Emmanuel Levinas wrote extensively about what he referred to as an ethical contact with the other. He wrote of “…our effort… in maintaining, within anonymous community, the society of the I with the Other—language and goodness.” Inextricable to an ethical contact, he says, is facing one another, turning our actual faces toward one another, and doing so with vulnerability. Within his considerations of contact are the longstanding mysteries of subjectivity, of authority, of language, of community, of society. Contact, in other words, is complex. Contact is very small—it is just those two faces looking at each other. And contact is also incomprehensibly large—every single moment and every degree of contact within all of culture and all of society and all of history. Derek Jensen, in Language Older Than Words, similarly asks us to put ourselves in vulnerable relationship with, not primarily other people necessarily, but with earth, with trees, with animals. We all speak, he says, a common language that is based on mutual vulnerability and relationship—not a language made of words, and especially not our English words. He writes extensively of human culture as the problem that separates us from a natural communion, participation, and membership that is rightfully ours as entities alive on earth. And Nicholas Mirzoeff, more recently, continues some of these same discussions when he suggests that in order to overthrow tyranny, to disempower an illegitimate authority or a totalizing culture, and to actually “democratize democracy”—we must also be in a relationship with others in such a way that we mutually, imaginatively, and within our own unique subjectivities, create the other at the same moment that as she, he, (I would add they, I would add it) creates us.
These sets of thoughts I came to after the long period of travel that is the basis of my recent book, Arco Iris. About nine years ago my partner and I travelled for several months through South America. Across those months, across that continent, I wrote in my journals. We also wrote a collaborative, lyrical, essayistic, strange travel piece that was published serial-style by an online journal as we travelled. And after we returned pieces of those journals and the collaborative writings, plus many other notes, turned into something else. Which turned into something else. In order to arrive at the final version of the book, across eight years, I wrote a series of not-just-drafts, but arguably completely distinct manuscripts with some of the same words in them. The book (this is what I am saying) was trouble to write. The book was a problem. As was the travel, for me. As had become all travel, for me. And I am a traveler—many years of my life I have spent in hard travel, in living abroad, on road trips, in making visits, in pilgrimage, and on vacation. In short, during the travel in South America, upon which this book is based, and in the years and the travels that followed it, all I knew was that I didn’t want to be, as a friend of mine so aptly worded it, just another white person traveling to a brown place in order to have my meaningful experience. My revelation, my book, my ayauasca (hallucinogenic) trip guided by a “real Indian”. I also didn’t want to analyze South America for its problems— social, environmental, historical—that oftentimes shocked me or made me despair—because my own continent could do that already. And because my own continent, and perhaps by extension, myself, had clearly caused much of the devastation I saw in South America. I didn’t want to ignore the shocking and the despairing, however, and blithely write about the beautiful or, dare I say, the sublime, which I experienced alongside the devastation. I also didn’t want the book to, as we have come to say, be “just about me.” But to pretend it wasn’t, to pretend to be able to write “about South America,” felt like even more of a problem.
In trying to figure out how to place the entire travel experience, how to place the entire book, and all the “revelations” I thought that I had had, I knew the problem was with the narrator. I knew the problem was one of tone. The problem was one of movement and stillness. How does one travel without the action being inherently violent, especially when one is from a violent place—economically, politically, historically, culturally—. Worse, how does one write about that travel when to write (even if the writing is critical of the culture it proceeds from) is also to create more of that culture. When to write is to be, quickly or eventually, subsumed into that same massive culture and muted or altered. And what to do with the muffling sheet of culture, of which one is a thread, that is seeking to cover the entire globe—globe of earth, globe of one’s mind, etc. How to make art after neoliberal-America.
