Sunday, 01 October 2006

The Trouble With Diversity: Becoming Armenian, or, Egoyan's Crowbar [My first contribution to The Trouble With Diversity event, x-posted from The Valve.] For Walter Benn Michaels, “culture” is a comforting fiction based on an unscientific racial logic, an incoherent theory of historical transmission, and a discredited linguistic essentialism. I’ll leave the last of those arguments to the experts who will show up later this week; I’ll address the first two today—albeit obliquely, through a reading of the Atom Egoyan film Next of Kin (1984). Egoyan seems the perfect foil for Michaels’ account of identity—born in Egypt, raised in Canada, proudly Armenian—and yet, with the notable exception of Ararat (2002), his identitarian commitments never drift into uncritical sentimentality. His obsession with historical and cultural transmission, his probing of the means by which memories intrude into the present moment, prevent such drift. No critic of Egoyan, academic or otherwise, has failed to notice how “films-within-films populate [his] works, glimpses of guilt or pleasure captured on tape and then twisted out of shape by a subsequent perspective."[1] Nor should they. Egoyan directed the only watchable short in the Beckett on Film (2003) collection; his unostentatious Krapp’s Last Tape showcases his preoccupation with inaccurate, illegitimate transmission of racial/cultural/historical memories. Like Beckett in Krapp’s Last Tape, Egoyan typically stages the interaction of individual and mechanical memory as a conflict between an event, the cherished memory of it, an initial reencounter with that memory, then all the subsequent ones. All these “reencounters” are mediated—Krapp’s by his tape-recorder, Egoyan’s characters’ through home-movies (their own and others)—by contraptions far less abstract and direct than the “ghosts of historicism” Michaels discusses in The Shape of Signifier: From Sethe’s standpoint, [Denver’s claim that “nothing ever dies"] is, of course, a kind of threat; she and her contemporaries are, as one critic has put it, “haunted by memories they seek to avoid.” But if Beloved‘s characters want to forget something that happened to them, its readers—"black people,” “white people,” Morrison herself—are to supposed to remember something that didn’t happen to them ... For Morrison’s race ... provides the mechanism as well as the meaning of the conversion of history into memory. [Greg Bear’s] Blood Music requires weird science to explain how people can “remember stuff” they haven’t “even lived through” (197) ... Beloved needs only race.[2] I quote from the “Historicism” chapter of The Shape of the Signifier not only because redacted chunks of it appear in The Trouble With Diversity, but because I think his argument against the possibility of cultural/racial/historical transmission far more forceful in the original. This detour allows me to establish a memorial hierarchy, from the fantastic-technological (Blood Music) to the just plain technological (Krapp’s Last Tape) to the just plain fantastic (Beloved). A self-aware lymphatic system capable of cloning consciousness would be the perfect vehicle for transmitting historical knowledge; modern day recording equipment would be orders of magnitude worse; and while powerful, the supernatural reappearance of dead children would be is impossible. Yet, as Michaels argues, because of its emotional resonance, most Americans employ this...

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