Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Poetics of Bewilderment (on Charles Bernstein's Recalculating)

the poetics of bewilderment
by Douglas Messerli
Charles Bernstein Recalculating (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Given the wide range of his publishing, teaching, and performative activities, it is hard to imagine that this year’s collection of poems, Recalculating, is Charles Bernstein's first full-length collection of new poetry in seven years. Of course, that does not include the wonderful selected poems published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in All the Whiskey in Heaven (2011). Nonetheless, there is something different, almost groundbreaking, about a work which, through its title, admits of a “change of direction” resulting from a wrong or mistaken turn.
     The “turn” for Bernstein is nearly everything: the tragic death of his daughter, Emma, old age (or, at least, the recognition that one is growing older), and the not-so-simple vicissitudes that define themselves in maturity. And this is, accordingly, a darker, mature work—not that anyone could possibly describe Bernstein’s work to be without seriousness of purpose before this. Indeed some might argue that Bernstein has, from the very start, written in a mature voice, as if he had almost been born as an older man. But there was a kind of brightness—despite the darkness sometimes of the subject matter—in early works such as “Sentences My Father Used” or “Controlling Interests,” a lightness of method in his “clumsy, clumpsy” approach to language. As Bernstein admits, time and again, in this new work—something I don’t think he would have claimed in his other works—he seeks “not to remember,” (“I write to forget”) and, as he brilliantly expresses it through a variation of Baudelaire’s “Enivrez-vous,” a desire to remain drunk (even if one may also be drunk on poetry or virtue), or as he expresses it in the little poem “Later”:
                           Wake me when the movie’s over
                           Let me sleep till then
                           Wake me when I care no longer
                           To ever get sober again

     This kind of darkened vision appears over and over in Recalculating, as, in often heart-breaking admissions, this professor of poetry (and Bernstein, more than anyone I know might be described throughout his life as one who professed his passion for poetry) questions his own limitations, his own knowledge:
                           Each day I know less than the day before. People say that you
                           learn something from such experiences [presumably Emma’s death];
                           but I don’t want that knowledge and for me there are no
                           fruits to these experiences, only ashes. I can’t and don’t want
                           to “heal”; perhaps, though, go on in the full force of my dys-
                           abilities, coexisting with a brokenness that cannot be accom-
                           modated, in the dark. (“Recalculating”)
Or, as he quotes Wilde in “The Truth in Pudding”:

                           But the world will never weary of watching that troubled soul
                           in its progress from darkness to darkness.

      It is not that Bernstein has abandoned his older ideas; indeed, this poet has always sought out what he describes as a “poetics of bewilderment” (“How Empty Is My Bread Pudding”). And his push toward fragmentation in the form of “disjunction, ellipsis, constellation” (“The Truth In Pudding”) would have been equally at home in his early book of poetics Content’s Dream, where he argued for a language that moves toward denseness and opacity in order to “actually map the fullness of thought and its movement.”

