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Music of the North, cont’d

Apparently, I am not the only one interested in northern soundscapes right now. Today, I received the following email invitation, which I would like to extend:

You are cordially invited to attend the Interdisciplinary International Conference “Music and the Imaginary of the North and the Cold” at the Université du Québec à Montréal on Wednesday 18th, Thursday 19th and Friday 20th, January 2012.

The conference program is now available on the website of the CRILCQ at the following address :

 http://www.crilcq.org/colloques/2012/musiques_et_imaginaire_du_nord.asp

The conference covers just about every angle of northern sounds: symphonic representations of the aurora borealis, throat singing (including a paper on Tanya Tagaq Gillis), northern jazz, Glenn Gould and the idea of north, Terje Isungset and his ice instruments, Norwegian black metal, and electronic interpretations of the north (the program helpfully includes an abstract after each paper listed. FYI, many of the abstracts are in French. For an introduction to the topic in English, see my last post).

On Thursday, there will be a “Concert Imaginaire Nord” at 8pm.

The concert will be held at the Maison de la culture

 Maisonneuve, 4200, rue Ontario Est

 Cost is $3.

 Photographie: Inuksuk, © Michelle Boudreau, 2002

 

My (fairly loose) translation of the description of the concert (the original French is on the program):

Come listen to winter, the ice and snow that fills the blue sky of the Arctic! The concert “A Northern Imaginary” presents a program of work from dance, film and radio in the heart of winter. The imaginary North–or the North imagined and the music that it inspires–with its breath of crackling frost to the all encompassing white.

Program:

1. Cornouailles (extrait), film documentaire réalisé par Pierre Perrault, musique de Ginette Bellavance et de Daniel Toussaint
2. Icicle, Robert Aitken
3. Nuvattuq, François Morel
4. Three Studies for Flute, Derek Charke
5. Icebergs et soleil de minuit, Simon Martin
6. L’Intruse – La chasse Caribous, Les roches chantent et Le baliseur, Michelle Boudreau

I won’t be able to make it to the conference or concert, but please let me know all about it if you have the good fortune to attend.

The North in music

Lately, I have come across representations of north, as well as more complex identifications with ideas of northern-ness, in a wide variety of musical genres. My introduction to the north in music wasn’t actually aural, but literary–I read a couple of articles that analyzed representations of north in several Canadian operas.

(To be clear, I am aware that there are highly talented musicians who live in the north–including Inuit, Athabascan and Sami performers–and hopefully I’ll get around to showcasing some of them. This post, however, is about different modes of representing north in sound–whether through the storytelling tradition of the opera or through the very climatic conditions of the polar regions).

First, the problems with expressing “north” in a traditional format:

Laurel Parsons, in her essay called “Anerca: Representations of Inuit Poetry in Twentieth-Century Art Music,” argues that the three musical compositions she analyzes transform rather than express the Inuit poems anthologized by Edmund Carpenter in Anerca (a collection of Inuit poems that I’ve discussed in a previous post). She explains,

I deliberately use the word ‘transformed’ rather than ‘expressed’, because in almost every case the European-style modernist language used by these composers is as foreign to Inuit poetry and music as one could possible imagine. Indeed, of the six composers represented here, only one had actually visited the Arctic regions and had contact with Inuit people prior to composing Anerca. These compositions thus instantiate a dichotomy of discourses, one rooted in ancient, oral, and rural indigenous traditions, and the other in modern written and urban Euro-Canadian culture.

Sherrill Grace writes, in “From the ‘Hand of Franklin’ to Frobisher: Opera in the Canadian North,”

What counts in this song [Stan Roger’s ‘Northwest Passage’], apart from the pure, haunting melody, is the dream of northern adventure, of masculine conquest, and of what has been, for so many centuries, an unattainable goal: passage across the frozen Arctic to find paradise, riches, or glory.

Both mention Glenn Gould who, although not the father of Canadian arctic music, is certainly the most famous (and controversial) practitioner of it:

This is Glenn Gould, and this program is called The Idea of North. I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country. I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. But like all but a very few Canadians, I’ve had no real experience of the North; I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider, and the North has remained for me a convenient place to dream about, spin tales about, and in the end, avoid.

