There are a few disconnected threads floating around in my head after today’s class discussion, but I think there is a way to chart their intersections, the way beads resting on those places where thread meets thread on a dream catcher form patterns. Here are the threads: Melville’s Benito Cereno, Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York and Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. In these three different texts—the first is a novella, the second a game and the third a conservative treatise of sorts on the anxiety associated with the way mechanical reproduction technology transforms art and who has access to art—something is being said about places, displacement and agency.
I don’t know much about ships, let alone the ships used to transport slaves like cargo in their Middle Passage. After reading the first half of Melville’s Benito Cereno (I have yet to finish it) words that were never part of my memory have suddenly thrown down anchors in my memory. Bulwark. Oakum. Hemp. Mast. This technical language is what tripped me up as I started reading, but after today‘s discussion about places of pleasure, displacement and agency, it is a little clearer why Melville goes into such intimate detail of the physical structure of the slave ship at the core of the narrative.
Much of Melville’s narrative is still murky and ambiguous, but I think the ship is the site, the place of some sort of destabilization and disorder as Captain Amasa Delano would call it. The hierarchy of the ship seems to be warped and this at the very least unsettles Delano, if not destabilizes his confidence in being able to restore his definition of “order”. Indeed, Delano is described as the unwavering white captain, the portrait of rational thought and a benevolent soul who makes some pretty racist observations about “elderly grizzled negroes” with “heads like black, doddered willow tops”. There is an underlying anxiety of Delano that those on board the ship are not fitting into the boxes assigned to them by their supposed nationality. There is a sense of agency of the slaves which seems to at once titillate and terrify Delano and displace him from his own position of privilege.
It is easy to lose one’s footing in Melville’s words, but for me, certain passages or sentences led me back, much like the wind which has so much control over the slave ship’s path in the narrative. The slave ship suffers from decay described by Melville as grand, the ship’s “tenantless balconies hung over the sea as if it were the grand Venetian canal”. The ship itself materializes from a space of ambiguity: the open sea, another destabilizing factor. Things and people which materialize from spaces of the unknown are defined by our larger social machine as rogue, as dangerous.
Playing Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York—an early version of Mad Libs—constructed similar spaces of agency, however momentary. The blank spaces, the gaps between words which distinguish Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York and other games are places of possible “glitches” in the social machine which disciplines and governs behavior. What amounts is the construction of another reality almost, a new social reality where the nonsensical becomes poetry. Before playing the game I found myself arranging my cards so that the more absurd phrases were nearer to the top, phrases like “a stack of fat lobsters”, “a dancing master” and “a snapping turtle”. This was, of course, to create a space for a new round of laughter. The act of laughing—at an absurd, but poetic phrase (“running like a bad cold”), or at a sexually suggestive one (“he had a cucumber in the leg of his trousers”)—displaces the players from the social machine which defines these phrases as “undignified” or “vulgar” and, instead, creates a space where not only can these sentences be uttered, they can be laughed at and remembered by the group of people who share the joke. Inside jokes have the ability to create places of belonging, as well as feelings of displacement.
In one of my other English courses my class discussed Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Benjamin is writing during a time of technological innovation, specifically 1936. The production of works of art at this time is radically changed by technology, such as the printing press, which rapidly reproduce objects. According the Benjamin’s conservative view this is the death of the “aura” of art. But it is also the death of art being accessible to a privileged elite, but that is beside the point. The reason I bring it up is because it reminded me of the social machine concept brought up in class and the idea of the continuous mass replication of aspects of our Self and identity. Could these pieces of technology be sites of agency or are we just mass replicating what the larger social machine tells us to?