Tuesday, May 31, 2011


With almost no sense of shame an impressive number of Germans have taken up the leisurely activity of reenacting the US Civil War. In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, Wolfgang Hochbruck, professor of American Studies at Freiburg University and Union Army reenactor, remarks, "I think some of the Confederate reenactors in Germany are acting out Nazi fantasies of racial superiority ... They are obsessed with your war because they cannot celebrate their own vanquished racists." The kernel of an as-yet-unrealized joke is concealed in this recent phenomenon; something like that moment in episode ten of the television series Party Down when blond-haired blue-eyed Uda Bengt, the team leader for Valhalla Catering, sternly establishes dating guidelines after making a pass at actor-turned-caterer Henry Pollard: "I like art films. Nothing too depressing. No Holocaust shit."

There are jokes and then there are jokes and I often find myself fascinated by those incredible and often disingenuously deployed jokes that cut below the radar, the slap in the face that goes wholly unregistered because our ability to name the violence cannot keep pace with the shape-shifting contour of the violence. In the poem "AIPAC" (acronym for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) from Citizen Cain (Salt 2011), Benjamin Friedlander writes:

OK here's a joke:
A lady approaches her rabbi and tells him,

Rabbi, obesity is a trend
that is prevalent In fact,
I blame Chinese food on Christmas

every day
the wine symbolizes blood
at sunset Saturday

eating Christian babies for their streetwear
Jewish dolls for Jewish children Just click
on Law

of Return
on Investment (ROI), Le Roi David
King David vinyl transfer

The amount of work the poem performs here, the astounding range of the interrelated details and information contained within it, mirrors the vertiginality of the overdetermined conditions and transgressions that too often escape naming. The language of investment and finance bucks up against an increasing Sinophobia in the West, pandemic obesity, web-based consumer practices, tensions between Jewish and black communities in the US, urban violence and the enduring vestiges of anti-Semitic representations stretching back to the medieval period (i.e. Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln).

Le Roi is no doubt Leroi — Leroi Jones — a poet Friedlander confronts earlier in Citizen Cain through his lineated critique of "Somebody Blew Up America." Like Jones / Baraka, the territory Friedlander treads here is delicate, his poem presumably responding to several particularly provocative and now well known lines by Baraka (i.e. "Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion | And cracking they sides at the notion"). Toward the end of Friedlander's riposte we find Baraka choking:

Did you know, for example, that stuttering affects
many more men than women?

This is why women chew slowly
and men eat steak. Now make a fist

and place the thumb side of your fist
against Amiri Baraka's upper abdomen, below the ribcage

and above the navel. Grasp your fist
with your other hand and press into

the upper abdomen with a quick upward
thrust. Do not squeeze Amiri Baraka;

confine the force of your thrust to your hands.
Repeat until the terrorists are expelled.

These instructions are, of course, for the Heimlich Maneuver — to dislodge the terrorists stuck in the poet's throat. The unheimlich, or unheimlichkeit, also comes to mind. Heim. Home. To be without and to bring it back so by way of expelling a colonial presence. Curiously, however, heimlich in contemporary German usage also suggests stealth or, in cruder colloquial usage, sneakiness, a bone chilling fact which no doubt ratchets up the tension coursing through Friedlander's riposte to Baraka (we think in terms of terrorist cells). In this application of the Heimlich Maneuver we find a desire for Homeland Security which is not Homeland Security, a desire for Baraka — one of the most influential and outspoken poets opposed to the War on Terror — to come to terms with a culturally interiorized and fundamentally ineradicable alterity which ought to be always already at home in itself among others.

While it is mischievously tempting, at least for me, to recklessly read Friedlander's response to Baraka as a poetic echoing of the enduring tensions that characterized something like the Crown Heights Riot, Friedlander's bold appeal to the Heimlich Maneuver indicates his approach to Baraka is incredibly nuanced. When Baraka invokes the state of Israel in "Somebody Blew Up America," his attention is presumably fixed on the complex, deeply troubling and virtually inextricable relationship between US and Israeli governments. Friedlander is no less critical than Baraka of US-Israeli relations (cf. comments on former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the poem "Fucked Relationships Archive," which ends, "No more f-words, just 'aith' | A spoken word for ministry"), but what Friedlander appears to identify in Baraka's poem is an unchecked antisemitism that sneaks in through the backdoor. Plenty of others have taken issue with this, nearly to the point of exhaustion and often to the exclusion of the poem's productive political thrust in the face of overwhelming ideological repression. But, if I'm not putting too much pressure on this appeal to the Heimlich in Friedlander's response, the call here is for a more fully developed and responsible consideration of 911 — not to dismiss Baraka out of hand but to eliminate the destructive elements in his view of the political landscape "until the terrorists are expelled."

In an especially useful essay commenting on Franz Rosenzweig's aesthetic theory and the decidedly Jewish character of theories of the uncanny, Leora Batnitzky writes, "Like so many of his German speaking contemporaries, including Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Martin Buber, Rosenzweig connects being wrenched away from one's 'homey place' [Heim] to a feeling of Unheimlichkeit. Unlike his contemporaries, including Buber, Rosenzweig maintains that the feeling of uncanniness not only expresses a general insight into human existence, but is a particularly Jewish contribution to the understanding of human existence." Batnitzky later relates that, in Rosenzweig's formulation, "Because of its unique relation to God's revelation, the Jewish community is wrenched away from its homeland [Heimat] and thereby produces a feeling of Unheimlichkeit in the Heim of others."

Whether or not we accept this particular theorization of the uncanny, there can be no question that a certain uncanniness pervades every page of Citizen Cain. And the scope of Friedlander's poetry extends well beyond any disagreement he might have with Baraka, outward to the forms of unheimlichkeit produced, exacerbated and mediated by the vertiginous and fundamentally unstable flow of web-based information. This in conjunction with a larger sense of homelessness that situates any Odyssean homecoming as the work of a comforting but nonetheless misguided fantasy.