Books

Bringing Canonical Thinkers to Bear on 21st-Century Life

In a new genre-defying book, Jasmine Dreame Wagner subjects her life to critical scrutiny with the help of philosophers, theorists, and artists.

The cover of Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s On a Clear Day (image courtesy Ahsahta Press)

A common problem of 21st-century American existence is the sense that culture is evolving faster than anyone can keep up with. Information and images spread instantaneously, with viral contagion and without any semblance of control. The experience of moving into the future at an exponentially growing speed seems to be caused by evolutions in technology — anyone with a tablet or a smartphone knows that the digital is central to how we receive and process cultural content. But it’s also related to another, earlier human experience: growing older, we feel that time speeds up. Each year seems shorter than the previous one; the seasons unfold with increasing rapidity.

Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s book On a Clear Day, published by Ahsahta Press, departs from the intersection of these two experiences of time: the biographical time of an individual life, folding in on itself as a person grows older, and the particular way that time careens forward in our contemporary moment. How, in such urgent crosshairs, does one engage with art or read history and critical theory? How do we understand geopolitical atrocities in the age of the two-second attention span? In attempting to answer these questions, On a Clear Day proposes a radical cultural anthropology of the wild time we’re living in.

Wagner’s text makes genre-defying movements between poetry, essay, and memoir. This movement is exciting, like walking through a museum with a candid, intelligent friend. Pieces of Wagner’s life are offered as subjects of critical scrutiny: road trips, romances, childhood memories, apartments, wage jobs. She conducts the examination with the help of lovingly cited philosophers (Rousseau, Nietzsche), theorists (Giorgio Agamben, Gaston Bachelard), and artists (Yves Klein, Chris Marker). Using critical tools wrought by these figures, Wagner brings their ideas into our world, establishing a method for reading reality that’s completely her own.

Her engagements with Gilles Deleuze and Walter Benjamin, in particular, express a bold intimacy between her mind and theirs. She writes of Deleuze’s imperative that “ … the history of thought should be approached as though it were a collage. Ideas, new and old, remain concurrently present in a future idea’s formation.” She quickly transforms this for her own use: “I take this to mean: take what you like and run with it.” Another passage reads:

Some nights
I wish Walter Benjamin had lived to load a page, lay in bed, take a selfie. I wish he’d lived long enough to upload his selfie to Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, after the sun’s gone down … In our culture of confession, one of our greatest crimes still seems to be that of positing oneself at the center of the narrative.

The bringing of canonical thought into 21st-century cultural conditions makes for a fascinating study of the lifespan of ideas.

Like Susan Sontag, Wagner is interested in the places where our aesthetic problems become moral and spiritual ones. She investigates those convergences most thoroughly in a poem-essay titled “Aughts.” The piece closely studies the first decade of our century, narrating cultural milestones alongside Wagner’s personal development. She catalogues her encounters with the era’s artistic signatures — colored iMac G3 desktop computers, Jeff Koons’s balloon dogs, “the cacophony of lo-fi indie rock reverb” — while linking them temporally to the crises that have come to define the decade — 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, frequent school shootings, the war in Iraq. Wagner’s observations of the relationship between aesthetic concerns (images, language) and the reverberations of atrocity are marvelous in part because they have the quality of being hidden in plain view. For example, Wagner compares the Wikipedia entries for two infamous school shootings:

The Columbine High School massacre was a school shooting that occurred on April 20, 1999.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred on December 14, 2012.

Columbine is referred to as a “massacre [that] was a school shooting.”

Newtown is referred to as a “shooting.”

Her conclusion: “Adjectives decommissioned. Sentences whittled down.” In exposing such erasures, and the way the aesthetic demands of late capitalism have flooded our attention, Wagner shines a light on the complications of our current moment.

The reading and writing of poetry emerges as a practice that carries Wagner through On a Clear Day, and through her life. As time continues to blaze past us like a runaway train, poetry exists as a space of necessary stillness. In “Aughts,” Wagner writes, “It is through poetry that I learned how a threshold is the place where the individual becomes aware of their connection to the enormity of being. Between what’s passed and what’s anticipated, the infinite present emerges.”

Wagner’s description of the infinite present calls to my mind the etymology of the word interest, from Medieval Latin inter (“between”) and esse (“being”). To be interested in something — and hence to write about it — is to be between, in flux. Wagner risks staying in this space for prolonged periods of time, and in doing so, proves how art can be used to understand our incomprehensible reality.

Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s On a Clear Day is available from Ahsahta Press.

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