Saturday, 3 December 2016

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (10): Di gantse mishpokhe

When I started learning Yiddish, pretty much the first loshn-koydesh word I encountered was משפּחה (mishpokhe), which means “family”.  As you might expect, family is a pretty fundamental concept in Yiddish, and not just in the literal sense of your own blood relatives.  משפּחה has an additional meaning that is much broader and more inclusive, signifying a cultural and familial fellowship amongst Jews that transcends nationality, religious conviction, and pretty much any other means of categorising people.  

Yiddish used to be the key to this aspect of משפּחה since it was the language that all Ashkenazi held in common, but it is by no means essential.  In fact, long before I started to learn Yiddish I knew what משפּחה meant, even though I still find it difficult to put into words.  משפּחה was that unexpected connection when you realised that the person you were speaking to in the supermarket queue or at the bus stop was also Jewish, a rare experience for me when I was growing up, and so all the more wonderful when it did occur. It’s the sudden awareness of commonality, that our family histories may not intersect, but they are bound to be similar to one another.

For me, learning Yiddish has been a way of amplifying that connection, not because I encounter many other people who can speak it, but because it reveals those threads of the past that run through the fabric of the present.  It’s not just about continuity – being able to understand the language that my ancestors spoke – it’s also about being able to hear those ancestors in their own words.  Thanks to the generosity of my wider משפּחה, I can read my great, great-uncle’s first book in Yiddish, since it was preserved for di Gantze Mishpochah by the Elovitz family’s donation to the Yiddish Book Center.  However, although משפּחה has that more open, tribal meaning, learning Yiddish has illuminated elements of my own family in a way I couldn’t have anticipated.

One crucial person in this regard is a woman called Miriam Shumik.  She was my great, great-aunt, married to my mother’s crazy revolutionary great-uncle, Hersh-Mendel.  Actually, Hersh-Mendel was the reason that my grandfather’s family ended up in London: my great-grandfather got tired of the Warsaw police turning up on the doorstep in search of his brother.  Hersh-Mendel’s life was improbably adventurous and bleakly tragic, and his many unexpected exploits certainly deserve further discussion, but while I’ve known about him since I was a teenager, I knew absolutely nothing about Miriam.  This was at least partly because, unlike Hersh-Mendel, she didn’t survive the Nazi occupation.  Hersh-Mendel didn’t talk about Miriam and they had no children, so she was absent from the story of our family.  In fact, until recently I didn’t even know her name.  All we knew was that she and Hersh-Mendel had been betrayed by a neighbour in wartime Paris.  He escaped; she did not.  We didn’t even know what had happened to her.  Then I learnt Yiddish.  This meant that when my mum turned up a Yizkor book entry[1] for Miriam during one of her frequent family history Google searches, I was able to translate it.  Of all the gifts Yiddish has given me, this one remains the greatest.

Miriam’s eulogy was written by one of her childhood friends, a woman listed only as M. P.  We will never know who she was but because of this unknown member of my extended Jewish משפּחה, Miriam’s actual משפּחה can remember her.  It’s thanks to M. P. that we know Miriam was tall and clever, that she organised the first Communist cell in her home town, and that she had a way with words.  It’s also thanks to M. P. that we know Miriam was the eldest of four sisters, and that the family home was three bare rooms with three beds, three chairs and a table.  We know that Miriam was רױז צװישן געװײנלעכע בלומען (a rose amongst weeds), and that she loved to talk about books.  We know that Miriam had read the first volume of The Count of Monte Cristo and been captivated by it, but the library didn’t have the rest of the book.  We know that M. P. found the second volume and brought it to Miriam, causing her to dance for joy and immediately start reading it aloud.  And, of course, we now know that Miriam died in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, possibly in the uprising but equally possibly from the heart condition she developed after she was tortured whilst a political prisoner in the 1920s.

Miriam may not be my blood relative, but she is part of the משפּחה in both senses.  I can recognise in her my family’s obsession with reading books, talking about books and, of course, talking in general.  More importantly, perhaps, I can recognise that my admiration for her courage and her capacity to stand up for what she thought was right means something, whether we are related or not.  At least now I can remember her not just as my great, great-uncle’s wife but as a brave, principled woman who risked her own life trying to improve the lives of others.  Our משפּחה is the greater for her presence.  

[1] A Yizkor book is a record of a Jewish communities lost in the Holocaust, written by the survivors of that community.

