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Performative ingestion: mourning rite of peak oil.

I'm interested in why so many poets, in the decade after September 11, turned away from text-based practices and towards embodied works that often (but not always) incorporated silence and gesture, and often (but not always) were performed in public spaces not usually set aside for such acts. (1) I see this shift as a response to the political instability of affective labor during this period, and as a marker of the attempt to publicly engage experiences of social vulnerability, histories of violence, and the politics of the so-called "War on Terror" during a time in which almost any direct statement about political violence was quickly funneled back into the "truth" that militarism was both inevitable and necessary. (2) When to mourn the American lives lost in the attacks or on the battle-field was to unwittingly contribute to the steam-rolling of public debate on alternatives to war, and when to not mourn them rendered one mute before such privately lived public traumas; when to mourn the Afghans or Iraqis lost to American military violence was to be labeled an enemy of the state, and when to not mourn them rendered one complicit with historical erasures presently unfolding; when to voice anger quickly funneled into an economy of violence that guaranteed a continuation of the cycles of traumatic repetition, it was my sense that the creation of embodied poetic forms was a means of "reimagining the possibility of community on the basis of [shared] vulnerability and loss" rather than on fantasies of superiority, exceptional safety or entitlement (Butler, Precarious Life 20).

One of the poets perhaps most persistently engaged with performances of public mourning over the last decade or so has been Kristin Prevallet. Beginning with I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time (written after her father's sudden death), Prevallet has moved in the direction of public mourning actions that explicitly acknowledge what she calls "the sadness of the present" that cannot be reconciled by an idea of the future or reversed by any ideology or paradigm of belief (43). In a 2009 interview in Fact Simile, Prevallet makes the observation that Americans tend to approach the subject of grief with the idea that the immediate goal should be "closure" (Davis 7). She describes how the police officer who came to notify her family after her father died gave them pamphlets discouraging the building of shrines or holding onto objects the person owned when alive, and instead instructed them to think about the grieving process as a universal series of linear steps that would culminate in "acceptance" followed by, tellingly perhaps, "reinvestment" (ibid.). (3) The implicit message is that to experience emotions out of step with the "natural" sequence is a product of "bad economics."

In contrast to this model, by connecting her personal experience of grief at the loss of her father to the larger climate of violence in which the present persists, Prevallet challenges the idea that closure is either possible or desirable, instead working towards a kind of acceptance of the permanent and ongoing renegotiating of the self in relation to such loss. She writes:

As a political position, I hold on to grief. The objects in my shrine represent this. I don't see it so much as holding on to my dead parents, but rather as holding on to an awareness of spatial distance. The objects in the shrine keep my hold on reality consistently tenuous because they fill my gaps with objects that are constantly changing. (Which is better than filling spaces with a false sense of closure. There is no moving on in a world filled with wars.) (I, Afterlife 58).

For Prevallet, then, there is permanence to mourning; what is mourned or the way it is mourned may change, as may the relationship of the mourner to the loss, but the hole is never sealed over, because that would block future "knowledges" gained by the ongoing relationship to the loss. Rather, grieving means "agreeing to undergo a transformation ... the full result of which one cannot know in advance" (Butler, Precarious 21). Thus, any establishment from the outset of the end-goal of closure is in a sense a foreclosure, to use Butler's term, of what the loss can come to mean. It makes death a past instead of a present unfolding and an inevitable futurity. For Prevallet, as for Butler, this "making" of death is political in its implications.

Interestingly, for Prevallet, the materialization of mourning as embodied action over time (the material performance of mourning) is what allows for transformative "other" ways of "knowing" loss to emerge. In her version of public mourning, however, this kind of enactment would not establish a "we" in the same way that official spectacles of mourning did after September 11. Noting in her interview how few rituals of public mourning exist in mainstream US culture, Prevallet says:

This brings up the question of what it means to publicly mourn. To really mourn. To wail, to scream, to cry out. Usually women carry this performative burden. And their function is to wail. Publicly, so that other people can feel your pain inside them. You're a mourner, and you bring other people into the space of mourning ... Even if the person or object you are mourning is different (Davis 8).

