Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A public "I": Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely

The “I,” within the American body politic, and therefore the American Lyric, may just be the American identity. That is to say that the identity of being American, a social self, might just be our private self, as Claudia Rankine proposes in her American Lyric Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.

To discuss a 13 year-old boy convicted of murder and tried as an adult, the address is made to an interchangeable “I” or “we” that engages with the story of this boy’s fate from afar. Rankine’s use of pronouns suggests the ways in which the individual is affected by the legal choices of the state. We are influenced by the public knowledge that we desire but experience in private. “I, or we, it hardly matters, seek out the story in the Times.” Rankine articulates the implied thought that is not addressed outright and the isolation of individual’s experiences despite our shared, communal knowledge. “In this moment we are alone with the facts as he will be when he understands.” What is not articulated, in the Times, Rankine names: by trying this child as an adult “he was tried as a dead child…In the time it takes for the appeal to happen he will be a dead child in an adult prison. He will be alive as someone else.” (67).

This boy’s life is an extreme example of the “I” being defined by the political and performs an example of Arendt’s discussion of the private and public realms wherein the private realm determines the public realm. Speaking with Claudia Rankine this past Saturday morning, she told me that in writing this book she was reflecting on Antigone’s commitment to the state. By demanding the proper burial of her brother, she turns against herself and her family. Hegel suggests that the feminine by definition is against the more public and interested in the private, the domestic, the personal, the family. Ultimately, in both Hegel and Rankine’s readings of Antigone, the interest of the state are not against the interest of the family and self but are, in fact, the interest of the state. Creon made a mistake. Interest in the personal is an interest in the public as it is directly informed by and influences the public.

There can be no social or public position without an “I.” Adorno proclaims the specificity of experience found in the lyric poem to be the ultimate place for the excavation and understanding of culture and history.

For Rankine, the break down of the “I” occurs in the inability to connect and is symptomatic of the American contemporary age of advancements in technologies for communication that only seems to exacerbate isolation and racism.
I apologize for not knowing why I am alive. I am sorry. I am sorry. I apologize. In rel life, oddly enough, when I am fully awake and out and about, if I catch someone’s eyes, I quickly look away” (98).

This looking away, this inability to connect, causes the fragmentation of the “I.” “Perhaps this is the form apologies take in real life.” The speaker suggests averting one’s eyes as an apologetic gesture. Yet even if this is an apology, the “I” continues, “despite the fact that I look away I almost always feel guilty…I feel as if I have created a reason to apologize, I feel the guilt of having ignored that thing—the encounter….” There is recognition of a sense of what should have or could have occurred and the accompanying burden. “I could have wordlessly said, I see you seeing me and I apologize for not knowing why I am alive.” The breakdown of the “I” begins in the experience of the missed opportunity to affirm oneself in the meeting with the other. But the fragmentation occurs, the loss of self, occurs “after I have looked away, I never feel as if I can say, Look, look at me again so that I can see you, so that I can acknowledge that I have seen you, so that I can see you and apologize.” In a sense, by not acknowledging the other, affirming oneself and moving onward, the “I” becomes wrapped up in worry over the experience. The “I” relinquishes its power to assert oneself as an “I” to the other. By averting one’s eyes, shying away, avoiding the encounter, rather than engaging in the encounter, there is no “I.” Thus, showing the importance of the public exchange in the reification of the private “I.”

This relinquishment of agency is reflected in the collections title Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. If I ask you not to let me be lonely, I am assuming it is wholly your responsibility to take care of me. But, on the other hand, without the notion of a “you” the knowledge of loneliness may not exist. The condition of loneliness is ever present in a state of being that is social. And in being a state of being that is social, the “I” in the American Lyric is public.

Overall, the physical action get values over the psychic space, in the media, but also, often, in our own lives. There is a commodification of the “I” as an entity in American culture and the danger of making the “I” an entity is isolation and disassociation.

Rankine focuses on this exact question in one of her filmic poems, “Zidane,” by showing slow motion video footage of Zidane’s punch in the last minutes of the 2006 World Cup game with collage text voice overs ranging from Shakespeare’s Othello, Baldwin, Douglas and with a special emphasis of Fanon’s discussion of Europeans treatment of Algerians and French Algerians in his book Black Face, White Mask.