     Yet, we also recognize that something stylistically different in occurring in this most recent work. Bernstein has often in the past combined what one might  call “poetics” with “poetry,” refusing to distinguish between the two, the one being what the poet creates in writing his “poems,” but the major works of Recalculating take that even further, combining in five larger works—“The Truth in Pudding,” “How Empty Is My Bread Pudding,” “Manifest Aversions, Conceptual Conundrums, and Implausibly Deniable Links,” “Unready, Unwilling, Unable,” and “Recalculating,” what might be described as a combination of diary-like comments, aphorisms in the manner of Stein and Wilde, poetic quotations, and personal revelations. Strangely, these multi-genre works seem to be the most representative in this volume of Bernstein’s thinking, as he winds his car of the mind through the twisted streets of his thinking, braking, even stopping momentarily to move forward again with gusto. The result not only defines what the poet means by “recalculating,” but represents what he clearly perceives as his winding journey through life, moving on through “disjunction, ellipsis, constellation,” and, perhaps, most importantly, a now flawed memory.
      If Bernstein argues that he wants to forget, he is also desperate to remember, to bring all the
assimilated (and even his unassimilated) past into a new future. This poet has often “recreated” the works of other poets, but in this volume we note that Bernstein is, at times, almost repeating the structure of one of my earlier books, After, rewriting, reinterpreting, and remaking poems by figures as various as Baudelaire, Pessoa, Leevi Lehto, Osip Mandelstam, Sylvia Plath, Frost, Régis Bonvicino, Wallace Stevens, Cole Porter (via Chaucer), Walt Whitman, Paul Celan, Velimir Khlebnikov, Paolo Leminski, Juão Cabral de Melo Neto, Victor Hugo, Guilliaume Apollinaire, William Wordsworth, Nerval, and even me (a work that certainly captures the sense of the poem on which it was based). Some of these are among the strongest works in this volume, particularly the Baudelaire, Hugo, and Apollinaire imitations; but all are interesting in that they reveal a great postmodern poet (Bernstein’s definition of “Postmoderism”: modernism with a deep sense of guilt) exploring international poets of the past and present.

       In “The Jew,” dedicated to Jerome Rothenberg, and certainly among the best of works of this volume, Bernstein takes on voices of legendary rabbis, using the often convoluted and sometimes inverted logic of the Talmud to make another “turn” in the voyage, often toppling many seemingly logical propositions. Even more tellingly, the poet, at points, returns to his own past poetry, toting up the most frequent word choices in his earlier poetry collection Girly Man,  with its satiric title-poem that points to then-California governor and movie-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and creating a poem through the last words of his early masterwork “Sentences My Father Used.” Along with homages to fellow friends and poets, this collection can be seen—although certainly not exclusively—as a kind of self-reflective, meditative map of Bernstein’s life, a true “recalculating” of what the voyage to date has meant, and where he might be going in the future. And, in that sense, despite the usual humor and high-jinx of all of Bernstein’s wonderful poetic explorations, it is a “darker” book.

     I say that, obviously, with some distress; it is always a bit startling when the total optimism of one’s youth meets up with “Charon’s Boat” (the title of one of Bernstein’s poems).  Or as he expresses the difference in “Today Is the Last Day of Your Life 'til Now”: “I was the luckiest father in the world / until I turned unluckiest.”

     If things take a turn into a darker road, more frightening for both poet and his readers—I say this as a long-optimistic poet whose most recent book itself is titled Dark—these poems also continue a long trip begun as early as the poem “Long Trails of Cars Returning from the Beach,” of 1978, in which the traveling poet also gets ensnarled in traffic, unable to move forward. And its first Whitman-cum-Ginsberg inspired lines “I saw the power / of the word in / legend,” almost mirrors Bernstein’s somewhat darker position today: “The poem is a constant transformation of itself.”

      The works of Recalculating brilliantly reveal just that realization as they turn in on themselves and the sources behind the originals from which these works have risen like phoenixes to express a possible new present. Like a naughty schoolboy, Bernstein scrawls across one of his pages “I will not write imitative poetry.” 16 times, and despite his use of numerous pre-existent sources, he lives up to his promise.

Los Angeles, August 28, 2013


Monday, August 26, 2013

Architectual Dreams--And Nightmares (Never Built: Los Angeles)

architectural dreams—and nightmares

“Never Built: Los Angeles,” curated by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, Architecture and Design Museum (A+D), I attended this show on August 24, 2013.

“The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I attended this show on June 24, 2013; I revisited the show on August 14, 2013.

