Monthly Archives: November 2010

toe and hand

The Umpire Whispers, “Please Play” documents the encounter between a swimming coach and his student, a former competitive swimmer. As an artist, the ex-swimmer returns to visit her coach, and requests to recreate a massaging situation in which both coach and swimmer used to be involved. The film raises some questions about the coach’s relation to the children whom he is teaching. It also raises questions, however, about the importance of such teaching in our societies in general.

Such questions belong, Marcel Mauss notes, to an “ill-demarcated” domain of science that nevertheless confronts extremely “urgent problems.” What can the ethnologist derive from the fact that “my generation does not swim as the present generation does”? Mauss writes: “Previously, we were taught to dive after having learned to swim. And when we were learning to dive, we were taught to close our eyes and then to open them underwater. Today, the technique is the other way around. The whole training begins by getting the children accustomed to keeping their eyes open underwater. Thus, even before they can swim, particular care is taken to get the children to control their dangerous but instinctive ocular reflexes; before all else they are familiarized with the water, their fears are suppressed, a certain confidence is created, suspensions and movements are selected. Hence, there is a technique of diving and a technique of education in diving that have been discovered in my day.”

The passage links techniques of diving to techniques of education, suggesting that the history of diving might reveal something about the history of education. Do you learn to dive before you learn to swim, or the other way round? Do you dive with your eyes open or closed? And how may the difference between these two modes of diving reflect two different modes of subjectification–blind yourself to your reflexes/ control your reflexes (clearly, these are two very different modes of mastery)? One wonders also, given Mauss’ insistence on technique, on a “technè” or “art” of the body, to what extent the questions that are raised here relate to those of an aesthetic education.

In a recent interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on “Aesthetic Education and Globalization,” the image of swimming and of training to swim reappears in a fascinating way. “For an aesthetic education,” Spivak says, “it is better to do as we often used to do, to wander in the library stacks, because you would see things that you hadn’t thought about before. … The important thing is to welcome the loss of control.” Because of this, her formula for aesthetic education is “training the imagination for epistemological performance.” This means to go (to swim?) “upstream from content,” into the aesthetic realm where the “object to know” is constructed. Spivak insists that this is also a political move. “Without aesthetic education … there is only stupid politics.”

References: Marcel Mauss, “Techniques of the Body [1934].” In: Crary, Jonathan and Sanford Kwinter, eds. Incorporations. New York: Zone, 1992; Cathy Caruth, “Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Aesthetic Education and Globalization.” PMLA 125.4 (2010). Image: Jumana Manna, The Umpire Whispers “Please Play”, Double Channel HD video, 22:00 min, 2010.



At the end of the first chapter of Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X, one of the novel’s main characters, Claire, says that “it’s not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments. ‘Either our lives become stories, or there is just no way to get through them.’” The novel’s other two main characters, Andy and Dag, agree. “[T]his is why the three of us left our lives behind us and came to the desert–to tell stories and to make our own lives worthwhile tales in the process.” In the desert, where one has left one’s life behind, storytelling comes in to save life—to “make” another life, the life of a tale that’s “worthwhile.” There is a long tradition of such bio-narratives–think, for example, of texts such as One Thousand and One Nights or The Decameron. In Generation X, storytelling saves the lives of those who are being consumed by “an accelerated culture.” It appears that storytelling somehow has the capacity to slow their lives down, and to make them extend beyond the “succession of isolated little cool moments” that Claire is talking about.

The importance of this capacity should not be underestimated. Contrary to what one may think at first sight, namely that our lives are getting longer and longer, it may be that today, our lives are actually getting shorter and shorter: that they are progressively being reduced to a chain of short circuits, rather than being developed into a long circuit. As a result, life today has turned into a vulgar series of actualized nows that is incapable of reaching into the potentiality of the future. And this development does not only apply to life. Love is arguably undergoing the same fate. Reduced to the order of the short circuit, it has become limited to the consumption of the moment; consequently, it no longer extends in time. We can no longer live, no longer love, in time. Instead, and all the time, we are being told to live in the now, to love in the now, through a series of isolated little moments that do not develop into a worthwhile narrative.

Today, the economy of narrative, and specifically of love- and life-narratives, is thus a profoundly political economy that determines, through the count of its tale, our capacity to go on loving and living—into the future. This may be the most provocative aspect of Malene Dam’s film Girlfriends: the way in which the love- and life-narrative that it presents opens up onto a future. In the film, multiple women narrate the story of one woman’s love life, with each of the women telling a part of this story as a first person narrative, as if they were narrating their own love lives. This mode of narration enables the film to move beyond the vain, short-circuited account of each of these loves, and perhaps also of the artist’s love life in general, into the realm of a love and a life that is still intimate yet collective, and that ultimately includes at its outer limit the viewers of the film themselves.

References: Douglas Coupland, Generation X. New York: St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1991; Image: Malene Dam, Girlfriends, video, 63 min., 2009.