May 2002 Archives
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.
Loren, I have taken the Meyers-Briggs before, and I am actually an ENFP. I consistently score low on thinking tests. I'm more of an intuitive/feeling kind of guy. As the site (under career options) suggests, I can work rationally but only by a sort of "reverse engineering" approach from my basic intuition. Because my blog only presents one side of my personality, I may appear more inwardly directed than I really am and more logically structured. I agree that the test is amazing indicator of personality. I have been known to make serious errors in judgement by trusting my intuition, and am ill-suited to being a pedant. However, they tell me that it's a great personality type for teachers.
Oh, and Jonathon, you aren't "the only one to miss the shot of Journalism is the Holiest Profession serum." I'll have a lot more to say about that when I return to the Evans/Agee discussion later. For a brief span of time, journalists were actually able to dig deeper into things (the photo-essayists like Gene Smith come to mind), but even then journalism was hopelessly shallow. I know lots of them; I've been interviewed by a few; but journalism seems to me to be slightly below the ethical level of advertising. At least pitch-men have no illusions about what they do.
I’ve been doing this a long time. By this I mean attempting to communicate outside the “meatspace” world. Sometime around 1980 I bought my first “computer” in a toy store. A few years later, I was running a BBS [bulletin board system] which received visitors from several countries; this was all pre-internet. It was a frustrating headache mostly; I gave it up and went back to photography. What irritated me most was the resistance to disclosure. It’s hard to have a conversation with people when you have no idea who they are. Then, and now, I have little use for games. I taught myself how to program a little, but it was just too much work for the desired ends.
Around 1990 I bought a little subnotebook, mostly to track exhibition submissions and create slide labels. I got sucked in again, to the artists community on CompuServe (still pre-internet). I got involved in some e-mail groups, exchanging prints and such with other photographers. Somewhere around 1993 I fell in love with someone in a forum. During the years that the “Internet boom” happened, I was largely homeless, and seldom online.
The explosion of my life through non-“meatspace” interaction left me with choices to make. I could have withdrawn from contact with people around the world (obviously, a longstanding interest) or I could brace myself within a constructed identity to avoid further mishap, or I could do what I have always done, the one thing that I seem to be good at: be myself. The danger I feel in doing this is quite real; it’s not that I’m afraid of being fired, afraid of being misconstrued or misinterpreted: I am afraid that I will care too much for the people on the other end of the line. In fact, that is also one of the reasons that I ended up ceasing to pursue documentary photography: the problem of excessive empathy.
At first, I tentatively started to write to some listserve groups in 1997. I met some great people, and made a few “friends” of a sort. I created my first homepage in 1998. As time wore on, writing to the listserves seemed to be an imposition on people. I, obviously, have problems with brevity. While the feedback from a few people showed that they appreciated the writing I was doing, increasingly I found myself wanting to write about things that were hardly relevant in the context of a topical listserv. I wrote about literature on a music listserv, because the literary listserves were just too damn stuffy.
One of my favorite conversants on my favorite e-mail list, Luke Martin, started a blog. I followed it for a while with intrigue. In a “writing for the web” class where I learned HTML, I took the plunge and bought this domain. I started in February 2001 to hand code my own “blog.” About six months later, I started using Greymatter. I stopped writing to e-mail lists, though I do subscribe to a few. The reason why is that I felt, when writing for an audience of thousands (in some cases) that I was needlessly filling up their mailboxes with things that they had no care about. In blogging, users must make a choice to visit and read. If I get too boring, the readership may chose not to return, and unlike an e-mail list, most likely won't flame me for being "off-topic".
Why have I got the biographical introduction bug again? Because Luke has been dooced. He lost his job in London, and may be forced to move back to Australia. His blog may have been the excuse and not the primary cause, but the recent group of comments I have received reminds me that people are still bracing themselves against the repercussions of public writing. The danger is real.
So is the odd sense of trepidation I felt when people much smarter than me started reading my blog. I have soldiered on, hoping (perhaps vainly) that if I commit an outright error or fallacy in my writing someone might correct me. It is disconcerting when the “popular kids” start noticing you. But the utility of this thing far outweighs the downside, at least to me.
Blogging has brought me a great wealth of information. It has introduced me to some fine writers and people. Yes, I confess that I care about a few of them far too much, given the inaccuracy possible in reconstructing bracketed selves. But all the same, I do genuinely care about many of my longstanding “friends” which were discovered on the same mailing list, Badger, Johanna, Russ, and Kafkaesque, not to mention those like Shauny who I’ve been reading so long that I feel like I know them.
Blogarati? It took a long time for me to take the chip off my shoulder that made me refuse to link to the “popular kids” like Weinberger. Now, I don’t care. If I consistently read someone, I link to them. I don’t have to prove myself to be an outsider or brace myself against attack. Claiming "outsider" status is as much of a cliqueish behavior as joining a group. The only thing I'm consistently good at is being myself, inside or outside a group. There are several interlinked groups on my blogroll now, and I'm not as afraid of membership as I once was, largely due to my experience with the listserve group that brought me out of my shell and back to the worldwide conversation.
Mostly, I just want to hope that things will be well with Luke, and that whatever change happens will eventually be good. It takes a while for the ripples to settle. And I also wanted to give credit to the person most responsible for getting me started on this thing, with his link-oriented blog. I wish you nothing but the best.
Turbulent Velvet has argued emphatically regarding one of my favorite issues in the blogging debate: audience. He revised out some of the great bits about the loss of control one feels writing for an indeterminate, generalized audience, i.e., how can you selectively invite in those we feel most comfortable talking to, allowing a higher amount of disclosure and less back story, but left in the core conflict: writing for an audience that could be anyone.
I got caught in this sort of weird writer's thing a while back, where it seemed like I was continually writing an introduction over and over and over ad nauseum. Finally, I stopped. Well, sort of. Just a few days ago I attempted to explain my philosophical position (a sophistic world view) in order to provide some sort of underpinning to my rejection of certain aspects of postmodern, structure-free, conceptions of self. Reading several essays by Ricoeur today, the distance between text and conversation, between blog and real world persona, became clearer to me. I have not constructed a utilitarian persona to combat the problem of writing for any random surfer that might happen by, nor attempted to develop a focused “blogging identity” so that consistent readers might get an intended impression of me. I have chosen instead to just write.
And writing is what it is. It occasionally resembles conversation, because I react and respond to things I read in blogs that I follow, but ultimately, it’s still writing. I think about writing a lot, not just because I am a writing teacher, but because writing has gotten me into a lot of trouble in the past. I made the mistake of thinking that I knew someone, because of what they wrote, and believing that they knew me, because of what I wrote. It’s a dangerous error. Perhaps that’s ultimately why I became so interested in rhetoric. I paid a big price for believing in writing as a reliable vehicle for the expression of inner states.
My favorite two sentences in I.A. Richards' Philosophy of Rhetoric are these:
Words are not a medium in which to copy life.My appreciation of this role reversal was increased by reading more Ricoeur. One of the attractive parts of immersing myself in the study of literature was the impression, however misguided, that if I read deeply and passionately enough I could see the author back behind the words: their good points, their failings, and most of all their struggle to understand this world. Ricoeur labels this a romantic fallacy in reading, and finally years later I’ve finally come to a place where I agree.
Their true work is to restore life itself to order.
Previously, the choice seemed fairly simple. A text can be read as an artifact, self-contained and separate from its author (the “New Critical” approach) or it can be read as a socially and historically constructed artifact which is inseparable from the context of the author both in terms of power relations (Marxist approaches), psychological state, and demands arising from genre considerations. I had always opted for the latter group of plural responses, seeing works as a conversation between the author and his time. Ricoeur offers a third choice. The choice is somewhat similar to “reader-response” criticism, but not exactly the same. The tenets of reader-response suggest that what is important in a text is what a reader’s reaction is. This is problematic, because no two people read a text the same way, so it lacks the capacity to promote a generalized reading. However, Ricoeur places the choices on a continuum that is very interesting. We can look at the surface of a text, try to look behind the text, or, focus on where real interpretation happens: in the “possible world” created outside the text, as it is placed in new contexts.
This is where the postmodern view of texts really shines, I think. Attempting to communicate through texts effectively eclipses not only the author, but the reader as well. What is formed when we read is a possible world where we impose an order, based on words, to our conception of the ideas behind those words. It’s an imperfect thing to be sure. That’s why I really love Richard’s conception of rhetoric: “the art of avoiding misunderstanding.” Ricoeur makes another distinction which just rang with me, regarding the difference between speech and writing:
Conversational speech presents; writing represents.Think about that for a second. The prefix re has two functions. One is to do something again; this would of course be the Platonic view of texts, to be sure. However, re also means to go deeper. That’s why I write in this blog mostly. Not to join the global group-hug conversation (though I do admit that it is fun) but instead, largely for myself, just to go deeper into those ideas inside my head.
I am my primary audience. Period. To share with others is a great thing though, and I confess that I often strive to be entertaining and engaging. But this is secondary, and must remain so if this blog is to be useful to me. Otherwise, it’s just another trip back to high school, without the drugs and sex. I don’t think that would be nearly as much fun.
But the “I” of which I speak will always remain a sort of bracketed self, the self who writes. It is not identical with the self that sits alone, and lives with the choices it has made. It is only this bracketed self that is in play in the panopticon of web discourse. Those who have access to my physical self, have displayed absolutely no interest in my bracketed, blog self. My situation is a bit different than some; in my local, physical world, as BB King says “nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jiving too.” So I write freely, and at ease with this scattered mess, because I know that there is a big difference between the real world, and the world that lives in texts. With work, texts can help make the real world make sense; but they constitute possibilities, not actualities. I quit selling myself a long time ago; now I concentrate more on avoiding misunderstanding.
As I spend another sleepless night (because I slept all day) I started thinking about something (imagine that!). One of my favorite bits in Small Pieces Loosely Joined is this:
Perhaps the Web isn’t shortening our attention span. Perhaps the world is just getting more interesting.You’ll just have to imagine the huge “Amen!” I shouted when I read that.
I’ve always been rather “hypertextual” and I suspect I’m not the only one. Hart Crane seems to display a lot of those properties, as do most great writers (not that I’m classifying myself with them). My evil female twin, who I moved to Arkansas to be with (big pieces, too tightly wrapped into my personal mythology) was an artist with a taste for philosophy who usually had seven or eight books open around the house to different sections to clarify her primary reading at the time. I have worked the same way most of my life, reading at first a few things (and now dozens of things) at a time. I told myself I wasn’t going to do that this summer. I was going to read some novels, damn it. But I digress. When Weinberger did the “imagine having x books at your immediate disposal” I looked around the room and said, “but I already have that without my computer!”
