(Obvious limits to such an undertaking: even when my goal is just to observe, I don’t see what takes place a few meters from me: I don’t notice, for example, that cars are parking)
—Georges Perec (An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, trans. Marc Lowenthal, p. 15)
Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s Borealis: An Essay (2021) was commissioned as the first in a series of essays inspired by Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1974/5). Perec’s Attempt is a curious work, describing three days at the Place Saint Sulpice without wading through architectural or historical narrative (as I recall, no particular emphasis is placed on the police station, the district council building, the punning fountain, no ghosts of the Commune save the pigeons, although none of these are avoided, either); it consists mostly of lists capturing movement or a panorama (signs, the repetition of passing busses, groups of Japanese tourists, the recollected contents of grocery bags) and snapshots of individual moments (a wedding, a funeral, and I recall the lighting of a cigarette, but that could be misremembered). This information is presented as though from field notes, which are dated and sometimes timestamped; it is tied to the physical, the mundane, the quotidian – in fancy dress as a neutral account of what could be seen by any attentive observer on those particular days (not especially noteworthy) at that particular place.
Unlike Perec, Sabatini Sloan chooses not to describe a narrow segment of her own hometown, Los Angeles, but rather attempts to exhaust the town of Homer, Alaska (‘the end of the road’, as Tom Bodett calls it in his NPR-flavored writing about the town), which she had visited several (three?) times over the years for various reasons, in various degrees of (dis)comfort. The town is not clearly delineated, but remains amorphous, shifting – here a glacier, there a museum, a seal skull fetched by a dog, eagles through hearsay or the screen of a phone, weapons concealed and unconcealed, blank eyes – seldom seen. There are many names, personal reminiscences – situations, situatings: the text drawing attention to its references, trying to sit in a web of meaning, as though being caught in a web creates its own meaning. Perhaps it does.
One of us kept disappearing, appearing suddenly in a crowd.
—Aisha Sabatini Sloan (Borealis, p. 31)
Although working in a quasi-anthropological mode, the manner and content of Perec’s observation of Place Saint Sulpice are inseparable from his character as observer, which itself must be situated: clever, inventive, his parents Polish Jews who did not survive the war (a feeble euphemism). As Perec’s text elides his presence, heightens the sense of absence, as though the lists, the timelines, were the product of an invisible eye or a CCTV camera, big data, not a person with hopes and dreams, a past and a future – he appears with a sense of weariness, wariness, only to emphasize what he cannot see: The apparent lack of judgment is itself a judgment, and the ‘neutralization’ of the observer’s position is pointed. (I’m not certain this is an entirely accurate assessment, as it has been some time since I read it and I do not have a copy to hand.)
Sabatini Sloan does not work within the anthropological tradition, but rather provides a writerly notebook, wastebooks (grey A4, marbled B5), pointedly personal and all too present and visible as observer: ‘the other mixed girl’. The attempt to exhaust the end of the road does not exhaust the place so much as the reader – in part because of the blatant contempt felt for the people encountered (the inhabitants cannot tell the narrator apart from ‘the other mixed girl’ – just as the narrator can scarcely tell [or wish to tell] the diner hostess apart from Sarah Palin) and in part because it does not engage with the place (with white supremacy, with racism) directly but does so via mediation – through Björk, Anne Carson, Renee Gladman, Robin Coste Lewis, (the too-White) Iron and Wine, Lorna Simpson, This American Life, Donna Tartt, etc., etc. – not encountered ‘organically’ in Homer but borne in with the baggage, underlining (increasing) the distance between observed and observer: I’m not from here and I don’t want to be (this could, however, be another pointed absence). The book does not so much exhaust Homer, Alaska, as evade it entirely – it is not a place, but a shorthand for estrangement: Outopia.
This irritates without satisfying – but irritation is a natural consequence of a broken system, so let us say that this, too, was intentional.1
- In Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Sharpe discusses a class she teaches on memory, in which she pairs the teaching of the Holocaust with the legacy of trans*Atlantic slavery; her students find it easy to see the Holocaust as the main point of compassion, the star of history’s pageant of monstrosity, but find it difficult (if even possible) to give the same kind of attention to the narratives of the Middle Passage or Jim Crow (or Ferguson). She initially taught the events chronologically, but that led students to think of the account of slavery as an opening act, so she started to teach the Holocaust first – without, it seems, achieving the desired effect. It is a difficult effect to achieve, and I think this in part encapsulates my difficulty in appreciating (or feeling sympathy with) Borealis – it hits too close to home. [↩]