Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Panopticon, a Bushwhacking: The Hollywood Sign

On a recent sunny day, Linz, Joel and I went for a hike. We left from the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank and walked up up up up into the hills. Joel brought his camera. Linz and I brought phones and keys, and that was it. We wore shorts. We thought it would be something nice to do.

Instead of nice, we got unexpectedly profound, surprisingly thrilling, and deeply memorable.

We found an enchanted forest of burned tree skeletons--where Harry Potter meets Tim Burton for a quick tea. Linz and I allowed the shapes to inspire our bodies and Joel allowed our bodies to inspire his camera.

Next, we decided to extend our hike a bit further and go to the Hollywood Sign. As anyone who lives in LA knows, one is no longer allowed to hike all the way to the Hollywood Sign, technically. In fact, the highly publicized security system installment has made the sign an even better symbol for the town itself: you can see the dream shining in front of you, but you really, really won't be allowed to touch it. Unless you're US! Unless you are magic and victorious and jolly and ignorant about the fact that you are on a real-time webfeed to a security team!

We took many beautiful pictures of ourselves climbing, kissing, hanging from, making love to our city's most recognizable symbol. We became part of the scenery. (Be my friend on Facebook to see them!) Periodically, a buzzer would sound--maybe from the cameras? Were they on motion sensors? I had one moment of "paranoia" during which I asked Joel if he thought the city actually had enough money to monitor the sign 24/7. He didn't think so. I didn't think so. We resumed.

Suddenly, a voice boomed from a loudspeaker I had not noticed before. A female voice, menacing and severe, telling us something important that I couldn't understand. Linz later told me we were being informed about a squad car waiting for us on the road. The voice of authority, nearly unintelligible, acomplished its intimidating duty simply by way of being loud and unexpected. We hid, and then, when the helicopter came, we ran.

Over the course of the next hour and a half, the helicopter we were sure was out to hunt us circled another 3 or four times. No one ever chased us into the brush, and no police cars appeared. However, we acted as if all these things were happening--hiding under thick bushes when we heard the copter, checking from high points for squad cars. Joel bushwhacked us a path to the nearest access road, where we eventually relaxed enough to walk arm in arm, out in the open, like we'd just gotten away with stealing bags of money from the city bank. The hike was hilarious and harrowing--we were all covered in scrapes and dirt, dehydrated and disoriented, when we tumbled out onto a residential street.

I think, now, that we experienced a strangely inflated sense of triumph over the Man, considering the fact that we never once saw a person trying to come after us. We thought we'd escaped the law, but really we'd just entered a Panopticon. Conceived in the 18th-century, a panopticon is a circular prison building designed with a guard tower in the center, and all cells facing it. The inmates can't see the top of the tower, so they can never be sure if they are actually being guarded, but the concept behind the panopticon is that if there are enough consequences in the beginning (i.e., if there are guards punishing wrongdoing at the outset) then inmates will eventually act as if they are being guarded all the time, even when they aren't.

So. We saw all the cameras at the Sign, but weren't convinced that we were being watched until the voice came over the loudspeaker. Then, we turned into panopticon inmates, dodging helicopters that were probably checking traffic, trying to find secluded roads to walk on long after the Hollywood Sign Security had probably given up on finding us. We knew we were probably safe, and the caution became a sort of joke. But what if those helicopters HAD been for us?

Since we'd emerged on the opposite side of the hill, we hitched a ride back to Oakwood from a friendly Swiss guy in a yellow Firebird. When we got home, Joel looked up the consequence for trespassing at the Sign. Surprise: it's not prison. It's a ticket for $283. This means that the state-of-the-art Panasonic security cameras are at the Sign mostly for fire warning and intimidation. The police are simply not going to go charging into the wilds of Mt. Lee to issue me a ticket.

I was humbled by my ignorance about the consequences of our adventure. I don't know a lot of practical information about the way life works. I used to think I did, which is even more disorienting.

A similar feeling came over me two days ago when I received a check for $801 from Emerson College as part of their settlement in a case regarding their student lending practices. I still don't exactly know what Emerson did to get sued--my guess from the cryptic letter accompanying the check is that they pushed us into contracts with "preferred" lenders when they were supposed to leave us free to choose our own banks--but regardless, I was faced with the fact that I was ignorant, again, about some piece of legality in my life. At the sign, I didn't know the consequence for breaking a rule. At Emerson, I didn't even know the rules that were getting broken.

And so the righteous struggle to be organized without obsession and creative without disintegration rages every day in my life.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Independent Shakespeare, Derridean Forgiveness

Last week when I saw The Independent Shakespeare Company do Henry V, David Melville (ISC’s Co-Founder and Managing Director) told me: “Come see the Tempest. Our Henry V is pretty good. Our Tempest is great.” So yesterday I drove from the Bay Area to Los Angeles just in time to squeeze onto a picnic blanket in Barnsdall Park. And he was right.

Aside from theatrical aspects one could “review”—which I’m underqualified for anyway—I know the show was great because I cried. The Tempest is called both a romance and a comedy, and I don’t think you’re particularly expected to cry at the end the way you are at, say, well, something like Hamlet. (Not that there is anything, or anyone, “like” Hamlet.)

I cried because the end of the Tempest is a scene of grand and surprising forgiveness. Where revenge would be narratively appropriate, if not morally so, only reconciliation is sought. Antonio, who has betrayed his brother Prospero, is forgiven instead of punished, and the way ISC plays this scene (which is very tricky, since Antonio never speaks a word about it, and the entire exchange, if there is one between Prospero and Antonio, must be physical) is incredibly poignant. (Cheers to Ahmad Enani and Joseph Culliton for those moments.)

