Monday, April 8, 2013

Although every presentation from last Friday's Ecologies of the Inhuman Symposium was compelling in its own right, Professor Anne Harris' ecotheory-driven presentation "Hewn" was absolutely riveting.

Aesthetically, Harris' presentation differed from the rest because of a central video component that came virtually out of nowhere. She began by defining hewn, which is "to cut with blows of a heavy instrument", a statement, she said, "was as old as humanity itself". The deconstruction of an object with the measured use of a tool is in itself a creative act: it's re-building something new. The tone of the presentation was positive.

Until the video of the voltage. 15,000 volts surged into wood via nails.

I couldn't take my eyes off the trees of patterns, singed into the wood by amplified electric volts. The nail aspect of it immediately gave it a Christian significance, which Harris expanded upon by linking the cyclic nature of a tree giving wood to become a cross. The fractal erosion, she explained, could be undone by playing the video backward, somewhat "reversing the suffering" that Christ experienced being nailed to the cross.

Maybe it's because I grew up Catholic, but when the slideshow ended I felt a tremendous amount of guilt. Human guilt, spurred by an ecological phenomenon that transcended the nature of static wood. I couldn't get the video out of my mind, and it made me think immediately of a particularly harrowing episode of "Louie", the brainchild of self-deprecating comedian Louis C.K.

The episode of "Louie" entitled "God" heavily relies on a flashback of Louis C.K.'s childhood in a regimented Sunday school environment. The nun teaches the children about Christ's suffering in gory detail -- and upon C.K. laughing about an unrelated joke -- she takes matters to an extreme. The next day, a medical professional visits the children, sitting in the front row of the chapel's pews. He selects C.K. and his friend as volunteers, and recounts Christ's suffering from a medical perspective -- images of his body cut into ribbons and gory accounts of internal bleeding are both terrifying and inappropriate. But the lesson haunts Louis, when he is instructed to drive the nails into the hands of his friend, who is acting as Jesus. The ten-year-old Louis is unable to do it, to which the man replies "So why'd you do it to him? Your sins drove the nails through his hands".

Soon after, Louis begins to have nightmares about the experience. In a heartbreaking scene, he breaks into the church at night screaming at the symbolic statue of Jesus itself in the chapel: "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to!" He then takes out the pliers that he brought with him, and physically removes the nails from the Jesus statue in the chapel.

The guilt that C.K. feels is one of a certain Christian guilt -- directly feeling horrible about things that, in real time, could never have happened. Still, the 44-year-old Louis recounts these moments, presumably as scarring, with a certain level of nostalgia that comes through when his mother lovingly calms him down after the incident.

The show (which C.K. writes, directs and acts in) merges Seinfeld-esque standup scenes spliced with sketches of everyday life typically gone horribly awry. It's exaggerated, but utterly human instances hewn from C.K's own experiences as a single father dealing with divorce. Louis regularly encounters the death of pets, constant rejection, raising two little girls on his own, bizarre fantasies and crippling social awkwardness that plagues his everyday existence in the show. And we laugh in spite of ourselves.

The show hovers around the humor plucked from striking those emotional chords causing us to re-examine something of our own past -- much like the strange meld of nostalgia and guilt I felt after Harris' presentation. The tragic reality of the situation is the joke -- one that takes courage to, well, hew from our own bittersweet experiences.

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