shadow power stranger

[giving an intro to one of the conference themes at this year’s BIARI, brown u (… along these lines]

On our guiding themes:


I come to “Shadows, Power and the Stranger” as a playwright and activist, interested in language and what social action may do. Practice brings me to this:


In real ways we’re living at new levels of global transparency.


Per Suzan Lori-Parks’ figure, the great hole of history still exists (an oubliette as much as a repository, an archive as the architecture of forgetting), and where it doesn’t, life is thinner, extremely fragile, incoherent. More information is available for use, more memory for its storage, but the equipment of ignorance and forgetting is also advancing, perhaps excelling our other capacities – the outer albumen; forgetting and ignorance in excess of knowledge and memory is always required for advance. Hole and shadow, much of the world is still obscured by concentrated resource, and capricious, mercenary force. Expression is broad but simplified – channeled through an ethic of haste, un-nuanced, effective when blaringly opinionated: opinion substituted for discourse, and discourse bent on momentum rather than reflection. The deep exploration of symbols with compound meanings, the mindful consideration of legacy, diversity cohering to an ecology rather than to atomic proliferation – all these suffer in a new arena of thinking and sensing increasingly defined in market terms. The tacit ideal: that supply be singular and demand be fractured, redundant, and ambient – to the extent that the individual personality is broken into several separate and conflicting markets, buying poisons with the one hand and antidotes with the other.


We have developed tools for unification, but sustain a practice of estrangement. As learners in the humanities we wonder: is there a table at which the many may meet not to stack congruent resources to a single pile, but to share diverse wealth in its diversity? Where and how do we create a cultural economy that gathers without destroying the form of what’s shared, that moves to civic ownership? What and who are lost to us in the shadow of new, historically overwhelming forms of power (power that literally overwhelms history – is more able than ever before to ban it, to wipe it out)? The internet, for example, made this conference possible, but it has been shown that its citizens don’t absolutely direct it. The internet is a boat, not dry land. It can take on many passengers, but can also be pushed around, can be sunk; we can be taken for a ride. What languages are being lost as we are entranced by the music of numbers? Are we invited to put our faces in a digital book so that the notions of friendship and preference may flattened like flowers, someone else’s trophy or meme; so that we are involved in thousands of affiliations useful primarily as a marketing demographic, and in constant distraction from the formation of communities capable of building substantial meanings?


What shadows are we missing, what casts them, where is the light, are we manufacturing more strangers than welcomes, and: to what may we be faithful? How, out of shadow, are ideas of the civic growing substantial? How may languages of the past be preserved without ghettoizing or making the “authentic” an esoteric commodity? How may new languages pull back from mere utility to advance the poetic – developing multi-faceted symbols that elude ownership?


I come to these questions as a writer interested in trauma. I have worked principally over the past 25 years under three overlapping themes: genocide, poverty, and spiritual mysticism. There is an element of the mute, the broken, the inexpressible in each of them. I believe that the inchoate – rather than being an absolute barrier – offers a keyhole – a way of concentrating our attention in a way that can lead to a sudden opening. We must seek out the unspeakable and speak from it and to it; this is precisely where language finds its newness. The language of witness finds in the key of patience admission from suffering to creation. Patience, active, is another word for learning. Find the shadow; it is the description of opaque force and articulates light’s reproach.

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