It’s true that I cry easily, that I’m sensitive to emotional nuances in art, people, myself, everything. But I hate being lumped into some kind of irrational female class; the Cry-At-Movies-Type, the Emotional One, etc. I never cry for no reason. I cried at the end of the Tempest because of how absolutely rare and utterly earth-shattering forgiveness really is. I was instantly aware of how difficult it is to achieve, and how difficult it must be to portray to an outdoor theater filled with Silver Lake hipsters and their funky-booted kids. How shocking it was to me, who grew up hearing Christian rhetoric about forgiveness to see it represented, briefly and in unfamiliar language, like an exotic bird suddenly flying across the dinner table.

It turns out that the kind of forgiveness I grew up believing in was really a sort of private psychological/spiritual affair, during which I asked forgiveness for sins. Forgiveness between people has always been much more problematic of a concept. It was not an activity that changed my relationships much, and certainly not an activity that changed the social, economic, or political landscape around me in any profound way.

But the forgiveness Prospero shows his usurpers does have these effects. Forgiveness in this sense is a political act as much as an interpersonal one, because letting his brother live and return to Naples serves as an example of what kind of ruler Prospero will be hereafter, and offers Antonio the chance to show loyalty, and avoid further betrayal.

I could spend a long time working carefully to tease out the particularities of forgiveness vs. amnesty, reconciliation, etc. I think Derrida’s writing on forgiveness, in which he conceives of it as a paradox one must be continually moving in and out and through, is the closest anyone’s come to understanding the particular problems of the action. Very crudely and briefly: Derrida argues that genuine forgiveness involves an impossibility, which is the forgiving of an unforgivable act. If something were imminently forgivable, then it’s merely an act of logic to forgive it. But for something truly horrific, forgiveness is actually the act of bridging an infinite divide—and therefore it is actually insane/impossible. The very best we can achieve is a sort of conditional forgiveness, in which we have received an apology, come to some accord or terms, or maybe even just begun to feel we understand the motivations of the offender.

So I’ll call the tenderness at the end of the Tempest between Prospero and Antonio forgiveness, because I think it is truly engaged in the tension of Derrida’s impossible moment, in spite of the fact that it may be more accurately called amnesty. This is not about any little clich├ęd, forced, dishonest moment of being a “better” person who can “put the past behind” them. This is about an offender facing the full horror of their deed (credit here to Enani and director Melville), and a forgiver feeling grace enough to extend a hand in human understanding.

This moment can happen in tandem with the activities of justice—Prospero is returned to his throne. However, that’s difficult to imagine because forgiveness has such a strange place in our social world, given its connotation of conservative Christian values and simultaneous tension with the punitive culture of incarceration conservatives so devoutly support. We simply cannot discuss forgiveness without Christian tropes. And, we can’t discuss it without making some kind of caveats about the differences between what people do for each other to preserve relationships, and what a state does with someone who has violated social order.

For those who are elite, however, we’ve set up a social norm of “retraction” and “apology,” wherein public figures can appeal to America for “forgiveness” when they’ve said something racist, sexist, or otherwise stupid. But it’s perfunctory, and we all know it, in the same way that many appeals for forgiveness interpersonally, or in confession, are perfunctory. Dishonesty on the other end occurs when one proclaims forgiveness but holds a grudge, or forgives half-heartedly to avoid more conflict, or tries to forgive in an effort to be moral but wishes, deep-down, for reparation. I’ve done all these things. I’m conflating the interpersonal and the broader social processes here to show how tangled of a notion forgiveness is once you realize nothing, nothing, nothing, is private life. And Derrida would dismiss all of the above as not even part of a conversation about real forgiveness anyway.

How are 21st century Americans to understand an imaginary Shakespearian king who forgives? A king who sets his slaves free and then begs the audience to set HIM free? Our understanding of power is polluted by so much self-protectiveness that it’s nearly impossible, I think, for us to hear a character give so many commands earlier in the play and still think of him as vulnerable, graceful, and tender. But he is.

And this is where my tears come from. Everybody and nobody really deserves to be forgiven. It’s impossible to know beforehand whether forgiveness is, in any given relationship, an act of grace or passivity. It is one of the greatest risks possible to take in love, and an even greater risk, in terms of human life, to take in politics.

Prospero knows exactly who has wronged him, in what way, to what degree, and with how much malice. I fancy myself someone who does not keep score in this way, but it’s not true. I also have a short list of people who would have to come to me with abject apologies for me to feel tenderness towards them. In fact, a few of them would have to basically read an apology I’ve already written in my head for them. Simultaneously, I forgive some other people almost instantaneously. On a good day, this is because I’m filled with grace. On a bad day, it’s because I’m conflict-avoidant and have trouble mustering anger when it would be appropriate. I ask those in my life who’ve felt the business end of this habit for forgiveness.

I celebrate The Tempest’s model of forgiving, as envisioned by ISC. No time wasted on revenge—only creative pranking play, much like Nietszche's Zarathustra. The goal is a restoration of justice and nurturing of new love, new visions. Those who have been immoral face the gravity of their deeds while they are invited to reenter the light. If they refuse to choose morality when given the chance, they can stay on the island, hunting for grubs, while the rest of us set sail for Naples!

PS: If you will be in SoCal at all this summer, go see the show.