September 2002 Archives

Danse Macabre

Marchant’s Danse Macabre, 1491-2.

Proving it

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Proving it

The struggles surrounding the restoration of the monarchy in England were not a static backdrop for the emergence of new genres. In a deep sense, the struggle was for a redefinition of history. On the surface return to the historically recognized lineage of kings represented a return to continuity, where Cromwell’s commonwealth was seen as merely an interregnum— a gap in history. However, while Charles II had historical “truth” on his side, the public perceptions of his desires were not altruistic. As Hume observed, the reign of Charles II was a lapse in puritanical progress toward social perfection. Rochester’s A Satyr on Charles II from 1674 puts it bluntly:

Nor are his high desires above his strength:
His scepter and his prick are of a length;
And she may sway the one who plays with th’ other.
And make him little wiser than his brother.
Poor prince! thy prick, like thy buffoons at Court,
Will govern thee because it makes thee sport. (10-15)

The conflict between historically constituted truth and virtue was tense. After the theaters reopened, restoration dramatists like Behn pushed the boundaries of polite expression. Gradual deregulation of the press beginning with the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1681 bolstered the burgeoning publishing industry. Though it did not eradicate the monopoly of the Stationer’s Company, established by Queen Mary in 1557, it did contribute to a looser atmosphere for publishing works critical of the government or the church. The licentiousness and religious tolerance of Charles II was in some ways just what England needed. The restored monarchy was more limited in its power, and both Parliament and Charles II regulated liberty. In 1742, Hume reflected:

The spirit of the people must frequently be rouzed, in order to curb the ambition of the court; and the dread of rouzing this spirit must be employed to prevent that ambition. Nothing so effectual to this purpose as the liberty of the press, by which all the learning, wit, and genius of the nation may be employed on the side of freedom, and every one be animated to its defence. As long, therefore, as the republican part of our government can maintain itself against the monarchical, it will naturally be careful to keep the press open, as of importance to its own preservation.

The historical rights of succession were challenged as never before. Charles II dissolved Parliament in 1679 when the ascension of James II was threatened. James exacerbated the dissention between royalists and the dissenters, by promoting Catholics to prominent positions of power. The entire structure of religious, historical, and political power was in flux. Residue of the patronage system makes it difficult to discern the true position of the writers like Behn. After the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, Behn praised the loyalty of Judge Jeffries who presided over the trial of the “Bloody Assizes,” and tortured, killed, or exiled the protestant rebels. Her dependence on some patronage, however slight, may have colored her writing more than any Catholic sympathies.

It was not until the Glorious Revolution deposing James II that placed William III and Mary II on the throne that the balance of power tipped in the direction of Parliament and the Protestants once again. The Bill of Rights enacted during their reign placed even more limits on the exercise of Royal power. During the reign of the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, the two-party system firmly became established and the first English copyright law was enacted, moving more power into the public sphere. The Statute of Anne in 1709, protected writers for the first time in English history, establishing their rights to texts for a period of fourteen years. Authorship for the first time carried legal authority. The Stuart reign across the seventeenth century was filled with revolutions in domestic policy. The succession of German Georges that followed in the House of Hanover took a largely hands-off approach to the press and to domestic affairs.

Historical consciousness was on the rise throughout the eighteenth century. The loss and subsequent rediscovery of classical texts at the onset of the early modern period made observations like Behn’s demarcation of “Ancient and Modern Writers” commonplace. The appeal to history becomes much more than the assertion of a royal line. The authorized translation of the Bible into English by the first Stuart monarch, James I, destabilized religious authority because the public was able to offer its own interpretations of scriptural authority. The restored Stuart monarchy of Charles II chartered Royal Society Of London For The Promotion Of Natural Knowledge in 1662. The pursuit of natural knowledge was later subsumed into the label of natural history. While the Royal Society is generally thought of as the landmark birth of modern science, science was inescapably linked with theology— the aim was to find the hand of God in nature, to stabilize theology through new, technological means. Quickly, it moved to promote its findings through one of the earliest examples of a magazine— Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society founded in 1665. Religion and science in the seventeenth century are inseparable, and new authority was to be found in nature— natural history.

The burden of proof rests firmly in history. But it is a redefined history, where “truth” depends on evidence, and the rules of evidence become deeply defined by the rise of a popular, capitalist press much more than any chartered royal society. The “true history” is transformed into the novel, where emotional appeal fosters new dialogues during the emergence of empiricism. The line between fact and fiction is blurry, and the devices of fiction accentuate assertions of new kinds of truth.

