Entries tagged with “photography” from this Public Address 1.0

Walker Evans, Pt. 10

When Walker Evans entered the circle of Muriel Draper in 1931, a new set of problems arose.

Walker Evans, Muriel Draper's apartment 1931

Walker Evans entree into the sophisticated world of the Draper salon brought with it certain hazards. He seems to have made a hit with a number of homosexual and bisexual men who regularly frequented Muriel’s evenings. Kirsten, in his diaries, routinely recorded the episodes he witnessed and those in which Muriel reported on the general assault against Evans’s masculine virtue.

There was a case of an aspiring young member of the American diplomatic corps, an intimate of Jean Cocteau’s, who, high on drugs, took Walker out for dinner “and horrified him by acting camp and taking dope which he got in Harlem and which he decided was half talcum-powder after all. He would scream at the rails of the elevated and tell them to stop. He made a pass at Walker and was generally difficult.”

On a different occasion another of Muriel’s young blades had been so attracted to Evans that when he finally took the plunge of asking him for lunch, he did it such a “transparently flirtatious and ass-humping” manner that he was no longer attracted. Muriel, bemused, commented on “the subtle and powerful influence that Walker Evans exerted on all of us, mainly the mysterious quality that he projected— did he know his power or not?”

Beyond the hints provided by James Mellow’s biographical retelling, it seems that there was a certain power that Evans gained through mystery— through careful control of context and presentation.

Evans effectively decontextualized the depression in America

A Love Story

Walker Evans had women troubles too.

“A Love Story” perhaps reveals a bit too much about his attitudes

Walker Evans, Pt. 9

Walker Evans, Truro, Mass, 1930Walker Evans in the De Luze cottage

Walker Evans visited Truro, Massachusetts, in 1930 and stayed in the home of a family named De Luze, rented by his friend Ben Shahn. In the cottage of this Portuguese fishing family, his mature vision really began to take shape.

Had a wonderful dream last night. Where in hell do all those details come from. Really, literature, all the greatest descriptions I know are so much watery smudge to the least of my dreams. I suppose the best about dreams is the abolition of time. After one like last night's I spend the day tasting the tail ends of lovely unearthly moods without a headache. I think my powers lie mostly there, in dreams.

Walker Evans, Letter to Hanns Skolle, May 13, 1930

Evans' photographs of the De Luze cottage mark a profound turning point in his career, not because they were particularly successful, but because they show Evans' deepening dream detail. Though interest in the mundane is common among modernists, it's the complexity of detail that sets Evans apart. These photographs are a bridge between densely formalist experiments, and later photographs which show both this richness of detail, and the compositional complexity of Evans' early work. Life is found in details.


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I couldn't find the drive-in scene, so I'll have to settle for the ostrich scene...And then . . .

In the abysmal farce Dude Where's My Car, two guys are in search of a continuum transfunctioner. My favorite moment was when they became trapped at a drive-through where a disembodied voice insistently repeats “and then? . . .”

That's an easy way of describing parataxis. Parataxis is a quality of primary orality —to keep Alex happy, I'll further specify that it is a quality of ancient Greek primary orality— DUDE! That’s what the embryonic structure of blogging is.

When I first read Meg Hourihan’s piece on blogging, I said to myself— SWEET! Of course, this wasn't the hegemonic response. Stavros was the first to blast it, followed closely by Jonathon.

You see, in my opinion, what she was writing about is really the continuum transfunctioner of blogging. To be tiresomely McLuhanesqe, the medium is the message. I'm not saying that Jonathon and Stavros didn’t raise valid points, but as Meg replied in a comment to Jonathon’s post:

What I was trying to do in my article was simply point out that we can’t define this thing based on the content we're outputting, just like you can’t define photography based on the photos of one brilliant photographer. I tried to look beneath the content to the tools and format that enable us to make connections. I wasn’t saying that's all there is to blogging, I was just saying that’s one piece of it.

I’d like to take that a step further. What she's looking at is the grammar of blogging. There is a reason for the explosion of diverse content, post-blogging. I think it has a lot to do with the changes to the grammar involved. Blogging is a fat sandwich. I’m looking at it through the lens of orality, literacy, and secondary orality theory— what Kathleen Welch calls good bread for arguments about literacy in the electronic age. I think the content produced through blogging represents an entirely new kind of meat. And to invert Welch, we need the bread too.

Simply put, the structure imposed by the grammatical rules of timestamps, permalinks, etc., results in paratactic information exchange. Each day adds another level of and then. . . which had been largely lost in conventional hypertext documents. In hypertext, there doesn't have to be a then, only rhizomatic patterns of connection. Blogging imposes a structure which makes hypertext more functional as a medium. The first generation “link blogs” are entirely paratactic, compared to the hypotactic, subordinating [dare I say tree-like] nature of first generation personal home pages. Hypotaxis was derived from print literacy. Link blogs are in essence far more oral and conversational.

Blogs move things back toward the pole of orality because of their grammar. The world returns to its long-lost and then . . . roots. However, as the divergence of conversation suggests, it’s not a simple change. As long form blogging has stretched out, it still maintains its periodic oral structure while each post within a blog maintains a largely literate subordinate hypotactic structure. We are going into the future by rediscovering the temporal, ever-shifting nature of the oral past. As Jeremy Bushnell reflected a few days ago, there are precedents to this return to temporal writing, but the sheer scale of the thing begs that we examine not just how these tools affect “writers,” but how they affect everyone. Blogs are one of the best arguments for the emergence of what Father Ong calls secondary orality.

Why is this important? Because it represents an entirely new kind of consciousness, not a “paradigm shift” (yech!) but a syntagmatic shift. The grammar of blogging is perhaps instrumental for the practical development of a completely new grammar of thought. I don't think what Meg was talking about was trivial at all. Of course, I seem to be in the minority here, but I thought I'd speak up. Isocrates was present at a very similar interface point, and Welch has some really interesting observations that I’ll talk about later. For now, I just wanted to repeat a blogger's chorus:

Dude! What does mine say?