Anyone who has read me for any length of time may have noticed my wandering ways; I started to read I.A. Richards. He mentioned some Coleridge I wasn’t familiar with, but since it was on my bookshelf I opted to pause and read it before finishing the book. His book reminded me of Ricoeur, which I had read, but I revisited the dozen or so pages that discuss Richards. I do that sort of reading all the time; it comes up a lot with classical references. When someone mentions a situation in a play or novel as context for a critical argument, I’ll often stop and read the work mentioned for the first time, or refresh my memory of it. I found myself strangely drawn to The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts by Richard Lanham tonight, which I’ve been meaning to read for some time (the theoretical books I want to read usually outnumber the novels at any given time).
In the preface, Lanham claims (regarding the personal computer) that “a new expressive medium had emerged— but the demand for the medium had preceded the medium itself.” I do believe this is the case with hypertext. The demand for it is something that has been building up in literature for years (particularly Modernist literature) because it becomes impossible to always know what an author is alluding to without a lot of secondary research. As history grows longer, keeping up on all the “commonplaces” of the day, words that have shifted in meaning or have fallen out of use, requires a battery of dictionaries and other aids to keep these works fresh and relevant. With greater access to tools, the world becomes a more interesting place because nothing is out of our grasp when it comes to providing deeper contexts to the topic you wish to explore. What makes hypertext interesting to me is not its rupture with narrative form, but its sheer utility when it comes to matching how people actually read (here, there and everywhere).
I’ve heard it said somewhere before that the primary job of scholars is research. With tools like hypertext at the fingertips of anyone who cares to use it, I can only hope that “scholar” stops being an esoteric or derogatory term. Research isn’t sitting in an ivory tower away from the world, it’s living in it and trying to make the most of it. I seem to recall Emerson saying something to that effect in a commencement address somewhere. He encouraged everyone to get out of the library and head for the forest after graduation. I suspect he’d probably not mind having a terminal around, so that the research time could be shortened, and he’d have more time to watch the sunset.
It had been a long time since I read The Rule of Metaphor by Paul Ricoeur. As I picked up my copy last night, I noticed that it was still interspersed with at least twenty bookmarks; it is, in my opinion, one of the most important critical works of the twentieth century. Going through the last group of lectures in I.A. Richards’ The Philosophy of Rhetoric, I noticed that the ideas were oddly familiar. No wonder; Richards’ ideas were part of the foundation of Ricoeur’s work.
When I wrote about denotative and connotative properties of links, I was falling back on the terms most popular in tech-writing theory. Richards doesn’t use those words, but instead, tenor and vehicle. Richards’ Philosophy of Rhetoric is more about understanding how metaphor works (to prevent misunderstanding) than any sort of tropological (style and figures) study. The distinctions Richards makes about metaphor were a bit confusing at first, but last night I began to see the power of it, driving me to pick up Ricoeur again.
Using George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in class last semester, it seemed easy to nod in agreement with the idea that the most powerful metaphors are visual; if you can’t picture it, it’s not a good metaphor. Richards attacks the simplistic view of metaphors as “mental pictures” instead suggesting that words are metaphorical when they operate simultaneously at two levels, i.e., “literal” (denotative) and “figurative” (connotative). However, those words do not adequately describe what’s going on either. Think of the word “strong.” You could picture a guy with big arms crushing something, I suppose, but what of “strong light”? You don’t picture sunbeams with muscles on them, whereas used in the form “strong man” you do. When you say someone is “brainy” do you picture a brain? When you say someone is “geeky” do you picture a circus freak that bites the heads off chickens?
Richards’ points about metaphors are multiple: they cannot be removed from context to be evaluated in isolation; they are not always visual; their meaning is constructed by applying selective parts of the other contexts to which they might also be applied. Thus, when we say something is geeky, we are usually applying the marginalized status of the geek, without taking wholesale the entire literal context the word implies. I would suggest, as Weinberger does in Small Pieces Loosely Joined, that link behavior is similar. Weinberger says that collections of links often have only one thing in common: whoever collected them found something of interest on that particular site. What that something is, is certainly a matter for conjecture — not as “expression” but as part of a larger meaning constituted by the site which chose to link them. Taken in isolation, they are not meaningless, but rather are filled with so many different meanings as to make them an unreliable and imperfect indicator of personal expression. But these qualities do make them effective metaphors.
To channel Weinberger again, being “unreliable and imperfect” is part of what the web is all about. It can be embraced as a strength, rather than a weakness. The more I think about it, linking behavior was one of the first things that obsessed me when I first started reading weblogs. I picked the people I wanted to link to carefully; I did my best to avoid any of the “popular” circles. Sort of like going back to high school, it seemed to me. I tried to choose diverse weblogs with little in common with each other, to avoid reading stale repeats of the most popular buzz. I got sucked in by individual writers, not communities.
So what study might be made of my choices? Of the sites I find interesting enough to point to? The bottom line is that outside of the context of my own particular cave, very little. Linking choices are based in complex interactions, shifted by context. What puzzles me about link blogs with no commentary is why, given the absence of a context would I chose to click the link? Many blogs provide snips of the target document, which is quite helpful in determining why I would be interested, in lieu of commentary. Making a choice to follow a writer is an investment, and I find those with no commentary or quotes a total waste of time; hardly a revelation or new form of expression. I might as well read a dictionary arbitrarily. I suspect that there is much to be said for approaching links through Richards' labeling of the effective parts of metaphor.
Rather than denotative or connotative, rather than original idea and borrowed idea, rather than idea and image, Richards labels the parts of metaphor as tenor and vehicle. Ricoeur applauds this choice, because it makes it impossible to confuse the two parts with anything else, or give priority to one over the other. In a certain sense, you might call the target of a link its tenor, filled with overtones and information. The inducement to click it is the vehicle, be it quote, commentary, or context. The two parts work together. Sometimes they work through resemblance, sometimes through dissimilarity. However, what constitutes their effectiveness is that both parts must be present in order for it to qualify as a metaphor.
What is constantly true of links (or metaphors) is that they are externally referent, not internally referent, as building blocks for discourse— except in the case of incredibly skilled writers who build their own metaphorical universes through years of practice at their craft. Gesturing at other sources to clarify a position, make a point, or fuel an expression is a time honored tradition within a text, as are tactics of self-mythologizing word-play in writers like William Blake, who use the entire force of their oeuvre to pack each word with multiple meanings. I suppose that some bloggers are self-referential in this way, pointing to previous posts to clarify the compact concepts they use; but this is the exception, again, rather than the rule. Metaphors only work when within a context, a connection can be made with subtle possibilities of meaning. Otherwise, they might as well be a bag of words. Pick a handful— they’re cheap.
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.
Occasionally, I find the footnotes and bibliography of a scholarly paper more interesting than the paper itself. It’s rare, but it happens. When I surf into a link blog, I always get the feeling I’ve entered into something by turning to the back pages. Only a few of them interest me much; wood s lot is certainly one of those. There is a coherence to his method that is the exception rather than the rule.
Tom summed up my position fairly well, though I must state up front that it’s an evolving position which seems to shift with everything I read. That’s why off and on, I write about it. Bourdieu was fresh in my head, and I was thinking about how little, effectively, these taxonomies of social predilection really say about people. As an artist moving into higher education with feet dragging (I align myself closely with Joseph Duemer’s observation “this is the only way we have been able to figure out to earn our dinner & indulge our passions”) I like an occasional drink of red wine and listen bit of accordion music (norteño, not polka), effectively thwarting Bourdieu’s neat diagram. Of course, this makes it entirely possible to say that evaluating linking choices outside the normal habitus is a means to chart the “expressive” nature of linking.
However, Tom really hit a nerve regarding the real question at stake: logos vs. techne. Linking is a techne: a method of accomplishing either authority (in the case of scholarly discourse) or metaphorical connection in the case of web discourse. I say metaphorical, because linking behaviors operate on many levels simultaneously. A link can be a direct access to information for justification or a gesture of approval, or an indirect, ironic glancing blow at an object of ridicule, or oftentimes both. Links are stand-ins, symbols that revel in their multiplicity and playfulness. Reading authorial intent into these behaviors is complex; it pushes homo symbolicus to the extreme.
Links are connotative and only rarely denotative. When denotative, they usually express primarily habitus. So, in this sense I can agree with Alex that the connotative power of link behaviors might be worth consideration, however, lacking any real commentary or feedback (which is usually the case with link-driven blogs) determining authorial intent (as expression) is a potential mine field of misinterpretation. The only certainty regarding the connection of a personality construct regarding these connotative link behaviors, is that the personality has chosen to be silent. Silence is a difficult field to glean personality from.
What assumptions can we make regarding the personalities of authors who write dictionaries? Not many. A new mode of expression? I doubt it; we’ve been hunting and gathering for a long time, and while an anthropologist may be interested in reconstructing portraits of a people by what they choose to hunt and gather, it hardly seems necessary when so many people are willing to speak, and tell their stories in first-person narratives.
As Tom says, this is really not an either/or ground. Just a choice of what, within a given subject field, is the most interesting. Method has a powerful attraction. Coleridge takes an interesting stance in his essays “On Method.” He starts with the question of what makes a person seem to be “of superior mind,” when we meet them in passing:
Not the weight or the novelty of his remarks; not any unusual interest of facts communicated by him; for we may suppose both and the one and the other precluded by the shortness of intercourse, and the triviality of the subjects. The difference will be impressed and felt, though the conversation should be confined to the state of the weather, or of the pavement. Still less will it arise from any peculiarity of his words or phrases. . . . However irregular and desultory his talk, there is method in the fragments.This appears to support Alex’s contention (in 1818, just a few years before the web) that the method of linking is revelatory; for what are words, but links to ideas? Coleridge continues further on to say:
Method, accustomed to contemplate not things only, or for their own sake alone, but likewise and chiefly the relations of things, either their relations to each other, or to the observer, or to the state and apprehension of the hearers. To enumerate and analyze these relations, with the conditions under which they alone are discoverable, is to teach the science of method.Or, perhaps by quantifying and analyzing the relationships one might discover this supposedly new “method” of revealing personality through linking behaviors on the web. I tend to wonder: why would this be interesting outside the realm of sociology? People often write actual words that reveal themselves, rather than pointing at other people's words forcing you to guess. This is what interests me. I am far more interested in the content, formed and shaped by consciousness from these relations, rather than the relations involved outside the pointer, who gestures at something outside to complete a self-image. Pointers of this type are ultimately an impediment to clues of selfhood, rather than the revelation of it. "Just look me up under my particular notion of 'hip'," the link seems to say. Sorry, I've got better things to do than read the dictionary. If I want to research something, I'll use a search engine. Unless of course you have the comprehensiveness and the focus of wood s lot. My perspective is closer to that of a philosophic poet, or poetic philosopher, as Coleridge describes:
The purpose of the writer is not so much to establish a particular truth, as to remove the obstacles, the continuance of which is preclusive to all truth, the whole scheme assumes a different aspect, and justifies itself to all dimensions.I’m far more interested in the fruits than the tree. Pulp has a sweeter taste than bark.
