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Quotations from a Ruined City and the Ends of Reza Abdoh

If such a thing as a psycho-analysis of today’s prototypical culture were possible…[it] would needs show the sickness proper to the time to consist precisely in normality. The libidinal achievements demanded of an individual behaving as healthy in body and mind, are such as can be performed only at the cost of the profoundest mutilation, of internalized castration in extroverts…to repress not only their desires and insights, but even the symptoms that in bourgeois times resulted from repression…The verses: ‘Wretchedness remains. When all is said, / It cannot be uprooted, live or dead. / So it is made invisible instead’, are still more true of the psychic economy than of the sphere where abundance of goods may temporarily obscure constantly increasing material inequalities. No science has yet explored the inferno in which were forged the deformations that later emerge to daylight as cheerfulness, openness, sociability, successful adaptation to the inevitable…If [neuroses] result from a conflict in which instinct is defeated, the [deformed condition], as normal as the damaged society it resembles, stems from what might be called a prehistoric surgical intervention, which incapacitates the opposing forces before they have come to grips with each other, so that the subsequent absence of conflicts reflects a predetermined outcome, the a priori triumph of collective authority, not a cure effected by knowledge…The very people who burst with proofs of exuberant vitality could easily be taken for prepared corpses…Underlying the prevalent health is death. All the movements of health resemble the reflex-movements of beings whose hearts have stopped beating.

—Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 59

Quotations from a Ruined City broadens the frame of Abdoh’s portraits of sex, identity politics, cruelty, and death, making explicit references to Sarajevo, Beirut, Los Angeles, New York, and World War II concentration camps—“the world as camp,” Elinor Fuchs goes so far as to call it in her review for the Village Voice. The show tracks two male couples. The first is a pair of gay men, shattered and sometimes shattering each other; the two of them are reminiscent of the Japanese Yashai Zoshi scrolls, a variant of the Gaki Zoshi scrolls mentioned in the discussion of The Blind Owl, which show diseased inhabitants of hell. The second couple wanders through history, starting out dressed as Puritans and ending up as modern businessmen.

The performance is fragmented and relies much on repetition of images and text, as the previous works did. Elinor Fuchs, however, perceives in Quotations an escalation of the frenzied fragmentation of the scenes:

Dying of aids is the very architecture of the performance, which reels from graveyard to oxygen mask to the sound of gasping for breath to coffins to funeral and da capo to graveyard to hospital, with the central sufferers each time a little weaker, a little more transparent. In between come brief remissions: feverish dances and love scenes. The torrential repetitions—throwing the actors into one more dance, one more speech, bringing on one more image, one more idea and geopolitical association—represents perhaps the most heartbreaking mimicry of the attempt to stay alive in the losing struggle with aids.

An interesting analogy, but it’s a bit strained, as the compulsion for “one more dance, one more speech,” and so forth, was far more dizzying in Bogeyman, which also had fewer “remissions” or respites from horror. Fuchs makes the analogy by way of saying that aids is “no mere ‘metaphor’,” but it’s no less reductive to assert that aids determines the structure of the play. It’s tempting to relate an artist’s formal choices to his or her gender and sexual preference (as Sue-Ellen Case does in “Towards a New Poetics” and “Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic,”) or to his or her health, as Fuchs does here, but the connections are tenuous. There’s not a clear progression along the path of Abdoh’s work, where each show becomes progressively faster or slower, fragmented or unified, redemptive or dark, than the last.

That is, the ends or objectives of Reza Abdoh are not wholly determined by his own approaching end. It would be absurd to deny its influence, its very extensive and visible influence, but the earlier choices for productions to direct or adapt—Peer Gynt, Timon of Athens, Medea, King Lear—imply a long-standing predilection for exploring the tragic, the cruel, the redemptive, the façade obscuring a hidden and dark reality. With Quotations, especially, such statements are hard to make because the script was a collaboration between Reza and his brother, Salar.