“Never Built: Los Angeles,” the fascinating new architecture show at A+D gallery on Wilshire Boulevard, reveals several alternatives to what the gigantic city might have looked like, some catastrophically awful—which we can be thankful never were realized—and others fascinating architectural structures which might, had they come to fruition, enriched the skyline of our city. None of the several dozen models and drawings crowded into the small architectural gallery is as stunning, perhaps, as The Disney Music Center, Frank Gehry’s breathtaking construction that exists today in downtown Los Angeles. But several of these projects, including works by Gehry himself, were alas abandoned for a number of reasons, which this show (at least in its signage), unfortunately does not address: money, public and government response, and just plain impracticability. Among these projects were Gehry’s own plans for the LA Rapid Transit District Headquarters in 1991 and his and numerous other architects’ futurist visions of Grand Street in downtown near the Disney Center. These grand projects, bigger than life, where perhaps doomed by their very grandeur and—some might argue, pomposity. But their construction would have electrified the city, and changed the current mish-mash of tamer architectural high-rises that are now being constructed. One still has hopes, particularly in the Grand Street project, for some aspects of these ideas to come into being, but as the years pass, it looks less and less likely.

      While it may have been wonderful to have seen portions of the multi-architectural Grand Street project take shape, it seems to be fortunate that nothing came of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vast 1925 plan for the Los Angeles Civic Center, a seemingly fascist-like series of box-like halls. Similarly, we can be thankful that, as the curators Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell agree, the “Santa Monica Offshore Freeway,” which would have literally done away with miles of the beautiful Santa Monica and Malibu beaches, was vetoed in 1965 by then Governor Edmund G “Pat” Brown. Similarly, the misguided downtown 1999 “Angel City Monument” by Grett Livington-Stomp, never saw reality, thank heaven. Cities attempting to declare some shared enshrined monumental symbol often fail to see that the public discovers their own representations within their communities—particularly in a vast space such as Los Angeles. The famed Simon Rodia’s Watt’s Towers, Gehry’s architectural downtown wonder, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Urban Light by Chris Burden have become more significant icons representing the city more than any declared stature might ever have been perceived. Given the brutal history of Los Angeles, perhaps angels are simply not appropriate.


     If Frank Lloyd Wright’s downtown project (these Los Angeles works overseen by his son, Lloyd Wright) appears to have been a disaster, far more interesting were his drawings and models for the Huntington Hart Sports Club of 1947, with its odd egg-shaped constructions. And one can only admire Steven Noll’s handsome vision for the Natural History Museum, John Lautner’s Griffith Park Nature Center—appearing somewhat as a vast bird with wings outspread—Jean Nouval’s colorful “Green Blade” construction for Century City of 2008, Harlan Georgescu’s apartment “Skylots” of 1965-67, and the Morphosis revisions of four patterned towers of the Herald Examiner Redevelopment—all of which seem missed chances at adding architectural diversity and luster to the city landscape.

       How wonderful had the city taken to heart the 178-page report in 1930 by the Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew on “Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region,” which envisioned a strand of “pleasureway parks” along the Los Angeles Basin. Had we accomplished those we might have spared ourselves the current struggles of local organizations to get smaller green lands to accompany the same spaces.

       And, although one has to wonder what it might have meant for our current times of gigantic international planes, one certainly has to marvel at the visual possibilities of Pereira and Luckman’s grand circular designs for the LAX International Airport of 1952, parts of which seem to have survived in the googie Theme Building designed by one of their architects, Paul Williams. I’ve actually eaten in the slowly spinning satellite in the air (with my companion Howard Fox and friend, Rosemary De Rosa), and found the event, despite the building’s absurd, saucer-like appearance, quite pleasant.

       In several cases, it is simply difficult to determine how the city might have been altered if some of the projects had been realized. Given the survival rate of grand Los Angeles movie houses, for example, the wonderful art deco plan for the “Rio” theater might have, by this time, disappeared, just as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, across the street from A+D is planning to destroy the once-perceived high modernist achievements of its Pereira buildings, to replace them with a huge Peter Zumthor construction. In a fascinating side-note to all of this, the art deco construction with A+D now inhabits, along with three other buildings on the block (including the building which houses my own Green Integer offices), is scheduled this next year to be torn down for the expansion of the subway, a system at least that appears less intrusive and landscape-cluttering than the 1920-planned monorails scurrying about the city.

