Interview With Christine Wertheim

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Søren Kierkegaard: Can you talk a bit about your piece in #0? I’m especially interested in the question of who is Pamela Aber.

Christine Wertheim: Pamela Aber is a woman who was captured by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, when she WAS 18. Like many of the adults and children “recruited” by Kony, her induction required her to commit a horrific act. In her case this consisted of an order, directed at her and a dozen other girls recruited at the same time, to bite to death one of those captured with them. As Pamela Aber has said, this did not work, and in the end they were forced to club the victim to death. Pamela escaped after 5 MONTHS, during which she, like many girls and women recruited by the LRA, was employed as a cook, fetcher and sex-slave.

I was captured by Aber’s story, because it seems to embody, in a very literal way, the politics of the mouth in the imaginary of the West, i.e., Africans as either hungry, voiceless, powerless non-agents, or Africans as voracious, tyranical, mad, evil consumers. But this is actually an allegory about us. We project our powerlessness onto Uganda and other African countries. Our mad voraciousness helps support the militarization of African states, and their opponents. Without that support, the LRA would not have anything like the power they have enjoyed.

SK: The use of repetition is utterly integral to your work. I have written before that “If God himself had not willed repetition, the world would never have come into existence,” and “Repetition is reality, and it it is the seriousness of life.” How would you describe your work’s relation to repetition?

CW: For me, repetition is a method for working. Through repeating, over and over again, ideas (whether manifest as sounds, graphics or concepts) slowly begin to unpack themselves and to revel their inner complexities…….This allows me to slowly see what exactly is gripping to me about the concepts/images/sounds I am initially arrested by.

SK: In response to the theme of #0, what substance, in fact, precedes [nothing]?

CW: For me, [nothing] is not primary. What is primary is a super-super-fluous heterogeneity that I know nothing about…… “Nothing,” I take to be a clearing, perhaps made by human minds in order to begin to deal with this.

SK: How would you respond to any of the critical glosses that now accompany your contribution to #0?

CW: Yes, the poem is about the multiply-valenced wounds of Africa, especially as these are played out around mouths. But I would emphasize that Africa is not a merely-victimized place. Firstly, Africa is not a whole. It is composed of many very different cultures and regions. This poem is specifically about Uganda, which is a poster-child for neo-liberalism in Africa. This brings us to the second issue, that the problems in Uganda and, other parts of Africa, are not merely humanitarian. (Nor, for that matter, are they predominantly aesthetic.) They are first and foremost political and economic.

Over the past few decades more than half the Ugandan state’s revenues have come from outside donors, whose motives are entwined with Uganda’s use of its military to fight proxy wars for the US in the Sudan and other surrounding territories. This militarized state, backed by US and European money, has forcibly displaced nearly 1 million Acholi, interring them in squalid camps, in order, supposedly, to protect them from Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA itself is not just a “mad terrorist” organization. It is an actor in a complex set of conflicts about representation and power within the Ugandan political system, which is itself linked to a world political-economy. Who gets to speak and who doesn’t, as well as who gets to eat and who doesn’t, is a large, complex and political question.

But what interests me is not so much that we attend to the call of the “other,” whatever that is, but that we attend to the way we use others as proxy mouths for our own suck(l)ings. What fascinated me most in the story of Pamela Aber is the fact that her mouth was used by another to consume, and to kill, and to render some-body voiceless.  Pamela Aber was the mouth for Joseph Kony’s suck(l)ing. But he is one of the many mouths through which we, “first-worlders” are suck(l)ing–not just nutrients, but also a sense of virtue. As long as he is seen as the main problem, and we send aid to help his victims, we can feel virtuous, and ignore all the other levels on which we are contributing to the destabilization of politics in Uganda and surrounding territories. At least that is the way I see it.

SK: I wonder if you might humor me and dwell on the idea that the religious is present from the beginning. I’m sure you don’t see yourself as a religious author, but how might your work’s aesthetic productivities converse with the religious? Or put another way, what are your thoughts on the ambiguity or duplicity in the whole idea of authorship, as to whether the author is an aesthetic or a religious (or other) author? Or, put another way, at what point does the author become a martyr?

CW: I am against the idea that authors as authors are martyrs. A martyr is someone who is killed for their actions and beliefs. Authors in our culture are never killed for being authors. As to the religious, i was brought up a Catholic and I feel culturally Catholic, even if I don’t believe in a Christian god. I have the deepest respect for what I regard as truly religious writings. I wish I could produce something that was really of that order…..but I think it requires something more than what I have to do that.

SK: What are you currently working on?

CW: I am currently working on a a book called mutter-bAbel is a graphic and textual, auro-bio-graphical exploration of ugly archaic feelings and their troubling social effects; to be published by Counterpath Press in late 2013. The book explores very early feelings babies have for their mothers. Though many AG artists have thought children closer to some more “primordial” experience than adults, infantile experience has rarely been the overt subject of poetry.

However, the book is  not dealing with primordial phenomena, but with socially-produced problems, for it is my view that, in the contemporary world, forgotten, repressed, or simply unacknowledged infantile dissatisfactions leak destructive effects into many areas of adult life. The aim of the text is not to explain why this situation has arisen, only to draw attention to some of the troubling phenomena that can occur when children are not taught to process and contain discontent, and are then allowed to project this onto others in their adult lives.

The book is  explorative – it tries to tease out something not immediately obvious, namely, how a phenomenon that was once, or still is pleasurable, i.e., theMother’s vO|dse/tOngue can also be-come horrific–  the story here is that her tOngue becomes à a mOuth à a vO|dse à a nO|se à a swOund à a hOle à a sh|t-hOle……the hole becomes à what it produces, namely sh|t.

It is also “expressive”, that is, the auro-bio-graphics are not based on any systematic procedure. There is a tendency in some forms of contemporary writing to claim that new “radical” formalisms are the appropriate methods for poetry today…..but I am not so sure. I spent enough years doing Lacanianist topo-logics to have learnt that I at least am not good enough at that stuff to make it the basis of my own work……

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Søren Kierkegaard is a Danish philosopher, theologian, and religious author interested in human psychology, faith, and Christian ethics. He studied theology at the University of Copenhagen and is the author of numerous books, including Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, The Concept of Anxiety, and The Sickness Unto Death.

7Christine Wertheim is author of +|’me’S-pace, editor of the anthology Feminaissance, and with Matias Viegener co-editor of Séance and The n/Oulipean Analects. Her poetry has been anthologized in numerous collections including Against Expression, ed. C. Dworkin and K. Goldsmith (Northwestern University Press), The & Now Awards: The Best Innovative Writing, eds. R. Archambeau, D. Schneiderman and S. Tomasula (Lake Forest College Press), and  I’ll Drown My Book (Les Figues Press).  She regularly writes critical pieces on art, literature and aesthetics, including for CabinetX-traThe Quick and the Dead, Walker Art Center cat., and Patarcitical Interogation Techniques, vol 3, ed. Doug Harvey. With her sister Margaret, she co-directs the Institute For Figuring, organizing events at the intersection of science, art and pedagogy. In 2011 the sisters received the Theo Westenberger Grant for Outstanding Female Artists from the Autry National Center. Her new book mutter-bAbel is forthcoming from Countertpath Press. She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts.

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