Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 114 in 2007.
by Vincent Katz and Wayne Gonzalez
(New York, Milan: Libelllum/Charta, 2006)
Review by Jim Feast
One of the planks of the mass media (it seems to me) is to take a happening that is significant and chip away at it until it disintegrates into something like crystals.
The disintegrated crystals, which are isolated images or facts, are precipitated out of the event structure, and repeated endlessly through media outlets. The looping of these images or single facts suggests mass communications tends to express itself through fetishization.
Just the facts, mam. A fact is a fact, but it is also a necessarily meaningless detail. Why is that? What takes place in a limited theater of the world, say, in Iraq, only has meaning once it is contextualized so as to allow the tendrils of history to pass through it. To grasp a fact about Iraq a person would need to have a few inklings on the history of the Middle East, both inter- and intramurally, the history of the U.S. in its various colonial projects, and the way globalization is affecting nation states. Without such contextualization, the crystals in the news are no more informative (but less charming) than gibberish.
In the new book, Judge, poet Vincent Katz and artist Wayne Gonzalez have taken on what, on the surface, is an unneeded job: Prove that the most earthshaking events in recent history, once filtered through the media, still have importance left.
Katz’s personal brief is this. He will compose a poem using only sentences and fragments found in The New York Times from July 20 to September 30, 2005. Notably, this is the time of John Roberts’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Yet, as Katz presents it, this vital, if skeletal, story is forced back on itself by being entwined and embedded in other narratives, such as the continuing horrors going on in Iraq and the release of a (still supposedly adulated) Martha Steward from prison. The cunning selection of materials makes the newspaper yield a context out of itself, indicating it can still provide insight if it is assaulted in the right way.
How does this work exactly?
The high road. By integrating a narrative of the shadowy findings about Roberts, such as his belonging to the right wing Federalist Society, into a registering of the violence in Iraq (and elsewhere) to U.S. GIs and to those haplessly in their way, he gives the story a deeper tinge. Take this passage where Katz segues from talk about political ass-covering to the police shooting of a man in London who they take to be a terrorist:
Distance vice president from,
People milled through the streets
And pubs of Stockwell
I think it’s disgusting that they
Had to shoot him
Such combinations give an indelible portrait of a venal, shallow government running smoothly along while countries it is involved with and its own civil society tear apart at the seams. Any seemingly detached event, like the Senate hearings, loses its innocence.
And there is also the low road. The selections on Martha Stewart show such (relatively) trivial events are fraught with ominous signals.
An entire audience of women
Knitted or crocheted the poncho
Steward wore home from prison more
Than a million downloaded the pattern
Isn’t the ostrich-headed reaction of some (not all) of the American public, which ignores the evil of her wrongdoing to blindly supporting her, a further fleshing out of the deepening obliviousness also evidenced in indifference to the toll of the war?
Again, only the creative juxtaposition gives birth to these clawing questions that show the underside to the absurdity of the Stewart affair, which is that it poses a by-reflection on the same issues raised in the hearings.
Gonzales’ visuals play a different sort of head game, a more primitive (in the sense of getting to the roots) one, in the way he takes images from the Internet and other media sources and subjects them to large, but relatively simple transformations, never making the original picture unrecognizable. He makes a face green, for example, the type of thing that could be done by playing with a TV color control, or he emphasizes pixels.
Each choice made is powerfully evocative, and ends by establishing a visual, two level universe. There is that of the garish, clapboard-looking headquarters (such as the Capital building) that are the domains of a set of jaundiced, vampirish, leering masks. In contrast, in light, also whited-out grays, so vaguely traced that at first they might be mistaken for water ripples, there are crowds, multitudes of people, who are either protesting or massing in silence.
As you can see, Judge is a grand endeavor to dig through the willed meaninglessness of uninterpreted news and image flows in the subservient mass media, so as to melt its crystals and find the tawdry, disenheartening story beneath. Not totally disenheartening, though, since the very ability to force these texts and photos to provide instructive glimpses of history show the way that (hopefully) all distortion will give ground when disturbed by implacable, ethical insistence.