Growing up in San Francisco I loved to walk everywhere and very much appreciated free culture in the form of street music. My street wandering is infrequent now that I live in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. There is plenty of music here, just not the kind made by humans. There is the avant-garde serialism of thrushes, squirrels, blue jays, crows, songbirds, hummingbirds, and woodpeckers, the occasional ululations of the neighborhood goats, and more rarely the nocturnal screamcore of coyotes, shrieking like teenagers on acid. But recently I found myself walking on a sunny day in the North End of Boston. It was scorching hot, with crowded sidewalks, and my companion and I were sweating and hungry. We had reached a hilltop and were looking for food and a respite from the heat when we heard the refrain of “When the Saints Go Marching In” emanating from around the bend. Everyone turned in the same direction, grazers looking up at the sound of a bell, expecting a marching band.
Instead, a statue of the Madonna first crested the hill, held aloft on four people’s shoulders like a casket. She emerged strikingly tactile in a dress pinned with dollar bills, her wig, slightly askew, curled into tight rolls like that of an English judge.
Behind her came the French horn and tuba player, clarinetists and trumpeters wearing matching red shirts and hats. The percussionists took up the rear. At the tail of the spine followed a sad-eyed, hunched cymbalist who clanged lugubriously, if such a thing is possible.
The sweating bearers walked the Madonna a-ways before rotating her bumpily, teetering now to face the fire station, now a restaurant or a bank, brought down from the shoulders down to street level to dispense blessings and collect tithes. Whenever the musicians paused, a diminutive ringleader appeared, conducting with silky gestures, his small face hidden behind dark green spectacles and a large cap.
A crowd, loose and bemused, swelled around the procession and its portable goddess. Who could be unmoved when the saints come marching in? Here was something wholesome, rag tag and un-alienated. Virtue as something neighbors practice; a practice of neighborhoods.
Processions have an ancient and global history for bipeds. Be it for celebrations, pilgrimages, protests, or funerals, we ritualize our evolutionary wanders, loving to move in step, to be a moving vessel made of many bodies, a roaming animal made of animals, for once not just to get linearly from point a to point b—from home to work and back; through the check-out or security line—but to see if we can get closer, by chanting, to enchantment, to another sense and sensation of world. The Madonna statue was a reminder, an emissary from this other sense of world, a celebrant of nonlinear, unproductive virtues, love for example. Brought out and about, she figures the titration of suffering in public arteries, a distribution of forgiveness in the body politic.
It seemed like the musicians knew each other well. The music was well modulated and seductive while the Virgin Mother tilted above, a bit removed, encrusted with the barnacles of anachronism. Truth be told, the Madonna looked a bit undone and dusty, her eyes floating blankly over a mild and frozen smile, as if listening politely to a nattering relative while wondering exactly where she misplaced her keys. In her bricolage dress of money and faded ribbons, wearing that long loopy wig with the thirty or so players in dirty shirts scattered around her, so many children under her skirts, she was either a metonym for the inhumanity of the divine or for the confusing, distracted aspect of mothers, there in body but not in mind, spaced out in a house full of unruly charges who have dressed her up without her quite knowing it, invented rituals and roles for her, projected meanings and images upon her while she tries to make the bills: motherhood is a leading cause of poverty.
The offering is carried to the sea, the body to the grave, the crosses dragged, the signs mobilized, the beads flung, the floating theaters rolled along in dancing horizontal meanders while overhead, on the vertical axis, bewigged mannequins’ states of inadvertent discomposure speak to the endemic confusion of detached figures at the top, too far removed from that ground to which they’ll nonetheless return.
Recalling Robert Smithson’s theory of the non-site, which postulates that “one site can represent another site which does not resemble it,” the Sacred Mother represents a site which does not resemble her. But here she is anyway, reconstituted in effigy, pinned with scraps of money and regaled with music. Smithson speculated that the space traveled between site and non-site could be “a vast metaphor.” Certainly the space traveled by a spiritual procession is metaphorical while the Virgin Mother is a kind of space traveler, the story of virgin birth an early piece of science fiction, prophesying in vitro fertilization.
