Allen Ginsberg – Ah Sunflower!


When I first started out as a lecturer, one particular symptom of modern academic life left me disconcerted. As I fumbled my way through my sophomore powerpoint presentations, I noticed that most of my student's faces were illuminated by their laptop and tablet screens. I soon learned to differentiate between the darting eyes and attentive frowns of those that were making lecture notes and the distant, fixed half smiles of those checking their social media feeds. My stepdad, a man with considerable teaching hours behind him, overcomes this issue by using a clicker to change slides while standing at the back of the room. That way he can see what's on every student's display.

I didn't adopt that particular strategy, but I found a video that helped in making students more aware of their present environment and how digital media can dampen that awareness.

In this excerpt from the Ah Sunflower documentary, Alan Ginsberg sits in a London garden and delivers a short address to the viewer. In the same way that Pauline Pierce's rebuke of Hackney looters gained a new significance when it became a viral video, Ginsberg's speech gains a new level of relevance in the new digital era that took place after his death.

A disembodied hand intrudes into the frame from the viewer's right, but thanks to Ginsberg's intensity and purpose, it is soon forgotten.

Ginsberg begins this address by describing his immediate physical state and then reminds the viewer to become aware of their immediate physical state:

"If you will keep your mind on the image that is in front of you, which is my face in the camera or in your tv tube or screen (tv tube) and realize (now) that I’m looking from the other side directly into a little black hole,

In the 21st Century, the viewer is almost certainly not watching this on a cathode tube television nor any kind of television for that matter. There is more chance that the viewer is now watching Ginsberg on a small glass rectangle, or possibly an interactive smartboard in a sterile academic setting.

Ginsberg then muses on the nature of this act of communication.

imagining that you are there, and also imagining what would be possible to say that would actually communicate, through all the electricity and all the glass and all the dots on the electric screen,

Ginsberg speaks with a low but animated voice from his serene garden setting. The viewer is perhaps in a less placid, more distracting setting. For the act of communication to be possible between the speaker and the viewer, both have to be aware of their immediate physicality as well as all the physical processes and structures that enable it.

His gestures should be noted here too, for they convey the nature of these mutual realms. He points to himself and then to the camera to differentiate between his me and the me of the viewer. He then makes a number of frenetic gestures to imply the physicality of the media that convey the message. He has already signified the screen or "TV tube" with the hand gesture we often use to signify closed gates or doors. He invokes electricity and glass with the same gesture of opening his hands and quickly bringing them together, signifying a kind of compression. Little dots of a screen are signified by a series of prodding finger gestures – as if he is making those dots himself like a pointillist painter or perhaps snuffing those little dots out.

so that you are not deceived by the image seen but that we are all both on the same beam, which is, you’re sitting in your room, surrounded by your body, looking at a screen, and I’m sitting in my garden, with my body, with noise of cars outside, so that we’re, at least, conscious of where we are, and don’t get hypnotized into.some false universe of just pure imagery,

Ginsberg once again gestures to great effect, drawing a curved line with his finger around his own face when speaking of the "image seen"

Here, with this deceiving image and false universe of pure imagery, Ginsberg is speaking from a quaint familiarity with television and cinema. He surely couldn't be aware of a universe of pure imagery that incorporates Virtual Reality, Clash of Clans and Snapchat. He surely can't be cognisant of a deceiving image that can call out to you, or buzz in your pocket, when it demands your attention. He states again that only an awareness of our mutual environments in conveying or receiving the image can save us from this grand deception:

you’re taking the film in front of you as an image, with a grain of salt, as an image rather than a final reality, and so you don’t get deceived by either my projections or the projections of the newscaster who will follow

Doesn't this perfectly describe the digital world and the willing deception that it enables? It hinges on mutual acceptance of a phantasmagorical realm, an imaginative world that unites the content provider and the content consumer. Both are complicit in the denial of the real world.

In a philosophical sense, there is something startling in that, when confronting my immediate *now* while Ginsberg confronts his – we are both living in the present despite our experiences of the present being a half century apart.

On another note, this video has helped me to deal with my own particular issues about being filmed. I've always been comfortable around audiences, even audiences that don't like me, but I've never been comfortable with cameras. There was something disconcerting about that "little black hole" that was the camera lens. Now I can simply remind myself that I am not performing to a machine, I am in fact speaking to the person of the other side, in their own world and their own body. There is a thrill, when speaking those words, in knowing that they could be existing in a present at the other end long after the recording, perhaps long after my death. It is a thrill that comes with any unwitting brush with immortality.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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