. . .
— not to assist in the storing of the passive mind with the various sorts of knowledge most in request, as if the human soul were a mere repository or banqueting-room, but to place it in such relations of circumstances as should gradually excite the germinal power that craves no knowledge but what it can take up into itself, what it can appropriate and reproduce in fruits of its own.
There's a lot more I'd like to say about Weinberger's book; I'm not really avoiding the question, I'm just easily distracted. But, regarding the "self-sacrificing artifacts" that links constitute, I would argue that most language behaves that way. Each word is a gesture that flouts, or aligns itself with the social meanings which preceeded it. Language has been reaching out to "the other" long before the web was formed to carry it. Language is constantly reaching beyond itself. Links can be taken to be polyvalent signifiers, but then, so are words.
On Saturday, I drove in early enough to snag a parking spot a few hundred feet from the key entrance (now that I knew where it was!). No bridge crossing. Trout Fishing in America was playing on one stage, while the other was silent. I hadn’t seen them before, but they were just a little on the happy side for me. As I walked around to the other side, I saw a big man laying on top of a stack of equipment cases, twenty feet up backstage. It turned out to be Chris Chew of The North Mississippi Allstars.
I’d wanted to see them since an acquaintance, Daniel Gold of An Honest Tune magazine, had raved. Daniel rescued a guitar of theirs, when someone attempted to steal it in Fayetteville after a gig. Even though I’m not into the jam thing, Daniel has pointed me at some interesting bands as they’ve passed through town. I was near the front of the stage when they came out, and after a few songs I was glad I was. They had great energy, as they melted a bunch of classic blues tunes together. I looked around and saw some friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, Stephen Koch of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and my old friend Dan Limke who works for some newspaper consortium a bit further north. Then, a skinhead near the center just started pointing and madly gesturing at me like he knew me. Everyone thinks they know me. The band was playing great, until halfway through the set when the jamming became intolerable. I left to get a beer.
When I returned, the band had returned to playing songs. Overall, they were good. I just feel so damn cheated when people start noodling about on the stage. I think it was the drum solo that did it. Didn’t these people learn anything from the sixties? Drum solos don’t work. I left before the encore, to try to get a good position for the man I really went to see.
Steve Earle was a total pro. It was an acoustic show, and the monitor set-up was so bad I could hear the onstage feedback at the front row. He stopped once, to see if they could fix it. They didn’t. He played a few Bob Dylan tunes, and eventually commented “I’d be happy if they could just get the feedback in tune.” Earle explained that he started out as a folk singer, but he had to give it up because there were too many rules. He told stories about hopping trains as a kid, with a funny twist. He said he accidentally jumped on one that took him out of town and he had to call his dad to come and get him.
Later in the set, he played a Lightnin’ Hopkins tune, and told a story that Townes Van Zant had told him. It seems that Hopkins used his mouth like a bank. Any time he had extra money, he would put more gold in his mouth. He decided he wanted to get a diamond inset, but was so nervous that someone would steal it while he was sleeping that he had it placed on the inside. He carried a little dental mirror, so he could inspect it from time to time.
You could tell that Earle couldn’t hear a thing on stage. But he played amazingly well, for having no monitors. He just soldiered on, through a masterful set of tunes. As Tom Waits has said, “Steve Earle writes about American regret as clearly as anybody going.” I haven’t been moved to tears at a concert in a very long time, but this time I was. There’s just something about “Transcendental Blues”:
In the darkest hour of the longest nightI was overcome as I scanned the crowd, thinking about how so many of these songs obviously touched people. Inside each and every face in the crowd is a universe all its own, with its own thoughts and perceptions which are largely incommunicable to anyone else.
If it was in my power I'd step into the light
Candles on the altar, penny in your shoe
Walk upon the water — transcendental blues
Happy ever after 'til the day you die
Careful what you ask for, you don't know 'til you try
Hands are in your pockets, starin' at your shoes
Wishin' you could stop it — transcendental blues
If I had it my way, everything would change
Out here on this highway the rules are still the same
Back roads never carry you where you want 'em to
They leave you standin' there with them ol' transcendental blues
In the encore, Earle played a brand new song written for an album coming out in the fall. It’s called “Jerusalem” and he joked that it might get him deported. It’s obviously political, and unabashed in its claim that “the sons of Abraham must lay down their sword.” Just another one of those folk-singer peace anthems, but gorgeous nonetheless. I wonder when calling for peace became anti-Semitic?
I wondered for a moment at the end of the first encore if there would be a second. I suspected not, so I headed for my car. I feel reasonably confident there wasn’t because Earle was about two steps ahead of me, headed for his bus. I didn’t bother him. As I walked out to the parking lot, I could hear a girl talking:
“I just don’t get this bit about never being satisfied,” she said. “Is it just an artist thing or what?”
I paused for a second, unable to keep my mouth closed. I said:
“If you’re ever satisfied, it usually means that your standards are too low.”
The guy she was with laughed. She looked at him and said:
“He might be right about that.”
From the Shawnee Oklahoma News Star:
"He said he was driving along, and the next thing he knows, there was no pavement under him, and that he was headed for a concrete pillar of some sort and hit the water," Wetz said. Horn said it's possible that seven tractor-trailers and nine vehicles went into the water during the heavy downpour. "This barge came loose. It was an accident. It hit the bridge and the bridge collapsed and that was it," Horn said.
I noticed as I was walking across the Broadway Street bridge (same river, different state) that one of the sections was steel, while the others were concrete. I suspect a similar mishap occured here sometime ago. Barges get away from time to time.
Parking about three blocks from the base of the Broadway bridge, I thought I’d made a good tactical choice. I trudged past the green brass-eyed stare of the statue of Count Pulaski in front of the treasurer’s office, and stepped carefully across the steel-margined expansion joints in the concrete, past the Robinson Center and onto the bridge. Halfway across the mile-long span, I wasn’t so sure. I was alone, a few hundred feet above the river, looking down at the massive crowds below. Somehow, when you’ve made a choice that is different from a few hundred thousand people, you question it.
On the other side, I walked through twenty or more acres of neatly mowed green vacant lots. At this entrance, there weren’t many people. Just ticket-takers with stares fixed neatly a dozen feet behind you. Have a nice day. Such an odd layout. Two stages, back to back with each other. The entrance neatly faced the backstage area for both. I walked the length of the North Little Rock side toward the Main Street bridge, and noticed that the lines for the ticket booths were at least a hundred feet long. I walked back down to the far end, and stood in line at another booth. When I got to the head of the line, the beverage tickets were sold out. A fine start.
There seemed to be little choice other than to cross back to the Little Rock side. Another two miles, across the Main Street bridge. There was a horrible jam-up at the pedestrian ramps due to their great logistics. The entirety of the crowd was funneled down into a three-foot wide staircase. But I crossed over, bought tickets, and walked back. I avoided the jam-up by walking the extra half-mile back to the entrance where I first came in. I bought my first beer at least four miles later.
As I walked around, the music coming from every direction was clearly “jamming.” I found my self thinking, “please phone me when a song starts.” I got back to the stage complex to see a few minutes of Anders Osborne. It was a little unusual to see a “rock” band with a tuba onstage, but what the hell. Mildly amusing. The real fun started when Dr. John and Blues Traveler were playing back to back (literally) in this weird venue. I’m not really a fan of either, but given the choice I’ll run miles to avoid melismatic harmonica playing. I did walk to the other side, noticing that a lot of people had stationed themselves midway, getting assaulted by an odd cacophony of two bands playing fairly loud. The age split between the two crowds was predictable.
More than that, I was struck by the impression that people usually prefer the copy to the original these days. I don’t know why that is. I walked easily up to a space about fifteen feet in front of Dr. John, during “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.” Blues Traveller were unapproachable, as the dervish dead dancers were going wild. A side effect of the stage layout was that the crowds at the front of both stages effectively blocked the exits, so that the policemen carrying the day’s take had to climb the barriers in front of the stage, and cross in front of the performers with the money. The whole thing was a logistical nightmare, and it was surreal watching the six-foot-six four-hundred pound black bouncer at the front of the stage grooving as the money passed by while Dr. John was beating on a piece of bone with a drumstick.
It doesn’t get more Southern than this. A guy standing next to me kept staring at me. He eventually started shouting: “Hey, I know you!” I think I might have seen him in passing before, at the Whitewater tavern. I found myself wanting to say, “No, you don’t.”
I walked back over the Broadway Bridge as the encores were playing. The boats on the river, and the receding line of bridges off in the distance had a sort of Apocalypse now feel. But the real show will be tonight, or perhaps tomorrow night. They will block the Main Street Bridge for fireworks, as Rick James takes the stage (on the white side of the river) while a jam-band, Moe, and Steve Earle stand with their backs to each other on the blacker, North Little Rock side. I suspect the Broadway bridge will be more crowded; there isn’t any other way across, and miles separate the two events. There’s something positively metaphoric about the whole enterprise.
Things will come together on Sunday, as Styx and Run DMC will play simultaneously, back to back. It seems like some demented Middle America cartoon. During my way back over the bridge, I was passed by some gang-looking folks and a guy with Downs’ syndrome. After watching Forrest Gump last week, I sometimes do think that the history of this country is best told by an idiot, like Benjy in the first chapter of Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury. An idiot surely could have designed a more effective festival.
My ex stopped by today with her new baby, now two months old. So, this is the obligatory personal post for those friends back in California who are curious about them.
I took a couple of quick snaps, and in keeping with the "blogging outside the taxonomies" theme that I like to pursue, here you have it. No cat pictures for you, but here are some equally boring (to those who have no social connection with her) family snaps.
The Evans/Crane project may be paused for just a bit, as it is the Riverfest weekend. I feel a little shaky about all the walking involved, but since I missed it last year due to the broken ankle, I've got to give it a try tonight.