Putting aside for a moment the gendered dimension of public mourning here, it seems important to register the physical transfer of pain that the mourning enactment entails. This is not an intellectualized transfer of cognitive meaning, nor is it a public narration of experience--it is a reaction of the flesh. Observers experience something in their bodies that another person enacts, even if, and this is important, they do not experience the same thing in the same way. In short, the mourner opens a space where loss (an absence) can be felt to exist, where the presence of absence can be "sensed." But for this to happen, for this social experiential space to be opened, there must first be an I of grief, an I that is embodied and that transfers its openness to the feeling of grief in its body to others who are in the embodied I of their own grief.

In her discussion of some queer responses to September 11, cultural theorist Sara Ahmed argues that queer deaths in the World Trade Center and Flight 93 were later narrated by activist public statements that, although successful in making visible how those losses were implicitly narrated as heterosexual in the first place, ended up by reconsolidating a national subject. She writes: "Humanist language of individual courage and bravery makes these losses like the others. Hence queer loss becomes incorporated into the loss of the nation, in which the 'we' is always a 'we too'" (Cultural Politics 158). This is a problem because it "perpetuates the concealment of other losses (such as, for example, the losses in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine)" (ibid.). She argues therefore for the necessity of resisting the temptation to focus on the object of grief at the expense of the subject who grieves. She writes: "Not to name 'my' or 'your' loss as 'our loss' does not mean the privatization of loss, but the generation of a public in which sharing is not based on the presumption of shared ownership" (161). It is interesting to me the ways in which this insistent emphasis on the subject of grief is echoed in Prevallet's notion of public enactment in the quote above. She seems to want to allow others to enter the space of mourning while maintaining the individuality of that response, even if that response were primarily one of discomfort, numbness or even rejection. In short, a spatial distance between I and we is maintained, and the collective identification, though not rejected, is complicated and delayed.

In a number of Prevallet's mourning actions, this orientation is explicit. In her most recent work on the Gulf oil spill, she stands silently in mourning garb holding sunflowers drenched with oil in front of the local BP station, or gathers a small number of mourners together at the water to stand silently in a line for an hour or more holding black flags, photos of oil-drenched birds, or a diagram of the gulf stream connecting distant shores that touch the Atlantic Ocean ("Considering Options").



Neither of these actions include the "wailing" that she speaks of, yet they make use of a physical duration that is compelling; bystanders often pass by more than once in the course of an hour, or decide to sit and watch even though nothing in particular happens (no sounds, no movement, no messages). These actions seem to suggest that thinking, even meditating, on our shared responsibility for the conditions that led to this ecological disaster must become part of the politics of any response. Unlike the often-heard injunction to "act" on objects of our political rage, this piece involves a degree of concerted attention on oneself as a subject in the relations that lead to events. Nevertheless, if there is not a stated 'we' in them, Prevallet's mourning actions, taken as a body of work, can be seen to link the issues responsible for loss. The casualties on all sides in Iraq and Afghanistan, oil dependency and consumption, and the ecological disaster now unfolding in the "other" gulf have all been targets of her actions, and they create a web of connection between what are often narrated as singular tragedies, thereby resisting the hypostatization of any one object of grief.

The specific work I want to discuss in relation to the issues of politicized mourning after September 11 is Cruelty and Conquest (Oil, Oil, Oil) that Prevallet performed at Naropa University in July 2004. I am particularly interested in this piece for the way it combines grief with the affect of disgust. Prevallet describes this performance in a brief essay in the online journal of experimental women's poetry How2 as arising out of her procedural poem about the speech George Bush gave to the United Nations in September 2002 (in which he made the case for international support of the war in Iraq). In Prevallet's poem, the words of the speech are gradually redacted and replaced with the word "oil" (Prevallet, "From the poem"). When read aloud, this redaction and replacement leaves the poet choking on the pronunciation of "oil" in the difficulty of repeating it so many times. In the 2004 performance, Prevallet read the poem and then stood on an American flag in a red-white-and-blue bathing suit, raised an oil can above her back-tilted (blond) head, and guzzled an entire gallon of viscous black liquid in an endurance feat of choking and gagging.