Sweet! What does mine say?

Dude! What does mine say?

Sweet! What does mine say?

And then is the paratactic connection with the dawn of oral, storytelling consciousness. I know I may get tedious and tendentious with all my linguistics and grammatology, but I feel this sort of thing is really useful in understanding what’s going on as we move deeper into the mass of electronic textuality.

The technology of photography is indeed of great importance, for example, in examining how the small hand-held camera and high speed films fundamentally changed the content of photography. In a mature medium, these questions are less important. But still, Walker Evans’s nearly recursive move back into heavy view cameras deeply effected the character of the images he produced, when contrasted to his street photography with roll-film cameras. The grammar of the machine affects the content. I gave up infrared photography largely for the reasons Jonathon suggested; people didn’t care about the photographs, only the technology. But, how old is blogging? Shouldn’t we be asking precisely these sort of questions?

[ducking before the ostrich pokes my eye out]

Walker Evans, Pt. 8

Reaching Toward Critical Mass

Walker Evans, Billboard in the Bronx, 1929-30

Jonathon’s gesture towards an Walker Evans photograph reminded me about something I should have been doing. Last month, I started a sort of survey of the work of Walker Evans, but I stopped around 1930— the point where most critics begin.

I was leading toward something. But once again, before I get there, I've got to pause for a moment to share a few more of those 1929-30 gems, which most people probably have not seen.

Early focus on the nature of hypertext pointed at the “death of the author” somewhat tediously. I think that TV’s latest motion toward the role of pseudonyms in the 18th century is a more fruitful (and perhaps not as cliché as he thinks) way to think about what is going on regarding the web. Where Evans was going involved marching in lockstep with the early modernists into anonymity. But prior to 1930, he was still working in a rather assertive and playful mode, dancing on the edge of sentimental celebration before falling off the other side into something bright, shiny, and hard.

So, I suppose I’ll dive back in again with a bit of a recap, and some new images. What keeps drawing me back to these photographs is their humor. I never seem to tire of looking at them. Though sometimes Evans is easily placed into his milieu, often, he dances precariously just beyond the edge of the “high seriousness” of modernity.

Eventually, Evans left the bright lights and big city.

The Pledge

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The Pledge

Balanced precipitously on the edge of my mind I was composing something to try to explain why these seemingly multitudinous issues regarding blogging, documentary photography, linking, symbols, identity, narrative, and representation are in essence one problem. But then I watched a movie. The Pledge just blew me away.

It is a trauma narrative. I analyzed a ton of them in a class last semester. The seminar I took on "writing and healing" was far from a "fru-fru" new agey thing. This field of study is small, and the principles behind it brought together years of research I'd been doing on symbol and narrative, as well as decades of real world experience with the problem of representation. To try to express it in few words is impossible; but it is deeply involved in the problem of distance and the nature of the self.

Nicholson, in The Pledge, besides reminding me a great deal (physically) of my oldest brother who died recently, precisely acts out the collapse and compression of self involved with traumatic events when they are denied resolution. The traumatic event becomes a symbol, usually wrapped around an image, which the mind just can't let go of. The funny thing is, literature is often taught the same way, traumatizing students with the endless deferral to symbols. Somewhere about half-way through my deep involvement with William Blake I began to see symbols as the enemy; they compress meaning into hard quantities which obscure more than they reveal. There are books (that I don't recommend) which compress Blake into a veritable dictionary of symbols, completely missing what he was really on about. Blake has far more in common with the eighteenth century writers than he does with the advocates of symbol who followed, "interpreting" him. They imposed a distance to his words that really isn't there. Distance is a complex thing. In order to “heal” a certain distance must be created from the traumatic event; in some ways, symbols are the limit of distanciation, in others, they are the limit of compression.

That's why Weinberger's idea that links (in a symbolic sense) are the ultimate in “otherness” (distance), and Jill's idea that they are the ultimate in barbarity (collapse) can coexist. This is the paradox of the symbol. What comes out in the study of healing narratives is that the degree of distanciation is a key consideration: too much, and it's a strategy of hiding behind mythic enabling, too little, and it doesn't expand the collapsed, traumatized self back into a whole person. The middle ground (and the way I believe Blake is best read) is in the realm of allegory, or narrative.

Allegory was thought to be an inferior form by the Modernists, and was met with conflicted responses by the Romantics (including Blake). When I read “The Rhetoric of Temporality” by Paul De Man, I began to appreciate the difference in distanciation involved. For over three years now, that light bulb has been burning. I've had this intuitive concept in my head that I can't seem to get out that I keep struggling to rationalize. It's sort of like wanting to build a bridge back to the Middle Ages, because it seems like something really important and vital has been lost. The control of displacement. What is unique about Walker Evans, and the reason why I sort of elected to spend my summer trying to understand what he was up to better, is that he faced the same problem of distance without resorting to symbol. He did not resort to narrative either, and so is completely anomalous; there is no literary model which describes Evans' approach to representation.

So, there is a handful of words that attempt to impress a logic on what I have been writing about. I think it is incredibly important to tease out the fine distinctions in approach. But ultimately, it's just a gut feeling that I've been operating on for several years; being an ENFP, I'm trying to backwards engineer a rationale behind this overwhelming feeling that symbols are not the answer to the problem of representation. Symbols increase complexity without a commensurate gain in expressiveness: symbols don't heal, they wound— all the while seducing us with their power.

Against the obstacles

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Against obstacles to truth

I couldn’t sleep last night. There are paradoxes in any position I try to take. Sometimes, my position seems to sink deep, complex, just out of reach. Other times, my position seems open, obvious, and irreconcilable. When I stand in a crowd, I realize I do not see the same world that other people do, or notice the same problems, or feel the same gravity. The only truth I know is individual, and locked in the paradox of my own perception.

