Barzakh Spring 2013 Editorial

by Sarah Giragosian and Chad Lowther

Barzakh’s second issue of the year again takes up the question of the ecological critique, seeking out modalities of an ecopoetic and ecocritical praxis.  This issue, which brings together text, image, and video, models Barzakh’s dedication to the in-between or “isthmus” space of hybrid and intertextual discourses.  In this issue, we feature Jill Magi’s presentation at the 2013 SUNY-Albany English Graduate Student Conference on her forthcoming hybrid collection LABOR (published by Nightboat Books), that examines the relationship between the laboring body and the institution. We also are pleased to curate Catherine Owen’s “rhizomatic” blogs on the 2013 Conference on Ecopoetics in Berkeley.  More locally, the spirit of institutional critique in Magi’s work was embodied in a recent student protest that occurred outside of the University at Albany’s University Hall. The protest, organized by the Student Revolutionary Coalition, served as a means to urge President Robert Jones to address and to resolve, among other issues, the lack of faculty diversity. A video highlighting the events of the protest can be viewed here, and a list of the SRC’s demands can be viewed here. We have also compiled interviews with a local environmentalist and a local activist that are devoted to protecting Albany’s Pine Bush Preserve, which is the only considerably sized pine barrens dune ecosystem in the US today. Finally, we are proud to present a film recording of Clark Coolidge’s reading from his highly anticipated A Book Beginning What and Ending Away (Fence Books 2013); the film archives Coolidge’s staggering performance accompanied by bassist Michael Bisio.

These testimonials and events are set alongside a diverse range of creative and critical interventions on how we engage bodily and imaginatively with our ecosystem.  As editors, we are drawn to work that has a strong political and social conscience, that undertakes a broad and systemic investigation of the discursive and non-discursive practices that contribute to the devastation of the eco, and that seek to question the ways in which cultural categories—such as gender and labor—intersect with the current ecological crisis.  Global warming, as Jill Magi reminds us, is a deeply social crisis.  An ecopolitical practice, moreover, may interrogate the regimes of power that impose strict ontological boundaries between life forms and instead account for the interdependencies of life. In this issue, we are honored to feature the work of poets and critics who are engaged in redefining those boundaries.  Art, as a mode of relation, can help make the borders between ourselves and other life forms more permeable.

We can see this notion of art as a tool for scrutiny and subversion at work in the music and poetry of John Cage, one of the artists featured in the Spring 2013 issue of Barzakh. Cage used aleatoric procedures to eliminate the role of the ego in composition, in order to avoid habitual patterns informed by aesthetic standards that reinforce existing power structures. He looked to the use of non-intention as a model for social change. He saw political protest, for instance, as means to exacerbate one’s tribulations—like fanning a fire, therefore he advocated the adoption of a non-stance in art and in life. This is not to say that Cage was not concerned with grave social and political issues. Much of his thought was invested in the state of the environment and society, which he likened to the state of music.

At a symposium on the biological concerns related to global ecology, held in Mexico in 1969, Cage commented, to Margaret Mead, Conrad Waddington, and others on new music that was emerging at the time, and how it had grown to reshape the listener’s experience by altering their expectations. He said, “We no longer see the coming together of disparate things as requiring harmony. In fact if harmony is required or imposed by the composer, it acts in our ears now to obscure the differences of the individual sounds.” Cage was not referring to music alone, but to a number of different things, and to the idea of accepting chaos among them, in lieu of choosing concord. His comment was in response to an argument made by Waddington, that what society needs is a greater sense of “unity” or “wholeness.” Cage posited, to the contrary, that what is needed in society, art, music, etc. is “openness” to diversity, to a “multiplicity” of disparate things.

In multiplicity things may occur freely, unrestricted and unaltered. In Cage’s music, sounds occur naturally, or as he puts it, in “aperiodic” intervals. Perhaps one of his lesser-known works, “Bird Cage,” composed at SUNY Albany in 1972, introduces 8 dissonant streams of sound to a performance setting in which “people are free to move and birds to fly.” Here, sound occurs much like it does in Cage’s silence, where nonintentional audible factors—elements external to deliberate outcomes or planned conditions—are allowed to enter into the aural environment of the performance. There may be the sounds of lively discussion, a baby crying, birds passing by, etc.—whatever noise a crowd can make, however broad one’s concept of crowd or performance may be; to this Cage added 8 speakers through which passed, at random, 8 carefully engineered streams of sound created from 12 tapes that were curated using complex procedures. Such conditions prevent individual sounds from forming into congruous structures, or as Cage might have said, from being bullied by harmony.

In other works appearing in this issue, as well, we find disjointed landscapes that, like “Bird Cage,” direct the observer’s attention to individual, isolated events transpiring within. In Vernon Frazer’s, “Desire After the Elms” we find an anomalous terrain, severely fragmented by parataxis, littered with verbal noise reverberating in places where disjointed word strings are taken up again and refashioned. Dismembered “immersion/ particles/ diversify” the poem’s body in seemingly purposeless, asymmetrical patterns. There are no pronouns in the poem, and the poem itself is the only subject we encounter. It engages in a reflexive analysis of its own disjunctive structures (“a lamination/ of parataxis resumes/ reversal”). It tells us it is an “emulsion”—a mixture, the elements of which remain suspended, unable to be absorbed into the whole. Similar to the way chance undermines habitual behaviors in Cage’s work, the poem’s odd, disjointed phrases act as “amnesia throttles,” disrupting recursive patterns of thought that may have otherwise appeared in the text at the time of composition, or influenced the reader’s assumptions about the text’s inherent meaning.

Multiplicity requires collaboration among the different parts that make up the total (mind and) body … family … community … society … world. This is true in the arts, as it is in society. For instance, Cage describes how the musical scale grew to what it is because of strangers bringing new tones to the collective. Margaret Mead, likewise, hypothesizes that language developed as the result of similar collaborative acts among the earth’s earliest communities. In this way, the presence of disparate things increases the knowledge base of society by increasing its level of diversity. Rather than the participation of each contributing factor, unity and harmony require dominance to achieve homogeneity. Thus conflict arises where difference meets with the standardized parts of the unifying whole. At this juncture, the stranger’s options ultimately entail some form of forfeiture: either of diversity and autonomy; or of the power, rights, and resources rewarded for good social standing. The individual and her unique traits are lost, absorbed into the whole.

Our issue questions the tense relations between the “I” and the “We” and offers art as an in-between space in which those relations might be tested, forged, or reconstituted in a specifically political vocabulary.  It may be that art’s immanence is particularly dramatized in an ecopoetics.   Often the terms used to define Nature are exclusionary and are deployed by an imperialist project that establishes the strict boundaries between the natural and unnatural.  Art, however, may confuse these boundaries, and ecopoetic work is especially disposed to blend cultural and natural categories so as to expose their constructedness.  An ecopoetics may furnish a possible intervention in an exclusionary politics. We are excited to feature critical and creative work in this issue that is invested in one way or another in offering alternatives to hegemonic discourses that seek to impose social order at the expense of the “unnatural” other.

Faculty Advisor: Tomás Urayoán Noel

Co-Editors: Chad Lowther and Sarah Giragosian

Editorial Committee: Amanda Boyd, Jesse Newman