       Coincidently, in their new Resnick Building, the Los Angeles County Museum is currently showing the Zumthor models, which are planned, if the money can be raised and the nearby Page Natural History Museum appeased, for ten years from now. I have equally mixed views about this large tar-like smear of a building (perceivable as that only from the air), raised upon stilts, and with no one “central” entrance. Perhaps in our isolate world, the several alternative entrances Zumthor proposes are inevitable, even preferable. But I do also have questions about the bowels of this audaciously flowing construction, which seem to be made up on dozens of tiny warrens. Are these all tiny galleries in which one can hardly fit larger paintings, let alone get a true perspective and relationship of works to one another, presented somewhat realistically in the model? Or are these just symbolic spaces? It’s hard to know. It may be possible, of course, that Zumthor’s construction might, at a later time, join the works I had just viewed across the street.

Los Angeles, August 25, 2013

Friday, August 23, 2013


Green Integer has now reprinted, on a PDF file, Douglas Messerli's famed anthology, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990. It is available at our website for $15.00

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Barbarians: I'll Be Watching You (on NSA survelliance, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Pointras, and Bradford Manning)

the barbarians: I'll be watching you
by Douglas Messerli

This 1975 work (The Lost Honor of Katrina Blum, the movie with which I close with these comments) clearly calls up the illegal public revelations of figures such as Wikileaks head Julian Assange, Bradford Manning, and, most explicitly, Edward Snowden. Snowden has attempted to warn us that through the vast NSA “haystack” of billions of emails, telephone messages, and other everyday communications anyone might possibly be perceived as a terrorist, and, under quick investigation, perceived to be involved with terrorism simply because of suspicion. Writing in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Andrew Liepman, predictably mocked any of us who might fear of government intrusion into our lives in an article titled “What Snowden got wrong: Everything”:

                        The government isn’t interested in your phone call with your
                        aunt. Unless she’s a terrorist.

In the context of the movie I’ve described above, however, almost anyone might be suspected of terrorism. What about an accidental meeting? An incident like Katharina’s “one-night” encounter? I am a publisher, focusing on international writing. What if I get an order from someone from another country (or from the US for that matter) who happens to be a terrorist? Must I personally know everyone, even their moral values, with whom I communicate? When does one suddenly become a “needle,” as Snowden suggested, or, worse yet, a kind of “nettle,” a twisted weed of irritation.

     Soon after 9/11 a friend of mine, born and raised in Pakistan, was suddenly hounded by the CIA or other government figures who “visited” him even at a university classroom where he teaches. His American girlfriend was similarly “stalked.” The owner of my office building, described how he and his secretary were forced to intervene in the case of one of their tenants—who they had long known—when he was illegally arrested, imprisoned for a few weeks, evidently, because he had never sought out US citizenship!

       With hundreds of Facebook “friends,” many of whom I’ve never met, am I and others like me in danger of simply communicating, through photographs and general information, if one of these unknown readers happened to be suspected of terrorism? I want to answer Mr. Liepman by reminding him that most of us, these days, live not in a world of domestic isolation, writing our aunts and grandmothers only, but often communicate on an international level, sometimes (particularly on the internet) with people from all over the world. My six blogs (one each on fiction, poetry, film, theater, travel, and US cultural masterpieces) receive visitors—for which I’m very pleased—from across the planet.

      Finally, I have one aunt who, although she is not a terrorist, is an evangelical Christian who has written some pretty awful things, in the past, about President Obama (she is convinced, for instance, he was not born in the US). Although I no longer communicate with her, might I be in trouble if I did? Her kind of limited vision of the world might be seen by some to be as dangerous as that of an outspoken critic of our country. What happened to Katharina Blum in Schlöndorff’s and von Trotta’s moving film, might easily occur again. And yellow journalists, print and digital, are only too ready to help destroy the lives of innocents. One need only recall the young Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi,* who, missing from his Providence, Rhode Island room, suddenly was mistakenly rumored by Reddit and other gossip Facebook posters to have been the second bomber at the Boston Marathon, reporters soon after camping out on his family’s lawn in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Whether because of these accusations or not, Sunil’s body was found in the waters off India Point Park in Providence on April 23rd, a victim, evidently, of suicide.

