Adventures in the narrative: a conversation with Lawrence Weschler


Lawrence Weschler is commonly regarded as one of the foremost practitioners of non-fiction in the US. His pieces have long been published in the New Yorker and have appeared in elegant and wonderfully diverse volumes such as The Passion of Poland, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Calamities of Exile, and Everything that rises. Since 2001 he has been the director of the New York Institute for Humanities at New York University.  In 2004 Lawrence Weschler published Vermeer in Bosnia, a collection of narrative nonfiction that explored the connections between the 20th century’s wars in the Balkans and the equally violent Holland in which Vermeer created his paintings. In New York, Peter Vermeersch talked with Weschler about his new collection, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative (Counterpoint Press 2011). In this book Weschler writes about digital animation, human rights, paintings, writer’s block, stories and their political importance, and, above all, faces.

P.V.:  Like "Vermeer in Bosnia", your new book "Uncanny Valley" brings together meditations on visual arts, storytelling and politics. How, in your view, are these phenomena related?

L.W.: Back in the old days in the New Yorker I used to distinguish between the things that I did as either political tragedies or cultural comedies, but in fact they were all what I called “passion pieces”: they were about people or places that caught fire. The human side of that could sometimes be quite comic to watch. When people suddenly become passionate about something it can be funny. But there is also the political side. Take for example the way in which the Poles during the Solidarity movement would speak of Solidarity as the ultimate representation of “the subjectivity of the Polish nation,” by which they meant its capacity to act as the subject of its own history and not the object of other people’s histories. Most people all over the world spend most of their lives being objects of other people’s intentions. But occasionally you have these moments where things become vivified and we become the true subjects of our own lives. That’s a grammatical transformation: instead of “me” you become an “I”. Repression in that sense tries to turn people who have been acting like subjects back into objects, and resistance is refusing that. That is precisely where the stuff about animation and narrative in this book comes in. It’s about this same grammatical transformation: you have to start moving the “I”, the subject has to start moving. One of the ways the “I” moves is by taking on agency. The “me” is always a victim, the “I” starts to move and does it in the form of tales it tells itself.

P.V.: Resistance is a creative act.

L.W.: Oh yes. It’s funny, when I originally came up with Adventures in the Narrative as the subtitle, editors would say “why don’t you call it Adventures of Narrative?” And I’d say “no, no, I’m talking about the narrative”. The narrative is that long, great river of history. When people become aware of their own agency, they will no longer just be floating.

P.V.: How can visual arts represent such a grammatical shift?

L.W.: In terms of the visual side of that, one of the themes that keeps coming up in the book is the notion of faces and facing things. The key essay that unites all these things is the collaboration I did with photographer Richard Avedon in the chapter on human rights monitors. This goes back to my days at the New Yorker. We had ten human rights monitors from all over the world in town - people who were being honoured by Human Rights Watch for doing great work in South Africa, Columbia, Vietnam, the Philippines and so on - and Avedon was going to take pictures of them, and I was going to write about it – we hadn’t quite figured out how. What Avedon did, just on a spur of the moment, was set up bleachers in his studio, like for a graduation photo. We brought all these people over. Avedon would just put them all up there, then he would bring out one and take a picture of their face with all the others gazing behind. The phrase that you can’t help thinking of when you look at the pictures is “I have your back”. It’s a visual representation of social solidarity. It reminded me of the famous symbol of solidarity which was the name Solidarność with the flag, and if you looked at it closely the letters were done as a crowd. Solidarity was the people. In various points in the book, I talk about how dictators see people as just meat on bones. And in a certain way that’s true. The only way that changes is when the people themselves assert their subjectivity.

P.V.: You could perhaps also say that it’s a matter of counter-narrative. When people start to reclaim their own stories they can provide a powerful counter-narrative to that of the dictatorship.

L.W.: That’s right. Think for example of that incredible line in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”. What’s so insightful about that phrase is not contained in the words “equal” or “truths”. It’s in the phrase, “we hold”. Thomas Jefferson did not say, “it is self-evident that all men are created equal”, he said “we hold these truths”. The minute we hold it and pledge our lives and sacred honour and so forth, something weird begins to happen. Things begin to glimmer.

P.V.: The “we” is created.