Welton Redux

Attention: one of the Editors has gone rogue, and has had some work - a 'director's commentary' on his own review of Matthew Welton, an almost unbelievably self-indulgent gesture for which he will no doubt be punished at some future date by the Hubris Furies - published by Stride magazine, which you can read here.  Stride's new iteration - a-shoot-from-the-hip, no-questions-asked, was-I-really-driving-that-fast-officer-? blogzine that seems to be posting on an unprecedented daily basis - is well worth reading, as is their extensive archive.
That is all.  Please return to your lives in a calm and orderly fashion.  Normal service will soon be resumed.           

Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Passing of a Plum

"Hero-worship is a dangerous vice, and one of the minor merits of a democracy is that it does not encourage it, or produce that unmanageable type of citizen known as the Great Man.  It produces different kinds of small men - a much finer achievement.  But people who cannot get interested in the variety of life, and cannot make up their own minds, get discontented over this, and they long for a hero to bow down before and to follow blindly.  It is significant that a hero is an integral part of the authoritarian stock-in-trade today.  An efficiency-regime cannot be run without a few heroes stuck about it to carry off the dullness - much as plums have to be put into a bad pudding to make it palatable.  One hero at the top and a smaller one each side of him is a favourite arrangement and the timid and the bored are comforted by the trinity and, bowing down, feel exalted and strengthened."

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Code Poetry: The Conversation pt2 (5/6)

[02/08/16 and again 16-18/08/16] TC:

I write a lot and throw out the significant majority of the stuff I write. I used to think that code is a good way of giving me a chance to rethink how language works outside Greek, English, French or any other language I have some knowledge of. I still think that, but I also think that code language allows for something else: it allows me to rethink how language can often function (perhaps more often that we’d like to admit) as a strategy of acknowledgment, negotiation and reconciliation. Yes, the question of defamiliarisation and alienation of self and subjectivity has been a long running theme in a lot of the stuff I have been doing but there is also an implied negotiation folded in there [note: I wrote “neogotiation” instead of “negotiation”, which I love: negotiating with what is new? negotiating everything from the top?]. I think this is also why I am endlessly fascinated by musical remixes or variations on a musical theme: sometimes, the intent is to playfully appropriate while other times, the intent is to intentionally subvert the original track/theme. I was gobsmacked with DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing when I discovered it in the summer of 1998 (perhaps it was late summer?) and the idea of a flowing subjectivity working across different rhythms, times, series, strata and discourses. It helped that I spent most of 1997 reading Douglas Rushkoff’s books (Cyberia and Media Virus, in particular) and discovering in the summer of 1998 Kodwo Eshun’s mind boggling More Brilliant Than The Sun which exposed me to so many novel concepts and theories. More than anything, all this stuff showed me that one must in some way acknowledge their own, personal responsibility within the culture one finds oneself. And while all of this began from my being intrigued by people creating works of art borrowing, appropriating and modulating on existing artworks, this also eventually also dovetailed back to a discussion I had with a childhood friend who was moved back to Greece in the mid-1980s from Italy and brought along with him a huge PC and this book that taught you the BASIC programming language. That was quite the future shock. More defamiliarisation emanating from late childhood.

Code tends to equally frustrate and surprise me still: my fantasy of code - before I really got into it - used to involve the lightcycles from Tron (geek!) but I was rather disappointed when I realised that code turned out to be less exciting than motorbikes appearing out of thin air. The disappointment gave way to excitement when I realised code was a language which meant another grammar and another syntax one uses to make new stuff (geek!). So, even when defamiliarisation and alienation are present in these code poems, I view code also as an alleviation, or rather a rebuttal to nostalgia. To extend your line of thinking further, MIS needs to be dismantled every day bit by bit: as Deleuze and Guattari say, there is no such thing as a clean break but I think we need to conceive of strategies and mechanisms towards an investigation of aesthetically arid and socially irresponsible uses of language. So, to reiterate: your point about Making It New is very astute and the distinction you are making between MIS and MIN is necessary to acknowledge and express. But in using I think there is more to this: the ubiquitousness of code needs to addressed. My response to your message is made possible through the mediation of computers, and by extension code. As N. Katherine Hayles notes in, what I think will become a key text, ‘Traumas of Code’, “Derrida’s famous aphorism, ‘Il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ [there is nothing outside the text] has been replaced by its computational equivalent Il n’y a pas de hors-code [there is no outside to the code]”.[1] This inability to exist outside code in the supermediated world we live is bound to have some repercussions. We need to have some understanding how this supermediated world is constructed and how we live in it. One needs to acknowledge the existence of the code running in the background and what it does to us and our understanding of ourselves and the world. The internet of things and all that. I was discussing something along these lines with Sophie Mayer over coffee at some point and Sophie pointed out that the Singularity has already happened and we need to realise that the machines are actually training us in how they work rather than the other way round (hope I am not paraphrasing too much! Sophie can correct me if I am misquoting her).