While Gould claims to have “gone there,” in reality he spent very little time in Churchill, Manitoba before returning south and forever after “avoiding” north at all costs. Parsons, Grace and Gould all identify a pertinent aspect of north in the music they analyze or produce: none of the singers or writers write from the north in any capacity, they only write their desires of north from a southern perspective, armchair travelers producing the sound of fictional norths.

But this is not the sum total of the polar regions in music. The Arctic and Antarctic have inspired artists to tell much more profound, yet elusive stories that are not made from the narratives inspired by human action in the north or south, but in the very elements  and animals that make up the polar regions: ice, temperature, seals. The following representations of atmosphere, climatic conditions and natural elements in music tell a different sort of story than human desire for riches, glory, immortality all caught within generic conventions that are easily consumable by an audience situated far south of where the action takes place. The following are several artists, recordings and genres that are more intimately intertwined with north than the operas of Anerca, Gould’s Idea of North, or songs about the search for the NorthWest passage.

Paul D. Miller’s The Book of Ice

DJ Spooky (aka Paul. D. Miller) was inspired on a trip to Antarctica to record the sounds of ice, to produce as music the haunting tones of what he terms a “historical archive” frozen in time.

The Book of Ice is a collaboration between Paul D. Miller, Columbia University’s Brian Greene, and Ross A. Virginia, Director of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College. From the publisher:

Using photographs and film stills from his journey to the bottom of the world, along with original artworks and re-appropriated archival materials, Miller ponders how Antarctica could liberate itself from the rest of the world. Part fictional manifesto, part history and part science book, Book of Ice furthers Miller’s reputation as an innovative artist capable of making the old look new.

The project is not just a book, however. On the webpage that announces the book’s release, we also learn about how DJ Spooky has been incorporating ice into his musical pursuits. I highly recommend clicking on the easily overlooked tab under the video for the “Terra Nova Trailer Edit,” titled: “John Schaefer interview with DJ Spooky on The Book of Ice accompanied live by the Telos Ensemble on WNYC. Oct 20, 2011.” It runs for about twenty minutes and includes performances of two of DJ Spooky’s ice inspired pieces with smart commentary by him on the history of people’s interest in ice and what his talents bring to recording a material history of ice.

Although, again, not of the Arctic, Werner Herzog’s 2007 film on the dreamers, wanderers and questers that end up in Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, also introduces the strange world of sound in the south polar region:

Seal sounds from Encounters at the End of the World

My favorite part of the clip is a very Herzogian directorial moment when all three scientists lie down out on the ice to listen to the endless performance of “Pink Floyd” in the “world beneath” them.

Moving back north, Norway appears to be on the forefront of music from, on and about ice.

From a poorly written article on Norway’s “Iceman” from the Daily Mail:

Terje, from Bergen in Norway, became known as the Iceman after he started making music with instruments carved out of blocks of ice drawn from a nearby lake…He begun by hitting frozen stalactites before moving on to forging his own instruments…In 2006 he founded the annual Icemusic Festival on a mountainside at Geilo in Norway. Unsurprisingly many of his songs have a winter theme. According to Terje different types of ice produce completely different sounds and while it looks perfect, man-made ice sounds appalling and is completely unsuitable. The best-sounding ice he’s found came from a glacier in the north of Sweden. He said: ‘You can have a hundred pieces of ice and ten will sound good and 90 will sound bad.’

Click here to read the article. I recommend watching the included video to hear some of the sounds that his ice-carved instruments produce.

Also Norwegian, but interested in “icy tonal ranges” rather than ice as an instrument, the black metal band, Taake, and their recent release, Nordbundet (the Norwegian Black Metal movement seems to be attempting to refute Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s insistence on the friendliness of the Arctic).

Nordbundet means “northbound” in Norwegian (and Taake means “fog”). According to the youtube post, this is the official video for the track and Nordbundet can be found on the album “Noregs Vaapen,” released on Dark Essence Records 2011. Also,

Directed by Torgeir Ness Sundli, the video, for song “Nordbundet”, is a mix of live footage of the band interspersed with scenes of the countryside around TAAKE’s home town of Bergen, which have been filmed by founder and front man Hoest, who also produced the video.