My perception of the world is not an acentered system, proposed as some sort of postmodern ideal by Deluze and Guattari, “finite networks of automata in which communication runs from any neighbor to any other, the stems or channels do not preexist, and all individuals are interchangeable, defined only by their state at a given moment — such that the local operations are coordinated and the final, global result synchronized without a central agency” (TP 17). The number of obstacles to truth in this position is just staggering to me. Stems and channels do preexist. We all want. We all need. We all die. Eat, sleep, drink, dream. Individuals are not interchangeable; they are not defined by momentary states. To call this utopian is to deny everyone possession of their own world, their own perceptions. To say that the resulting system without hierarchy can somehow be synchronized into a unified result celebrates the end of individuality by substituting an amorphous blob of sociality. Some future. You can keep it.

My perception of the world is not a centered system either. A single center, at best, implies hierarchy, and at worst, implies predestination. I suppose my perception has evolved in my head into multiple centers, drifting together and breaking apart. Crowds are collections of universes, each one unto itself; unique, irreplaceable, and awash in the river of other people. It doesn’t matter so much where the river began, or where it is going, so much as it matters that we develop strong oars if we are to hold our place in the current. It's a sophistic view, of course, and while I like Deluze and Guattari's thoughts on nomadism, I suspect that rivers provide faster transport than wandering overland.

I suppose I like the river metaphor best of all. I’ve always been drawn to them, physically and mentally. With a strange flash of insight last night, I realized that the sole thing that bothered me about the “links as expression” question is not the linking, but the expression part. I realized that I had created great possibilities for misreading, because of my criteria for what constitutes “expression.”

It’s a nagging thought, and a problem which is deeply connected with all branches of what I’ve been writing about for the past month or so. In speech-act theory, expressives are utterances that are contingent solely on the knowledge of the speaker; they cannot be evaluated for “truth value” because they are the direct reflection of inner states, and are thus unverifiable. If a person says “I am happy” you can’t say “No, you’re not” because you aren’t them, and do not have access to their mind. Expressives cannot be weighed, measured, or evaluated except by the speaker. This is of course the spiritual high ground of expressivist art, and the reason for the multiple reactions against it in the modern period. Its aesthetic resists any larger utility, it is truly “art for arts sake,” unless the goal is shifted to that of persuasion. By this, I mean, crossing the border into the speech-act theory of commissive. Commissives are acts which invite sympathy, participation, a melding of that internal state into another to promote implied action, as in “I promise,” or “I empathize.” It’s a thin line, but a firm one.

Exposition is a different act. Exposition is not explained well by speech-act theory. There are categories which are close, such as “representatives,” or “declaratives,” but it gets murky quickly. A representative utterance is one which declares that some condition in the external world is true, and a declarative is one which acts to move the hearer to action in reaction to an external state. I think that link behaviors are probably best traced to this side of the speech-act taxonomy. They do not “express” so much as they represent or declare. The knowledge conveyed is not inside the speaker, but outside, therefore they may be more easily categorized as expository acts.

Representation is the toughest of the speech-acts to pin down. If something is true in the world, and verifiable by anyone (being outside the speaker), why say it? There is always the suspicion that the information should be taken as directive, or that the information has been pointed to as a reflection of an internal state and thus commissive. Representative acts are always problematic. But representative acts are the core of disinterested documentary work, a genre perhaps born from Walker Evans.

There’s much more I want to say here. But I want to make it clear that I was not in any way stating that link oriented blogs were not participating in communicative acts, just that it was problematic to read them as expressive. It’s a simple matter of internally revelatory (expressive) modes of communication vs. externally revelatory (directive, commissive, representative) modes of communication. The gap seems to be quite broad to me, and a river runs through it.

If you accept the Deluze and Guattari way of thinking, that individuals are not defined by their totality, but only in their states, then I suppose that all communicative acts are revelatory. But I don’t believe that people are interchangeable sets of states. I think there are universes in there, universes that are only revealed in glimpses, through expressive discourse.

But I could be wrong. All I know is what I see through my eyelid movies.

Shouting and Pointing

Shouting and pointing.

Leuschke is not here for a while. But I love the away screen. It says some interesting stuff about pointing. “Pointing at information has become a standin for its possession.” Some views on blogging see the entirety of the phenomenon in its embrace of shouting (punditry) and pointing (linking). I don’t see it that way at all. Like Weinberger, I think it's far more complex than that. What interests me is the ability to see, albeit through a limited window, into a diverse group of consciousnesses as they grapple and form ideas around information.

There are, in Foucault’s terms, new discursive formations being constructed. These contain elements of the old formations (narrative and cataloguing taxonomies) and entirely new social formations, where power lies in different sorts of capital. I don’t see it as a “new consciousness” so much as an ever-accelerating group of tools that force a confrontation with basic issues of social consciousness, i.e., public vs. private, individual vs. collective, etc..

It seems to me that the core is conversational, as many of the blog writers I read have proposed. The ideas I take away reading these texts, like normal conversation, often have little to do with the intention of the writer that has composed the text. I suspect the same is true of my texts, for the handful of people who seem to read them regularly. I’m a textual wanderer. I started reading I.A. Richards The Philosophy of Rhetoric, but stopped after the second lecture. There’s some dense stuff, connected with my other wanderings. I like dense stuff:

A perception is never of an it; perception takes whatever it perceives as a thing of a certain sort. All thinking from the lowest to the highest, whatever else it may be — is sorting.
Score one for the digital folks. It is or it isn’t, within an arbitrary category. But Richards doesn’t stop there, the next step is trying to figure out how meaning works in this process of sorting:
If we sum up thus far by saying that meaning is delegated efficacy, that description applies above all to the meaning of words, whose virtue is to be substitutes exerting the power of what is not there.
So in essence, pointing is what all words do. From Richards’ perspective, words are stand-ins, and as such, find their meaning in the things that aren’t there. Meaning is found in the missing context. Contexts are almost always multiple and blurry, in the most analog sense of the word. So, what is routed through our sorting is always imprecise; that's the power and beauty of it.
In these contexts one item — typically a word — takes over the duties of the parts that can then be omitted from the recurrence.
The "fit" of a word in different contexts is always ambiguous in one way or another, though they form a necessary shorthand needed to accomplish work. Though the sorting may be determined by structures such as “cellular automata” the deep questions of how these things are put to use is the real mystery. That’s why I can’t get that excited by Wolfram, or Chomsky either for that matter. I like the way that Richards put it (in 1936):

We can be fairly ingenious with these metaphors, invent neural archives storing up impressions, or neural telephone exchanges with fantastic properties. But how the archives get consulted or how in the telephone system A gets on to the B it needs, instead of the whole alphabet at once in a jumble, remains utterly mysterious matters.

Shouting and pointing is also an advertising strategy, a persuasive perception of rhetoric. It's a simplistic view of rhetoric on the web; though the structure of the network is rhizomatic, the connections of the people within it are not. And not everyone is selling something. Where Richards really shines is at suggesting that all rhetoric is not persuasion, as was thought in the embattled realm of classical rhetoric. There is also the matter of exposition, which is ultimately where Walker Evans set up camp in the visual realm, as a radical reaction to persuasion.

Richards points at Coleridge’s essays “On Method,” so I had to stop and read them. I'm easily distracted. There, I found the best perspective on Wolfram’s discoveries:

It is with sciences as with trees. If it be your purpose to make some particular use of a tree, you need not concern yourself with the roots. But if you wish to transfer it into another soil, it is then safer to employ roots rather than scions.
Coleridge would have loved Wolfram’s automata. He saw education as a process of extracting those roots intact into new soil. However, against his perspective, I see myself (as a teacher) concerned with the practical matters of building things, not growing people. This research will no doubt be of great impact to those in AI, even with Kurtzweil’s reservations, however, I don’t think knowing how the neural telephone exchange might work explains how we get what we need.

Something stuck in my head from a post from net.narrative.environments. I was reminded that, as an adolecent I was deeply influenced by two things: Playboy Magazine and The Last Whole Earth Catalogue. While I won’t explain Hefner’s influence right now, I will say that the subtitle of the catalogue, “access to tools” was a libratory influence. There is an optimism in thinking that access to informational tools can shape the world, an optimism that interests me more than the functioning of machine intelligence. I’m far more interested in the trunks of discursive formations than the roots; they make better planks with which to construct a world worth living in.

And I am far more interested in expository prose than persuasion.

Walker Evans, Pt. 7

Evans’ lists

Walker Evans, self-portrait 1929

I feel a lot better about dawdling regarding Walker Evans after receiving James R. Mellow's biography. It's over five hundred pages, and only goes to 1957. Mellow died before it was completed. There's a lot of material out there on Evans. The sources for all my ruminations fill a good-sized banker's box. I've been collecting them for years, because while I know a lot about Evans' approach, I'm still grappling with him as a man. Conflicting things are written all the time, and Evans encouraged that. He wanted to be a mystery.

I remain stuck in the 1928-31 phase because there is relatively little there, image-wise, though there is a lot of textual stuff. In 1929 Evans changed roommates, from Hans Skolle to Paul Grotz. Skolle was a painter, and Grotz an architect and amateur photographer. Skolle moved out, and Hart Crane left town. Though Evans enjoyed Crane when he was sober, like most people, he couldn't deal with him drunk.

Part of the reason for the limited number of photographs available, I suspect, is because Evans wanted to destroy any evidence that he was aligned with the “high aesthetic tradition” that he dabbled in, via his cityscapes. In the years from 1929-34, Evans forged a new aesthetic. The romantic or at the very least, dramatic, approach to photography was quickly moved to the itemized list of things he loathed.

Evans made a list of the things Skolle left behind when he moved out, sorting them in a rather familiar pattern.

Walker Evans, Pt. 6

Dusting Evans' Broom

Walker Evans, self-portrait in NY Hospital, 1928

I got a couple more sources to draw from, regarding Walker Evans today. There is some great information, which scares me somewhat. It's one of those deep personal things.

Though Evans claims that he wasn't really all that influenced by Baudelaire, Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology presents some of Evan's translations of Baudelaire's prose poems, as well as several Evans short stories. What's weirding me out is that Baudelaire is the person who drove me back to school after a twenty year absence. It's a long story that I think I've told before.

I am really quite taken by Evan's short story "Brooms." It really says quite eloquently some of the stuff that I've been skirting about, as I approach the really formative years in his art. It was written in 1929, and I have typed it in from the facsimile manuscript in the book, complete with the spelling idiosyncrasies. Don't bother commenting about corrections. It's the lit-scholar habit. What you see is what was there.

It's short and sweet. It also connects oddly with the post I wrote earlier in the evening as well. Notice that one of speakers "imperative needs" was a novel. I don't find this coincidental at all. Some people consume such things, myself included.

My ball

Cross purposes

Using their typical approach of pointing out contentious articles on the web, Arts and Letters Daily has gestured at another piece of academy bashing, You Read Your Book, and I’ll Read Mine.

Despite what your high school English teacher may have told you, literature does not make us or our society better. To be seduced by fiction is to live at cross-purposes with most of the really important things in life.
This of course, really depends on your definition of “the really important things in life.” Personally, I think people are the most important thing in life. They are life. There is nothing more relevant to existing on this planet than the thoughts and feelings of other people who have faced the same problems, and asked the same questions as you have. With a brief gesture at the notion of “social capital,” the bias of the article becomes clear:
What they have in mind is what economists call social capital, which is the trust between people that lets them get along well enough to build businesses and other useful institutions.
Of course I still have Bourdieu fresh in my mind, and was further struck by the discovery this same afternoon that Walker Evans read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (the example that opens the article) in 1930 and loved it. After noticing other people still draw connections between my blog and homo academicus, I feel the need to go off on another one of those historical rants that I indulge in from time to time.

