Thursday, June 25, 2009

the persistence of durable objects

English Cigarette Card from the NYPL Collection

Rimbaud (dead)
Lautréamont (dead)
Breton (gone to America)
Marx Brothers (forbidden)
English cigarettes (too expensive)
American cigarettes (see English cigarettes)
Jazz (no phonographs or recordings)
Getting out of here (no papers, too expensive)
Whiskey (too expensive)

Text from a postcard from the Belgian poet Christian Dotremont to Paul Éluard written on 26 May 1942 from Nazi occupied Paris detailing what could and could no longer be had in the city under the occupation.

The postcard appears in Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation on the first floor of a double decker stack of exhibits regarding liberty -- the loss of it, the pursuit of it -- currently running at the New York Pubic Library.

The ground floor exhibit features artifacts from artists and writers in France under the occupation -- the program from the first production of Anouilh's Antigone is here, as is a pseudonymous review of Sartre's Les Mouches. There are film posters and still shots of films made under the occupation including Marcel Carné's luminous Children of Paradise.

There are letters: one penned by later Marxist critic and then POW Louis Althusser who, en route to his concentration camp wrote of "the train that shakes my pen" before he enfolded his missive into an envelope addressed to his uncle and dropped it through the train's window onto the railroad tracks. It bore no stamp, only a request that it be delivered to his uncle's address in Paris. And it was.

There was another epistolary exchange between Marguerite Duras and her husband Robert Anthelme: his scribbled on a small spare scrap of paper that he has survived the camps; to which her letter replies "You're alive! You're alive!" and in which she writes of her fear that she might not have survived news of his death. Never mind that she had been sleeping with their mutual friend Dionys Mascolo since before the war; never mind that eventually she would throw the former over for the latter. Never mind. He was alive right then when worse was feared.

Photo: Robert Anthelme, Marguerite Duras and Dionys Mascolo

So downstairs there are writers surviving, collaborating and resisting Vichy France, and upstairs, in that lean hallway that runs alongside the Rose Reading Room there's Stonewall. 1967: The Year of Gay Liberation isn't afforded nearly the same real estate as the Vichy show, but like so many of the shows that hang in that hallway it's tightly curated to deliver a full body blow with minimal artifacts, and it's cast in a strong palette of groovy golds that put the yellowing sepias of the Paris show to shame.

Here too there were more print pieces: posters and zines; pamphlets, police reports, newspapers, and letters produced in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots and the Lavender Menace response to Betty Friedan's lesbians-are-a-threat-to-feminism remarks. Ephemera, again. Small voices grasping in the swallowing din for a bullhorn to be heard by; a message in a bottle set upon the sea.

Here I am. Hear me.

I don't know if the NYPL planned these exhibits as complements. It's the first time I've seen such a strong echo between two simultaneously running exhibits in that space. The reverb was made stronger, perhaps, by the shouts coming now from Iran in the wake of the protests following the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was impossible to not be keenly conscious of both the magnanimity and the fragility of the small human voice set against the force and will of a State that does not want to hear it.

The voices of the Green Revolution, as some have called it, are being amplified across the Web through retweets and vias and blog posts that trumpet the injustice and argue for the cause. These posts have and will most likely continue to play a potent and powerful role in spreading the word.

The social network Twitter acted as such an important conduit of information while events were unfolding in Iran that the U.S. State Department suggested that perhaps they should put off their scheduled maintenance and downtime in light of the fact that a revolution was underway. According to the New York Times:

This was just a call to say: ‘It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’” said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

Viewing the Vichy France and Stonewall exhibits at NYPL I was reminded that the government cannot always be trusted with preserving public freedom of expression, but I'm still alarmed that online there is no place that is truly public. We are having a public conversation across private enterprise channels.

The power and potency of the social graphs that folks are creating across social networks like Twitter and Flickr and Facebook and their blogs on Wordpress and Blogger ride on corporate dollars. That social networks afford individuals influence across the web and through their network neighborhoods is undeniable; the fact that corporations are bankrolling a dialogue that once upon a time unfolded in the public square or through businesses like newspapers where public interest was the core mission, is hardly being discussed.

I'm not ready to make an argument for government intervention in the online space, but it's a concern that has been gnawing on me since the SxSW conference in March where I heard over and over again folks speaking about using the Interweb as a communication tool for furthering human rights and self-expression -- but no one mentioned the fact that we're doing this on the back of big business.

Which brings us too to the question of the ephemera generated online during events like the Green Revolution: How will we recount the voices that spoke up when these events have passed and history has been written by the winners? Where will we display the green swathed avatars and the tweets that spread like a lightening strike in a dry tinder forest?

You couldn't identify anything anymore. The persistence of durable objects had been solidly defeated.

The poet Jean Follain describing Sant-Lô, Normandy, which was decimated by the allied bombing that accompanied D-Day.

1 comment:

anniemcq said...

wow. this is brilliant, thought-provoking stuff. And regarding that whole truly public forum thing? Get on that, wouldja? Send Obama a tweet and make it so. Seriously? If anyone can do it, you can.

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