The scenes not of the band performing are all wintry views of the Norwegian countryside with a special emphasis on trees and mountains. I don’t have a translation of the lyrics, but the combination of the title and the snow-covered, remoteness of the images give me an idea of what the song is about.

And finally, some notes written by Chris T. on Norwegian Black Metal (or, the rejection of opera as the sound of the North):

Taake (formerly called Thule, in fine northern fashion) are a good example of the extremely icy production style found in black metal. This production style was used by the original 80s black metal bands (notably Bathory) unintentionally. They were recording in their garage so that was the best sound they could achieve. The Norwegian bands of the 90s then embraced and perfected this, giving it meaning along the way. It came to represent the sublime aspects of their environment. Also, you may notice the fast and constant picking style (“tremolo picking”). This is intended to make the riffs more atmospheric so that the whole thing washes over the listener. (Admittedly this music is an acquired taste aimed at a small audience, so feel free to not like it. Headphones are recommended for all of these songs.)

Taake, Nattestid Sar Porten I

While Taake has a good balance of black metal’s raw and majestic characteristics, Emperor takes the romantic and majestic side of things much further. The production style is still cold with the high pitched guitar tones and vocals (this vocal style is, by the way, a reaction to death metal’s growly, bodily vocal style. Black metal vocals are disembodied and ghost-like. It is a very inorganic style of music).

Emperor, I Am the Black Wizards

To round out this sampling, I must include my favorite band of all-time, Darkthrone. Darkthrone defined early 90s Norwegian black metal with their album “A Blaze in the Northern Sky”. They started out as a death metal band for one album before stripping all the warmth from their sound to create truly raw and evil sounding music. Even the album covers in black metal as a whole went from colorful to black and white from this point on. They are, for me, the prime embodiment of the sublime–the most threatening elements of their surroundings are what they embrace as a beautiful (notice the call for “eternal winter” at 3:17 in this track). The connection here between black metal and 18th-19th century romanticism is no accident on the part of many of the musicians.

Darkthrone, The Pagan Winter

While something of the epic still resides in these black metal compositions, the acting subject is no longer singular and heroic (like in the opera) and the north is not a place to be conquered to the will of man–for riches, for glory, for narrative immortality (as southerners would make it). Black metal’s version of north is just that, a version, but in bringing all of these different sounds of the poles together (all with their own particular history, motivation and blindness), I hope to offer a soundscape that is as diverse, divisive and intriguing as the poles are themselves.

Northern Studies

Here are several institutions that offer degrees in northern studies or have a particular focus in polar topics (through the sciences, social sciences, or humanities):

The Scott Polar Institute at the University of Cambridge

The University of Alaska Fairbanks

Dartmouth College

Université du Quebec à Montreal

University of Tromsø, Norway

Høgskulen in Alta, Norway

Yukon College

Field Schools at the University of Northern British Columbia (sites include Russia)

University of Manitoba

Aarhus University (Denmark)

University of the Arctic (a multi-campus initiative)

(the links take you to only one department at the university, but there may be more northern programs offered)

Feel free to include more departments and universities in the comments!

(Narrating the High North at the University of Tromsø)

Get thee to a museum!

If you are near London or can hop a flight in that direction before January 13th, stop by the National Maritime Museum to see their innovative exhibit, “High Arctic: Future Visions of a Receding World.” I’ve already booked my flight!

The website explains the motivation behind the exhibit:

It’s 2100 AD and the Arctic landscape we once took for granted has changed forever. How will we choose to remember our Arctic past? Is it possible to travel somewhere that no longer exists? Set in one of many possible futures High Arctic conveys the scale, beauty and fragility of our unique Arctic environment through an immersive installation which fills the entire 820m2 gallery space. Intended to be a future vision of a receding world, it encourages us to question our relationship with the world around us.