I’m not a conventional “student” or a conventional “teacher” per se. I was shut out of education in the years that Reagan held sway as governor of California. I spent a long time in the business of selling things to people, burning out and ending up in more clerk-type employments. The reason for this being that as Coleridge observed, few things are more important in life than providing “bread and cheese.” But they aren’t the only important things, and I have long felt the compulsion to explore the fields of artistic expression. Maybe I’m just a victim of my “habitus” as Bourdieu would have it, but my own “spiritual economics” has long been at cross-purposes with monetary economics. The value which drew me, like Walker Evans and other artists I admire, was disinterestedness. The importance of this freedom from economic slavery (in my mind, though not in actuality) was what drove me to be almost totally unconcerned with normal notions of suck-cess.

The antithesis of governing principles between “cultural economics” and conventional economics is well explored by Bourdieu, and it explains a lot about my own particular doxa. One of the governing institutions of “cultural capital” is the academy, and the rules and principles are closer, though not identical, with my own. I also have that streak of American transcendentalist in me too, which rebels against homo academicus. So, when all is said and done I must continually assert that though I am now moving from the workaday world of saying “may I help you” (which really means “may I sell you”) to dispensing another form of capital. It’s closer to me, but it’s not me. I don’t know what the hell I am really, but I know that I am neither an uneducated laborer (though I spent most of my life laboring) nor an ivory tower intellectual. I’m just continually searching to find out what works for me, and “cultural capital” has always been more important to me than economic capital. Of course, there is a nice refutatio near the close of the article:

None of this matters if core curriculum classes teach students to question the falsely coherent narrative of intellectual progress that canonical books are said to exemplify, which is what happens in the best of such classes.
I couldn’t picture a better way of describing my state-run university, particularly the American literature people. However, in British lit, the problem is that if you don’t know the canon, you are unable to even begin to understand the literature of the last few centuries.

I get so sick of the bashing of universities, and of the so-called “great books.” It is only in the secondary literature that any sort of “coherence” occurs, and then only for brief historic windows in time. The stocks of writers, and artists, rise and fall based on their coherence to institutional politics, but also cultural capital. The first cultural capital of any importance to me was music; and I don’t buy the now institutional Rolling Stone or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame points of view. Yet I still love music. And I’ll continue to love the books, and works of art, that have use to me, canonical or not. Just because it’s canonical doesn’t mean it’s automatically the enemy. Sometimes they call them great books, because they are great books. But that’s up to each individual reader to decide.

That’s one reason why I find rhetoric as a subject field so attractive. There is no real canon. It’s at once the oldest, and the newest of subjects. What matters most is what works. In my opinion, Cicero, Quintillian, Aristotle, and Plato work as long as they are offered in the correct context. In some ways, these books, as well as other great works of literature have made the world richer and better; their utility is dependent on how they are presented. I think it best to present them as possibilities, not as totems enshrined in wood. Each time I read one of these articles I can only marvel at how crappy the writer’s teachers must have been, to make them hate the forces that formed them so much. The closing sentiment of the article regarding the goal of reading is good, but diffuse:

This process, however, has nothing to do with coming together and everything to do with breaking apart, with figuring out how to live as an independent intellect and a soul loyal to its own needs. Literature takes root in a rich and stubborn particularity, not in some powdery notion of communal uplift.
I think William Blake had it figured out better than that:

I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you to Heavens gate.
Built in Jerusalems wall.

Jerusalem, Plate 77

That’s what reading is for me. It’s not an academic thing, really, it’s just the search for that golden string. And this is just my ball. Sorry, but I do think it is about coming together. It's about joining yourself into history to better see where you are now. Literature works for me, perhaps because I'm working under a screwed sense of economics.

Harbor Dawn

“When the band plays hail to the chief / they point the cannon at you”

Hart Crane, photograph by Walker Evans, 1928

I'm mostly unfamiliar with the American canon. I could blame it on my education. The Americanists at my university are incredibly progressive, and tend to focus on more marginalized works. I only had time to take one of the survey courses in American Lit, seventeenth century mostly, and the canonical works read like dry lumps of wood compared to the other stuff presented (captivity narratives, diaries, etc.).

So, encountering a poem that takes in the sweep of the American canon like Hart Crane's The Bridge requires a lot of work for me. But it's welcome, because now I get the chance to fill in some gaps in my reading.

While it was accused by its critics as being an attempt at an American epic, The Bridge is really more of a lyric vision. It has an interesting affinity with Joyce, because it traces the events of a single day against a deep backdrop of allusions. But in Crane's case, the allusions are slanted and obtuse, inviting a great deal of speculation about the real nature of the intention involved. This isn't a cold intellectual game, but a warm-hearted reflection on the story of America thus far.

The fun really begins in the second section of the book, “Powhatan's Daughter.” I related the opening epigram near the end of my last entry on Hart Crane, and now I'm just about ready to start talking about its poems.

Epic and Lyric

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Epic and Lyric

Finishing up Practical Reason by Bourdieu this morning and perusing the excellent comments of people who have stumbled onto my meanderings, I feel like I need to clarify something regarding my usage of “epic” and “lyric.” These terms are appropriated from their poetic syntax, and pressed into the service of larger questions I’ve been thinking of.

As I noted yesterday, as I try to make sense of modernism (not my main focus of study), I have this sense that there is a fracture between the “epic” mode of totalizing narrative and the “lyric” mode of particularizing narrative. Labeling these “fields” of interference seems useful to me. It’s not meant as an oppositional binary, merely as a locus of artistic intentionality.

