To say that Jill Magi’s SLOT documents the experience of visiting a memorial or museum risks making the work sound smaller than it is. But what a complex achievement: the feeling of the individual as she encounters public versions of history, the continual moments in which private memory encounters public memory—encounters and resists, questions, is subject to, is only one self in the face of larger (even grand, or grandiose) historical narratives and the real loss of the past. SLOT works through and collages a diverse range of modes: lyrical meditation, photographs, letters to and conversations with an absent friend (or mentor, or guide), lists of and excerpts from a range of historical and theoretical texts, excerpts from real or imagined guidebooks, scenes and dialogue that feel “real,” scenes and dialogue that transform into fable. Following Magi we are in a post-9/11 New York, we are tourists at Buchenwald, we are tourists in some museum, sitting on the actual bus and pretending to be Rosa Parks as a prerecorded “bus driver” tells us to move, we are at the opening of Berlin’s central Holocaust memorial… Magi talks about a “monument feeling” and a “freedom feeling” and makes us feel the meaning of these phrases. SLOT‘s collage offers an acute sense of the frustration and resistance and myriad emotions, difficult to name, which we experience on being served up commodified history from these sites—”Dear Flannel-board Story Activity: Please help students compare their lives to the enslaved child.” “Dear Tower of Faces: I know nothing about you except your collective status as victim.” In approaching these emotions through so many forms—slipping deftly through modes—Magi lets us feel them better, feel them more wisely (can I say that?); perhaps she serves, then, as our guide. There is a resonant personal truth to the emotion in imagined exchanges such as: “Wanting time to insert interpretation into the event, / I remain, as object of their looking, Sincerely, // She writes back: ‘But were you there?'” And there is a resonant communal truth to the sentiment: “How much violence is an echo? // I await your reply, which I expect will be global—”
I was moved by and admiring of how Magi organized these complex, urgent questions—for how much is at stake in how a culture narrates its past, the atrocities it has perpetrated and suffered? How much has been at stake globally in the American narratives of, the American “reply to” 9/11?—through a central, lyrical “I,” whose presence was fundamental and yet lightly rendered. The “I” is there, but not intrusive; the experience of the speaker is not to be effaced, but is presented out of what I want to call a kind of a responsibility to the fact of the “I” that organizes each of our experiences. The intimate moments of a life, embodied and private and momentary, are here, and the theoretical questions of any one citizen’s—or consumer’s—life in society are framed by, or within, that individual experience and emotion. This is done fluidly, unoppressively, which is no small achievement. (And all this made me think again of that recent Stephen Burt review and of Philip Metres’s abu ghraib arias, and the question of this “I,” its “emotional resonance” within the critique of “giant systems” Burt describes—indeed Burt’s description of the four books in his review could serve to some degree to characterize SLOT—but how the absence of that “I” seemed very right for Metres’s work, though I couldn’t and can’t quite say why.) I thought too of Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene, which similarly organizes an investigation of great historical and theoretical scope around a beautifully rendered, intimately embodied “I.” I want to think more about how these investigations can work, what role the voice of the speaker—even when it’s unsteady, or takes on other voices, or as in SLOT, frequently “mishears”—can play. (And now I should point too to the mystery, humor, and power of Elizabeth Willis’s Address, the interplay of private and public that occurs within its pages.)
As always with blog posts, which are not quite essays, how does one end? With gratitude to the work and a recommendation? Yes, let’s leave it at that.