Isadora Alsadir Knutsen
Race to the Bus, 2019
Installation with single-channel video (105 minutes), sound, and free-standing wall
Through prose and performance, Martha S. Jones examines the cruel, curious, and comical dimensions of the mixed-race experience. With the pathos of the tragic mulatto in mind, she gets beyond simple renderings of the one-drop rule by exploring family history, her ambiguous appearance, and shifting ideas about racial categories. If race is a social construction it is also a lie, one that Jones exposes through reflections on everyday scenes of race-making. Her work is for those for who checking boxes elicits a shudder, while also speaking to anyone who finds themselves in-between and misunderstood by the sociological categories that organize our world.
I make a new Spot video every week that allows me to react quickly to events in the world as they unfold. Whiteness has always been a conceptual component of my art making practice and has moved to the forefront in response to the current social and political climate in the United States. The Spot videos, loosely following the shape and form of commercial advertising, are typically 15 or 30 seconds long and are posted to a variety of social media platforms. My goal each week is to enter the studio and use my white masculine body to make visible white defenses and abuses of power across the political spectrum. By excavating my own fears and desires I hope to project them out into the world to contribute to a larger dialogue and critique.
PechaKucha (Japanese: ペチャクチャ, IPA: [petɕa ku͍̥tɕa], chit-chat) is a presentation style in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each (6 minutes and 40 seconds in total).
I said in the video that “the entertainer who is also a deceiver, always appearing, never “Being true” is also a manipulator of moods. He arouses moods in others – moods that are “states of mind”, that are things that “in every case Dasein always has” (Heidegger 134) and are “a way of finding” that an entity is “delivered over to” and “must always have found itself [in]” (135). Moods overtake Dasein, and he either follows up on them or does not, but like it or not, he is always under the spell of some mood or other. The mood Trump arouses is one of white dominance, and the “obedience to [this] injunction” will condition all the others.” And so, having said that, I would like to make one or two more comments on the subject of moods for Heidegger, and on the possibility of their manipulation.
Heidegger writes that the states of mind or moods that we each have and are subject to are “a primordial kind of Being for Dasein, in which Dasein is disclosed to itself prior to all cognition and volition, and beyond their range of disclosure. And furthermore, when we master a mood, we do so by way of a counter-mood; we are never free of moods” (Heidegger 135-6). In fact, for Heidegger, moods form the space in which we think and move in the world, they situate us in the world in a kind of “there-ness” – elated there-ness, placid there-ness, morose there-ness – only through moods, he writes, can we “come across ‘Experiences’ at all” (137). And moods can blind us to experience as well, to the world itself, “more stubbornly”, he writes, “than any not-perceiving.” If white dominance is, as I have said, a kind of mood, then blindness is certainly one of its chief attributes. Fear is, for Heidegger, also a state-of-mind, and, indeed, he writes that one “sees the fearsome because [one] has fear as [one’s] state-of-mind” and calls this possibility “fearfulness”. Fearfulness, as a state-of-mind, discloses the world (as any mood might do) and furthermore, discloses the world as precisely something out of which that which is “fearsome may come close” (141, italics mine). Under the spell of a fearful mood, the world in all its vastness and complexity is reduced to little more than a space out of a which a threat may appear.
Lady Macbeth. . . . To beguile the time,
Look like the time
(Macbeth 1.6 71-2)
So, what about the one who manipulates moods? Who traffics in such substitutions, like Shakespeare’s Iago, for his own “peculiar end”? Iago says at the opening of Othello:
Iago. It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end;
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ‘tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at; I am not what I am
(Othello 1.1 56-65)
I am not what I am. For Iago, like Heidegger, the public space is a space of hiding. When I act in public, in and among the Others that populate the public space, I am a fugitive in a world of fugitives, each of us content to wear a mask. These are Heidegger’s public apparitions: hidden creatures that answer to no one. Not one person, but at the same time, everyone and no-one, what Heidegger calls “the they”. He writes:
. . . Dasein, as everyday Being-with-one-another, stands in subjection . . . to Others. It itself is not; its Being has been taken away by Others. . . . These Others, moreover, are not definite Others. On the contrary, any Other can represent them. . . . The ‘who” is not this one, not that one, not oneself . . . not some people . . . and not the sum of them all. The ‘who’ is the neuter, the “they” [das Man]. (Heidegger 126)
Falling into the ‘they’ is, for Heidegger, the precondition of all publicness (all Being-in-public), and publicness, says Heidegger, “has its own way of having a mood, but needs moods and ‘makes’ them for itself. It is into such a mood and out of such a mood that the orator speaks. He must understand the possibilities of moods in order to rouse them and guide them aright” (Heidegger 138-9). The orator, then, (a good one, anyway) is a technician of moods, and an engineer that achieves the erection of certain social structures by way of the technology of moods. Trump is, of course, not an orator – not in the traditional sense – and his method of mood manipulation has less to do with the graceful turn of phrase than with the vicissitudes of appearance and of showmanship, the intricacies of showing and of not-showing that go to build up the Image above all else, such intricacies as are the purview of the TV network executive and of the corporate adman. The possibility of this image’s effectiveness was born out of the technologies of the last century, but has only reached maturation through that of the new, slicked over with the pulsating lightshow of television monitors and now the grey-blue chug of the twitter feed, and so, when the image that Trump wears in front of his real body speaks, one can hardly make out any words at all. That is the goal, after all, for words to fade from view, to dislimn, in Shakespeare’s parlance, “as water is in water” (Antony and Cleopatra 4.14 12).