 *There are several recountings of this on the internet and in print. See, for example, The New York Times, April 25, 2013.

Los Angeles, August 12, 2013
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (August 2013).

    Having just completed the above comments, on August 18, 2013 I was faced with  an intelligent long essay in The New York Times Magazine, “Snowden’s People,” by Peter Maass, which revealed—at least to me—how wrong the American government has been about the activities of Edward Snowden, and just how brave have been Snowden’s “people,” Laura Poitras—an independent documentary film-maker who had already been working on US and other government surveillance of individuals, when Snowden first contacted her—and  Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the British paper The Guardian, whom Snowden had attempted, unsuccessfully, to contact even before Poitras. Together, the two formed a bond, at first very cautious, contacting Snowden, and gradually building a sense of trust that turned into complete support of the so-called “whistleblower” that might be described as a sense of moral outrage. Just reading this essay, and realizing the extent to which the US government and others have gone to intimidate and even terrorize the brave reporter and documentary writer, should, I would argue, bring every American’s blood to a boil. But then most Americans, seemingly, cannot begin to comprehend what Snowden’s revelations about how thoroughly our privacy has been erased in way unimaginable even by the prescient writer George Orwell. While American government officials and the President himself continue to mumble on about the need for protection from terrorists, we have little evidence as a people, that this vast network of information being collected by the NSA, CIA, and other government spying organizations really do focus in on terrorism as opposed to just a vast collection of information on every single American and foreign contacted by Americans who go about their daily business. Certainly Poitras, as the article reveals, who has undergone hours of pointless interrogation every time she has attempted to travel, no longer has any personal privacy, recognizing at the end of this highly lucid but emotional piece, “I don’t know if I’ll ever to be able to live someplace and feel like I have my privacy” again.

       Despite everything I’ve read by government authorities, and I feel I am a fairly reasonable and, at times, gullible being, I cannot perceive these two “reporters” and Snowden’s own actions, (despite the pretend outrage of the actually conservative-pretend-liberal Diane Feinstein’s feisty proclamations) as anything but saintly. Certainly, such revelations might well reveal our weaknesses to terrorists and others who might seek to destroy our “democracy,” but do we, truly, have a democracy when such vast governmental powers are keep secret from the very people they are supposedly intended to protect? Might a democratic society be able to make these decisions for themselves instead of secretive government officials behind closed doors? As in a Kafka novel, everything has been reversed. People are suspected before they have even done anything, their personal records compiled, with the government’s ready ability to enter into those e-mails, internet site visitations, and private phone calls simply if they might suppose some nefarious connection, however innocently that “connection” might have been. As opposed to the major premise of our justice system, that an individual is innocent until proven guilty, the NSA, CIA and other information-gathering systems seem to presume that we all might be guilty unless proven innocent.

     Peter Maass’ report shook my faith in the government to the core: could this really all be happening in a seemingly enlightened democratic country? Of course I knew of all those  terrible years of  government abnegation of Japanese-American citizen’s rights during the early years of World War II, the attacks on so many politicized (and even non-political) Americans during the McCarthy years—to say nothing of the Jim Crow laws against Blacks through the century. I lived through the nefarious lies of our government’s involvement in Viet Nam, saw whole South American dictatorships rise and fall with CIA involvement. I knew the history of our government in relationship to American Indian history and land-rights. I knew well how the government treated illegal aliens and even, sometimes, foreign visitors to our shores. I even knew that, since Howard and I were acquaintances of Vice-President Walter Mondale and his wife, and I had visited their home, during his presidential run, a couple of times, that I had surely been under surveillance by the FBI. When you live in Washington, D.C., you become somewhat inured to these things. But the fact the Obama administration was somehow collecting all the data that my numerous internet visits and international and local telephone calls might reveal has made me quite furious. I am not a terrorist, and, despite my open criticisms of government, I care about and love this country. Why had I and all my neighbors, friends, and even poosible enemies, suddenly become suspicious beings in our own homes?