Unlike most museum displays, there are “no touchscreens, no static photographs, and no panels with text: instead High Arctic is a genuinely immersive, responsive environment.” I’m excited to see what visions of the Arctic are incorporated into the project and what, if any, hope for the northern pole is offered. This is another project that has come out of the Cape Farewell initiative, which I’ve mentioned previously.

(From the National Maritime Museum)

Spooky Skies

As you are getting ready to celebrate a night of ghosts and ghouls and walking dead, check out this slide show of amazing footage of the aurora borealis taken last week. And here’s a picture sure to send shivers down your spine!

I’ve heard Inuit describe the aurora as spirits playing kick ball and Athabaskans warn to whistle while the aurora’s out will result in the loss of your spirit. Any other good scary stories about the northern lights?

(from Yuichi Takasaka / TWAN / www.blue-moon.ca)

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 7)

(part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven)

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and the Politics of Difference in True Blood (continued…)

Of course, the Inuit are not strangers to cultural appropriation and the appropriation of voice. In 2009, Jobie Weetaluktuk created a film short in which he explores the use of the “inukshuk” (a figure, sometimes human in appearance, made of stones) in Canadian popular culture. In his film, “Inukshop,” Weetaluktuk places historical images of inuksuit (which, in the land of the Inuit, are used to guide people in the landscape, herd caribou to easily accessible hunting areas, locate good fishing spots, or mark grave sites) out on the land to mass produced figures sold to tourists and large scale reproductions put in public spaces in Toronto and other southern Canadian cities. He asks his viewers to think about what it means to decontextualize a cultural object and make it widely available to an audience that is not familiar with the specificities of its creation. While the public display and consumption of the inuksuit help keep the Inuit in the public sphere (it is not so easy to claim a people as “disappeared” if they are continually in your gaze), he asks what is the price of remaining in sight for determining other ways of being Inuit?

I bring this into the discussion as I see its relevance in the form of what it means to be part of the “lesser religions” that Lafayette invokes. I would like to understand this claim as the bridging of the marginalized into a political force that recognizes the death at the center of the master narrative, seen as the figure of Russell Edgington, the Mississippi Vampire King who sits in his manor house in the middle of a grand antebellum plantation. At the center is death, and on the margins is the living: Lafayette who is African-American and gay, Tara who is African American and a woman, Sookie who is marginalized as crazy, her brother as mentally deficient, and a whole host of other characters who do not have access to economic or political power either through race, gender, economic status, intelligence or some freaky ability they must keep hidden. Using the term “Inuit” is a case in point. Until the Inuit gained enough political power to make a bid for their own territory in Canada (Nunavut, created in 1999), the people previously called Eskimo were variously harbored in other First Nations’ legal codes. Inuit, of course, is still a problematic term and more situates a political imaginary than a cultural identity. In Alaska, Yup’ik and Inupiat people have accessed the name “Inuit” for international political recognition even as each group staunchly defends not being subsumed under the umbrella term for their own political recognition within the state of Alaska and the nation of the United States. To call “that shit” Inuit is to both recognize the political gains of the people of Nunavut, even as it somewhat elides cultural and historical specificity.

I am uncomfortable with the change in narrative thrust from the gothic excess that explores the power of images related to race in the United States to the dialectical dead-end of a battle between lightness and darkness. Claudine tells Sookie in her unconscious dream that “the dark approaches” as she urges all the fairies to hurry “home” (can we think of this “home” as the “hut” of the song, as a place to return to from out journeying?). She warns that Bill will try and steal Sookie’s light and to not let him at all costs. The series has been built on racial and sexual substitutions, vampires replace African-Americans and homosexuals in the discourses of hate and racial epithets that make up American histories of difference. However, the older images and their affective resonances persist: Lafayette in chains, Tara running across a plantation lawn chased by werewolves (read dogs), Tara’s name tout court, and the church sign in the opening credits that reads “God Hates Fa(n)gs.” The viewer is able to examine and reflect on these images of racial and sexual violence under the safety net that is their displacement, because the new racial and sexual victims are vampires, who one can hardly cast in the light of victim due to their superior strength and wealth. The power of the program is just that, the images of American racism, sexism and homophobia are all displayed over and over again (they will not be silent, they cannot die), but in terms that do not lead simply to either apathy or paralyzing guilt.

