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The Carletonian

Schamus mixes humor and wisdom in Convo address

<mes Schamus, professor at Columbia University’s School of Arts, gave a convocation speech Oct. 14 to a packed Family Weekend audience. His talk, “My Wife is a Terrorist: Lessons in Storytelling from the Department of Homeland Security,” focused on the production of narrative in the United States.

“The assumption is that most [narrative production] takes place in Hollywood,” Schamus argued. “Instead, it’s in the suburbs of Georgia, bureaucrats, Homeland Security officers, all of whom analyze data that requires a Disney-trained imagination to make sense of.”

Schamus told the story of how the government labeled his wife Nancy a terrorist because she is an activist for the grassroots peace and social justice movement Code Pink. The database containing documents on her and many other suspects was initially meant to be destroyed by the government, but some information was disclosed to the individuals. Nancy’s own file – aptly titled “Narrative” – was heavily censored, illustrating to Schamus that “the file was no longer about her,” but was rather a specifically tailored narrative.

Schamus examined Nancy’s dossier as a text, emphasizing that the very presence of a spy during the activities which would would later be recorded in the file completely changed its nature. He drew a parallel to the concept that “an observer always changes the status of the object.” From this he illustrated the distinction between story and discourse; Nancy’s story, retold through the medium of her government file, became a completely different construct.

He highlighted how different media use different discourses to tell the same story. The censored document conveyed more by what was unsaid – “the redactions in the text” – than by what was actually legible on the page. In evoking Hitchcock-esque “narrative gaps” as useful guides to view narrative, Schamus emphasized that the “redaction creates the story” – that there really was no story underneath the thick black lines concealing information in Nancy’s file. 

He argued that his wife’s narrative did not require words to make her a suspect, but rather that the lack of information was incriminating.

“The marks on the page reflect today’s growing 24/7 surveillance,” Schamus said. “What if she creates a gap in her narrative? It’s not that she’s missing something, but rather she is making a bold statement.”
In the overload of constant information, an omission becomes evident.

Schamus concluded by arguing that this concept is strongly embedded in contemporary art and literature, which keeps the producer and consumer tightly intertwined.

“As a filmmaker,” he said, “I supply you with narrative, and all the information that comes with it. As you consume, you also produce information. I therefore provide you allure so you plug yourself in and continuously give your information to the world.” 

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