The performance is disturbing and embarrassing and disgusting all at once because the audience must witness the grueling and deliberately self-destructive ingestion that seems to last forever. Everyone watching knows it is a comment on oil consumption in our daily lives, yet because it is such a physically exhausting and painful process in the embodied performance, we feel this knowledge in our guts. At the July 2004 event, some in the audience reportedly bowed their heads or covered their mouths, while someone sobbed and one person shouted out in defiance (ibid.). (4) In speaking of the way in which disgust and desire are "dialectically conjoined," Sianne Ngai explains that "Disgust both includes and attacks the very opposition between itself and desire, and in doing so, destroys not only 'aesthetical satisfaction' but the disinterestedness on which it depends" (335). In Prevallet's performance, the audience literally becomes interested in the ugliness as its own.

But why should this expression of grief be so disgusting? In her chapter on the sociality of disgust in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed discusses the way in which disgust is intimately tied up with food and consumption, and thus with the 'not-I' that I must take into my body for survival: "Survival makes us vulnerable in that it requires we let what is 'not us' in; to survive we open ourselves up, and we keep the orifices of the body open" (83). Prevallet's symbolic ingestion of the disgusting poison, then, is a nauseated and nauseating response to the realization that the very subject one is, one's entire physique, one's bank of memories, one's daily experiential self, is fundamentally tied to the global oil economy. It is a traumatic recognition that what I am is produced and sustained by the infrastructures of oil-based industrial production, distribution and consumption and thus fully implicated in political violence and ecological disaster that sustains this order. And further, Prevallet overtly demonstrates her body to be racialized, hetero-sexualized and marked as national property by the flag.


She seems to suggest that despite any subjectively experienced difference from these norms one cannot survive in the present without participating in the continuation of this degrading feast, despite the fact that to continue it is to perpetually smear oneself and everything else in its shit-like corrosive grease. In short, one can't grieve over something that has not been lost--one is never not this to begin with. Thus the feeling of grief over the wars in the Middle East (and now over the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico) disgusts, because what would ostensibly counteract it, the urge toward health and personal nourishment, shows itself to be that which keeps one alive (in what is felt to be the requirements of the contemporary social world), but simultaneously that which is laying the ground for so much killing. In a sense, Prevallet acknowledges and grieves the disgusting self-disgust that is of the present, so that that self might be lost, in advance, in a kind of futural motion. Lets get on with it, the performer seems to say, even if it means losing my self.

Interestingly, this is not the way that disgust seems to work politically in Ahmed's analysis. Ahmed sees expressions of disgust as both dialectical producer of borders that work to delineate the inside from the outside (or the I from the 'not-I'), and as the product that is the border itself. She writes, "On the one hand, it is the transformation of borders into objects that is sickening (like the skin that forms on milk)," while "on the other, the border is transformed into an object precisely as an effect of disgust (spitting/vomiting)" (87). This turning of the border into an object is a fetishization, according to Ahmed, that secures the subject's sense of "being-apart." In extreme forms of racism or homophobia, the border is created by an unwillingness to touch or be touched by the other, and thus the other is surrounded by an invisible disgusting border that may not be crossed. A literal example is the way that the United States border with Mexico is fetishized; to protect the circumscribed "we" from what is perceived to be unlike itself, an object must be created through repeated expressions of disgust. This object/fetish is the militarized border wall meant to secure what was once a permeable and liminal space of contact. Through the expulsion of Mexican immigrants without paperwork, the border congeals and becomes a "real" divide. In true dialectical fashion, for this border to be maintained as real, it's crossing must continually be threatened, so that a perpetual nationalist dry-heaving of racist discourse reinforces the fantasy of purity by literally "throwing up" the bulwark for its favored object (the border), which then reestablishes the cycle all over again.