I'm also waiting with great anticipation for Loren's look at the Transcendentalists. I'm quite happy with the content out there I have to choose from. I like it when people talk about stuff that is outside my experience, regardless of what it might be.
So, this is but a momentary indulgence, a few snaps for some friends. I might take a few at the festival, but who knows. All I know is that I do need to get out more.Haters of family pictures, don't click here
There are some who say that content-heavy blogs are more 'personal' or more 'expressive' of the blogger's personality than link-heavy blogs. This seems to make a certain sort of sense: link-heavy bloggers don't talk about themselves and their emotions and stuff.
I disagree. I think that link-heavy blogs are as much about who the blogger is as a content-heavy blog. The web and linking reveals with a startling clarity the way we connect ourselves to others.
This is the perspective of an anthropologist, to be sure. As is also quite predicable, I disagree. What linking behavior reveals is the habitus of the blogger, in Bourdieu’s terminology, not the personality. How we connect ourselves to each other does not constitute what I consider ‘personality’; in Bourdieu’s schema, these things are largely involuntary, entirely socially constructed, and not in the least a gesture of expression or personality. It’s a strategy of indirection, hiding personality beneath the waves of cultural doxa. It substitutes pointing to capital for possessing it.
It is refreshing to me that most of the online writers I read do not merely shout and point. I have no interest in studying positions within the fabric of society, because this activity reduces everything to a set of well traveled maps. Old news, I say. The congruence of this method of analysis is easily demonstrated, as in the wonderful map near the opening of Practical Reason:
This is a useful way of looking at things. Chances are, most people’s social opinions, preferences, political views, etc., can be determined by this sort of mapping. But does it really tell us who they are? Not in my opinion; it merely relays social predilections that have nothing to do with any real constitution of ‘self’. But then if you adopt the position of social constructivism, there are no relevant parts to the ‘self’ other than these involuntary choices; we literally do not exist outside of our conditioned responses. This is something that I refuse to believe.
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.
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.
W.B. Yeats gathered together some fragmentary poems from Blake’s notebooks for the Modern Library edition of William Blake’s poetry, the same edition that I feel relatively sure is the primary source for most of the early Modern poets’ reading of Blake. It’s a cheap little book, quite gorgeous and pocket sized. I have no doubt that it was found in the pockets of many poets for years to come, including the Beats. What seems really odd to me, is that Yeats felt that these poems were best classified in a section he titled “Ideas of Good and Evil.” It sets the stage for a sort of cascade of misreading, because close reading of most of Blake’s catalogue shows that he felt these binaries were dangerous and non-productive.
To a large extent, that’s what Blake’s work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is all about. The perception of what constitutes a heaven, or a hell, is dependent largely on a person’s point of view. But it seems to be a fundamental human characteristic to itemize these things and set them apart in lists, particularly the bad things. It’s an attempt to create a balance sheet for spiritual economics. Blake’s point was that the world is made up of both, and perception depends on who is making the list. The same thing applies to cultural economics.
Well she likes Dinosaur Jr. but she can't tell you whyThese forces are in place in Walker Evan’s work. He became list obsessive; but he wasn’t the first. I found an interesting congruence in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
She says if you like country music, man, you deserve to die
She's got that whacked-out hair, got them second-hand clothes
She's got an itemized list of everything she loathes.
Well she’s so political, so sophisticated
She will swear in court that everything is overrated
“Idiot’s Delight” — Bottle Rockets, Brooklyn Side
A person I knew casually died recently. He was the husband of the 16th-17th century English professor at my school, and a philosophy professor. I was just at a party with him about a week ago. I don’t remember what day he died on; I just got the basic facts from another student who called me because they thought I would care. I do. He was a quiet man; I ran into him at a Kant lecture a while back, and we didn’t even speak.
But he seemed to be animated and in good spirits at the party. He wasn’t ill, and he was laughing quite a bit. I spoke to his wife briefly, but not to him. The story I got of his passing was totally mundane. He was found dead sitting on a toilet.
“How Elvis!” my friend said.
The cause of death was blunt head trauma. Evidently, he fell and hit his head somehow. He walked with a cane, so I suppose his legs were not the best. After breaking my ankle by stepping out of my car last year, this news hits me fairly hard. I don’t feel nearly so invincible as I once did. The idea that one day you’re here, and the next, you’re gone is of far greater interest to me than models of cellular automatons, and the possibility that the end of life is following some sort of cosmic computer program.
I really couldn’t care less about “A New Kind of Science.” I cracked up when I read that title, and a few reviews. Principles of New Science of Giambattista Vico concerning the Common Nature of the Nations, by which are found the Principles of Another System of the Natural Law of the Gentes was first published in 1725 by a rhetoric professor. It’s a more interesting document to me, because it draws upon the metaphoric, poetic nature of man’s consciousness as a formative basis for social cultures (gentile cultures, anyhow). It's usually called Vico's New Science. Much like the realm of advertising (New! Improved!), if you wanted to sell a book in the early eighteenth century you did need to gesture at its novelty. What makes me wonder about the latest "new science" is the dependence on digital modeling; life's alway's been analog to me. I suspect that's the primary novelty.
Unfortunately, death has no novelty. Realizing that if a similar thing happened to me, it might be as much as a month before anyone found out. But then again, I suppose it wouldn’t matter much to me. I’d be dead.
There is an interesting confluence of imagery between Evans' short story, “Brooms” and “Van Winkle”, the second poem in the “Powhatan's Daughter” section of Hart Crane's The Bridge.
It seems likely that Evans had read it before he wrote his story; it shows the larger issues behind the choice of sweeping utensils.
There is something Oedipal about the questions invoked. Evans buys a vacuum cleaner, where Crane places the same instrument in different hands, in a different place and time, wondering about the amnesia involved. For some reason, my brain wants to connect this all with Henry Miller's Remember to Remember.
But there are eddies and currents beneath the surface that I can't help but swim in. Photography is a relatively new technology, but the ocean is quite old.
The question is one of method, against a backdrop of change. Crane reaches out to embrace the inner thoughts, whereas Evans deigns to repudiate them. In both cases, it seems to be a response to tradition. The tradition of photography was shallow at this time, but the tradition of literature was deep. Although, it must be remembered that Hart Crane was a self-educated high school dropout who perhaps wasn't all that attached to what we now call "canonical literature."Recall that the question that haunts “Harbor Dawn” is “Who is that woman with us in the dawn?”
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.
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.
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.
I was tracking down some of the allusions in the “Powhatan’s Daughter” section of Hart Crane’s The Bridge when I found another rock rip-off. When I was growing up, it would have been a great help if rock and roll albums came with bibliographies. I discovered on my own that Jim Morrison ripped off whole songs from William Blake, but now I find another one of the ghosts from my past is also appropriated poetry.
It seems normal that American bands would rip-off English poets, but English bands ripping off American poets? Buried in Hawkwind’s spaced out album Warrior on the Edge of Time is a stanza of Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life. Now that’s just plain weird.
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And, departing leave behind us
Footprints in the sands of time
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.
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.
This seems counterintuitive, but it has fairly compelling evidence. Why would some people be amused at being the number one search result for motherfucker, where others might find it a rather regrettable consequence of excessive resort to profanity? Why am I so amused at being the number one search result in the rather narrow field of antimony fuzzle? I suppose it’s a matter of asserting distinctiveness.
Reading Practical Reason by Pierre Bourdieu, I was struck by the assertion that opinion is not a cognitive activity, but a bodily one. Opinion is the internalization of indoctrination by the state?
The state does not necessarily have to give orders to exercise physical coercion in order to produce an ordered social world, as long as it is capable of producing embodied cognitive structures that accord with objective structures and thus ensuring the belief of which Hume spoke — namely doxic submission to the established order.The citation from Hume includes the observation that “only opinion can sustain the governors.” So, extrapolating this just a bit, the reason why some people might embrace such seemingly negative descriptors such as “rageboy” or “motherfucker” might actually lie in the character of the American state, which takes as its essence a sort of adolescent rebellion against the norm. It’s not a gesture against the established order, but actually a coherence with it: institutionalized rebellion.
While I resist social constructivism, I cannot deny the attractiveness of its argument. It plays directly into the formulation of national enabling myths, such as the American myth of rebellion and nonconformity. Such things present an interesting merger of historic, and mythic, truths. The project which unfolded at the beginning of the twentieth century is my ongoing fascination here, and its immanence. The divisions, which Bourdieu always links with visions, resolve themselves into the parts which construct a national identity.
The construction of a state is accompanied by the construction of a sort of common historical transcendental, immanent to all its “subjects.” Through framing it imposes upon practices, the state establishes and inculcates common forms and categories of perception and appreciation, social frameworks of perceptions, of understanding or of memory, in short state forms of classification. It thereby creates the conditions for a kind of habitus which is itself the foundation of a consensus over this set of shared evidences constitutive of (national) common sense.What is most interesting to me is that since this national identity is constantly under debate in America, all attempts at national epic seem to be doomed to failure. We have conformed to nonconformity so neatly and precisely that consensus seems to be that there can be no consensus.
It has become a deep cognitive structure. One of the interesting obsessions of the Romantic period in England is the questioning of what remains to be done, once a national epic is written (in the case of England, that would be Milton's Paradise Lost). The prevalent theory is that the muse was on an endless westward flight, and a hundred years on there were several attempts at a national epic in America, all pronounced failures. The easy answer, and the answer embraced by most, is that the epic as a form was dead. The more difficult possibility which enters my mind now, is that our national character merely prohibits it.
Bourdieu’s point really is that if we can identify these structures, we can circumvent them. Why do we constantly agree to disagree? It seems like a strange foundation for a society, but it seems to be there. Reflecting on Robinson Crusoe you can see the elements of those “cognitive structures” (as contrasted with actual cognition) in Crusoe’s movement from a hapless tormented wretch, to a spiritual man, to a king, to a general, and eventually, at the time of his rescue his assumption of the rights and responsibilities as a governor. Why would a man alone give himself titles? Perhaps because to crown oneself as the top of any particular category is to assert distinctiveness from within those inherited structures, all the while conforming to them.
It was just a thought.
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.
I stumbled on an odd little book a while back, Introducing Romanticism.
While I've been courting Romanticism for quite some time, I'm always happy to get a formal introduction. This one's a bit different. It uses comics to convey the key concepts. I like the idea; if I were teaching a course in Romanticism, I'd consider using this book.
