Thursday, March 23, 2006

How I got into an argument

Fort Leaf, Fort Nest, Fort Thunder—the fort is a common trope in contemporary pop culture, evoking overgrown, crumbling battlements one might have visited with one’s family on a Sunday excursion, couch-cushion bivouacs, and all manner of defended overlooks from which one might peep the world beyond before retreating into the warm, woolen imagination-spaces of privacy.

From its inception, Fort Kant has wished to situate itself in this poetic space, and last Friday, had I not cancelled plans to visit a friend, Chris, and watch him perform at another Chutney Flats house show, I would have heard him dedicate his final song to Fort Kant:
This fort was taken once
Ten thousand years ago
And once again every summer and spring
By the winds of Mexico
Like a hollow log with a message tucked inside
And set upon the ocean for a ride
I have a particular soft spot for forts in Maine, and it was in defense of one of these that I nearly came to blows with a couple of self-proclaimed anarchists from Detroit.

On Tuesday, I drove up to Lewiston to see my friend Jacob, whose band, Extreme Animals, was playing a show at a “collective” called Bangarang. (Aside from the fliers wheat-pasted to the walls, the anti-globalization slogans on the fridge, and the requisite Beehive Plan Columbia banner, I couldn’t tell what made the house a more interesting or noble experiment in living than any house shared by roommates, though the principle of charity suggests that tenants’ engagement in the community probably extends beyond wearing trucker hats with the names of industrial businesses in neighboring towns and attending Bates College.) After the show—equal parts dance party and performance art—when people were milling about the kitchen, some visitors from Detroit, E. and W., decided to impress the band with tales of their exploits that afternoon. They had taken the ferry out to Peaks Island (part of the city of Portland, my home) and graffitied Battery Steele, a WWII-era artillery post that is now open to the public.


W. produced a spray-painting stencil from her courier bag and offered it to the band as a gift. The image was a sort of devil face that she identified as something from V for Vendetta, a comic book and motion picture (starring Natalie Portman) that deals in some way with anarchist themes. E. and W. had just seen the movie (last weekend’s biggest box-office draw, according to a Yahoo! headline I happened to see), and they shared some choice quotes with the band; the principle of charity suggests that they might also have quoted Proudhon or Emma Goldman with equal ease. They promised to bring along some photos of their Battery Steele graffiti to an upcoming Extreme Animals show in Ann Arbor.

When I realized that calling the police wasn’t really an option, I decided to confront the vandals myself, challenging their action as arrogant, aesthetically and historically destructive, and insensitive to a community that they, as visitors, ought to have treated with respect. I also totally lost my cool and called them poseurs, etc., which I deeply regret, and which, moreover, is never very persuasive in an argument, though it is certainly the case that E. cut a poor figure defending his act as a strike against imperialist aggression while he opened the fridge to bag up the remaining cans from his Pabst Blue Ribbon 12-pack.

It’s hard to believe that the vandalism of E. and W. could have been intended as a political event, for a long disused fort on an island in Maine is a fairly absurd venue, and spray-painting a fairly meager statement. Nor should we see their action as mere posturing, akin to sewing an anti-WTO patch on one’s jacket or affixing a bumper sticker to one’s bike helmet. Rather, we should recognize their action as an advertisement for the motion picture V for Vendetta. Battery Steele has been branded. In this sense, they have succeeded in a political action: recasting a public good as corporate property.

Each crack in the concrete, each weed and patch of moss, each running stain of rust, its particular fade, makes a subtle claim to communication and rewards care with the discovery of something that exists only one place in the universe, gently; blazing above these, communicating with literally graphic violence, is a devil face, its edges determined not by an inner course of vitality, like a leaf’s edge, but by a distant original whose lines are transmitted through corporate channels to the X-ACTO knife of the deluded crust-punk whose stencil says, among other things, that its user has no idea what it would mean to DIY. The devil face that burns itself into brain after brain—this is the original sense of branding: a scar that can be recognized immediately, and whose coercive knowability functions to erase the particularity of its bearer. Communication, if it hails its addressee as a person, must leave her the space to dissent, to recontextualize, and to reinterpret, for you cannot understand or embrace as your own something you are not allowed to refuse. A stylized image rarely leaves its addressee this freedom; a declarative sentence sometimes does; natural and historical objects almost always do.


Anonymous John said...

Great post. You have helped me clarify my own thoughts on V for Vendetta (see for yourself!). Oh, and Alan Moore would totally agree with you!

3/23/2006 5:13 PM  
Anonymous Luke said...

An explanation: fiat experimentum in corpore vili - kind regards

3/23/2006 6:51 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

Luke: That's more of an explanandum than an explanans. Or maybe yours was one of those non-sequitur comments that's just an advertisement for some other site. I did like your page.

John: Thanks for your kind words. I'm always flattered to be quoted at your page. Every movie review should be written in three parts; every review of everything should be a search. Thanks for clarifying the Guy Hawkes thing, both the mask-shape and his historical role. There's a great Greenblatt piece on Marloweology in the new NYROB, if you're interested in Protestants vs. Catholics. His pet theory on Marlowe's death is pretty interesting, and not especially new-historical: Elizabeth saw one of Marlowe's plays, was scared witless by the raw, hierarchy-smashing power of his verse, and gave the nod.

3/24/2006 10:53 PM  
Anonymous Luke said...

I really should have said I thought your piece was interesting and well reasoned. I just feel compelled to defend bored teenagers. In (cut & paste) latin too.


3/25/2006 7:19 AM  
Blogger Carl said...

The vandals were twenty-somethings, past the age when all their friends had already graduated from college, and when many friends already had started college as non-traditional students. They were beginning to be mundane adults, confused about where the bulb burns brightest in your mid- to late-twenties. I feel like this matters to their moral evaluation.

