Poets, visionaries, mothers of Grendels

Artist Paolo Cirio published photos of 4,000 faces of French police officers online for an exhibit called “Capture,” which he described as the first step in developing a facial recognition app. He collected the faces from 1,000 photos he had gathered from the internet and from photographers who attended protests in France. Cirio, 41, took the photos down after France’s interior minister threatened legal action but said he hoped to republish them. “It’s about the privacy of everyone,” said Cirio, who believes facial recognition should be banned. “It’s childish to try to stop me, as an artist who is trying to raise the problem, instead of addressing the problem itself.”

I just finished reading Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf, which is claimed to be a more feminist and accessible translation compared to its predecessors of Tolkien’s and Heaney’s. The poem begins with the Old English word “hwæt”, which is tricky to translate, but in many cases it would denote some sort of a call to attention. Tolkien chose the word “Lo”. Seamus Heaney, “So!”. Headley, in the introduction in the book explained that she was trying to invoke a scenario of a resident village bro who just settled into his spot in the bar, ordered a glass of beer, and was about to tell an epic manly story to his peers. So she begins her Beowulf with “Bro!” 

It is definitely hard to translate a quintessentially male ancient poem filled with a violent heroic campaign such as Beowulf, believed to be “product of a single aristocratic class of warriors and it is directed exclusively to the interests of such an audience”. Women are mentioned in the margins in the poem, they take place only as extensions of their husbands, or in the case of Grendel’s mother, as a monster. Even the queens were often described in the poem as ‘peace-weavers’, which means that marriage to them would only mean uniting two tribes together. In the poem they are just as intermediaries, their jobs are just to be bearing children to ensure the bloodlines between the tribed continued, and they were occasionally mentioned to be passing cups to the warriors during the many feasts they have. It does make sense for Headley to begin with that line, because well, Beowulf is indeed a bit bro-y.

But just like Headley, who spoke about this extensively in her introduction, I am intrigued by the character of Grendel’s mother. Even as the mother of a monster, she is unnamed and is an extension of her son. We all know when we refuse to name someone, that person is of no absolute importance whatsoever in our narrative. There were many translations of her appearances, but many times she is mentioned to have both human and monstrous physical characteristics — Grendel, however, a full-blown hideous man-eating monster, a descendant of Cain himself. Even her previous translations describing herself did not do her justice. In the poem, Beowulf is referred as to as an “aglæca” — a warrior or soldier. Grendel’s mother is referred to as the feminine form of the word, “aglæca-wif,” which was translated as a monster, a wretch, or a hell bride. In bringing humanity back to Grendel’s mother, Headley translated as “aglæca-wif” as ‘warrior-woman’, driven to blood feud after the grief of losing her son.

Toni Morrison in her essay Grendel and His Mother, questioned the lack of Grendel’s back story and motive, where in the poem he was only placed as a preconceived evil ready to hurt and kill. I think this passage is a good prompt for us to rethink of the binaries of good versus evil, and instead ask: Did you think he might be dispossessed? Might the system have excluded Grendel and made him act that way?

But what seemed never to trouble or worry them was who was Grendel and why had he placed them on his menu? [… ] The question does not surface for a simple reason: evil has no father. It is preternatural and exists without explanation. Grendel’s actions are dictated by his nature; the nature of an alien mind — an inhuman drift […] But Grendel escapes these reasons: no one had attacked or offended him; no one had tried to invade his home or displace him from his territory; no one had stolen from him or visited any wrath upon him. Obviously he was neither defending himself nor seeking vengeance. In fact, no one knew who he was.

Apropos to nothing, and yet everything, I could not stop thinking about this interview between Angela Davis and Yara Shahidi:

YS: I can look at every photo I’ve posted and see how many people have shared it. It then creates a hierarchy of what we think makes an impact rather than what actually does. One question I had tangentially: Being a part of the social media world is often how one develops a political opinion. Do you have guidance for young people developing an opinion now, on how to develop a non-reactionary politic?

AD: As a person involved in education for the vast majority of my life, it’s so important to not to confuse information with knowledge. In this day and age, we all walk around with these cell phones that give us access to a vast amount of information. But that does not mean as a result that we are educated. Education relies precisely on learning the capacity to formulate questions — what we call critical thinking. Learning how to raise questions not only about the most complicated issues, but about the seemingly simplest issues, so important.

This is one of the reasons I find the trans movement so important. When one learns how to question the validity of the binary notion of gender, one is questioning that which has persistently been the most normal context of people’s lives. The work of ideology happens in those seemingly normal spaces.

This is also why the police-abolition campaign has been so important. Prisons and the police state are assumed to have been with us forever. So we begin to ask questions about how we address issues of harm without replicating the violence: how we create safety by not resorting to the same tools of violence that are responsible for us being unsafe.

Reading in my tabs:

  • The cutest story to cleanse the garbage fire of our social media timeline and our respective political situations.
  • “People in power, the ones doing the crowning, generally believe that there is no one else qualified until they happen to decide to bestow the crown. It’s easier that way, isn’t it? To think that the first happened just because the right person finally managed to emerge and break through, and not because there was a whole system put in place to make sure no one who looks a certain way or comes from a particular background ever has a chance to do so in the first place.” On our cultural fixation with and celebration of firsts, ask instead: Who never got the chance to try?
  • As Cuba sluggishly got its population online, the shadow internet developed by volunteers provided a lifeline for thousands of people.
  • Also, an account of how Latin American social movements in the 1960s to the 1980s had experimented with less oppressive, perhaps even liberatory, ways of indexing and searching information.
  • Nigerians don’t trust the government to respond to emergency calls, so they created their own apps instead.
  • In Gaza, citizens are imagining what public spaces could be in Minecraft, and then actually building them. (Thanks Zam for the link)
  • How interesting is this workshop!!! #DRAGvsAI Virtual Workshop: Halloween Edition explores the ways that drag can be used to thwart the algorithmic monsters of facial recognition technologies.
  • Cyberfeminism Index is an in-progress collection of resources for techno-critical works all the way from 1990 till recent.
  • 30,00 word guide for surviving life-altering events. I see this is something I could come up with, if I am given ample time to research and write, and cooperative mental health.
  • A bunch of TILs: An evil, injurious, or worthless privilege or law is called a ‘pravilege‘. Keyword squatting. The Chinese word for ‘selfie’ is ‘Zipai‘, literally ‘self-shot’. The word for an ancient Greek emotion that corresponds to being bored, listless, afraid and uncertain is ‘acedia‘. Or as the kids say it — MOOD.
  • “[…] hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”

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