Though I'm resistant to clubs that would have me as a member, I must admit a certain blush of excitement of being named as a faculty member at U Blog. I like this part of the mission statement:
The heart of U Blog lies in receiving patiently and giving freely.Patience is certainly a key in dealing with my meandering rants, which I do give freely.
Whatever it takes to move the project forward, I say. Delacour suggested that I might be moved to the Szarkowski photographic chair, and I don't find anything wrong with that either.
However, Rhetoric, being the no-discipline discipline, suits me fine. Rhetoric butts into everything.
Alex is on a roll, both with his posts on filtering and his reaction to Weinberger's book. I think it an opportune time to point out that rhetoric has only shifted to an emphasis on the written word in the late nineteenth century; prior to that, it was both written and spoken discourse. But when Speech Communications started serving up the milk and cookies, Rhetoric ran to the literature departments. It's only started to break free again recently.
Ultimately though, they're all fragments in the same puzzle.
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.
I wanted to acknowledge some fine posts, just in case someone hadn't caught them. Luke collected quite a variety of Coney Island links, to complement my posting of Evan's photographs there. Shauny has written about triangles (one of my past and current obsessions) in her own distinctive way. Loren has gone off on a rather uncharacteristic rant, using such technical jargon as "it pissed me off." I was reminded of a paper that I had to read from a student that "pissed me off."
The first draft was an exploration of means used to put people to death for capital crimes. After each section, the conclusion was drawn that "this is a good method" or "isn't a good method" based on the amount of suffering. The more suffering involved, the more the student thought it was a "proper" execution method. It really turned my stomach. Worse still, the student hadn't even come right out and said that; she just assumed that everyone would agree with her that criminals should suffer for their crimes. Suffering is good? She also suggested the repeal of the amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. I told her that she had to have some sort of "warrant" to back up her assertions, even if it was a religious one. She was Assyrian, so she did a re-write cutting back on the emphasis on suffering and cited the code of Hamurabi as her reason for believing that capital punishment is just. It made me think of the quote "an eye for an eye and soon the world will be blind." But it was near the deadline, and the end of the semester so I just didn't have the energy to try to reason with her about it. She withdrew most of the outlandish stuff, and grounded part of her argument. I settled for at least some justification of her view, even if in my opinion it was ludicrous. Her answer was: "It's my heritage." Some traditions do need to be changed, no matter how old they are!
Thankfully, the next day I heard a paper by a young English major about to enter law school regarding the portrayal of capital punishment in African-American literature. It's her crusade to become a lawyer and do what she can to help abolish the death penalty, or at least stop innocent people from being put to death. I felt better. She was a very smart girl, not just because I agree with her, but because she had the sense to dig for things to help prove her case that capital punishment is racist, classist, and generally a screwed-up mess in the practical reality of the world. She wasn't just presenting an uninformed opinion based on quasi-religious thought. I didn't say that English majors were smarter, one of my professors did, but when it comes to digging deep into things they generally are a bit ahead.
Actually, my initial thought is to say that artists are smarter. That's because they know (if they really deserve the title) that what they do has the power to change the world. That means poets, writers, and landscape gardeners too. Pundits, well, they just punt-it into someone else's court. Oh, and so as to not close on a sour note, if you missed If's pointer for the Artists of Brücke (Bridge) you should visit it. There are some interesting topics to be discussed regarding expressionism and photography just around the bend.
It was such a beautiful day that I took it down to the bridge(s).
I haven't really ever taken snapshots before, so I thought it might be about time I started. It's impossible for me to really take digital cameras seriously.
But since I do my own labwork, and don't really have the time anymore, I thought it might be nice to at least collect some snapshots of landmarks.
But after one short little drive, I can tell that it will be really hard not to want to start making real photographs again. This place is just too bizarre.
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.
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:
- Guarding the Tower
- Converting the Natives
- Sounding the Depths
- Diving In
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.
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?"
I ran across this sentence in On Christian Doctrine that is just so freakin’ amazing I had to type it in:
For since through the art of rhetoric both truth and falsehood are pleaded, who would be so bold as to say that against falsehood, truth as regards its own defenders ought to stand unarmed, so that, forsooth, those who attempt to plead false causes know from the beginning how to make their arguments well disposed, attentive, and docile, while others remain ignorant of it; so that the former utter their lies concisely, clearly, with the appearance of truth, and the latter state the truth in a way that is wearisome to listen to, not clear to understand, and finally, not pleasant to believe; so that one side, by fallacious arguments, attacks truth and propounds falsehood, the other has no skill either in defending the true, or refuting the false; so that the one, moving and impelling the minds of the audience to error by the force of its oratory, now strikes them, with terror, now saddens them, now enlivens them, now ardently arouses them, but the other in the cause of truth is sluggish and cold and falls asleep!Got that? Talk about form following function. I suspect the core value of the exercise here is in the final two words. Geez, what a sentence! It reminds me of Faulkner.
But it also reminds me of the whole warblogging thing. There is nothing on the web that interests me less. I like to concentrate on the things I can change, like myself and my students, rather than pursuing the trail of truth to the point of becoming sluggish and cold, neatly causing everyone to fall asleep, or worse yet, polarizing complex ideas into simple us or them decisions. I read and write to expand, not to contract.
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.”
I had a thought, but then stavrosthewonderchicken beat me to it. Con-tent? Not me, I’m neither trying to con, or living in a tent. Con-duit might be a better word. Stuff flows through. Sometimes I get conned into doing it. But it is at least processed, excreted if you will, into the heteroglossic cesspool.
I’ll return to craning after a bit. I just had to get that out of my system.
What is a What Not
if what is not negates
what is not what
you thought it was ?
. . .
so clams open not
to the naughty What Not !
Hart Crane, from “What Nots?”
Every night she comes
To take me out to dreamland
When I'm with her, I'm the richest
Man in town
She's a rose, she's the pearl
She's the spin on my world
All the stars make their wishes on her eyes
She's my Coney Island Baby
She's my Coney Island Girl
She's a princess, in a red dress
She's the moon in the mist to me
She's my Coney Island Baby
She's my Coney Island Girl
Tom Waits “Coney Island Baby” from Blood Money
Walker Evans' Coney Island photographs
Walker Evans started taking photographs in a now standard way: making snapshots. Unlike most photographers that preceded him in history, the form was now established and not at all arcane. Roll film cameras were easily available to anyone who had the means.
He would have been around 21 at the time, and it appears that he started right before his first trip to Paris.
I had a vest-pocket camera [in Paris] and I still have about three snapshots I made, and they're quite characteristic. They're documentary scenes.
Taped interview, 2/1/73
Some of the photographs were observations of street life, and several critics have latched onto these as early examples of American street photography. In retrospect, I don't see them as all that innovative. They fit more into the experimental category, similar to Alexander Rodechenko's work, with distinct tinges of the early photojournalists like Kertez and Bresson. You can see the cross-currents of the time, evidenced from the beginning represented by these shots and the work he did upon returning to New York.His European snapshots are nothing to be ashamed of
I went to the bookstore, because I wanted to see if there was a better monograph of Edward Weston’s work available than the scraps I have here to draw from. Though he’s definitely out of fashion these days, I have a soft spot for the sort of transcendentalist splinter of modern photography. I remember the first time I read Sontag’s trashing of him in On Photography, it blinded me to the good parts of her book. I notice there are some new things out, a collection of work from Weston’s last days in Carmel, and a really cool book which juxtaposes Weston’s photographs with some I hadn’t seen by Margrethe Mather. But there wasn’t a comprehensive monograph to be seen. No Paul Strand either. Their stock must be down, again.
They are sinking in the Modernist ghetto. Evans, on the other hand, seems to have triumphed as a poster-boy for the postmodern rewrite of modernism. Reflecting on things, it seems to me now as a case of, as Lefebvre put it, the “illusion of transparency” vs. “the illusion of realism.” Realism won. But is this manifest? It dawned on me that the word, so associated with modern aesthetics (via the manifesto), might actually provide some useful clues.
The OED notes its entrance into the language as a verb, in one of Chaucer’s translations of Boethius, in 1374: “Thinken ye to manyfesten yowre renoun and don yowre name to ben born forth?”
1. To make evident to the eye or to the understanding; to show plainly, disclose, reveal.As the Middle Ages were ending, from 1508, the definition became one of certainty:
b. Of things: To be evidence of, prove, attest.But more than that, it became a useful way of dealing with things
2. To expound, unfold, clear up (a matter).But then, the term began to fracture as we entered the Renaissance, with a transcendental meaning:
3. a. To display (a quality, condition, feeling, etc.) by one's action or behaviour; to give evidence of possessing, reveal the presence of, evince.Refined in the 19th century to apply to things:
b. Of a thing: To reveal itself as existing or operative.This is the territory that Strand and Weston operated in. But all the while, there was an underlying realist meaning:
4. To record or enumerate in a ship's manifest.I think that is where Walker Evans and James Agee ended up working. Making a list, of sorts. I suppose inventories have a greater resonance in the post-modern, information age. It was just a thought
It’s important to know the milieu that these voices came out of, and grew in different directions. But looking at most of the photographic work available in the 10s and 20s, it’s hard to see them as so far apart. That all happened later, but not much later.
In the fall of 1928, Hart Crane moved into a building across the street and a few doors down from Walker Evans in New York. It was close to the waterfront, and Crane hoped to finish his poem there.
Though Frank Stella was originally set to illustrate the poem, the new friendship with Walker Evans made him change his mind, and use three of Evans’ photographs instead. It was the beginning of Walker Evan’s career, and near the peak of Crane’s.
The two men had a lot in common. According to biographer Belinda Rathbone:
Crane was a fascinating companion. His talk was vivid with puns and crazy metaphors, and his laughter could fill a room. He could talk poetry for hours, reciting passages from memory or discussing endlessly how poetry related to the other arts — “how a Bach fugue, a Chinese painting, a Donne Sonnet, all irrationally illuminated each other,” as one friend recalled, and ultimately, how his words could find their spiritual equivalent in pictures.The poem was mostly finished at the time, and you really couldn’t call the inclusion of Evan’s photographs a collaboration.
But they do fit together. The poem was first released in a fine limited edition, printed in France, and later in the United States. The quality of the finished product was to influence Walker Evans aspirations for the rest of his life, as well as setting a certain tone of sympathy, in detachment.Hart Crane was perhaps the first truly great man that Evans befriended, but he wasn't the last.
