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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, June 6

Gapers Block

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John Keene, associate professor of English and African American Studies at Northwestern University, is the author of the 1995 award-winning novel Annotations, which was described in a Publishers Weekly review as being "A work that should not be ignored and is worthy of the highest recommendation. It is an experimental work that pinpoints a new direction for literary fiction in the 21st Century." Keene's Seismosis, a poetry collection of text-art dialogue with artwork by New York City artist Christopher Stackhouse, is available for order from 1913 Press or your local bookseller. A longtime member of the Dark Room Writers Collective of Cambridge and Boston and a Graduate Fellow of Cave Canem, Keene was Northwestern's inaugural Simon Blattner Visiting Assistant Professor in 2001. He has published his fiction, poetry, essays and translations in a wide array of journals, and has been the recipient of fellowships from the Artists Foundation of Massachusetts, the New York Times Foundation, Yaddo, and the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. His most recent honors include a 2003 Fellowship in Poetry from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and a 2005 Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation Award in Fiction.

Q: One needs language to communicate, to share, the impressions he or she has ascertained from a visual experience — a visit to a museum or gallery, seeing a movie, attending a play, etc. Can the opposite occur? Has your work with artist Christopher Stackhouse provided you with any evidence of how a visual experience can critique, comment upon and share the experience of language?

Keene: Our capacity for speech and written language, though embodied in our consciousness and thus with us from the beginning, develops after our primary senses; we first touch, hear, taste and smell, and then delivered into the world, see. Our earliest screams do not become coherent words or phrases until several years on. How do we communicate prior to language, or spoken and written language? How do we share these earliest joys, fears, delights, moments of astonishment? Psychologists, pediatricians and other professionals working in this area have provided us with answers, and in concert with them, I would suggest, very simply, through gestures, images, through the primary senses.

Working with Chris's drawings, looking at and engaging with them deeply, has brought back to me something akin to this originary experience of the world, in a way, especially the tactile and the visual, of what it means to experience the world without a ready or credible language to describe it, to describe what we have never seen before or perhaps have seen so many times we no longer recognize its uniqueness. Gesture-as-language, language-in-images become crucial, the means to share and communicate the experience for myself and for others. The words represent a translation, but not an exact correspondence, because that can never exist. Only the dialogue. But a visual experience — that is, a particular, focused visual experience, because we exist continuously in the visual — can press us out of our habits with language, defamiliarize us, as the Russian formalists or Adorno in another context argued, to the norms which serve as the bases for our linguistic constructs of the world.

Perhaps not permanently, but temporarily; Kant suggested this was the province of the sublime as opposed to the merely beautiful, with the result being the invocation of the faculty of reason, a renewal and reaffirmation, but in light of the triumph of abstraction, I might argue that our notion of the sublime has changed as well, that works like Chris's drawings, if we look long enough, in their beauty and truth, can shake us out, and up.

Q: In his novel White Noise, Don DeLillo has his character Murray say, "I don't trust anybody's nostalgia but my own. Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It's a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence. War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country." What is your writerly take on nostalgia?

Keene: What a difficult question! Nostalgia, which is different from memory or remembering — "what memory is not a gripping thought" (Hejinian) — is an affliction of the present-time or even now-time, one of the symptoms of those moments when the mortices of our temporally bounded desires, howsoever shaped and formed, but particularly by our heavily mediated realities, and our unfolding experiences in the present, do not fit, causing us to look back, through a window that is ultimately a false mirror, to a past that we lived or perhaps didn't, that we wished we had, imperfectly tainted with the hue of melancholic romance, of an unattainable, obscured or elusive ideal that, if we were only able to dispel the present and return to it... I am not sure that war is a form of nostalgia per se so much as the terrifying macroproduction of a series of conflicts — economic, political and ideological, social — animated in part by nostalgias whose origins may be far more complex than we're able to assess at the very moment in which the conflicts are underway.

For example, the Iraq War: what and whose nostalgias animate this? American military invincibility, which in every war the United States has fought since the end of the 19th century has not been guaranteed? The imperial and colonial epochs? The eras of the Crusades or the Holy Inquisitions, or alternately, of Saladin or the Caliphates? In the face interminable war, of war without end — and here I mean more than the basic struggle for life — do we have license to resort to easy and catchy formulations like Murray's? Whose nostalgia, whose dissatisfaction, whose rage? Don't the reactionary warmongers love an idealized version of their country without limit? Perhaps that is part of the problem: nostalgia's power is blind and blinding, there is no limit to its imaginary terrains and cartographies, except one: a reckoning with the reality and truths of the past, with history or histories. Then perhaps the haze dissipates, the air thins, and we are left with the open vista and our need to deal with it. War, human history has shown us thousands of times, is one of the most inadequate means available, though one of the easiest. Literature and the arts, we know, deriving from the human need for thought, play, conversation, community, as Ellen Dissayanake suggests, are another option. I'll take The Emigrants, Tales of Neveryona, Three Trapped Tigers or Beloved.

Q: How do you transform the act of reading — the private affair of absorbing the written word, of maneuvering through a poem or a narrative — into the dictates of your everyday?

Keene: There is no difference; they are currents of the same river of my everyday life, of the everyday life. There is no separation; George Lakoff reminds us that metaphor is at once one with the body, with consciousness; Descartes' phantasm is just that, a phantasm, there is no separation. It's from the body and the world that the written comes, through our experiences of time and movement that we narrate. The relationship is sym— is it right to say symbiotic? Absorbing the word takes place within the quotidian space of my world, the world. They animate each other. The story or poem gains meaning as I wake, think, make dinner, kiss my partner, Curtis, pet my two cats, run for the subway train or El, agonize over a bill or a syllabus, take my medicine, slip through the hypnogogic net into dreaming. Michel de Certeau has written an entire book on this topic, so I'll defer to him, adding only that, as I wrote elsewhere recently, activism can be an outgrowth of one's personal and collective ethics, and so for me, writing and reading, actively, dynamically, translating and seeking out work, are ultimately ethical acts. They are part of the necessary work of my life's quotidian practice.

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About the Author(s)

John Hospodka is a life-long Chicagoan, and today lives with his wife in Bridgeport. He does not profess to be an expert in anything; he's just a big fan of the arts and is eager to make more sense of them. Direct comments or suggestions for interviews to

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