I found myself, in remembering the trip and in the poems that came from the trip, returning constantly to the “earth” parts of South America. We were in many cities and towns, but we were also on many hikes and were camping near and on and in bodies of water and in the mountains and jungles. And those were the moments I was least agonized about my presence there. These bodies of water, these mountains, these jungles were almost always the location of my sublime and, I’ll say it, transcendent moments—they were where this white person went to a brown place and had a revelation. But my “revelations” in the “wilderness” were in no way separate from the cultures, the languages, and the histories surrounding each moment of the trip. My sublime and soul-altering moments, some of which are still in the book—haltingly—only complicated my problem of positioning myself as not-violent, as not-extension of all that I knew and felt I represented, throughout the months that we were there. I didn’t want this to be, as we began calling it, some brand of emotional-or-experiential-colonialism.
The problem, I have come to think more recently, was related to aestheticization— a problem of making art, a problem of making even more culture—when “my culture” was one of the primary sources of so many of the sorrowful things I was seeing. The problem of “making beautiful” or “making seem beautiful” or, more specifically, making seem good or valid my own perspective when what I really wanted was a dissolution of my own perspective. And so, relatedly, I knew I had a problem of looking. And again, relatedly, I knew I had a problem of subjectivity. Those problems, I understood (sometimes vaguely, sometimes clearly), were some combination of post-colonialism plus globalization plus environmental devastation plus history and plus instantaneousness of digital technology plus the quality (or quantity) of the mind/ subjectivity/ citizen/ individual that moved itself or was moved from place to place on these travels.
And by problems, what I mean is that these are the things I kept moving toward, toward, toward.
What I might be saying is that the fundamental question I had while writing this book is the question I also have, at this point, about every piece of writing about every single thing: how does one write (read, etc.) and yet also avoid creating culture when the culture that one helps to create is—a total force—. When even a so-called “counter-culture” or “sub-culture” or “parallel culture,” such as ecopoetics, is quickly subsumed into the Culture, into its institutions, into its universities. And the related question: Does the subsumption of something like ecopoetics make the totalizing culture better?—And if so, is that our best-case-scenario?
The question I have is: can one avoid being functionally identical to one’s own totalizing culture when one travels outside of it? And especially, can one avoid being functionally identical to one’s own totalizing culture later, when one “makes art” about that travel. Can one avoid this when meeting, contacting, facing, other people on earth or when facing the earth, itself. And then what does it mean to return home and attempt to make one’s experience of it…—that word—aesthetic. To, as Mirzoeff would say, authorize my own authority by aestheticizing academically, poetically, critically, via publications, public readings, panels, etc.— my own perception. Does this now-aestheticized perception become, ultimately, another product of the totalizing culture from whence I come. Or is there actual ethical contact, is there relationship inherent within the act of making art, of sharing art—is there a counterhistory or a countervision or a more legitimate collectivity that can dethrone a totalizing culture that continually, continually seeks to authorize its own authority. Is someone making me as I make them, in a manner of Levinas’s ethical contact, in the process of writing the book, or in the fact of the book’s existence? Is anyone out there looking at me as I look at them. Is someone imagining me as I imagine them. And if one’s own culture is instantaneously extending itself anywhere on earth or beyond earth in this, our digital age, where light is the equivalent of electricity and information—then is there anything that qualifies as not-totalizing. Are even all of earth and some of outer space subsumed.
The very first words of Nick Mirzoeff’s Right to Look are: “I want to claim the right to look. This claim is, not for the first or the last time, for a right to the real.” He proposes a counterhistory in which countervisualities work to undermine, expose, destroy the totalizing visuality and thus, as he says, to actually “democratize democracy.” Says Mirzoeff: “The right to look is not about seeing. It begins at a personal level with the look into someone else’s eyes to express friendship, solidarity, or love. That look must be mutual, each person inventing the other, or it fails. As such, it is unrepresentable.” And that word, unrepresentable, for me, is the least-painful word of his book.
Which is most unrepresentable: to face someone else, or to rip off my own face.
Sarah Vap is the author of five collections of poetry and poetics. She is a recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Grant for Literature, and her sixth collection, Viability, was selected for the National Poetry Series prize and is forthcoming from Penguin (2015).