The first part of Hart Crane’s The Bridge begins with an inscription from Seneca:
Venient annis, saecula seris,That’s where the problems begin.I may have stumbled onto something, but to explore it I really must present the entire text
Quibus Oceanus vincula rerum
Laxet et ingens pateat tellus
Tethysque novos degat orbes
Nec sit terris ultima Thule
I went to class this morning to return portfolios, and two students showed up. I’m glad I didn’t write extensive comments, I just reviewed things to make sure that people were actually able to write in the form convincingly. Only a few took the opportunity to revise things, to take another look at what was really possible in their papers. It is sort of pointless to maintain my questioning presence. After all is said and done, I suppose more than anything I thought of myself as a tough audience who is not easily impressed. The effort put out by some of the people in the class did impress me; they might not be naturally “gifted” but their perseverance did pay off in the end. I feel comfortable with passing them on.
Then I went to Barnes and Noble. I wanted to see if they had the new biography of Hart Crane released last month. They didn’t. I bought another copy of The Bridge, primarily for the introductory essays. I’d been reading it again, sitting in an empty classroom, and thinking about the effort that Crane so obviously put into his work. He was a high school dropout, but his self-education was quite full. The flaws highlighted by others in his poems seem to me to be part of the overflow of Eliot’s tremendous influence, and his simplistic reading of the Romantics. I’m tremendously weak on American writers, so once again I perused the anthologies and noticed something: Hart Crane isn’t even represented in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eliot and Pound are there, with massive selections, and they don’t include a single work by Crane. I suppose I’d better get my Eliot rant out of the way.
Lest I be accused of being ill-informed regarding Eliot and Pound, I will admit that I haven’t been forced to read much Pound, who excites me with all the enthusiasm of a root-canal, but I have read Eliot extensively. He seems to me to be a talented, but altogether misdirected man. I am not intimidated by difficult poetry, quite the contrary, but I am totally bored with the pronouncements of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and though I enjoyed “The Wasteland,” I couldn’t help but feel sorry for its pessimism. I can forgive pessimism much more than the myopia of “Tradition”:
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.Can you smell the power here? He who controls the canon by which “new” art is measured, controls the world. An artist must “conform” and “cohere” to the established “order of art”? What Eliot describes here is not art, but the death of art. All language (not just art) is constructed in relation to the dead. The elitist aestheticism implied here was a sword here that cut through all the Moderns I’ve been talking about the past few days. But wait, theres more!
. . .
I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical criticism. The necessity is that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it. The existing monuments find an ideal order within themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.
. . .
. . .The idea that “art” is somehow distant from life, higher and more elevated, is a total crock (in my humble opinion). That everyone who has feelings desires to escape them seems downright misanthropic.
The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play a very negligible part in the man, the personality.
. . .
Poetry is not the turning lose of emotion; it is not the expression of a personality, but an escape from personality. But of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
The futility of this model of art is easily apparent in the words I noted from Walker Evans below. We cannot separate ourselves from the things we make. We’re in there, like it or not. Maybe if I had T.S. Eliot’s personality, I’d want to escape from it too. There are traditions that I feel a part of, but Eliot’s isn’t one of them. I use the plural intentionally; the “high church” of modernism has fallen, and rightly so. It’s been replaced by a more plural view. I was reading Alan Williamson’s swansong column in The American Poetry Review from 1995. I liked his assessment of types of difficulty in reading poetry:
Some poems are difficult because the presume, or recommend, a different level of “cultural literacy” than is now standard — Pound’s Cantos, for example. Others are difficult because they are attempting to capture a process, a series of stabs in the dark, thoughts struggling toward completion . . .Humans do want to live forever; not as complete personalities perhaps, but in persistent states of consciousness which do rise from personality, and are communicated to other personalities. Eliot is just sadly misdirected.
But there is a third category: poems that are difficult because they are written from a place in the mind where “real” experiences meld and overlap, where texture, heft, rhythm, slant of light are better keys to “meaning” than anything that could be expressed discursively. Such poems do not aim at putting the reader through an intellectual puzzle, but at giving the reader a richer sensuous and pre-rational experience, both of and through language.
Hart Crane, one of our greatest poets of this third kind, said that he wanted to give the reader “a single new word, never spoken and impossible to actually enunciate,” out of the interrelations of all its terms beyond sequential logic, “using our ‘real’ world somewhat as a springboard.” . . .
Crane was intensely concerned with all communication, but what he wanted to communicate was “a state of consciousness,” not stories or assertions: “This competence — to travel in a tear/ Sparkling alone, within another’s will.”
Blake was onto the difference between “self” and “self-hood” which he saw as an encrustation on the immortal soul. He sought to cast off the “rotten rags of selfhood.” But he would never make the mistake Eliot did, of throwing out personal distinctiveness as an important part of communication.
I became interested in the poet Hart Crane for an odd reason. I suppose it’s not that odd, if you know me, that is. I was listening to a bootleg of Neil Young at the London Festival Hall from February 12, 1971, and he introduced a song like this:
This is a song I wrote about uh. . .If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a sad/hopeful piano tune which wasn’t released until the 1973 album Time Fades Away
I don’t know how many of you have heard of a poet called Hart Crane, he wrote a poem called The Bridge among other things. . .
and uh, I’d just been reading it . . .and I wrote this song.
I started out feeling like I was Hart Crane so I wrote this song called “The Bridge”
Shortly after that, I bought Hart Crane’s Collected Poems, though I didn’t have the time to give it that it deserved, because I was knee-deep in W.B. Yeats. I finally got around to giving it a close read, as I reflected on the fact that the first edition of this poem was also Walker Evan’s first big break. I recall being rather confused by most of Crane’s poems, and the book had been sitting on my shelf for at least two years. Sometimes, poems don’t find you until you need them.
Because it was neatly nestled in the middle of the Collected Works, I didn’t realize that the poem To Brooklyn Bridge was just an introduction to a sort of American epic, which dances on the line of social engagement and detached aesthetic sense. And I didn’t know that Hart Crane committed suicide at the age of 32, and was a tortured homosexual. Crane worked on The Bridge for almost ten years, and felt that it was incomplete, a fragment that he just couldn’t bring together. Finding that out, brought Neil Young’s song into sharp focus:
The bridge, we'll build it nowCrane wrote The Bridge as an answer to T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” because he felt that it presented too negative a view of the modern condition. It is, in essence a sort of tragic love poem to America composed in eight parts. I’m still rolling in it, thinking of what I want to say. I’ve spent little time with modern poets, largely because of a huge distaste for Eliot and Pound, but I’m making an effort to get over it. Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams have helped.
It may take a lot of time
And it maybe lonely but
Ooh baby, ooh baby.
The bridge was falling down
And that took a lot of lies
And it made me lonely
Ooh baby, ooh baby.
The bridge was falling.
The bridge was falling.
The bridge was falling.
The enterprise of trying to write about deep topics on my blog forces me to let go of chronology and focus, while at the same time they assert themselves. I wanted to write about Walker Evans. But my Tristram Shandy mind has me writing about Neil Young, and thinking of the second part of Crane’s poem, “Powahatan’s Daughter,” and wondering about the entire process of myth construction, as it says on the Smithsonian web site:
Historians have pieced together her life from the accounts of others, most notably her friend, Capt. John Smith, whose veracity of detail and recollection is, to put it mildly, questionable. During the intervening four centuries others have showered her with virtues. Poets and writers from Thackeray to Hart Crane celebrated her charm. More lately rocker Neil Young sang, "I would give a thousand pelts / To...find out how she felt." And now we have the animated eco-warrior princess from Disney.I really wish they wouldn’t sanitize lyrics this way. The exact lyric is:
I wish a was a trapperI suspect that most people miss the irony here. The vision of America we hold is an illusion, a myth for hire if you can afford the price of admission.
I would give thousand pelts
To sleep with Pocahontas
And find out how she felt
In the mornin'
on the fields of green
In the homeland
we've never seen.
And maybe Marlon Brando
Will be there by the fire
We'll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome
and the first tepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me
And that’s all there, with much more, in Hart Crane’s Bridge.
O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies dreaming sod,
Unto the lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the Curveship lend a myth to God. (41-44)
I think the sad song of America took a big twist through Hart Crane on its way to the Beats and Neil Young. I think that all of them fail in one way or another, but it’s America’s nature to try and fail. I'll get back to Walker Evans, when I get back to that confounded bridge.
A good art exhibition is a lesson in seeing to those who need or want one, and a session of visual pleasure and excitement for those who don’t need anything — I mean, to the rich in spirit — that’s you.
Grunts, sighs, shouts, laughter, and implications ought to be heard in a museum room, precisely the place where they are usually suppressed. So, some of the values of pictures may be suppressed too — or plain lost in formal exhibitions.
I’d like to address the eyes of people who know how to take the values straight through and beyond the inhibitions of public decorum. I suggest that religious feeling is sometimes to be had even at church, and, perhaps, with luck, art can be seen and felt on a museum wall.
Those of us who are living by our eyes — painters, designers, photographers, girl-watchers — are both amused and appalled by the following half-truth: “What we see, we are;” and by its corollary: “Our collected work is, in part, shameless, joyous autobiography, cum confession, wrapped up in the embarrassment of the unspeakable.”
For those of us who can read the language, that is —I mean, I never know just who is in the audience— when the seeing eye man does turn up to survey our work and does percieve our metaphors, we are just caught in the act, that’s all. Should we apologize?
Walker Evans, from: A Transcript of his Discussion with the Students of the University of Michigan, 1971
His photographs scream “truth” with a capital T.
They’re not. Evans manipulated, arranged, and painstakingly controlled every aspect of his photographs. They were aesthetic objects, and yet he claimed they weren’t art.
He moved in the midst of high modernism, but it’s hard to call him a modernist. Genre labels are at best a ruse to hide complexity. I suspect that the tensions involved can be best explored by analogy. In Evan’s case, the poles operating in his work share much in common with the tension between T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane to a much greater degree than the poles he would probably choose himself, the difference between Flaubert and Baudelaire.
Evans also has a certain similarity with Percy Shelley. He was born into money, but not the “old money” of an aristocracy. Walker Evans I, his grandfather, worked his way up from a cashier to being a secretary at the Mound City Paint and Color Company in St. Louis Missouri. Walker Evans II, his father, was not a college graduate but had a native talent for writing which lead him into advertising. He was a very successful man, and following family tradition, when his son was born on November 2, 1903, he named him Walker as well.