The aim of epic is to contain (traditionally in poetic form) the codex of a culture. The aim of lyric is to contain the specificity of a moment, a relation of distinctiveness, of individuality. Few artists have asserted as boldly as Milton did the aim to “justify” the ways of god to men. That is what I mean by epic, in the deepest sense. Lyric, on the other hand, seems to lean toward justifying the ways of men to god. Several people have suggested Moby Dick as the epic vision of America. I’m not so sure. It lacks the pervasiveness of a Paradise Lost; I would almost nominate The Scarlet Letter in its place, if I were really searching for an American epic. The guilt, shame, and price of conformity seem as much a part of the American codex as the futile quest. But I digress.

I’m not really searching for an American epic, just wondering at the tension between the fields of lyric expression and epic expression, between universality and particularity, and of the parameters that define both. Moby Dick is on my list. I started to read it last December, but I got derailed by school. A Thousand Plateaus has received a cursory glance, but I wandered away when I finished reading about rhizomes. I’m not a rhizomatic kind of person. I’m a tree kind of person. I’m not promiscuous.

I’m trying to stay on track. Next up on my list was The Waves by Virginia Wolfe, though I may do Moby Dick instead. And though it may seem as if I’ve forgotten to keep writing about The Bridge, I haven’t. It’s just a matter of swimming in an ever-deepening context. Also on deck is Pnin by Nabokov, Gulliver’s Travels, Gilgamesh, and The Road to Wiggan Pier by Orwell, not to mention another biography of Walker Evans now on its way. Sometimes I feel like Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode. Unlike Henry Bemis, I don’t need glasses, just time.

Of course littered through this there will be a few critical texts I want to pick up along the way. So, how were you going to spend your summer? I realize that most people don’t get so deeply involved in things as I do. But these things all feed into questions I have, and since I have no life, I might as well read about them. It can easily be assumed that I have too much spare time. This will change, since I’ve signed up to start writing a book in the fall, as well as teaching and other theoretical diversions. I should be working on some articles I need to write, but instead, left to my own devices, like Henry Bemis I’ll chose to read.

Walker Evans, Pt. 5

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Walker Evans, New York, 1928-9

At the turn of the twentieth century, the city was the place to be. Most currents in the art of the time owe a big debt not just to machine culture, but to the imposing presence of the modern city. With the benefit of the time that separates us, somehow the responses seem almost preprogrammed.

The city almost seems to dictate its own aesthetic. The reactions which Walker Evans had to draw from with were largely European, and it almost might be painted as a battle between the French and the Germans. The breeding ground of the German Expressionists was the sense of disillusionment of the city, with its anxiety and psychic distress. The disenchantment can be read in the poetry of the time, and it can also be seen in the visual evidence of early modernism.

One reaction to discontent is a pure aesthetic formalism, as exemplified by the Bauhaus. But there remains the echo of a transcendent, idealistic, form. Evans' formative years are found in this milieu, using the city as a metaphoric and symbolic object. There is a comfort in such reductionism. But peeking out from the corners there is a sort of human cry of distress, as all things become reduced in the scale of the city.

At the same time there is an exuberance that almost becomes lost, in an objective search for aesthetic perfection. It seems almost inevitable that all the Americans that became caught up in these German trends would later recant them, including Evans' contemporaries Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand. And the romanticism of the French was similarly dismissed, to forge an American vision.

On my island

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I’ve always had a mistrust of cleverness.

Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to Defoe. Compared with Swift or Pope, he’s surely bush-league, but all the same I find him compelling. I’ve taken the last couple of days to read The Life and Strange Suprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

It’s so great to read books with big reputations, and come away thinking that the reputation is deserved. Sometimes it astounds me how many things I’ve read in the last five years, but what always astounds me more is how many more books I have to go. That’s one thing that has bugged me about the way literature is taught; you get a whirlwind of excerpts, mostly filtered through secondhand opinions, after which supposedly you are “well read.” It was utterly refreshing to read a classic book without having to think about a niche to carve out to write a paper in. Of course the critical faculties are never completely “off” but all the same, I read this book largely for pleasure. And it was a pleasure.

But there were echoes of other things I’d been thinking about, particularly in some of the commentary from other writers present in the Modern Library edition. James Joyce said:

Defoe was the first English author to write without imitating or adapting foreign works, to create without literary models and to infuse into the creatures of his pen a truly national spirit, to devise for himself an artistic form which is perhaps without precedent.
The same could be said of Walker Evans; there is something so American about him, though it can’t be said that he worked without models. However, part of the twist in his photographic oeuvre is that he came to purge those models. Defoe, on the other hand, seemed to work with a sense of verisimilitude that was outside the literary establishment. How can you express yourself in a way that is believable? I think that the currents of realism became atrophied after Defoe’s time, lost in a maze of literary forms. But then again, the sense of realism in Defoe is also clouded by somewhat outlandish gestures at giving his text the authority of truth. Though they directly feed the stream of documentary progress, and the problem of authorizing any text, or expression, remains. How can we know who we are, if we don’t have a source we can trust about where we’ve been?

The novel was born from biography, and autobiography, or to a large extent, just plain gossip. I really like Virginia Wolfe’s introductory essay to Crusoe. It her typical well crafted sentences, she expresses the explosion of eighteenth century prose:

A middle class had come into existence, able to read and anxious to read not only about princes and princesses, but about themselves and the details of their humdrum lives. Stretched upon a thousand pens, prose had accommodated itself to the demand; it had fitted itself to express the facts of life rather than the poetry.
Despite the fact that there are few writers that would craft the expression so well these days, much the same could be said about the cornucopia of online publishing happening now. And the problem is the same. How do you convince someone that what you are saying has value? How do you convince a public, however small, that you are a vital human being with something to say? There’s always the resort to biography, which Wolfe resists:
For the book itself remains. However we may wind and wriggle, loiter and dally in our approach to books, a lonely battle waits in the end. There is a piece of business to be transacted between writer and reader before any further dealings are possible, and to be reminded in the middle of this private interview that Defoe sold stockings, had brown hair, and was stood in the pillory is a distraction and a worry. Our first task is to master his perspective.
I always seem to start that way. In many cases, the problem is complex. Interpretations encrust themselves around things, and often hide the purity of thought of the work itself. Stripping away these affectations to find the core perspectives is never an easy task. Finding out why an artist chose one approach over another is always instructive.