And, as mentioned before, it is this ubiquitousness of code that I am trying to negotiate with in these poems. Expertise follows after acknowledgment turns into familiarity: a feedback loop. I am also attaching a poem in Greek written & published in 2010 [2] which attempts to consider what inspiration is all about/where it stems from and how code might figure in the creative process. The poem is an attempt to talk about many things: the actual language is inspired by the work of Mez Breeze, an Australian-based internet artist who has invented her own hybrid language mezangelle but it also attempts to ask many questions about machine language and its effect on inspiration using various oulipian techniques. The background of the poem itself is a graphic representation of the moves made by my hands while using the keyboard. So, the poem in itself is both a manifesto which playfully explains as much as it obscures.

So: how do you communicate in this language that is human in origin but also machinic in a very real way? What is the impact of this machine language on human language? How can register and tone be documented in code? Writing across and between languages makes one reconsider how one thinks in whichever language one is writing. I know I have written poems that have begun in one language that were finished in another (English to Greek and vice-versa); but I have also written poems in, say, python which have given me answers about impasses reached in half-finished or abandoned poems written in English or Greek. It is a rather peculiar process: sometimes, it feels like solving a puzzle but mostly it feels like negotiating with some sort of unresolved issue between languages and between different modes of perception, action and reaction. Hayles puts it succinctly, “Experienced consciously, but remembered nonlinguistically, trauma has structural affinities with code” (ibid). And while one can certainly disagree with Hayles’ point re. affinities of code with trauma, somewhat unconsciously I think that poetic languages, itself an excess/surplus of language, as a unique means of navigating trauma and its specific linguistic/semantic codes, code and its attendant traumas. I am too weary to begin such a discussion here because I am still thinking through these issues myself; I fear I will end up sounding callous or insensitive or insulting (probably all three simultaneously) so I will try and tread carefully. Surplus of meaning (or the exhaustion thereof as a result of the trauma of meaning surplus) can alienate: an excess of production often implies an inability to effectively process said surplus. But surplus/rarefaction of meaning might also require new reading capacities and code can be a way to think about this but also about new modes of meaning production and reception.

Code poetry offers that rare opportunity to simultaneously recontextualise without ‘breaking’ as you say the meaning of words, hence its inherent ‘strangeness’. Το repeat a claim made many times before, poetry is of the body and when it works, it amplifies the affective capacity of the body. Code poetry on the other hand can work both in paper but also when it runs, though the effect can be starkly different depending on the reader/viewer. This is where the familiarity comes in and to be honest, this is what I am least interested in. I am more interested in how code poetry makes me rethink about the friction between different languages, potential impasses, dispersals and breakdowns of communication and meaning production; in other words, code poetry offers the chance to think about how the machine as language and language as machine works and how and when they might break down. Code poetry makes even more apparent not only the constraints of language and their effect on the actual body but also the generation of new sources of meaning and the new affective challenges they pose.

Once more, we return to this: how do we read in this age of hypermediation? What is it that we do with what we read? How do we navigate the paradigm of too much communication, too much information? Poetry and code poetry might offer some sort of solution but there is a lot of work we have to do for (and on) ourselves if we want to keep up. The question is not what the AI overlords will do when they emerge gleaming from their perfect pods but how we are going to keep up with the evolution of poetry and language in a context when machine mediation will be seamless for a certain part of the population. What are the new cultural and social inequalities that will be created there and how must we tackle them?

I have meandered enough and have again offered more questions than answers.


[1] N. Katherine Hayles, “Traumas of Code”, Critical Inquiry vol. 33, no. 1 (Autumn 2006): 136-157. Available online.

[2] The poem was written in the context of a literary festival when asked by a newspaper that perennial question “What is inspiration?”