Bored teenagers need no defense; they are more symptoms than causes, more patients than agents. Think about it--they're minors, in that we don't yet hold them responsible in the legal sense--which sense reflects the aspect of our social life to which we are with the most necessity bound--nor fully in the moral sense; we regard their motivations and preoccupations/projects as a still somewhat amoral exploration of a life best seen as a moment in a natural-historical development, not yet fully subject to social norms, because they are not regarded as teachers responsible for the social reproduction of those norms, which way of being regarded would confer further social responsibilities.

Teenagers are cool, and are spontaneously tapped into those currents of life that allow life to be most what it is; no question. Teens are original, full agents in a rich sense, if only because of the intensity of their expanding abstract intelligence; they are discovering possibilities of the unity of self-consciousness and social engagement, and the brightness of the bulb can be blinding.

I've long been opposed to random destruction, a sentimentalist of preservation of improbable, fragile life--I am currently undertaking an investigation of the typology of crabs, based on hierarchical representation of visual patterns on and shapes of shells, their topography, according to a science of individual empirical observation. This is the sense of "Fort Nest," which I referred to at the start of my post. I ran into the proprietor of Fort Nest today on a walk in town, and she confirmed my understanding of its name: it is meant to protect things that are fragile; perhaps it also embodies something fragile. This is one understanding of the notion peace.

I spent the last hour prior to my using the computer, listening to recordings of speeches by Martin Luther King; they are rich texts, operating at very advanced conceptual levels. There's a great article about a new King study in, again, the new NYROB, which sheds new light, for me at least, on the overall social/political context of the civil rights movement, as well as the understanding of Christianity that made the claim of the civil rights movement a moral emergency.

An illuminating study would explore King's commitment to Federalism, his understanding of the Constitution, and his claim to sharing the moral attitudes and arguments of the Framers. Someone could get a bestseller out of this, given media amplifiation of public debate over the nature and function of the Judicial Branch.

3/25/2006 6:18 PM  
Anonymous e said...

e here. and, i truly appreciate the initial. i guess it is my time in the university that has led me to defend myself. my friends, mostly of who have graduated from college, true, a bit before me. maybe it is our age difference. my friend, W. a graduate of the University of Michigan, in the arts and a long time employee of the a major art museum and a brilliant artist, however, chooses to go by male pronouns, so, I would hope in further posts that you will unquestionably take part in, there will be a proper recognition of HIS gender. i have no defense to you because my laughter hasn't stopped. maybe when the tears remove themselves from my cheeks. it is sunday and I am very much looking forward to seeing the extreme animals tonight. i hope the crabs are okay, truly, I do. as for your moral evaluation of my mundane adult life, I guess i have demonstrated it with my use of the internet to engage you in a petty pissing contest. but, in one harsh response, you don't fuking know me and your pompass evaluation to your internet friends goes a bit far. i choose not to post my "moral evaluation" out of....respect maybe. buen suerte con todos.


3/26/2006 7:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Kaplan said...

On the relation between graffiti and coroporate branding, see Julian Stallabras' Gargantuan. Nice post Carl.

3/27/2006 11:47 AM  
Blogger Carl said...


Hilary read me your note last night when I was soaking my fingers, which I had burned while pouring out pasta water. I did a brain transformation of the author and text you mention into something by Stallybrass on Gargantua. Tell me more about the text you mean.

3/28/2006 8:25 PM  
Anonymous Luke said...

My general point re tracts against graffiti is that they tend to imply that actions normally considered unacceptable would suddenly be OK if they were subsumed by the "profit motive". Theres this inconsistancy. I dont think youve made this implication though.

Ive never read MLK, maybe I should.

Anyway, I read your post again today and I think the point it makes very good.


3/29/2006 4:57 AM  
Anonymous The Comte de Lautreamont said...

Please heaven that the giant crab will rejoin the caravan of pilgrims in time

3/29/2006 5:05 AM  
Blogger Mark Kaplan said...

Julian Stallabrass, Gargantua (London: Verso, 1996). Sorry about the intitial misspelling.

I've just had to teach something about graffiti, and used the following quotes from his book:

"graffiti copies the action of branding and advertising, not only in its insistent repetition of the name but also in its prominent placement; in the hinterlands bordering railway tracks, on high buildings and bridges, and around major roads."

"as the civilised and populous areas of the city are comprehensively defaced by the official writers of advertising, so dangerous and abandoned areas are left to their unofficial cousins. The identification is strong and conscious: graffito artists often take famous brand names as their tags, and having developed their own style will insist on its originality - often by attaching a [copyright] sign, or ending the name with the letters 'Inc.'. Such writing is a hybrid practice: like companies, graffiti artists and crews take on corporate identities behind a brand name; like artists, they sign their works, signing a signature, in effect, and often date them too, sometimes using Roman numerals as if on memorial plaques."

3/31/2006 4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A similar point with Iris Murdoch: the British Museum carries within it Shiva unexamined

2nd thesis on graffiti would be the irreducible heart of the epigrammatic style (of graffiti etc), belonging as it does to someone else, facilitating the side-by–sideness of a hierarchy where each members place in the overall structure is irreducible from their place relative to their neighbour.

Personally, I’m too irresponsible to write anything permanently.



4/04/2006 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

4/09/2006 11:52 PM  
Blogger daniel said...

Interesting and persausive argument - I wonder. What would you make of the scrawling of (political) slogans? As in, Paris 1968. A different breed of statement altogether? Or ultimately subject to the same logic?

Maybe, one major question would be: what is being defaced? De-faced...

5/05/2006 6:43 AM  
Blogger Carl said...

space your face

5/08/2006 9:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

7/09/2007 7:52 AM  

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