       The very next day, Monday, August 19th, things got worse, when Greenwald’s Brazilian companion, David Miranda, carrying encrypted computer data between Laura Pointras (now in Berlin) and Greenwald, was stopped and interviewed for nine hours (the limit of England’s Section 7 of their Terrorism Act) about his activities. It is clear that Miranda, not even a journalist, is no terrorist, but it is also clear that London’s Metropolitan Police Service—with notice to the Prime Minister, the British Secret Service, and the American government—was involved with what I see as a completely “illegal” arrest, determined to abuse this provision to find any secret information they might. Miranda and Greenwald threaten to sue, and Greenwald’s paper The Guardian is behind him, having themselves been previously threatened for presenting the Snowden leaks. Unlike the United States, Britain has neither a written constitution nor Bill of Rights. Several human rights figures, such as Robert Wintemute at King’s College, London, hope that Miranda will indeed sue. But the British government, meanwhile, continues to assert their rights to stop Miranda despite his lack of involvement with any terrorist threat. What is even more disturbing is that they confiscated his computer, cellphone, and thumb-drives, ultimately, with The Guardian editor called to their offices to oversee the act, destroying thempersonal property being purposely destroyed instead of returned—although it is clear, from the Guardian’s viewpoint that this was better to destroy them than simply leaving the files to the British authorities. Obviously, those authorizes must have already copied them—but fortunately, so too had Greenwald and Pointras, who insist the information will eventually come out. As expected, however, the time period was extended, and the British authorities have claimed (without revealing any evidence) that the Snowden material is utterly dangerous, and should be allowed to be released. The whole issue of individual privacy has become—as we know it always has been—a political issue. People in control obviously want to remain in control!

     At the very moment I am writing this essay, the NSA, highly castigated by an 85-page ruling by Judge John D. Bates, form chief judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for illegally collecting domestic e-mails and other internet communications of Americans, has pretended a total absolution of their acts, as if this public accusation might diffuse the increasing criticism and revelations. This seems to me to be a weak attempt to squirm out of the fact that they’ve been so completely caught with their hand in the cookie-jar—although my metaphors cannot match the horrendousness of the NSA’s acts.

      And behavior around the world might be even more disturbing as other revelations have suggested that NSA has targeted numerous countries, including friends such as Britain, Brazil, Argentina, and Germany and enemies such as Iran. Germany, given the history of the film I reviewed above and changes after in German governmental behavior, has been particularly outraged by the NSA’s actions in gathering information and breaking into media and other sites internationally, and Brazil has expressed outrage for the security breaches.

     President Obama, continues to pretend a concern for these acts, but seems to suggest that by the Bates declarations show that “the system is working.” The problem, of course, is not whether or not the “system” works, but that that there is such a system that has been monstrously established. Obama continuously pretends concern, but, in a much darker side of his personality, continues to seek out all people like Snowden and Manning before him as criminals, in order to bring them to justice. He has threatened more journalists and others than any President before him with legal action. Although I’d like to believe in his “concerns,” I no longer, with conscience can. He appears to be a kind of likeable liar. It’s just words, while we all must look for action, changes in the “system” he continues to is necessary to protect us. As Glenn Greenwald said today (September 1, 2013) on a CNN interview, the NSA has created the largest spying system ever, incorporating all information around the world, suggesting that they had turned the great tool of democratization, the internet, into a force that totally may have totally done away with privacy. After the Snowden revelations, we might say that the world has now witnessed the end the private self. We are now all in the limelight, perverse celebrities in a world not of our own making, without perhaps even knowing it.

