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Category: poetry

Theatrical Self-Impersonation, Platonic Spirits and Heteronyms

Marilyn Monroe photographed by Richard Avedon

Earlier this month I was wandering through an exhibit of work collected by Philippe de Montebello for the Metropolitan Museum. I found myself in front of a photograph by Richard Avedon of Marilyn Monroe. The context of the photo was the idea of theatrical self-impersonation. As Avedon tells the story, there is no such person as Marilyn Monroe.

“Marilyn Monroe was someone Marilyn Monroe invented, like an author creates a character.” Recalling a session that took place at his studio on a May evening in 1957, he continued: “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s—she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.”

In the networked social space created by our new modes of communication and interaction we enact a similar form of theatrical self-impersonation. Most of who we are is hidden from view, each identity is constructed and by definition, incomplete. Shakespeare’s words ring true today as we signal to each through roles constructed and manipulated at a distance.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts

Monroe established an economics for her self-impersonation and her product was, and is, in high demand. We see a similar dynamic in the blogosphere where economic value is created through the theatrics of self-impersonation. Steve Gillmor has written an excellent post that gives us a backstage pass to the theatrical process Mike Arrington uses to write a Mike Arrington post. One might add, of course, there is no such person as “Mike Arrington.”

But we shouldn’t limit our exploration to the commercial sphere, there are other modes in which this idea of theatrical self impersonation can play out. One of the stories that Ray Ozzie has been telling lately to introduce himself to Microsoft and the world has to do with a online system called Plato. An experience Ozzie had 33 years ago on an online network captured the promise and depth of this new space of interaction.

By the mid-1970s, PLATO’s many features included email and an instant messaging feature dubbed “Talk-O-Matic.” Ozzie wrangled a job working on the project, and, while doing so, communicated online with a collaborator who worked remotely from off-campus. Ozzie was impressed by the eloquence and intelligence of his offsite workmate and the two quickly bonded. Ozzie’s only complaint was that when they sent instant messages to each other, his offsite colleague was a frustratingly slow typist.

After their joint project was completed, Ozzie met his remote partner in person for the first time during a party at the partner’s house in 1975. Only then did Ozzie discover that his colleague was a quadriplegic, bound to a wheelchair, whose slow typing was a result of having to interact with the keyboard using a stick held in his mouth.

The incident had a profound effect on Ozzie. He was struck by how the technology allowed them to connect so closely, despite physical constraints and without preconceived judgments. The two had met in a shared mental space that was uniquely enabled by networked technology.

While we sometimes think of this networked social space we’re exploring as new, in an era where innovation occurs at lightening speed, the roots of the basic interactions reach back to a time out of mind.

The visible artifacts of these theatrical creations become detached from their originators and float freely in a field of play– currency traded in our social dance. Paul Ricoeur talks about these artifacts as “oneself as other” (Soi-meme comme un autre). While some talk of a technology that will allow us to aggregate the disaggregated, scooping up all the disparate pieces of personal identity and weaving them into a whole, the element of time renders these attempts necessarily partial. Perhaps we’re due for an exploration into the polar opposite of the single whole identity. The poet Fernando Pessoa created the literary concept of the heteronym. A heteronym possesses distinct temperaments, philosophies, appearances and writing styles– Pessoa had more than 70. Would the words I write here be the same ones I’d exchange with you over coffee at a little cafe on the other side of town? I really couldn’t say…

The poet is a faker
Who’s so good at his act

He even fakes the pain

Of pain he feels in fact.

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Pinter’s gone (pause) He’s well out of it now (silence)

Although in our later years we had some disagreements, there was a long period where I read everything he wrote. Devoured it, like a starving man. Harold Pinter was a towering figure in the literature of our theater.

– pause –

The plays are very difficult to do well. Many of the works are an exercise in game theory, in wordless competition. They unfold at the level of everyday speech and a strange and dangerous undercurrent of action.

– silence –

It’s as though in his works, language reveals its potential as a strange and cruel weapon. The words spoken have multiple meanings and very sharp corners. But it shouldn’t be over-thought, it’s more like a game of catch with a hand grenade. Usually only one of the game’s participants knows when the explosion will occur.

– pause –

Pinter’s writing was part of what attracted me to theater in the first place. The plays engaged the human situation at a fundamental level with energy and ferocity. Looking back, I now understand how rare a playwright he was. And as time passes, his work only grows in my estimation. His passing, and the time of year, brings to mind Auden’s poem in memory of Yeats. “The death of the poet was kept from his poems.”

In Memory of W.B. Yeats
by WH Auden

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

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Voice as Writing: Writing as Voice

Swans reflecting Elephants

There’s a liquidity of meaning at work in Google’s Voice Search. While we think of it as computers understanding speech, it’s really nothing of the kind. The kind of talking that we do when we make sounds that a computer can understand is more like writing– perhaps even like typing words. Voice becomes writing in this context.

When we use SMS, IM or Twitter writing becomes voice. We speak through marks that we make on a screen through a keyboard. We call it writing, but it’s actually a form of speech. Think about how sign language operates– it’s speaking with the hands, with the gesture.

Voice becomes writing, writing becomes voice. But the poles are not solid, meaning moves back and forth, like Dali’s paranoic critical method. Swans reflect elephants, elephants reflect swans– a most interesting form of recursion.

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We Are The Hollow Men

Imagining the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Mistah Kurtz— He dead.

The Hollow Men
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965)

A penny for the Old Guy

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.  Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us–if at all–not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

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