Context Collapse: A Conversation with Ryan Ruby

by Andrea Scrima

Ryan Ruby is a novelist, translator, critic, and poet who lives, as I do, in Berlin. Back in the summer of 2018, I attended an event at TOP, an art space in Neukölln, where along with journalist Ben Mauk and translator Anne Posten, his colleagues at the Berlin Writers’ Workshop, he was reading from work in progress. Ryan read from a project he called Context Collapse, which, if I remember correctly, he described as a “poem containing the history of poetry.” But to my ears, it sounded more like an academic paper than a poem, with jargon imported from disciplines such as media theory, economics, and literary criticism. It even contained statistics, citations from previous scholarship, and explanatory footnotes, written in blank verse, which were printed out, shuffled up, and distributed to the audience. Throughout the reading, Ryan would hold up a number on a sheet of paper corresponding to the footnote in the text, and a voice from the audience would read it aloud, creating a spatialized, polyvocal sonic environment as well as, to be perfectly honest, a feeling of information overload. Later, I asked him to send me the excerpt, so I could delve deeper into what he had written at a slower pace than readings typically afford—and I’ve been looking forward to seeing the finished project ever since. And now that it is, I am publishing the first suite of excerpts from Context Collapse at Statorec, where I am editor-in-chief.

Andrea Scrima: Ryan, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to start with a little context. Tell us about the overall sweep of your poem, and how, since you mainly work in prose, you began writing it.

Ryan Ruby: Thank you for this very kind introduction, Andrea! That was a particularly memorable evening for me too, as my partner was nine months pregnant at the time, and I was worried that we’d have to rush to the hospital in the middle of the reading. But you remember quite well: a poem containing the history of poetry, with a tip of the hat to Ezra Pound, of course, who described The Cantos as “a poem containing history.” Read more »

On Joker (with Spoilers)

by Akim Reinhardt

I saw Joker last week. I think it’s an excellent film. But the two friends I was with, whose tastes often overlap with my own, really hated it, and we spent the ensuing 90 minutes examining and debating the film. Critics are likewise fiercely divided. Towards the end of our conversation, one friend admitted that, love it or hate it, the film evokes strong reactions; it’s difficult to ignore.

One reason Joker is so divisive and controversial is that several issues have dogged the film.

  • The film seriously confronts issues of nihilism. Because this is almost unheard in major Hollywood movies, it’s challenging even sophisticated viewers.
  • Director Todd Phillips has recently said some very stupid shit.
  • In this Trumpist moment, it is difficult to separate the film from current concerns about violence, toxic masculinity, misdirected raging populism, and possibly even oppressive whiteness.

Any serious discussion of the film must deal with these and other issues. Let’s start with the bookends of Phillips’ intentions and possible audience interpretations.

Director Todd Phillips, he of the massively popular and progressively redundant Hangover film franchise, has recently joined the chorus of spoiled Gen X comedians whining about “cancel culture,” and opined quite stupidly that “woke culture” has made it impossible to do comedy, and thus, feeling cornered, he has turned to drama.

Phillips’ sentiments are moronic, fragile, self-absorbed, and immature. In the real world, “cancel culture” is called “business decisions.” If Saturday Night Live fires a new writer because some of his prior comedy amounted to little more than tired old racism, they have done so because they’re worried about their bottom line, not your feelings. But if you really want to put the lie to “woke culture” ruining comedy, just watch the raunchy comedy of a talented, young, boundary-pushing comic like Nikki Glaser. In that context, Phillips just sounds like another middle-aged, straight white guy angrily bitching that no one laughs at his dumb locker room jokes anymore. Rat tail!

So is it fair then to ask about Phillips’ artistic and political intentions in making this film? Yes and no. Read more »

Hannah Höch. Whitechapel Gallery London, 15th Jan-23rd March 14

by Sue Hubbard

Image-4In the 21st century we have largely lost touch with the avant-garde. In an age of rapid technological change, where the new is invariably seen as good, the shocks and surprises, the eclecticism and flattening out of postmodernism have become the new orthodoxy. No one is upset by a pickled shark or, for that matter, a pickled anything else being art. In-your-face and gritty is what we expect from contemporary culture. There is nothing much to dare anymore, nothing much to lose, in a society where what is ‘shocking' is mostly an ersatz construct quickly appropriated by the economic mainstream.

But at the beginning of the 20th century things were different. Establishment ideas held sway and there was plenty to be radical about. Epic socio-political changes were afoot. The growth of industrialism, photography, cinema and mass media, as well as the gradual emancipation of women, along with the decimation that was raging throughout Europe resulting in two World Wars, formed a potent mix.

In 1912 Anna Therese Johanne Höch, who had been born in 1889 in Gotha, Germany, left her comfortable upper-middle class home for the cultural melting pot of Berlin. There she attended the craft-orientated School of Applied Arts, an education not uncommon for young women at the time. Here her cultural interests and an astute eye saw her turn traditional craft into something quite new. During the turbulent years of the First World War she met poets and painters, publishers and musicians, including that guru of junk art, Kurt Schwitters, just as Dadaism was hitting town. In August 1920, her radical interests led her to take part in the First International Dada Fair.

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