L.W.: The tyranny begins to melt and all men momentarily do become equal.  But only because of the We. That’s what does it. So the book is about that, but I go farther afield. I have a whole section about digital animation of the face and the way that digital animators have gotten really good at doing digital animations of crowds, of hands, of bellies of people walking, of entire battle scenes; they just can’t do faces.

P.V.: Which is also where you introduce that enigmatic term “Uncanny Valley”.

L.W.: That term was coined by the Japanese Buddhist roboticist, Masahiro Mori, who many years ago was in effect saying: “if you make a robot that is 90% lifelike, that’s fantastic. If you make it 95% lifelike, that’s incredible. But if you make it 96% lifelike, it’s a complete disaster.” You go from having a robot that is really life-like to having a human being with something wrong with it. At that point you enter what he called the “Uncanny Valley”, and you have to work harder and harder to get it up to 98%, at which point it becomes good again. But the specific thing with the face is that it’s impossible to get out of the uncanny valley. What I argue is that digital animators can’t and never will be able to do faces, because the face is the seat of the soul. The soul can’t be digitised nor animated, which is ironic because the word animation itself contains the word for soul – anima. Faces are really fascinating. On one hand, they are far and away the most complicated set of muscles and movement in the human body - there are more than 40 muscles and many of them don’t attach to bone, they fold one atop the other. When you use them incredibly subtle things are happening with your eyelids, with your ears, with your cheeks and so forth, which lead to thousands of facial expressions. All that would have to be digitised. But even more amazing is that the face is the part of the body that we are incredibly sensitive to. So that if you were standing 100 yards from me and I would look at you - think about the infinitesimal slice of my visual field that’s been capturing where the whites of your eyes are - I would still be able to tell what you’re looking at. And I could tell whether you’re looking with concern or not. That hypersensitivity is so profound that they’re just never going to get there at a digital level.

P.V.: Oddly enough, as you suggest in the book, current plastic surgery and Botox makes some real faces now look as if they were digitally animated.

L.W.:That’s the flip side of it. Some digital animators even believe that they might be able to extend the careers of movie stars who are no longer able to create certain facial expressions.

uncanny valley cover by Mark Tansey.jpgP.V.: The “Uncanny Valley” also seems to tell us something about the relationship between narrative and truth. Animators can collect a massive amount of detail but still end up in the “Uncanny Valley”, where they arrive at almost the opposite of truth. At the same time, something very simple - a very simple narrative, a simple drawing - can ring very true.

L.W.: That’s the wonderful thing. At one level the more detailed you get the more it clogs up and slows down, and at another level a simple line, or Mickey Mouse, is perfectly believable. I don’t know if this has been shown in Europe, but there’s this fantastic little animation here called “Marcel The Shell with Shoes On”. It’s the stupidest, dumbest thing you’ve ever seen - a tiny conch shell, with stupid little plastic shoes and one googly eye - but it’s completely effective because of its voice and because of the narrative. It’s a rich terrain to think about, and it has, as you said, all kinds of political implications. I would argue that a lot of my work is about the way in which things that are primarily thought of in terms of aesthetics have huge implications in terms of ethics and epistemology, and even at the end of the day, ontology. One could say that in much the way that the pancreas secretes insulin, the brain, this astonishingly complicated thing, secretes stories. And the stories we tell ourselves are how we get through the day. The vividness of those stories makes all the difference because we find ourselves in a world that tries to dull the stories we tell ourselves. Politically it is hugely important to find vivid stories. It’s also hugely dangerous.

P.V.: Exactly, so it is a double-edged sword. When you say dangerous, that makes me think of the Balkans, which have been a very rich terrain for all sorts of stories, including stories of hate.

L.W.: One completely false story that was told about the wars in the Balkans was that it was an attack of the countryside on the city, an age-old grievance that had festered, bubbled up in the countryside among rural farmers. That was completely not what happened. It started with certain urban intellectuals, particularly historians, in many cases some of the brightest bulbs in the pack. They got everybody all riled up and politicians managed to use it for gain. Ordinary people were living perfectly calm lives with each other. There might have been tensions but they were able to live together for most of the time. Now they are beginning to come back to that, one hopes.

P.V.: Do the destructive narratives purely come from the elites, you think? From the politicians and the intellectuals?