As Bell puts it, Quotations is suffused at almost every instant with the sense of aids” but “not specifically about aids.” The “focus,” a peculiar word to use in this context, is defined by Bell as

the institutional abuses of patriarchy as familial and social authority; the nature of queer identity and its role in and against normative society; the conflicts of New World Order capitalism as they materialize in urban America; the dangers of combining religious fundamentalism with politics and economics (fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Islam); the persistent presence and importance of folk culture, especially in contrast to mass-media performance; and how the deconstruction of mass-media culture can help create a radical critique of that culture.

Having discussed the trilogy, Tight Right White, and The Blind Owl, many of the above, by now, should sound familiar. The extension in Quotations is not in the direction of autobiographical trauma, but in the more extensive portrayal and questioning of war, identity politics, and economics.

The tie between the Puritans and the businessmen is, after all, the Puritans’ connection (right or wrong, it is now a commonplace assumption) to the rise of capitalism. Consider the dialogue whispered between the men dressed as Puritans at the opening of Quotations:

tony torn: You ask yourself: What is more likely to cause bits and pieces of American corporations to become available? Easy. Leverage. If a company can’t meet its debt payments, it makes itself vulnerable. If the company cannot meet its debt payments, it will be forced to sell off assets to the highest bidder.

tom fitzpatrick: I return to the ruin…Because I am done romancing the gutter. That sort of horseshit is for yellow-bellied boys and girls who think dirt is appealing. Anyhow, it turns out I’m too damn clumsy for the fabled streets.

tony torn: So you are back at the old ruin.

tom fitzpatrick: But Floyd, the cat who used to run this place, isn’t here anymore. By the way, I want your picture.

tony torn: Say I have a picture. You want that picture, but I don’t want to sell my house. I love my picture. Then I take a large mortgage out on my house. I then lose my job and am desperate for cast to avoid defaulting on my mortgage. Now I am not just willing to sell my picture to you. I’m desperate to sell my picture to you. You may even get it at a knockdown price. This isn’t just idle metaphor.

tom fitzpatrick: Now Gordy is running the ruin. No. Floyd is running the ruin. They’re both running the ruin. Gordy and Floyd, Floyd and Gordy. One and the same, birds of a feather.

tony torn: The boil is growing out of control, recklessly at cross purposes with itself, its impacts multiplying as the causes disintegrate.

tom fitzpatrick: I’m here for now. Gordy or Floyd or whoever the hell runs this ruin. But I’m scared, too. Scared of age and ruin. Tee invited me here and I became one more visitor who never left. Where would I go, anyway? I had no place to go now you may think there’s something pretty about all this, about having no place to go. Well…that’s horseshit.

tony torn: I am no longer in a state of growth. I am in a state of excess. I ignore 99% of all information, 99% of all products. The tiny amount that I do absorb subjects me to perpetual electrocution. There is something so disgusting about this endless uselessness. It’s the disgust for a world that is growing, accumulating, sprawling, sliding into hypertrophy, a world that can’t manage to give birth.

The line, “This isn’t just idle metaphor,” has import for the exchange itself and for Abdoh’s work as a whole.

aids isn’t a metaphor, here or anywhere else in Abdoh’s work. What underlies all the topics is the paradox noted by Adorno in the epigraph, the health that contains and eventually embodies disease—and the corresponding repression of that which is healthful, the labeling of the cure as a disease itself. That inversion frames the conditions and point of view explored in all of these works. It is not a metaphor, but an ideology. The ideology applies to aids, where fatally ill people wander about, initially, looking perfectly healthy; it applies to sexual mores, which establish a normalcy that, nominally, are on behalf of those to whom they apply, but in fact constitute a repression that is often violent; it applies to capitalism, a system that contains ruthlessness in the name of creating a better society; it applies to nationalism and fundamentalism, which label diversity and tolerance as poison to what ought to be a pure body politic—when in fact the notion and goal of a pure polis necessitates its own cruelty and repression. “I am in a state of excess,” Tony Torn says, in reference to…anything. Abdoh, self-described as an artist of excess, uses extremism against itself, a poison to route out poison, a cultural form of homeopathic medicine, a rage against the dying of the light—a light that can be seen as dying in so many areas of life, and, most compellingly in the case of Abdoh and everyone else who has aids, or any other disease—in life itself.

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