That is, it’s instructive to me. Defoe beleaguers the reader with endless lists, much like James Agee, and I suspect that these catalogues and inventories are essential to plotting any escape. He skips the florid prose, and cuts right to the utility of every choice. And that is where he’s useful to me, as I sit in my castle, on this green land-locked island.

Walker Evans, Pt. 4

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Bernice Abbott was a lesbian.

Bernice Abbott, photograph by Walker Evans, 1929

I didn't know that until a few days ago. Seems like I've got lots of people to rethink, perhaps a bit, as I enter that course in queer theory in the fall. We shall see. I don't like dividing people by their sexual preference.

As with Hart Crane, I don't think her sexuality really factors much into her art. Her project of documenting New York in the 30s, Changing New York, owes much more to her deep friendship with Eugene Atget than it does to her apprenticeship under Man Ray. And there is little doubt that she is the one who introduced Walker Evans to this anomalous figure in the history of photography.

Atget is from a different age, an age where photographers coated their own plates, and were part magician and part showman. He began life as an actor, but when he entered the profession of photography he presented it as an entirely practical form. He hung a sign on his studio which said, “Documents for Artists.” His project was to document a changing Paris, around the turn of the century, before those last vestiges of the nineteenth century faded away. But his photographs are nothing if not artistic. Atget's art comes not from the evocation of a singular vision, but a multiple one. I think that Walker Evans said it best.

He knew where to stand.

Back on the Bridge

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Walker Evans, Brooklyn Bridge 1929Stepping back on the bridge

Hart Crane's The Bridge has eight parts following the introductory proem "To Brooklyn Bridge." Most of these component parts are broken up into groups of smaller poems, and each one is dense. That's why I keep lingering.

Some scholarship (which I haven't read, thankfully) paints a picture of Hart Crane as a self-loathing homosexual, who was a failure in poetry and in life. I resist strictly biographical readings of most poets, and personally I see little evidence that the facts of his life (other than some fairly basic stuff) have much bearing on reading the poems. The poems aim high, much higher than the scope of a tragic life.

I listened to a paper a couple of days ago on Gerard Manley Hopkins which assaulted the same "easy answers" to Hopkins' poetry. The presenter noted that Hopkins, as evidenced in his letters, was thrilled by Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde and claimed that he could present a persona even more terrifying in his poetry. Scholars, on the other hand, claim that his later poetry is best read through the lens of deep, dark, depression which plagued him in his last years. His letters really don't support this reading; according to the woman who wrote the paper, he actually seems quite normal other than a few dark moments transmitted in his letters, latched on to as incontrovertible evidence for reading the poems as autobiographical.

The Bridge has nothing to do with self-loathing, as far as I can tell. It seems to me to speak to the difficulty of maintaining a romantic spirit in a modern age.

Trying to bring it together

Trying to bring it together

I know I’m difficult to follow sometimes. So many things converge in my head at the same time, and I have an affinity for a period in prose that most people have problems with. When you read so much eighteenth and nineteenth century stuff, it seems natural to write in long and flowing sentences joined by the most tenuous and subtle of twists; this is to me an elegant thing, not a gesture at impenetrability. Another nagging problem, no doubt stemming from my love of poetry, is my frequent use of rather ambiguous pronouns. I just picked up a paper yesterday, containing notice of that flaw. Duly noted. I suspect it’s because the essay in question was a critical survey which I just didn’t want to write, and didn’t proofread adequately.

There has been a subtle change in my thinking in the last few months, as I have entered the reality of teaching. This manifests itself in my imposition of what I consider to be large philosophical issues in the practical realities of conveying things to other people, and seeing the struggle of writers in literature who have attempted the same thing. Writing doesn’t just elevate, it also instructs. That is, if you’re motivated and diligent enough to really lose yourself to it. How do you convince people that writing is a valuable thing, not just an exercise in academic masturbation?

In “Diving in: An Introduction to Basic Writing” Mina Shaughnessy offers the hypothesis that there are four stages that teachers go through when they enter the craft of teaching writing:

  1. Guarding the Tower
  2. Converting the Natives
  3. Sounding the Depths
  4. Diving In
Guarding the Tower seems to be the stage that many literature teachers get stuck at (in my opinion, Shaughnessy, doesn’t make that claim). There is a wealth to be found in the classical canon, once again, at least that’s my opinion. The idea that teachers are defenders of that canon (and accepted writing practices too, which is more what Shaughnessy is on about) is something, I think, that is instilled by the grueling process required to get there, to stand in the front of the room rather than the back. After you’ve had years of people harping at you about correctness, it seems natural to dish back some of what you’ve had to take. "Do it again. How can you have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat . . ."

The shift into Converting the Natives comes when you start to see that students don’t accept, as you have come to accept, the utility of what you know. The task then becomes to act as emissary between the camps of academia and the general populace, sending messages back and forth to try to convert your students to your faith. Shaughnessy places this in more negative terms, saying that it comes when you think that there are a few people in class, that though substandard, might be brought up to the level of worthy pupils. That is where most teachers stall, and stop, according to Shaughnessy.

The third stage comes after a teacher begins to notice and pay attention to the pattern in the errors of students, and tries to develop strategies to address the reasons why these errors are occurring. Sounding the Depths is the process of trying to not just act as a mediator, but to begin to effect change, not just in terms of correcting the perception of the tower of learning, but also by sounding out just what is impeding their process of climbing its heights. A teacher needs to be not only well skilled in what the university seeks to teach, but in what the students accept as a workable practice in their version of the “real” world, in an attempt to bring these two together.