     On September 6, 2013, through the New York Times, the leaks from the Snowden tapes further revealed that the NSA has worked intensely to breach the encrypted information of various internet communication organizations, seemingly, as the government might express it, to protect the communication giants, but also, more likely, to again intervene on public privacy, sometimes working with the organizations themselves, even threatening them, to find ways to further intrude upon public messages. Although they have worked hard to keep secret the organizations involved from public revelation, it is quite clear, if one reads between the lines, that vast publicly shared organizations such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Hotmail, and other communication giants have probably worked with the government and the British GCHQ, sometimes the NSA outrightly paying them for their involvement, to collect as much information as possible from the consumers. We might even wonder why Google, in particular, has offered up so much space to allow the vast blogs and email spaces, mostly without cost, to millions of individuals—including, I might add, my own six blog sites. What may seem like a gracious invitation to help spread internet information internationally, which is how I have used this open invitation, could actually be perceived as a way to collect vast amounts of information that might reveal, even if one might naively perceive it as positive, information may possibly be used against the millions of individuals that have used these sources. I have, on the surface, no difficulty in having government authorities read my several blogs on poetry, fiction, drama, film, and American classics—unless, of course, they are perceived by stupid and incompetent authorities as somehow “dangerous” simply because of their call for international relationships. That my press makes no money, and that I publish bilingual editions in several languages (one, recently in Chinese, another in Dutch) might almost make my various activities seem almost as a “duck in the water,” ready to be shot down for its seemingly suspicious existence. I am not a capitalist, nor a mindless promoter of loyalist American artistic activity, advocating, as I do, an international perspective for no financial gain—in short, for what I might imagine as the many mindless NSA moles, pounding out their keyboards, as a kind of inexplicable terrorist for advocating an international literary perspective for no other reason than the love of literature! How might that ever be explained?

     Later in September of this year, it was revealed that the agency had collected far more telephone and e-mail information on individuals who had nothing to do with terrorism. As a New York Times editorial summarized the seemingly endless situation: The violations were both so frequent and so systemic…that the privacy safeguards the court ordered ‘never functioned effectively.’ Alarmingly, the agency itself acknowledged that ‘there was no single person who had a complete technical understand’ of the system its analysts were using.” As the judge who who heard the case in 2009 ruled, there is “little reason to believe that the most recent discovery of a systemic, ongoing violation…will be the last.” The very same day The Guardian and Los Angeles Times revealed that a lot of the raw citizen information that the NSA collected was shared, without sorting, with the government of Israel; there is no evidence that Israel destroyed this tangential and often meaningless information.

     In an excellent summary of NSA and CIA intelligence-gathering systems and their secrecy from even members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reiterated not only the illegitimacy of numerous of these organizations’ meta-data gathering but both President Bush’s and President Obama’s administration obfuscations of the facts. The December 16th essay describes the long-time efforts of Oregon senator Ron Wyden and a few others who have joined together in what they describe as the Ben Franklin caucus (in honor of Franklin’s “admonition that a society that will trade essential liberty for short-term security deserves neither”) to defeat the Patriot Act and stop the huge meta-data gathering operations,   as opposed to Senator Diane Feinstein and the majority of Intelligence Committee members who allow themselves to be led by intelligence gatherers rather than attempting to dictate their limits. Along with Snowden’s important revelations, this essay should outrage Americans who to date have seemingly demonstrated no major concern in having nearly all of their e-mails and telephone calls tracked, with perhaps thousands of them—either intentionally or unintentionally—actually being read without any “reasonable, articulable suspicion” (RAS) or approval by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).
     After reading this essay, it would be hard for anyone to imagine that if Edward Snowden had attempted to simply “report” his discoveries to “authorities,”—whoever these authorities might have been—would have resulted in anything but his dismissal and arrest. And I have been continually outraged by the President’s administration members and members of the intelligence community who describe Snowden as a traitor and even suggest, without any real evidence, that he spied for the Chinese or Russian governments.
     It all reminds me, somewhat, of the frightening scene in Luchino Visconti’s film, The Damned, in which the Nazi SS officer Aschenbach shows his cousin Sophie, the heir of a large German steel plant, the Gestapo’s secret file room.