So, we return to the question of appearance – and of ghosts: An appearance is an annunciation, and an annunciation need not be embodied, merely apprehended. A voice heard through the radio is annunciating in the strictest sense – it is speaking – but it is also announcing something. It is announcing the existence of a speaker whose body is not located within range of any other sense but that of audition, and even still, it is only brought into this range by way of some technological assistance.
Whiteness is exactly this sort of technological means. It conditions the way a speaker is received and – this is my contention – holds in some sense, his or her body out of view. Trump’s appearance, his carefully sculpted flavor of white authority and, indeed, the reality television character that he used to inhabit, go to make up a kind of armor that he covers himself with, as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father goes armed, from toe to top, in the “fair and warlike form / In which the buried majesty of Denmark / Did sometimes march” (Hamlet 1.1 7-8), the armor of the king that covers up the body and the face. Thence comes what Derrida has termed the visor effect: hid within an occultation, the specter is not seen as we are, as (to quote Judith Butler) “this body exposed to a publicity that is variably and alternately intimate and anonymous” (Butler Giving an Account 34), but instead enjoys what Derrida calls a “spectral asymmetry.” That is, it “looks at us and sees us not see it even when it is there” (Derrida, Specters 6). The element of the body, and of the face is obscured in the instance of the spectral, by way of the visor, and yet, covered over, the accusative power of the face is not diminished, but only heightened. The asymmetrical gaze accuses us, says “swear” and “mark me”, as Hamlet’s father does (Hamlet 1.5 154, 2), but we can hardly accuse it of anything – we cannot even see it. Jacques Derrida speaks to the strange power of this asymmetry when he writes:
Since we do not see the one who sees us, and who makes the law, who delivers the injunction . . . since we do not see the one who orders “swear,” we cannot identify it in all certainty, we must fall back on the voice. The one who says “I am thy Fathers Spirit” can only be taken at his word. An essentially blind submission to his secret, to the secret of his origin: this is a first obedience to the injunction. It will condition all the others. (Derrida, Specters 7)
A blind submission to the secret of the hidden speaker, to the perceived authenticity of his spectral carapace, is a first obedience to his command, “it will condition all the others.” A blind submission to the 45th president’s absurd, cartoonish performance of white power, then, is a first obedience to white dominance, a falling into the mood of white dominance. This first obedience henceforth sets the mood of obedience to the “compliment extern” of white authority, and this will be a mood that we will always find ourselves in, that we are always-already delivered over to, and a state of mind through which the world itself is disclosed to us. If we have looked at Trump and believed in his authenticity even once, we have already submitted to white dominance. This submission will condition all the others.
Moods, as we have said, are the bare “there” that Dasien finds itself in, as unchosen as the environment in which it lives and similarly determinate of its actions, of the way in which it lives: “The house,” Heidegger writes,
. . . has its sunny side and its shady side; the way it is divided up into ‘rooms’ is oriented towards these, and so is the ‘arrangement’ within them . . . Churches and graves, for instance, are laid out according to the rising and setting of the sun – the regions of life and death, which are determinative for Dasein itself with regard to its ownmost possibilities of Being in the world. (Heidegger 103-4)
Moods are like the rising and setting of the sun, which determine the orientation of the world that Dasein finds itself in, and the world that Dasein builds for itself. They are just as impossible to master and, just as in the matter of the sky, a sun can only be substituted by a moon, a mood can only be overtaken by another mood. The mood we are attending to – the mood of white dominance, of white fragility, white rage – has infiltrated and determined our environment, our “regions of life and death”. It is a slow, a steady, bitter rain that finds its way to every crack and drips down to the lowest places, and there it thrives, untroubled by anything that lives and yet exerting such a force on them, as objects of celestial weight and gravity have turnt the course of worlds and, by their uncaptained navigations, have made and unmade life.
Returning once more to Othello, as he says after Iago has manipulated his moods such that he is driven to take the life of his beloved Desdemona:
Othello. It is the very error of the moon.
She comes more nearer earth than she was wont
And makes men mad.
(Othello 5.2 110-12)
Young Jean Lee’s worst nightmare was to make a predictable, confessional Korean-American identity play with a flowery Asian-sounding title. So that’s exactly what she did. SONGS OF THE DRAGONS FLYING TO HEAVEN follows a character named “Korean-American” as she navigates the increasingly disturbing levels of a pseudo-Korean world like a contestant in an identity-politics video game. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a white couple appears and launches into a dysfunctional relationship drama that eventually takes over the play.