The final stage, Diving In, comes with the acceptance that somewhere in that classroom is a person who knows, or will know, more than you ever will. It’s letting go of that ego, instilled by years of schooling, that you are somehow better than the other people on the other side of the room. That’s hard for many teachers, but for idiots like me, that part actually comes pretty easy. I was incredibly flattered when one of my old teachers from the English department, after I summarized this article to him, said “I’m not sure I buy that; we don’t often get students like you.”

But they do. I was reminded of that, as I listened to the final projects of some of the students yesterday. That person is always out there, somewhere in the classroom, that is going to make a real difference in the world. That’s why I take that third stage, the stage of merging the real world with the world of academia, so damn seriously.

What does this have to do with what I’ve been writing the past few weeks? Eliot, in Tradition and the Individual Talent surely felt himself in the position of Guarding the Tower, whereas Hart Crane in The Bridge is closer to Converting the Natives. To use the Bakhtinian terms, Crane seeks to join “great time” with the “small time” of regular existence. That’s why, though tangential to my exploration of Walker Evans, this part of my project has really come together. In a real sense, this bridge between “great time” and “small time” was also Evan’s project, though he addressed it in a much different way. It is, in my mind, one of the strongest functions of art: to instruct. And I’m learning a lot from my exploration. The final two stages in Shaughnessy's scheme can only be implemented in the classroom, and since I'm not really trying to educate the blogging public, just myself, they can't really be applied here. But for those who are struggling to follow this, I thought I might try to offer up a map.

The first part of Crane’s poem, “Ave Maria” is really starting to come together for me. Though I tentatively posted both the text of the poem and some thoughts, I’ve come a long way in my understanding since then. So though it might seem a bit inconsistent to pause in exploring Walker Evans, it’s really not. “Two paths diverged” and all that. But the project was still the same.

Since as usual, in my meandering fashion with twisted syntax, I may have obscured the truth, I felt like I owed some explanation. Entries scroll off as my slow mind turns, so I wanted to try to bring things together a bit, for those who can’t see inside my head (which means everyone). I hope this helps, and doesn’t just add to the confusion.

Wooden Indians

Wooden Indians

Someone commented on the Neil Young list regarding his carrying along a wooden Indian as a stage prop for his performance on the Leno show last night on the rustlist:

What's up with Neil hauling around that noble wooden Indian to all of his gigs??? It must be some sort of security blanket or something...it couldn't be that his Neilness is trying to establish a trademark orimage because...after all... the folks most likely to take notice of such minutia are us Rusties/Zumans/NYAS members...and we now know from that Shakey tome that Neil could give a flying f*ck about what we think...
The very use of the word “noble” in this post shows how pervasive myths are. My first thought was that Neil never strays too far from myth; myth is a big part of dreaming, and he is most effective as a dreaming man, rather than as a political pundit. I tend to skip that part.

Inside jokes are always a big part of any artists work, I think. Sometimes they're embarassing, as Walker Evans so rightly pointed out.

Performing, particularly on the scale of artists of Young's stature is nothing if not mythic. Identifying and controlling those myths is a project that every artist strives for; I suppose you could say that it is a security blanket. It’s the how of mythmaking that dominates much of my thinking lately, rather than the why.

Are you negative?
In a world that never stops
Turning on you
Turning on me
Turning on you

Neil Young, "Are You Passionate?"

Making the grade

Making the grade.

I’ve just spent the day poring over portfolios, and being far too generous. But that’s okay. Some of the reflective essays really got to me; not that flattery had anything to do with my generosity. It was the issues that they brought up regarding my teaching style: “You talked to us on our individual levels” and things like “I’ve always hated writing personal essays, but you showed me that there were other kinds of writing beyond creative writing” and best of all, “these were tools I can use.” Most of the portfolios could have used stronger proofreading, but because I was not such a big “language cop” as other teachers, people seemed more willing to take chances with their final efforts. Almost universally, they showed strong thinking and improving critical skills. That to me is far more important than correct use of the semi-colon.

The biggest shock was the paper on medical marijuana. It was actually proofread carefully this time, and completely reformed and reshaped. Or better still, rethought. That’s what my class (in my mind at least) was all about. Learning how to think more effectively. That’s what writing does best: it teaches you how to think clearly.

As I went to school to pick up some straggling portfolios today, I ran into Dr. Kleine. He seemed to think that the paper I’m working on regarding triadic models really should find a slot for publication somewhere. I was sort of ashamed of what I gave him; I have a ways to go with it, but the basic ideas were there. I think that the focus on social practice in writing ignores the fundamental problem of “mental space” where writing is refined into a social instrument. All the “group work” in the world won’t put a person in touch with themselves, and into what really generates thought. It’s inside, as well as outside, so it’s dangerous to go too far in either direction. So many things these days seem to me to be just pendulum swings: “oh, individuality is everything... no, sociality is everything.” Writing is composed of both things. You can’t ignore one at the expense of the other. Many of my students remarked that I was the first teacher to really work with them individually on their writing. That saddens me no end. People are unique, and deserve to be treated as such.

I’ve been rethinking “Ave Maria,” the first section of Hart Crane’s The Bridge. There is a lot more that I want to try to write about that poem, before I move on with Walker Evans. There’s a paper in there too. I’ve got too many damn papers I want to write. But there is something about just spilling out these thoughts as they come to me. They are not rhizomatic, but treelike in every way. When I get a little further down the road, I’ll have to try to connect these posts in some way so that someone outside my head might stand a chance at figuring them out.

Sometimes, I go way out on a limb before I figure out where the trunk is. It’s gradually coming together as I read and write. That’s what this stuff is really good for. It is indeed, a “machine for thinking.”