But why an Inuit poem? I would hazard the guess that it is sufficiently exotic to the world of True Blood, to American racial politics, that it can once again bridge the gap between the old story of black vs. white to the new (still old) story of light vs. dark. Unfortunately, all that was edgy and radical, progressive and potentially liberating in the series has been undermined in the move of once again de-specifying a culture for the use of an exotic flair. Lafayette is a purveyor of other cultures and other modes of being in the world. He is a connoisseur of mind-altering substances and global spiritualism. Jesus has a particular interest at stake, a history of violence even, with the images of the Mexican saints he sees in Lafayette’s house. However, he teaches Lafayette, if not a politics, than a mode of attention that brings the individual in contact with the difference at the heart of the icons. What once was rapidly consumable as globalized culture, or another iteration of the same, becomes specified and locatable as different, as difference. The great day can always dawn, but allowing the darkness to remain is another beast entirely.

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 6)

(part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven)

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and the Politics of Difference in True Blood (continued…)

All apologies for taking so long to get through this, but I have not been idle since my last True Blood update. Since writing part 5 I have watched Never Cry Wolf (the film mentioned in the Slate.com article posted in part 3) and found the “My small adventures” poem in Knud Rasmussen’s Intellectual Culture of the Copper Eskimo, the 9th volume of The Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924.

After watching Never Cry Wolf, I believe I have found the origin of the abridged version of the poem and have several informed guesses as to why it was shortened in the first place. The film follows a white Canadian biologist from the south who travels up north to study wolves and caribou to try and figure out if wolves are the cause of the caribou population crash. The biologist forms a bond with his objects of study, the wolves, and an Inuk elder who takes the hapless southerner under his wing, bridging cultural, species, and temporal divides in the process. Along with the elder is his grandson, Mike, an Inuk who straddles modernity with bad teeth, a rifle, and the attitude that if killing wolves brings in cash for new snow machines, then he will kill wolves even though they are his grandfather’s spirit animal. By the end, the film represents Mike as aligned with the white men who come to shoot anything that moves and who see the wilderness only in terms of potential profit. In a creepy scene near the end, Mike flashes a fully toothed smile and departs the tent. This is a significant moment because on first meeting Mike, Mike references his gapped tooth grin, saying: “This is what happens when a meat-eater becomes a sugar-eater.” The film finds Mike’s claim to being Inuit false; he has become a sugar-eater and no longer has rights to wilderness, authenticity or tradition. The biologist refuses to leave the north with winter coming on, repudiating the corrupt civilization of the south to follow the Inuk elder farther into the north. As the two depart across the tundra in blowing snow, the abridged poem scrolls across the screen:

I think over again my small adventures.
My fears, those small ones that seemed so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and reach.
And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing,
To live to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

This poem is no longer about Inuit, or is even Inuit, with the markers of Inuit community such as “huts” and “kayaks” disappeared. This is now a poem about the white biologist who has just eschewed civilization and its murderous impulses towards nature. Mike is deemed inauthentic because he does not wear a caribou parka and he speaks English; therefore he is not the rightful heir to the (perceived) purity of nature untouched—of a better balance between human and nature (with nature exalted and human degraded). This is an ideologically loaded position that crops up again and again in fights over subsistence hunting rights and indigenous land rights cases. Editing out all markers of culture and community in this Inuit poem and then attaching the new reduced, but still sort of “Inuit”, poem to the white biologist, places the enlightened white person who reveres nature and the natural order of things (which seems to be helping wolves kill caribou while running around buck naked) as having more rights to the land than an Inuk who was probably forced to a southern boarding school and beaten every time he spoke his native language.

