Friday, October 23, 2009

Finding a form

Scott Saul on Eliot Weinberger (in The Nation):

[Eliot] Weinberger is best known for "What I Heard About Iraq," an essay that managed to bring together his commentator and experimentalist halves, applying principles of Modernist collage--more specifically the archival collage method of New York poet Charles Reznikoff--to the "truth decay" of the Bush years. Published in the London Review of Books on February 3, 2005, the essay went viral, eventually being linked to or reproduced on more than 100,000 websites; later that year it was adapted into a work of protest theater performed in locales as far-flung as Berlin, Calcutta, Durban and Los Angeles. It may be the most circulated piece of antiwar writing to emerge from the Iraq War.

Weinberger's method was to turn the 24/7 spin cycle on the war into a piece of found poetry, one that conjures up the war's absurdity rather than declaring it. Sound bites from global media are isolated, stripped down, then pieced back together--suspended sentence to suspended sentence--so that readers are served up the absurdity of the war in a bitterly concentrated dose. Here's a passage from the second installment of the essay, published January 5, 2006, in the LRB:

I heard that, in Fallujah and elsewhere, the US had employed white phosphorus munitions, an incendiary device, known among soldiers as "Willie Pete" or "shake and bake", which is banned as a weapon by the Convention on Conventional Weapons. Similar to napalm, it leaves the victim horribly burned, often right through to the bone. I heard a State Department spokesman say: "US forces have used them very sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination purposes. They were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters." Then I heard him say that "US forces used white phosphorus rounds to flush out enemy fighters so that they could then be killed with high explosive rounds." Then I heard a Pentagon spokesman say that the previous statements were based on "poor information", and that "it was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants." Then I heard the Pentagon say that white phosphorus was not an illegal weapon, because the US had never signed that provision of the Convention on Conventional Weapons.

Jon Stewart and the creative team at The Daily Show have broadcast this sort of media critique--illustrating how the corruption of language follows the corruption of power--to millions on a nightly basis. But "What I Heard About Iraq" is more disquieting than The Daily Show, partly because it doesn't offer the safety valve of shared laughter, and partly because it mirrors an almost shameful passivity. It tracks the twisting of the truth but is reticent on what to do about it; the narrative voice is a vacuum chamber that, registering all, is also unsettlingly inert. In fact, this may be the secret to the piece's success: unlike much agitprop, which calls upon its viewers or readers to do something, "What I Heard About Iraq" crystallized the feeling, shared by millions around the world, that the war was built on lies but that the truth was poor consolation to those, in Iraq, suffering in its grasp. The pathos of the war protester, alone and agape in front of the latest outrage on his or her computer screen, had found its literary form.

(Via Amitava Kumar)

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