L.W.: Well, I’m of two minds. One is the very dark view that there is something in the water there, and in the people, that in the end makes conflict inevitable. The people who will bleed away that horrible dark blood and re-establish the brightness of life may be able to do that for a generation or two, but the conflict remains somehow in the ground. I mean, if politicians are able, for personal gain, to exploit the people, what does it say about the people that are exploitable in that way? That’s one way I think about it. The other way I think about ethnic conflict in the Balkans is to see it as flocking behaviour. I know this scientist guy at the Santa Fe Institute who was looking out of his window one day at the blackbirds in the playground, how they would all suddenly rise up in one direction then all go together in another direction, and thought: “how strange; they have tiny brains, how are they able to do that? I wonder whether we could model this?” He was able to model very complex flocking behaviour on a computer through the use of three extremely simple rules. Something like: if somebody comes to your right, turn left; and if somebody comes to your left, turn up, and so forth. Whatever the rules were, they were very simple. The rules would create the flock. I’ve wondered whether or not a similar thing is at work in an ethnic conflict. Maybe it is also the effect of a number of simple rules. Something like: fear of the Other trumps hope; and transmogrifies into hate; which in turn provokes more fear in the Other, and so on. The loathing you feel for yourself for having succumbed to this gets projected onto others having made you succumb, you hate them for what they’ve made you become, and you get into these vicious cycles.

P.V.: But the question then is: if you have simple rules that create a spiral towards ethnic conflict...

L.W.:… what are the things that can stop it?

P.V.: And are there also simple rules that can make the cycles turn into the other direction?

L.W.: Maybe there’s another way of thinking about it. There’s a striking thing in interviews with people who have been part of a conflict, for example, in Rwanda, or for that matter, in Bosnia. When you ask people “What the hell? You just killed your nanny who’s been with you for 20 years, or your neighbour; why’d you do that?”, the answer you get over and over is, “You can’t understand what it was like, it was like a nightmare”. Now, that’s interesting. I once heard the artist-philosopher Adrian Piper talk about how Kant’s categorical imperative is grounded in his whole epistemology. Kant argues that before people can think that there must be a priori categories (time, space, causation, constancy, and so forth) that make thinking possible, and from these categories Adrian showed how Kant was able to derive the categorical imperative, the Golden Rule, as it were. For example, if you lived in a world in which your hand could suddenly turn into a parrot, there would be no way to think, let alone get anything done, let alone be a moral person. So before you could really do anything, you’d first have to be in a world in which hands don’t suddenly turn into parrots. But it occurred to me the day I was listening to her lecture that, of course, in half of our lives, hands do turn into parrots, and all kinds of other crazy things happen all the time: in our dreams. And the incredible thing is how within the lifeworld of the dream, such things make complete sense, which is to say that somehow, mysteriously, both the a priori categories and with them, in Adrian’s terms, the categorical imperative, the moral context, simply get suspended. Such that when people say: “it was like a nightmare”, it means they had entered dream time, where all sorts of unimaginable things could happen. Now, that’s not to argue that people should not be held responsible for what they did during an ethnic conflict. I mean, you are absolutely responsible for having done something, but whether you are criminally liable, that’s another matter. It seems to me that the ones that are criminally liable are the ones who are outside the dream and were provoking the dream, and manipulating the dream. But it’s not simple. The problem is that you have people who are half in and half out of the dream time.

P.V.: Because they provoked the dream, but subsequently they became part of it…

L.W.: What’s fascinating is how the ferocity suddenly happens, but afterwards, people wake up and ask “What the hell was that?” And that in turn is complicated because you can then say “Isn’t that convenient, blaming it on dream time?” All of these are malignancies of the narrative.

P.V.: Is there hope in the narrative? Can one provoke a beautiful dream instead of a nightmare?