And at the other end of the spectrum, I finally got a look the poem in its original (as it gets) written form. Intellectual Culture of the Copper Eskimo is fascinating and contains dozens of stories and poems with the original Inuktitut and then a translation under it in English. The “My small adventures” poem, however, does not contain the Inuktitut or much of any information at all, other than it originates with the Copper Eskimos. Rasmussen inserts it in his recollection of starting out traveling one day near the beginning of his report, to express his emotions about his upcoming trip. Rasmussen, unlike the biologist in Never Cry Wolf, is adamantly looking forward to meeting new people, learning their stories, and joining in the festivities to which he’s invited. The volume contains so many wonderful pictures of Inuit doing all sorts of activities, descriptions of daily life and affectionate relationships between family members and between Rasmussen and the different people with which he lived and traveled, and is suffused with awe and humility for a people whose ingenuity allows them to live in some of the harshest environments on the planet. Never Cry Wolf was a great film, but in the end I was disappointed with its message regarding contemporary Inuit. Intellectual Culture of the Copper Eskimo is a book I can’t wait to read again.

And here’s just a few more notes on the poem in the context of True Blood:

The unabridged Inuit poem is about humility in the face of greater forces, in which humble acknowledgement of the smallness of being can lead to greater insight into the world. The song moves from outside, in the ocean in a kayak buffeted by wind, into the home, where security gives a point of reflection upon which to build an engagement with the world not predicated on domination. Although the poem is built around a series of binaries (outside/inside, ocean/land, danger/safety, small/large, light/implied darkness, life/possible death), the conclusion is not one side of the binary favored over the other, but a constant movement back and forth. The poem does not deny that there are oppositional forces in the world. Instead, it uses the movement and the energy from the binary relationships to more firmly situate the singer as intimately bound up in the world. Through the expressing of movement in the world and in the self the speaker builds a relationship with his (most likely the narrator is male because he is in a kayak. The umiak is more associated with women’s travel across water. However, songs can be created and performed by both men and women equally) environment, an ecopoetics that is intimately tied to place and where the difference between oppositional terms is celebrated, not eradicated, just like Jesus with his saints.

The abridged version, however, tells a different story. It moves us away from the specifics of location and worldliness into the epic dialectical battle between good and evil as metonymized in the triumph of the great day dawning, filling the world with light, banishing darkness. It sounds like a Reverend Newlin sermon. What is interesting to note is at this point in the series, what has been a mainly gothic telling of the Bon Temps tale (turning on tropes of excess and sublime reorderings of individual subjectivity through the continued revelations about the existence of other-than-humans), is now being reduced to a millennial tale, a battle between darkness and light, good and evil. The audience is left with Sookie’s out of body experience in the land of fairies with goodness being blackened out by the coming presence of death, in the form of the vampire Bill, as he comes into the hospital room. The Inuit poem as spoken by Lafayette is a bridge between the genres as it ushers in a turn in the storyline, without pushing the story too overtly into Christian allegory. By placing the battle of light vs. dark in the world of the Inuit, this dialectic becomes the universal struggle of existence. It is naturalized as such.

Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion of the series! (This written series anyway–True Blood season 4 petered out long ago).

Help a new film from the Arctic!

On the Ice is a feature film set in Barrow, Alaska about two boys straddling the traditional/modern divide as they try to establish their own identity (all the while hiding a dark secret that tests their friendship).

Cara Marcous, one of the producers of On the Ice writes: “[This is] the first feature-length fiction film made in Alaska by an Iñupiaq writer/director with an entirely Inuit cast.  This film was written and directed by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean—an independent artist who is one of the first of many cinematic voices from a part of the world that has been profoundly under- or misrepresented in film.  We want On the Ice to be able to reach a significant national audience, and in doing so, we hope to blaze a trail for many filmmakers who are enthusiastically working towards the same goals.”

To help the project off the ground and into a theater near you, consider donating any amount on their fundraising page: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/andrewmaclean/on-the-ice-the-movie

This is a neat fundraising scheme: for certain amounts donated you get to have some token of the film–a digital download for $15, a DVD for $30, a giclée print for $500. However, if the goal isn’t met then it is possible that we will never get to see this film. It is also incredibly easy, given that the website is linked to both Facebook and Amazon.

Please check out the website for more descriptions of the film, the project, fun photos and quips by the cast and crew and to donate! Only 8 days left!

******Update******

Check out this article for more information about the project and current fundraising goal in the Anchorage Daily News. The film is inching its way towards distribution.