Contra the concept of an omnipotent divinity, Giorgio Agamben explores how impotenza, “impotency” underlies creation in his recent book The Fire and the Tale. Agamben writes that “the one who possesses—or has the habit of—a potentiality can both actualize it and not actualize it. . . potentiality is essentially defined by the possibility of its non-implementation.” What distinguishes the creator is their capacity to exercise their potential-not-to, their ability to choose non-action. To, in a sense, keep promise close. In politics, Agamben notes, it is the provocateur who obliges “those who have power. . . to exercise it, or actualize it.” The logic of the provocateur is that of the necromancer, the exorcist who pretends to seek, but is in fact the manufacturer of evil.
As to be expected nowadays at any public gathering (or private one for that matter) be it spontaneous or planned, spiritual, political or otherwise, Bostonian passersby peered at the Madonna and her band through their screens, their prosthetic eyes and ears perched studiously between forefinger and thumb to record the sights and sounds of the moment. A cycling bodybuilder paused to delicately hold out his small phone like an apotropaic device, like a digital nazar (from Arabic meaning “sight, surveillance, attention”) an eye-shaped amulet made of handmade glass used homeopathically for warding off the malevolent glare, the evil eye. And of course cell phones can be apotropaic devices when used to document injustice, as with videos of the violence of policing.
Just as a marching band plays standards in uniform, their instruments synced up by the rhythm of the march, so the crowd becomes uniform in this now standard stance, a collective choreography of data collection, a mass tableau vivant, everyone holding the same “instrument.” The way people hold their children up over the heads of a crowd, to help them see, so we hold our “smart” phones out, filtering our merely human perception through mobile computing power. Arguably we’re distanced by this interpassivity, these acts of mediation, from the unexpected invitation to “be present.” But what does that mean, anyway, being present?
Perhaps we are being more “present” in making these records, not less. Perhaps we are being archivists, not compulsives, artists not tourists, creative agents not unpaid data collectors. But are our senses diluted or enriched by these spontaneous, popular and general acts of recording, these moments in which we imagine a future audience’s response (even if only an audience of one) to the experience we are at once having together, and having alone; to what we are at once experiencing and crafting, remixing, both there and not there, a part of and apart from, empty and full, citing and seeing with double vision? Or delaying our gratification in the moment in order to take a larger pleasure later, by reliving this moment on a screen where it will be more contained, more manageable, imbued with our aesthetic “scent”, so to speak—our sensibility? Do we take more pleasure in deferring the possibility of enjoyment now because we’ll enjoy someone else’s enjoyment later, even more?
Or are we just wrestling with the insufficiency of what’s simply, unsatisfactorily merely here and not there, a dissatisfaction, a wish for something else, a longing we want to get rid of, always toppling forward to the next thing, trying to escape what’s right in front of us, which sticks to us like a piece of clinging plastic we are trying to shake from our hands?
Agamben discusses the form and content of Jesus’s parables, which contain repeated references to another world, realm, or plane that is very near, and yet inaccessible, an open secret:
. . .parables are a discourse ciphered to prevent those who should not understand it from understanding it; yet, at the same time, they fully display the mystery. . . The correspondence between the Kingdom and the world, which parables present as a similarity, is also expressed by Jesus as a proximity in the stereotypical formula “the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Although the promised land is close at hand, although “it is a matter of presence” and “has the form of a proximity” it is not spatially or temporally locatable. When asked when it comes, Jesus answers, “The coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the Kingdom of God is close at your hand.”
Close at hand. Near, but not here. Documentation is one way that we try to seize the supernaturally elusive moment, slippery as an eel, so many mediums with our media.
In theory we could eschew the endless project of turning everything toward future consumption, or social capital accumulation, we could refrain from imagining how others will encounter, later on, what we encounter, or fail to encounter, now. Rather than organizing ourselves in the mode of perpetual surveillance, we could refrain, go without calculation, sans technology. Like Agamben’s creator we could exercise our impotenza. Like Bartleby, we could prefer not to. That is, whatever the experience may be of not retransmitting, of not closing our horizon down to the size of a small frame. We could eschew composing and recomposing and perceive in a more basic way, simply with our own bodies, musicians ritually weaving the loom of the street for its own sake thereby constituting, if only temporarily, if only for a moment, a scene of promise—a promise land.
Miranda Mellis is the author of Demystifications, forthcoming from Solid Objects; The Spokes; None of This Is Real, The Quarry, Materialisms, and The Revisionist. She co-authored The Instead, a book length conversation with Emily Abendroth and is an editor at The Encyclopedia Project with Tisa Bryant. Find an interview by her with Kevin Killian in From Our Hearts To Yours: New Narrative As Contemporary Practice, recent poems in Bomb, and recent stories in Conjunctions.