Tremorous Narratives- a brief Review of the Literature on Bell and Young - Download the mp3- as read by Kari Gatzke

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To raise the question of the nature of the Bell-Young “events,” “performances,” or “exploits” — as the incidents have been variously described — is to invite reflection on the nature of culture, possibly even the nature of humanity. In their simultaneous engagement with the core issues of human existence — and their transcendence of humanity’s ostensible “limits” — Bell and Young present us with a series of paratheological conundrums. Unsurprisingly, a large body of scholarship has emerged concerning the Bell and Young phenomena. The problem of narrative — in lay terms, the problem of how to translate knowing into telling — is inextricably braided in this scholarship with larger epistemological, even ontological concerns. Thus, though we can say that the documentation of the Bell and Young “events” is quite vast, we must also add that the semiological analysis of such work is incredibly difficult.  In fact, it would not be excessive to claim that what these works share is a fault line in the epistemological/ontological axis of meaning.  A semiological tremor thus afflicts the entire enterprise.

In response to this disquiet, scholars of Bell and Young have sorted themselves into tightly walled-off discursive sectors, an effort to sequester their respective methodologies from the difficulties that emanate from outside. Even so, a kind of four- or even five-dimensional malaise hangs over the attempt to fit Bell and Young comfortably into the generic requirements of academic disciplinarity.

On one axis, a proliferating set of documentary studies authenticate the Bell and Young events. These inevitably have a forensic tinge, relying on imaging technologies (videotape, film, x-rays, radar, mass spectrum analysis), post hoc physical, chemical and physiological monitoring and analysis, and supplementary eyewitness reports. But the larger constellation of documentary studies emanate from journalism, where epistemological standards have only a weakly probative force. Here, while no one report can be taken as authoritative, a critical mass of reports provides some degree of truth claim reassurance. We know something took place, but are not quite sure what. The problem is that efforts to recount the events — the so-called ‘shooting fire from the hands’ incident, the delivery of an infant from the calf of Bell’s leg, etc. — invariably take on a mythopoetic flavor that subverts the credibility of the reportage. Even the soberest of writers — Leontyne Sanders, Chandak Ramagupta, and Irving Lee Suisman — are subject to an almost instantaneous appropriation, a translation into the intoxicated genres of theology. (The recent testy exchange between the Berkeley Interdisciplinary Taskforce on Bell and Young and the Vatican provides the latest example of the difficulties of appropriation.)

On yet another axis are scholars — emanating from cultural theory, sociology, and anthropology — who have adopted a hermeneutic or, perhaps better, a Talmudic approach.  Here the methodology is to bracket epistemological issues: the scholar takes a reportorial sequence or documentary film or video as an authoritative text, a given, and then explicates. The goal is to reveal a complex, internal set of connections, along with a larger set of external typologies that refer back to other Bell and Young events (or forward, predicting future events). Much of this scholarship proceeds in a fragmentary, contingent fashion. One part reflects on another part. Mila Dubristo, for example, draws obscure connections between the homicidal gorilla attacks and the blood garden incident, without ever narrating either story fully. Other scholars adopt an even narrower focus. Jean-Paul Rissot has devoted several books to various aspects of the centaur episode; Gottfried Hickel has written a stream of articles, some in collaboration with physicist Noel Aramescu, on Bell and Young’s breadmaking exploits.

Few scholars in the hermeneutic mode have attempted a global analysis; only Morris Deering and Pamela Berneshevsky come to mind. This is surprising, given the world historical impact of Bell and Young. Deering and Berneshevsky, in slightly different ways, compensate for the timidity of their colleagues by adopting approaches that verge on the apocalyptic. They chain together the entire sequence of Bell-Young events to create a larger story that points towards the end of human history (although that scarcely seems possible or provable).

On still another axis, a series of works both analyze and restage Bell and Young in a mode that can only be called performative. Here, we see the aesthetic and historical innovations of Bell and Young echoed in freewheeling formalist experiments with structure, genre, and mixed media. This approach is often identified with BY02 (“bee-sayro-doas”), a self-conscious movement of Latin American sociologists, anthropologists, filmmakers, literary critics, hard scientists and performance artists who present collaborative (and often ephemeral) performances that document, explain, and — they claim — collaborate with Bell and Young. BY02 has been attacked for its grandiosity. Similar, but more constrained engagements with Bell and Young can be found in the films of Canadian documentarian Leslie Manwaring and the texts and installations of Flemish theoretician/sculptor Dieter Koons.

In conclusion: The astonishing exploits of Jason Bell and Doug Young are by now well known, though still not well understood. Maybe they never can be. By their very nature, Bell and Young surpass attempts at understanding — even as the attention of the world is focused upon them. This perhaps encourages work in the BY02 mode more than traditional scientific, historical, sociological and anthropological study. But Bell and Young are still a comparatively recent phenomenon, an ongoing story. As long as they themselves have more to do and more to say, the scholarship will remain incomplete and — given the transcendent nature of their feats — inadequate.

Michael Sappol, Ph. D

Washington D.C. , February 2, 2003