But Walker Evans III, the photographer which I am occupied with here, changed the facts to suit himself. He claimed to be born on November 3, 1903, to match the numeral on the end of his name. Though his biographer Belinda Rathbone claims that it is unclear whether this was his idea or his family's, it is certainly in keeping with his well wrought personal mythology. There is a certain forced symmetry to his work, and the loftiness of being part of a tradition. The opening of her biography states his case quite well:
“Privilege,” said Walker Evans late in his life, addressing a group of well-heeled college students, “is an immoral and unjust thing to have. But if you’ve got it, you didn’t choose to get it and you might as well use it.”
. . . He believed that artists like himself made up their own class and were due their own set of privileges. His demeanor, both superior and comfortably informal, and his cultured accent, punctuated here or there by a mumble or stutter, suggested to many that he was an aristocrat, though perhaps not a born one. “He liked to imply that he was very well bred,” explained a close friend. “I think he was rather a self-made well-bred man.”
Like Shelley, Evans was a college drop-out. Like Shelley, Evans was often connected with movements for social change. But the comparison ends there. While Shelley was comfortable with his position, Evans was embarrassed to a certain extent by his. He recalled with disdain the way his father earned a living, working on such things as the Aunt Jemima flour campaign with its smiling mammy. Where Shelley was engaged, Evans was detached. But it’s a peculiar sense of detachment, because his sense of passion rivaled Shelley’s. It was developed through a stint working at the New York Public Library in 1924, pouring through literature and the now classic modernist texts from Joyce and Eliot as quickly as they came off the press.
He traveled to Paris, and began his involvement with photography in 1926. I note these facts as a prequel to exploring his photography in depth, because the contexts of his development— from literature to photography, rather than the other way around, is important to situating him in his milieu. He claimed Flaubert as his primary influence, as a realist, though he had great affection for Baudelaire as well. However, his disassociation, both from the rhetoric of advertising and the density of symbolism are key. Though his renunciation of the heroic “self” of romanticism may have come by way of Eliot, he does not share Eliot’s pessimism. Evans shares the passion for effect of Hart Crane, and his lust for an American epic vision, but not his tragedy. Researching Crane the last few days, I suspect that the key to unlocking the careful tension of Evans’ photographs may indeed be linked in no small way to Crane, who had a profound effect on Walker Evans’ career.
This of course will require digression at a later time. But I had to get started somewhere. Evans has been staring at me from the couch. And this of course, will be continued in the upcoming week.
Raymon posted a comment a few days ago that I never properly thanked him for. I’m such a “bad blogger” because I’m often trying to turn this into some sort of narrative, with connections between the constituent parts. Shelley wrote some embarrassing lines in the midst of great poems, and it takes a certain forgiveness to negotiate the full catalogue of most great artists. I find myself returning to Shelley’s Defence of Poetry often, and enjoyed the article about it he suggested, Shelley’s Defence Today. When I read it, I was greeted with an argument I’d made myself before:
A negentropic practice of literature could be encouraged by a literary scholarship aware of "the roads that go from poem to poem" and at work on the "map of understanding." "Intertextual" criticism, certainly, makes a beginning; with less jargon, more adding up of results, it could become a genuine science. I believe that here something like objectivity, or at any rate intersubjective reliability, is possible - that there is a sort of order in our literary experiences which subsequent observations will go on verifying.“Intersubjective reliability” is what modern Romantics seem to fall back on, myself included. But "a genuine science"? Bah. I wouldn't reduce it that way. I suppose intertextuality is what I’m really on about, as I revisit Walker Evans in the light of what I now know about Hart Crane and T.S. Eliot.
But like some people’s revulsion regarding Shelley, I feel the same way about Eliot. I really hate him, with a passion that is unfounded but profound. I blame him for too much, in the same way some people (like Eliot) vilify Shelley. But that’s not why I started writing this. . .
It was this fragment in a great post by Ray Davis:
Cognition doesn't exist without effort, and so emotional affect is essential to getting cognition done. Just listen to their raised or swallowed, cracked or purring voices: you'll seldom find anyone more patently overwhelmed by pleasure or anger or resentment than a "rationalist," which is one reason we so often lose debates with comfortably dogmatic morons.This was precisely Shelley’s argument in the Defence, which I was driven to remember while revisiting one of Hart Crane’s influences, Edgar Allen Poe. Literature always drives me to revisit other literature, in search of that sort of “intersubjective reliability.” Shelley’s point is clear:
The great secret of morals is Love; or going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.Emotional effect is the key to poetic rhetoric, a rhetoric which seeks to touch people in a lasting way. Note that the definition of a "good man" is one who "imagines intensively and comprehensively." It is through attempting to identify with others that we become enlarged. Note that for Shelley, the beautiful exists in thought, not in objects. This makes for an interesting "intersubjective" point with Poe.
Ultimately, any discourse seeks to move. The question is, move what? In “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe lays out an incredible description of his composing process:
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest— I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion select?”As he continues, he describes the poem as the best form for affecting the heart, and further:
Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. The pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, the most pure, is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect— they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of the soul— not of intellect, or of heart — upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating “the beautiful.”
It is this sort of elevation, which for Shelley was love, and for Poe was the effect of elevation that comes from the cognition of the beautiful, which impels humanity forward. Ray is right. It doesn’t occur without effort, which is why Shelley made his impassioned plea for poetry as the means by which humanity is enlarged and improved. That’s why I always end up back there somehow, even if he did write some very sappy love poems.
Rational arguments are indeed, just gravy. As Ernesto Grassi says in “Rhetoric and Philosophy”:
The indicative or allusive speech provides the framework within which proof can come into existence. Furthermore if rationality is identified with the process of clarification, we are forced to admit that the primal clarity of principles is not rational and recognize that the corresponding language in its indicative structure has an “evangelic” character, in the original Greek sense of this word, i.e., “noticing.”That for me is the foundation of documentary photographic practice as well. It is, fundamentally, about taking notice of the world we live in, and in Shelley’s terms, putting ourselves into the place of another. For me, that was the failure of Walker Evans. His focus was strictly on the beautiful, usually at the expense of love. I feel like he took they myth of "disinterestedness" a bit too far, and his engagement with aesthetic purity made moving people take a distant back seat. I blame T.S. Eliot. But then, I always do.
I’m always asking them. On the last day of my latest rhetorical theory class, we were given an open forum to ask any nagging questions we might have, so that the class could offer up perspectives on them. I asked one that has been bothering me for the last few years:
“What is the difference between Rhetoric and Fine Art?”
The groans from the class were pernicious. “Oh no! We’d have to get into the whole ‘what is art’ thing . . .” That wasn’t my intention, so I clarified myself: “Reflecting on all these articles which proclaim that rhetoric is an art, just what differentiates it from fine art?” I asked. No one answered. So I continued: “It seems as if the fundamental distinction is one of utility; is rhetoric defined in any way by utility?” Stone silence.
Granted, I’m probably the only one in the room that thinks of things in these terms, coming from the documentary tradition in photography. After thinking about it the last two days, I suppose I’ll jot down my thoughts. I haven’t been able to locate the Walker Evans quote I was thinking of. He said something to the effect of “my photographs are documents, because documents have a use, compared to art, which by definition is useless.” One of the students in the class brought up that the “uselessness” of art was purely a Western fabrication, and things stalled again. Okay, so I’m a Western guy. I haven’t been through the twelve-step program, but I’ll cop to it just the same.
That’s what makes the issue problematic for me. If I accept Evans' definition, it might seem that what I’ve been practicing all these years is rhetoric rather than art. But this has a negative spin, amply expounded upon by synthesis.
On one side, you have the words that "narrate" -- on the other side, the words that "affect." It's a very, very vicious war and it may never end. Like most such wars it's extremely difficult to even tell the two sides apart. Then consider that the words themselves are forever switching sides, promoting and demoting themselves and trying on new disguises.If art is defined as a pure affection, and history as pure narration (knowing full well that it is impossible for either to exist in pure form), then rhetoric is certainly closer to art than narration. Occasionally defined as persuasion, rhetoric is designed to move. That’s what makes it useful. Narration then, or history, would be most ineffectual in its purest form — it can only catalyze change by moving its audience. In this sense, fine art which merely reports the mental state of its creator, or of the world, without any attempt to move the audience to action (or feeling) is indeed useless.
That’s the myth of realism, and the myth of an “impartial” narrator. If art moves us, it moves us somewhere. That’s the goal of rhetoric, and the primary reason why it has grown up alongside the notion of self. If an audience listens, it requires knowing who the speaker is in order to grant authenticity. A speakers authenticity is established outside the realm of realism— a fabricated construct of identity— a self that is made visible and conveyed to others. The notion that a rhetorical “self” is somehow false whereas an artistic “self’ is true is part of the legacy of Aristotle.
It began with Plato, who cast the “narrators,” the poets, out of his ideal republic. They practiced arts of imitation. Rhetoric was devalued as well, and only dialectic remained as a means of divining the “truth”. Aristotle invited the poets back in, granting that poien was generative. Poets and artists created things, so they should be valued as creators. However, rhetoric ends up in the doghouse, as mere craft, which rearranges things to serve a purpose. Modern “new rhetoric” attempts to restore rhetoric to the company of poetry, as a generative and epistemic art. Ultimately, this does beg the question I asked. Just what is the difference anyway? If rhetoric is generative, then why is it different from poetry (and or art)? I think it’s just that nagging connotation of falsehood, which has persisted through the ages. Rhetoric can be, but isn’t always, a deception.
Alex suggested that the idea of presenting your self to others began with Aristotle. That’s close, but not strictly true. Concern with the false presentation of self to others began with Plato and continued through Aristotle’s severance of rhetoric from poetry. The importance of presenting your self to others, in the Western sense, was born in Sicily with Corax in the fifth century BC. It was a matter of property. A despot, Thrasybulus of Syracuse, had seized the personal property of the residents. Litigation resulted after the fall of the despot, in order to restore the property of the residents. Those who excelled at helping these citizens pleading their claims set up schools to educate others in the art of persuasion. This was the beginning of the Sophists (Sophist actually means teacher, or wise man). It was their questionable methods which caused the reactions of Plato and others a century later. The importance of presenting a “true self” is perhaps best illustrated by the Roman Quintillian though, who defined rhetoric as “a good man speaking well.”
From the beginning, rhetoric was generative. The only differences between rhetoric and art appear to be in questions of motive: A bad man, speaking (or painting , or sculpting, or whatever) well is accepted with open arms in the world of art. Art appears to live in a world outside good an evil, or at least it pretends it does. Rhetoric, on the other hand, is measured by its attention to virtue. A double standard, to say the least.