Thus, according to Ahmed, disgust reactions involve a "'pulling away' ... that authorizes a community of witnesses" through the creation of a border or boundary (99). But this is not limited to the racist pulling away of nationalist conservatives. For there can also be a pulling away from "their" pulling away--an expression of disgust at "their" disgusting fetishization of the border--that forms an alternate or antagonistic community of witnesses. For Ahmed, however, even though "the feeling of being disgusted may be an element in a politics that seeks to challenge 'what is,'" the problem, as she sees it, with this "loop of disgust," is that it "does not allow one time to digest that which one designates as a 'bad thing'" (ibid.). Arguing that "critique requires more time for digestion," Ahmed has doubts that disgust as an affective response would allow one to get close enough to an object to understand it before being compelled to pull away. Ahmed's distrust of politics based in the "loop of disgust" arises because what disgust shows us "is not simply the possibility of dissent within even the stickiest economies, but also how dissent cannot be exterior to its object" (99; my italics).

What Prevallet performs, however, is not a disgust that involves a pulling away from the object. Rather, her performance pulls one closer to the disgusting object and holds one there until the rejection/expulsion reaction is "burned out" and thinking sets in. (5) Thus, unlike the typical way that disgust might be said to "strengthen and police" the boundary between subject and object (Ngai 335), Prevallet's durational ingestion of the disgusting substance is an overt refusal to maintain the boundary of that distinction. Indeed, the duration is explicitly part of the piece--this act may end up forming an alternate community of witnesses as in other expressions of disgust, but if it succeeds in doing so, it will not be before each witness has felt the oil running through his or her body. The community of witnesses would thus be formed, not through a pulling away from, but through a drawing towards, that which they critique. Deliberately ingesting the toxic substance, but not in order to expel it, is what characterizes the act. Rather than engage in a fantasy purification ritual, Prevallet reveals the full extent of her saturation with what she is against. This is akin to the phenomenological space of mourning because in mourning the self is not beside the splaying of its own decomposition; it cannot maintain an image of itself outside the space of its own undoing. In this sense, what Prevallet's piece does is to open the space for thinking about the necessity of change while not turning away from the personal and social difficulty that potential of change is mired in (literally, constitutively). One of those difficulties necessarily includes that some of the people that may be needed to effect lasting and substantive changes in production, distribution and consumption patterns might still turn away from socio-political relations of power in an ultimately self-safe expression of disgust.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London and New York: Verso, 2004.

Davis, JenMarie."' Nothing' is Closure: An Interview With Kristin Prevallet." Fact Simile (Spring 2009): 7-9, 45-49. Web. July 17, 2010.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Poets for Living Waters (July 2010). Web. July 24, 2010.

Prevallet, Kristin. "From the poem to the per[form]ance of Cruelty and Conquest (Oil, Oil, Oil)." How2 3.2 (2007). Web. July 17, 2010.

--. I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time. Athens, Ohio: Essay Press, 2007.

--. "Considering Options for Controlling the BP Blowout in the Gulf of Mexico."

Sedgwick, Eve and Adam Frank, Eds. Shame and Its Sisters: A Sylvan Tomkins Reader. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995.


(1) David Buuck's BARGE (Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-Aesthetics), Rodrigo Toscano's Collapsible Poetics Theater (2008), Kaia Sand's Remember to Wave (2010), my own video/poem Stalk (2008), and several works by Kristin Prevallet, treated here, are only a few examples.

(2) This was not just a matter for right wing radio or front-page news. On the Buffalo Poetics listserv, many well-respected poets wrote disparagingly of leftist "hand-wringing" over a military response, which was considered both inevitable and necessary. For example, see the thread following Ron Silliman's September 18, 2001 post "What is to be done" as well as the thread on "left fundamentalism" from the same period.

(3) This is essentially the Kubler-Ross model.

(4) The audience was unaware that the substance in the oil-can was molasses.

(5) Sylvan Tomkins argued that it was possible to "burn out" the fear response by introducing a subject to a fearful situation and holding them in that situation in an embrace until the fear lessens and finally subsides (Sedgwick and Frank 2-3).
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Title Annotation:Section III
Author:Elrick, Laura
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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