Ren Standing by David Hockney_0.jpgL.W.: That’s what the people that I’ve been writing about try to do. Right now I’ve been watching this in Bahrain. One of the great human rights monitors there is Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. He was arrested, horribly beaten, his jaw fractured, he needed titanium plates inserted into the side of his head, then he was sentenced to life in prison for trying to overthrow the dictatorship. If it had been Vaclav Havel the Western news would have been all over it. He’s in jail now and he has launched a hunger strike. At this point he has been on hunger strike three times as long as Ghandi was ever on hunger strike. Ghandi’s longest hunger strike was 22 days. This guy’s been doing it now for over 80 days. He has these two incredibly articulate daughters who are locked in Sophoclean battle with the regime, one outside the country and one inside, the latter of whom keeps getting arrested herself. It’s an incredibly inspiring story. On his deathbed he has been saying “please make sure you tell people that my dying wish is that it be done in peace, that it be done non-violently.” The whole family ought to be given the Nobel Peace Prize. I’ve always thought that the Palestinian cause would be served so much more powerfully by a sustained non-violent drama. Having said that, Israel has quite consciously eliminated all the people who would take that route. But, at the end of the day, purely tactically, it has the potential. What would happen in Palestine if right-thinking Israelis and Jews and right-thinking Palestinians, together just blocked roads leading to settlements? It could be incredibly powerful.

P.V.: Sitting together under a tree until those in power agree.

L.W.: Well, olive trees in that part of the world in particular are incredibly powerful metaphors: they take forever to grow, and if you chop them down you destroy the livelihood of an entire family. When the Israeli military wants to cut down a grove, there should be tens of thousands of Jews there to stop it. And to an extent that they’re not there, this generation will be held accountable for that. It’s quite tragic. But anyway, when you do have that sudden change into non-violence, or something of that kind, it’s always thrilling to watch.

P.V.: If you think of the Balkans today, isn’t that where the hope starts? That people could start telling another story about themselves?

L.W.: Exactly. Here’s something I once read but was never able to track down exactly: the whole notion we have of the American Indians and their relation to nature – you know, the notion that they have a better sense of the balance and they have whole mythologies about the coyote god and this god or whatever, and that they have this stewardship of the land and all this incredible stuff – that’s the result of a particular history. The thing is, the desert in the Southwest didn’t used to be a desert. It used to be a forest. But there was a complete ecological catastrophe there, owing to rampant human overconsumption. But what emerged from that, after a huge dying off, was a set of myths, the so-called Wisdom of the Ancestors. This was a way of perpetuating the knowledge. Long after people had forgotten what really happened, the narrative is still there. It’s a great story, whether or not it’s exactly true. It would be great if the next generation in the Balkans had a kind of narrative that said “whenever this kind of thing happens, remember: this demonization of the Other, this call to violence is just really stupid”.

P.V.: But do you then need to invent new memories that have the ability to prevent conflict and disaster?

L.W.: It’s not exactly invent, but re-discover. You can tell a story of the Bosnian war that will be filled with instances of heroism. You could tell a story of the Holocaust and come away with an entirely different sense of things.

P.V.: It would be at the same time creative and true. Truer perhaps than some other dominant stories.

L.W.: Certainly as true. I remember years ago - it was 1982 or 83 - the fortieth anniversary of the Danish rescue of the Jews. They had some of the Danish rescuers at the Jewish museum. I was interviewing one of them. My question was: “What’s the deal about Denmark? You were surrounded by Germany, Poland, England, places where there was all this anti-Semitism. It doesn’t seem to have happened in Denmark, what was it about Denmark that helped it avoid such anti-Semitism?” And this person looked at me, not comprehending. And then she said the greatest thing: “What sort of question was that? Isn’t the question ‘Why was there anti-Semitism in all these other places?’”

P.V.: Brilliant.

L.W.: Which is the answer.

P.V.: Exactly.

L.W.: So hopefully there will now be a generation of Serbs, Croats and so on, who, when asked about why there’s no violence now, will say “what kind of question is that?” But one huge problem remains: how do you wrest those countries from the politicians whose entire livelihood is based on keeping the divisions going. Maybe now with the internet, the cyberworld and social media, it becomes possible to move around them.

P.V.: Isn’t that what’s actually happening in other countries as well? I mean, all these places where people now protest. There too people search for other ways to tell alternative stories. And these protests can be very creative. One of the funniest things I’ve heard recently was about protests organized by a group called the “clandestine insurgent rebel clown army”. Cleverly done, because it’s hard for a police force to beat protesting clowns. Political drama and cultural comedy in one.

L.W.: In the US we have this wonderful group called “The Yes Men”. They do all kinds of wonderful, funny, subversive things. Funny is always good.


Image 1: Picture by Peter Vermeersch.

Image 2: The cover picture of Uncanny Valley: Mark Tansey, Derrida Queries de Man (1990).

Image 3: Ren Standing: Portrait of Weschler by David Hockney.