Both2andbeyond mused about St. Augustine. I like him a lot too. Somehow, it didn’t surprise me to find him in a paper that I stumbled on in circuitous surfing route from consumptive to daily operations to The Self as Narrator by J. David Velleman. Backing out from there onto his home page, I found a rather interesting paper called The Genesis of Shame, which uses Augustine’s questioning of the genesis of lust to propose that shame, in the correct context, is a good thing:
In short, Adam and Eve were right to avail themselves of fig leaves. Although the term "fig leaf" is now a term of derision, I think that fig leaves are nothing to be ashamed of. They manifest our sense of privacy, which is an expression of our personhood.Ah ha! Gonads are the cause of strife.
What I really enjoy about these strange surfing expeditions is that they often make me reach for books off my shelf, to contextualize the incidents used as examples by others. Reading Augustine is always such a pleasure. Velleman summarizes his argument well in the article, in short:
Augustine says that the genitals became pudenda when they produced the "shameless novelty" of moving against their owners' will--in other words, when Adam lost the ability to control his erections, and Eve her secretions. The idea of their ever having possessed these abilities may seem odd, but it has a certain logic from Augustine's point-of-view. Augustine thinks that Adam and Eve did not experience lust before the Fall.I enjoyed Augustine’s take on controlling the strife brought on by these gonads even more:
Yet there is less shame when the soul is resisted by its own vicious parts than when its will and order are resisted by the body which is distinct from and inferior to it, and dependent on it for life itself.
But so long as the will retains under its authority the other members, without which the members excited by lust to resist the will cannot accomplish what they seek, chastity is preserved, and the delight of sin forgone. And certainly, had not culpable disobedience been visit with penal disobedience, the marriage of heaven would have been ignorant of this struggle and rebellion, this quarrel between will and lust, that the will may be satisfied and lust restrained but those members, like all the rest, should have obeyed the will.
. . . And whereas now, as we essay to investigate this subject more exactly, modesty hinders us and compels us to ask pardon of chaste ears, there would have been no cause to do so, but we could have discoursed freely and without fear of seeming obscene, upon all those points which occur to one who meditates on the subject.
Augustine, City of God Book XIV
This all seems so familiar. The little head has a mind of its own, dangerously overriding the will of the soul — gonads and strife, if you will. It’s the shame of admitting that we do not have authority over all of our body parts which creates the strife, and makes discussing it difficult. Augustine goes on to propose that if it wasn’t for this independent lustful will, there would be no such thing as dirty words. However, it is very hard for me to agree with Velleman about any positive nature to shame. Ultimately though, it comes around to the argument that human society is based almost entirely in prohibition, of controlling the animal will, and defining the "proper" method of letting your gonads out to play. Vicious parts? They seem relatively harmless to me.
Penal disobedience. You’ve got to love the polysemous nature of the phrase.
I could never be my father. Sometimes, I think about how much he taught me by saying so little. He kept it inside. You could see it, turning behind his eyes. The pain of having your brother who you defended in fights for years because he was outspoken and small, always getting into trouble and needing to be bailed out, wreck your car in Chicago, Illinois, in 1944 while you are trying to find work and living in a basement apartment feeling the cold lake wind in the dead of winter. You could see the resentment, lodged there from being felt-up by a gay doctor as you took a physical to work in Gary, Indiana, to earn enough money to get to your younger brother who lived in California who promised that work could be found there. He never said much at all. He wasn’t mad about this at all, he was just processing it, dealing with each day as he could, and trying to do the best thing for himself and his family.
You didn’t need to tell him that there was evil in the world, for he stared it down when he was twelve looking down the barrel of a gun pointed by his alcoholic father, trying to defend his mother and his siblings from the assault of madness. He didn’t carry a grudge, he just dealt with it. Quietly. Inside himself, and seldom did it ever move out into the light. It was private.
My father gave me one piece of advice that I’ll always remember: “Son, you can only do what you think the best thing to do is at the time.” He didn’t know that he was training me to be a Sophist. It was only obvious that my father’s idea of truth was relative. He saw decision making as complex, and the more you knew about something the better off you were. He didn’t know, as he brushed me aside and told me to “go to the library and look it up” that he was training me to be a scholar.
And I didn’t know at the time that his reasons for doing this were twofold: he didn’t trust himself as an authority, and it would get a pesky kid out of his hair. Most things were understandable if you dug into it, he thought. Dad made the same argument about Shakespeare that Huxley did, phrased in a Will Rodgers cliché: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Human nature doesn’t change. Things happen, and you deal with it. “You need to read some of those Russians, son, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky— they knew a thing or two.” Dad never graduated the eighth grade, but he knew that if you went to the library you could find what you needed to help you out. He didn’t know of Tom Huxley, but if it would have been useful to him, he would have found out.
I’m nothing like him. Or am I? All I know is that where he was quiet, I can get loud. Where he stayed away from people, I gravitate toward them. Where he was private, I am public. Where his life was filled with obligation, ultimately I have none. Now, that is. I tried to live life that way, it just didn’t work out. I’ve been thinking a bit about the Oedipal thing.
I’ve had it in my mind for a while to write some stuff about Walker Evans. Jonathon Delacour and I talked about it a long time ago, and he brought him up again recently. I’ve been revisiting a bunch of stuff, realizing that in order to say what I want to say that it will take many days and many posts. Perhaps I’ll tackle it next week, after I finish up the semester's business. I was looking at Belinda Rathbone’s biography and was reminded that his father was in advertising. You couldn’t pick a more opposite pole for his career path. Or could you? Like my relationship with my father’s ways, I think that Evan’s father perhaps was part of the reason why he was so resistant to being involved in any propaganda enterprise. And yet he was, in a strange way.
Much more on this later. I just had to write to clear off the buzz and settle my dinner. And perhaps recommit myself to the enterprise. What Walker Evans was up to is vastly oversimplified in most of the material I visited on the web. Perhaps in the next few days I’ll offer up some links, but I hesitate to do that before I clarify my own position on the subject. There’s always more to know. But there also needs to be a time to write.
I like Arts and Letters Daily. Or at least, I used to. Until I clicked through to the most poorly put-together article I’ve ever read linked from there.
Degrading Darwin seemed interesting enough on the surface, as an indictment of the right-wing application of Social Darwinism. I agree, Darwinism has no place in social policy. But the article was just plain wrong in one of its primary targets. I don’t mean “wrong” in the sense that I didn’t buy it, but “wrong” in the sense of being factually incorrect. Truth bears no delay? Evidently falsehood doesn’t either. For example:
Everything about Huxley's ideology was mankind as a pinnacle within progressive nature - and Victorian Britain lapped it up. This was the very peak of Britain's journey towards industrialised wealth and colonisation. It was clear to the restless Victorian go-getters that the engine room of their superiority lay in science, engineering and technological breakthroughs. Darwin's idea of evolution was the perfect embodiment of Victorian progress - as both evidence and proof of mankind progressing in the guise of rationality and reason.The article posits that Huxley was aligned with Spencer in applying Darwinian principles to the social order. Nothing could be further from the truth. The implication that Darwin's staunchest defender somehow "didn't get" Darwin's theory is beyond wrong; it's downright insulting.
For a better look at what Huxley was on about regarding Social Darwinism, have a look at Jungle vs. Garden, a section of the online Huxley archive which details his battle with Spencer and those who would apply natural selection to politics. In a nutshell, Huxley thought that humanity had moved past the forces of Darwinism, and now had to look at the hard choices of “tending our garden,” to use Voltaire’s phrase. This exerpt from his 1894 Prolegomena pretty much sums things up:
That progressive modification of civilization which passes by the name of the "evolution of society," is, in fact, a process of an essentially different character, both from that which brings about the evolution of species, in the state of nature, and from that which gives rise to the evolution of varieties, in the state of art.I hate it when people get things wrong, and slander historical figures that don’t deserve it. Huxley was a brilliant man, and certainly understood Darwinism for what it is: a natural process that did not imply any sort of progress. Progress rests solely in the hands of the gardners, not the nature of the plants themselves.
There can be no doubt that vast changes have taken place in English civilization since the reign of the Tudors. But I am not aware of a particle of evidence in favour of the conclusion that this evolutionary process has been accompanied by any modification of the physical, or the mental, characters of the men who have been the subjects of it. I have not met with any grounds for suspecting that the average Englishmen of to-day are sensibly different from those that Shakspere knew and drew. We look into his magic mirror of the Elizabethan age, and behold, nowise darkly, the presentment of ourselves.
I was suprised for a moment, because the original article was in Spiked Magazine; I confused it with Spike Magazine for a second. That's the problem with sharp objects on the web. I wrote a rebuttal letter to the editor, as well as a chastising comment to A&L Daily. When I surfed into the Spike magazine web log, I found that he had just ranted about A&L Daily’s tendency to link to shrill attacks. Shrill attacks don’t bother me, except when they are just plain wrong.
Evidently, falsehood knows no delay either.
I was driving home from school this morning and got behind a truck with the strangest slogan on the back: "Meats That Makes Men s." Underneath a huge Z logo was the inscription: "Z-Bird." The truck had Georgia plates.
Huh? I thought. I pulled up closer and realized that there was a letter obscured by the latch on the back of the truck, but still, it seemed strange for this vehicle to be driving down the street giving everyone Z-Bird. Shipping chickens to Arkansas is a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle and all that. There's a chicken farm on every corner. I had to research this when I got home.
It seems that the parent company is Zartic. They have an interesting list of trademarked labels, judging from the fine print on their web site:
Bakeables, Bar-Z-Que, Chicken Fryz, Chic-N-Vittles, Circle Z, Crispy Steak, Entrée Legends, Heavenly Wings, Hi-Brand, Honey Hugged, Jim's Country Mill Sausage, Meats That Make Menus, PiggleStix, Rockin' Roasted, Wing Demons, Z-Best Bird You Can Serve, Z-Bird, Zartic, and Zartran are trademarks of Zartic, Inc.I'm sure Chicken Fryz are big with the Hi-Brand crowd, and that most folks would like to be Honey Hugged after they are Rockin' Roasted. I'll go for the Heavenly wings, but keep those Wing Demons away from me, and please refrain from giving me Z-bird. I felt worse after pondering what might be included in PiggleStix, though I suppose puttting pigs on a stick has a long heritage.
It seems noteworthy that the company recalled 18,600 pounds of chicken in 2000 because it contained an "undeclared egg product." Now there's another point to ponder: just what is an undeclared egg product and why would it get mixed up with a chicken in the first place? But before I digress into the chicken and egg debate, I suppose I had better shut up.
Sometimes, I'm just too easily amused.