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and True Blood (part 5)

(part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven)

When the Great Day Dawns: Inuit and the Politics of Difference in True Blood (continued…)

It’s been awhile, but here’s the continuation of my meditations on True Blood with some thoughts about Inuit and Lafayette’s “lesser religions.”

In reference to, and in an effort to understand, Lafayette’s “lesser religions,” I want to take a closer look at The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, the film by Zacharias Kunuk that I mentioned in my last post. The film follows the shaman Aua (Westerners will most likely know Aua as a favored traveling companion, friend, and font of information about Inuit spiritual life from the journals written by the explorer Knud Rasmussen) during a time of change in the mid-nineteenth century: the historical, environmental and social knowledge of the world he lives in comes into question as Aua’s powers to live successfully fail him. After a long period of starvation, Aua eventually banishes his familiar spirits so that he may join the increasingly powerful and influential Christian religion. And yet, this film, like the full version of the Kitlinuharmiut song, does not present the struggle between Aua’s traditional (“lesser” in Lafayette’s terms?) religion and Christianity as a battle between forces that will have an ultimate and decisive victory. Instead, the film moves slowly between seemingly opposed forces, letting the tension come from the movement back and forth between forces of nature (snowstorms, lack of caribou and seals) and forces of culture (a leader hording food that is only given to converts, the influence of Christian morality and Western cultural goods) until the banishment is the almost anticlimactic end of the film. In essence, the quote on the cover of the DVD (“Once a shaman abandons his faith, there is no turning back”) is misleading. The film is not about what happens to Aua once he becomes Christian, it is about the moment when “from a shore wind [he] drifted out / In [his] kayak / And [he] thought [he] was in danger.” Christianity becomes just another journey, another mode of attention to the world, a tool for survival. It is not, however, privileged as an all-encompassing conclusion to Inuit history and culture. This theme of displacing the power of “grand narratives” is at the very heart of this film: a written record of Aua and his family persists thanks to Rasmussen and his journals, yet in the film Rasmussen appears for all of 10 seconds. The film is not about Rasmussen’s (or his readers’) relationship with Aua and Inuit spirituality (a position of privilege), but about contemporary Inuit relationships to the stories of their ancestors and how they managed to survive in an alien social and economic position (perceived as a peripheral or “lesser” position).

In the previous True Blood episode, a potential suitor (Jesus Velasquez) visits Lafayette’s home and notices a shrine-like area dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Orishas. Jesus gently chastises Lafayette for not knowing the cultural history of the saints and for neglecting to give them offerings. Lafayette scoffs at the suggestion of two shots of tequila, asking Jesus if the saints ever drink them. Jesus takes the gibe seriously and says no, he does. The act of offering is not indicative of thinking the saints have either material presence or that that presence exists in the same space and timescale as those giving the offerings. Instead, the importance of the act is in the gesture of acknowledging otherness, in creating a space for the mystery of the unknown to reside without expectation of a return. In short, it is allowing difference to reside within the home, the familiar. I would like to read the use of the Inuit poem as something similar–a connection between the foreign and the familiar, a horizontal alliance of the marginal, the excluded, or the lesser that interrupts the deadening homogeneity of the dominant (whether that be of race, class, sexual orientation, or geopolitical importance). And, in fact, when I first heard it, this was my immediate thought. However, when I found the missing phrases to the poem and I had time to think more deeply about how the changes to the poem work within the economy of discourses that the end of the episode was at pains to produce, I have come to radically other conclusions.

Next time, I’ll tell you about them.

Greenland’s Ice: Beauty and Threat

The AP has published a beautiful slideshow of northern Greenland’s ice sheets and glaciers. Interspersed between dramatic shots of crevasses and ice caves are photos of scientists and research stations sponsored by the National Science Foundation, revealing the intimacy of collaboration, the effort of working at subzero and the rewards of research up north. Click through for some awe-inspiring views of ice and the intrepid souls living and working on it. The AP calls Brennan Linsley’s photographs a “visual vocabulary for the striking and beautiful forms ice takes on and around the giant Arctic island.” I concur.

Check it out here.

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