this is the truth of dualism (Merleau-Ponty 1965, 209).

The importance of this passage, it seems to me, is twofold. One, a tacit duality is acknowledged despite the fact that phenomenologically speaking, there is nothing metaphysically true about dualism. Two, beyond metaphysics, the phenomenal appearance of the body during disintegration can no longer be said to be strictly “mine.” Instead, a process of dissociation takes place, such that the normal functioning of the body comes to a standstill. The mute body memories of Sol Nazerman testify to the body’s propensity to “hide” from the self. In this way, the body of traumatic memory occupies a destabilising relationship not only to cognitive memory but also to the cognitive perception of the body as held through the prism of self-consciousness. This is the strangeness of the traumatized body: it carries with it its own shadowy other beneath the surface. In effect, two bodies occupy the same space at the same time. Nazerman’s body defies phenomenology: in it, Merleau-Ponty’s “truth of dualism” is announced, as Nazerman says:

It's just that there have been memories that I had, well, I thought that I had pushed them far away from me and they keep rushing in, and then they're words, words that I thought I had kept myself from hearing. . . . And now they flood my mind.
The other tangential point: at the heart of traumatic memory is the essence of body horror. Indeed, Lumet’s film is as much an account of the horror of the body as one would find in the early work of David Cronenberg. The reason for this is that what Lumet’s film shows us is a “self” that has become the ghost of the bodily experience that endures merely through a sort of blind persistence (a horror, which, incidentally, Christopher Hitchens spoke of recently in relation to cancer). Where is Nazerman in the midst of his body? His response to this question, a counter-question: "What happened? I did not die.'" Yet in some sense the “I” did die, and what now remains is the anonymity of a body being encroached upon by an experience that is not only unclaimed by the traumatised subject but also opposed to that subject.