 Aschenbach: These are the most complete archives ever conceived. This
                       is the secret Germany. Nothing is lacking, You can even
                       find your history and Frederick’s. Can you believe it? You
                       see it’s not very difficult to enter into the lives of people. Every
                       German citizen today is potentially one of our informers.
                       The collected thinking of our people is now complete. Don’t
                       you think that is the true miracle of the Third Reich?

     Finally, on December 16 of this year, Judge Richard J. Leon (a George W. Bush appointee) ruled the NSA bulk collection of telephone messages to be unconstitutional: describing it was a truly Orwellian phenomenon.

                           I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary 
                           invasion' than this systematic and high-tech collection 
                           and retention of personal data on virtually every single 
                           citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without 
                           prior judicial approval.

Leon suggested that James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, would be “aghast.” The judgment, however, applies only to the individuals who brought the issue to court, and the judge, moreover, immediately stayed his own decision to allow the government to file an appeal.
     From Russian, Snowden announced, through reporter Glenn Greenwald, that he had hoped for just such a public airing of the activities of the NSA and other governmental agencies. “Today, a secret program authorized by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans’ rights. It is the first of many.”
    Yet, we are unlikely to see the immediate cessation of such massive governmental encroachment of individual information. And, of course, there are numerous other kinds of surveillance methods that are yet to be perceived. The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times revealed that facial scanning by U.S. security has been highly developed, and will soon be sophisticated enough to use as a terrorist determent. In other words, the government may, in a few years, be able to perceive all of us, in any crowd, just by our faces. So we come to the end of the “masses”: we are each an individual—suddenly documented singular beings—who are increasingly being seen as dangerous and potential figures who suddenly might go rogue and destroy the very society of which we are part. That kind of logic—which might, at first, seem even a bit appealing—results in its own conclusions: who might not want to destroy a society that already has presumed you have sought to destroy, and may, at any moment, threaten and even punish you for the very idea? The barbarians, as the Greek poet Cavafy predicted, are at the gates: “they are us.”
     The further revelation on September 27, 2003 that a small number of NSA workers and other contractors used their surveillance powers to spy on friends and lovers again brought up the obvious question of “who’s watching the watchers?” and reanimated the whole conversation of what these voyeuristic procedures might mean for the culture as a whole, a question that, in some respects, was brought up in Michael Haenke’s 2005 film, Caché, which I review below.
     As Charles Bernstein has brilliantly summarized, in his aphoristic work, "How Empty Is My Bread Pudding":
                                      Injustice in the pursuit of order is oppression.
                                     Mendacity in the pursuit of security is tyranny.

      Army leaker Bradford Manning was sentenced—in what some described as a lenient sentence—to 35 years of imprisonment. At the grand age of 57—or perhaps as early as 32—he may be freed to remind us, if he lives out his prison sentence, how misled and perverse our current policies are about honest revelations of dangerous government intrigues. The Los Angeles Times described the sentence as lenient, but I think The New York Times editorial, describing it as an “excessive sentence” got it right, arguing “In the drastic attempt to put Private Manning away for most of the rest of life, prosecutors were also trying to discourage other potential leakers, but as the continuing release of classified documents by Edward Snowden show, even the threat of significant prison time is not a deterrent when people believe their government keeps too many secrets.”  
     Perhaps a little government honesty and revelation might have freed us from the Bradley Mannings, the Edward Snowdens, and even the Julian Assanges of the world, and allowed these men (one, a possibly future woman, Bradley Manning uncomfortable with his present gender) to remain free from the governmental “hounding” which they now face. Of course, every government has secrets, but when secrets begin to define that government we can only imagine its quick demise, for surely secrets eat away the very soul of any open society.
Los Angeles, August 20-22, 2013, September 1, 2013, September 6, 2013, September 12, 2013, September 27, 2013, October 21, 2103, December 5, 2013, December 14, 2013, December 17, 2013.
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (August-October 2013).