Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Possession (pt. 4)


It might seem bizarre to write, as I did in the previous installment of this series of posts, that Mark Stewart was a man possessed by the spirit of the Thatcherite Great Britain of the 1980s, a man communing with the military-industrial entertainment complex, a man in communion with the capitalist, proto-fascist, paranoid, surveillance-obsessed oppressor, a man in unio mystica with Babylon, with the enemy. Bizarre: wasn't Stewart an anti-fascist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist activist?

But there is an interesting antecedent: the West-African Hauka movement. From Michael Taussig's "Mimesis and Alterity":

"Those involved in this rapidly growing movement, begun among the Songhay people in 1925, would dance and become possessed by the spirit of the French major who had first taken the offensive against him, who imprisoned those who had begun the movement, who slapped them around until they said there was no such thing as Hauka. Thus deified as "the wicked major," his spirit got into the first floor of the Hauka pantheon as one of its most violent spirits. Thus possessed, the Hauka would mimic the white men (and sometimes their wives, too) and acquire strange powers.


But in addition to the conscious play-acting mimicking of the European, conducted with wit and verve, there is bodily possession - which is what makes the mimicry possible yet generally works at a less than conscious level with special, even disturbing, bodily effects: frothing at the mouth, bulging of the eyes, contorted limb movements, inability to feel pain. Strange "Europeans" indeed. And surely that's the point - they so clearly are and are not Europeans. It's the ability to become possessed, the ability that signifies to Europeans awesome Otherness, if not downright savagery, which allows them to assume the identity of the European and, at the same time, stand clearly and irrevocably eye-bulgingly apart from it."

In the Hauka cult, the Europeans discovered "... the presence of an open dissidence, a society the members of which openly defied the social, political and religious order. It his here that we discover the most original aspect of the Hauka movement: their total refusal of the system put in place by the French." In embodying the enemy the Hauka appropriated his power. In this case, possession was anthropophagy.

Like the Hauka, Stewart embodied the enemy: in his case, the enemy was not the colonial authorities but the grey and hopeless Great Britain of the 1980s, the Babylon that Rastamen denounce, the "wicked major" Margaret Thatcher. And like the Hauka, the fact that Stewart embodied the enemy didn't keep him from refusing all cooperation with the authorities.


Reflecting on a specific moment in "Les Maîtres Fous" ("The Mad Masters"), a 1955 ethnographic film by Jean Rouch (1917-2004), Taussig writes:

"A man possessed by a Hauka spirit stoops and breaks an egg over the sculpted figure of the governor (a little statue not unlike the Mbari shrine of the white man) that presides over the day's events of Hauka possession. Cracked on the governor's head, the egg cascades in white and yellow rivulets. Then the film is abruptly cut. We are transported to a big military parade in the colonial city two hours away. The film hurls at us the cascading yellow and white plumes of the white governor's gorgeous hat as he reviews the black troops passing. Those of us watching the film in a university lecture hall in New York City gasp. There is something immensely powerful released at this moment, begging for interpretation."

Mark Stewart's version of William Blake's "Jerusalem" somehow parallels this moment in Rouch's film. Regarded as the high point of Stewart's career, the song was played on a regular basis by John Peel and constantly being asked for by listeners. Stewart's "Jerusalem" is more than a parody of the patriotic 1916 hymn, written by C. Hubert H. Parry: it is also an anthropophagic appropriation of the affective power of Brass band patriotism and militarism for anti-nationalist and anti-militarist purposes. But "Jerusalem" is even more than parody and appropration: the rough, almost Dadaist juxtaposition of incongruent sonic material (Industrial, Dub Reggae, Punk Rock, Brass Band, Song) mimics the tensions present in the British social and cultural life in the 1980s.

But Stewart's "Jerusalem" is yet more than a parody and an appropriation and mimesis: the song wrests Blake's poem "...away from a conformism that is about to overpower it". In "Jerusalem", Mark Stewart is a "...writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, [he] is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious" (Benjamin).

To paraphrase Taussig's analysis of Rouch's film: the deep Industrial Dub of "Jerusalem", with its ability to explore the sonic unconscious, to come close and enlarge, to frame and to montage, creates in this sudden juxtaposition a suffusion of mimetic poetry. Blake's poetry is allowed to flower in the grey Thatcherite Great Britain of the 1980s.

Mark Stewart's "Jerusalem" is to C. Hubert H. Parry "Jerusalem", what the rivulets of egg are to the governor's hat.

Post scriptum

I've posted Rouch's film before, but feel compelled to watch it. Even though I first saw it several years ago the film is still bending my mind into shapes that are "abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours" (Lovecraft). As Wizard Eibon commented on the earlier posting of the film: "a classic masterpiece you can't forget once you've seen it".

A fascinating review of Rouch's film: here.

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