New World Views

From Histoire Générale des Antilles by Du Tertre, 1667.


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A casual reader, or for that matter a regular reader of my blog may wonder just what the fuck all these little essaylets are. It isn’t like blogging. It isn’t like formal writing. It’s just plain weird. That is, unless you’re inside my head.

Here’s the deal. People who have been following me for a while already know I’m working on a major project on the development and reception of documentary photography in the 1930s in America. What does the seventeenth and eighteenth century have to do with that? In my opinion, a lot. There is a pervasive myth that somehow, before the advent of postmodernism, people thought photographs were somehow “true” or realistic. I think that’s a load of crap. These people were much more conscious of what they were doing, and what they were doing was surfing on genre-currents that had been in place since the onset of mechanical reproduction. In order to establish that they were indeed constructing a new genre of representation, it is important to establish the streams that flowed into it. The roots radically predate the invention of the means, and influence the directions they grew.

So, I’m trying to tear off little pieces and make sense of them. The puzzle itself is inside my head, so some of these bits probably don’t seem related to much of anything. I post them here in the hope that at least the fragments of exploration are consistent, and accurate. I hope that if they don’t make sense in and of themselves, or are inaccurate, people will speak up and comment. They may sound authoritative, but I can assure you they are not. The exercise of forming essays is indeed a process of assaying the nuggets to see if they are gold, or just the ramblings of a fool.

I have been working on this stuff so intensely that I realize that I haven’t stepped back in a while to write anything entertaining in a personal way, to assure a visitor that it is indeed a human being rather than a bot behind these pages. Most of the personal thoughts, memories, and reflections in my head lately have been just too dark, too negative, and too depressing to thrust them on a public that might come here expecting to be entertained. My work, right now, is far more entertaining than my life— and that may not be saying much.

Sexing it

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Sexing it

Language is one of the oldest tools of representation. The elder sophist Protagoras is credited with gendering language in an effort to make it more precise. Like Prodicus, Gorgias, and other sophists, Protagoras is mostly remembered as a foil for Socrates. His thoughts on gendered language are lost. But with the recovery of many classical texts in the seventeenth century, the impact of the classical heritage and the power relations of gender are heard deeply in Aphra Behn’s introduction to The Lucky Chance (ca.1686):

All I ask is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me, (if any such you will allow me) to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern Writers have set me, and by which they have pleas’d the World so well: If I must not, because of my Sex, have this Freedom, but that you will usurp all to your selves; I lay down my Quill, and you shall hear no more of me, no not so much as to make Comparisons, because I will be kinder to my Brothers of the Pen, that they have been to a defenceless Woman; for I am not content to write for a third day only. I value Fame as much as if I had been a Hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful World, and scorn its fickle Favours.

Behn had many strikes against her in the pursuit of heroic status. First, she was a tremendously successful restoration playwright. This was a difficult feat, given that the compensation for writers consisted only of the third day’s receipts for the play, and often plays did not even manage a three-day run. Even outside the sexual politics she inscribes, because she was one of the first women writers to earn a living solely through writing— rather than a husband, or patron’s support— Behn was excluded from heroic consideration. The patronage system had long supported a separation of artist from the tawdry business of earning a living. In his monumental History of England in six volumes of 1778, David Hume takes Charles II to task for his failure to support “men of superior genius,” saying that “most of the celebrated writers of this age remain monuments of genius, perverted by indecency and bad taste.” Behn is not mentioned, however one of her heroes, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, is:

The very name of Rochester is offensive to modest ears; yet does his poetry discover much energy of style and such poignancy of satire, as give ground to imagine what so fine a genius, had he fallen in a more happy age, and had followed better models, was capable of producing. The ancient satyrists often used great liberties in their expressions; but their freedom no more resembles the licentiousness of Rochester, than the nakedness of an Indian does that of a common prostitute.

The dame Virtue, modest and clothed in white, continues to define the aristocratic notion of the hero. Hume’s comparison of the licentiousness of Rochester that of “a common prostitute” illustrates the tension between an emergent market economy and a decaying system of patronage. Writers no longer lived in gilded cages, but were thrust into markets to compete for fame and love among a common populace. In an oblique way, it was the failure of the government of Charles II— who failed to compensate Aphra Behn for her short career as a spy in 1666— forced her into debtor’s prison, and then into the marketplace to become a popular playwright. However, it is not the political intrigue after the restoration that is of abiding concern to the development of documentary practice, but the form of Aphra Behn’s prose work Oroonoko which best illustrates the shift in modes of representation.

Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave. A True History (1688) sits on an uncomfortable border between the genres of travel writing, history, and the novel. “True Histories” were meant to be both entertaining and informative, assuming implicitly that testimony was the truest way to represent a claim to truth. The position of the narrator is a curious one. The narrator is a character in the story, an eyewitness to truth— but unlike later novelistic approaches, the narrator is neither omniscient nor central to the action. The narrator is a disinterested bystander, an outsider whom we can trust to tell the truth of the situation. Or at least, this is the claim:

I do not pretend, in giving you the History of this Royal Slave, to entertain my Reader with the Adventures of a feign’d Hero, whose Life and Fortunes Fancy may manage at the Poet’s Pleasure; nor in relating the Truth, design to adorn it with any Accidents, but such as arriv’d in earnest to him: And it shall come simply into the World, recommended by its own proper Merits, and natural Intrigues; there being enough of Reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the Addition of Invention.

I was my self an Eye-Witness to a great part, of what you will find here set down: and what I cou’d not be a Witness of, I receiv’d from the Mouth of the chief Actor in this History, the Hero himself, who gave us the whole Transactions of his Youth; and though I shall omit, for Brevity’s sake, a thousand little Accidents of his Life, which, however pleasant to us, where History was scarce, and Adventures very rare; yet might prove tedious and heavy to my Reader, in a World where he finds diversions for Every Minute, new and strange.
The documentary writer poses as a direct witness to the events, and as an editor of the tedium. In a world filled with the “strange and new” something must always be left out, for the sake of brevity. The fundamental problem is one of trust, of authority. Why should a representation be believed, amid the competition for a reader’s attention? Perhaps the answer rests firmly in the construction of the hero as an object of love. Along with a new print culture came a new moral purposes, new models, and new technologies of image making all competing for attention. The “true history” was only one strategy of proving one’s authority, competing with many others that advance and recede.

New market economies put pressure on the definition of heroic behavior, particularly for authors. To adopt the stance of the documentary observer, as Behn so clearly has, displaces her subjectivity into the shadows of the text. However, the question of motive is never far from the reader’s mind. In the emergent documentary trope, the author’s moral character is removed from direct reference. An author surrenders their personal heroic nature in service of the truth— truth is erected as a new sort of hero. Is this possible? In context, it seems that any such construction must always be paradoxical and imaginary. The author cannot truly be absent from the text. Can a female author of bawdy plays be taken seriously as the presenter of a “true history”? For Hume, the answer would certainly be a resounding no.

Hume’s plea for a return to the patronage system, still healthy in France by his estimation, would not be realized. Behn’s dissatisfaction with the system of writing for the third day was replaced with new worries regarding intellectual property and the sheer survival of art in a capitalist marketplace. Behn’s observation regarding the difficulty of being taken seriously because of her sex anticipates controversy across the eighteenth century, when new techniques of representation confronted new types of authority.

Life and death

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Life and Death Contrasted, or an Essay on Women and Death and Life Contrasted, or an Essay on Man by Robert Dighton,1784.

Naming it


Naming it

Socrates farcically laments his lack of education in the opening to Plato’s dialogue Cratylus. If he had only taken the fifty-drachma course in language and grammar from Prodicus rather than the one-drachma course he might be able to settle the dispute on the naming of things. Plato was always quick to slight Prodicus; in Symposium Xenophon observes that the Prodicus was always in need of cash. Money as an opposite to wisdom flows through most histories. Fame creates its own currency, a currency somehow more palatable and permanent than the stain of money.

No texts from Prodicus survive. There is only a fragment, retold by Xenophon in his Memorabilia, the story of “Heracles on the Crossroad.” The archetypal hero must choose between two beautiful women— a noble one dressed modestly in white named Virtue, and another in more revealing costume, dressed up in cosmetics and luxury, who proclaims her name to be Happiness, though others call her Vice. According to Prodicus, the hero chooses Virtue, because by doing so he will be befriended by the gods, beloved by friends, and celebrated by his community. When the time comes for him to die, he will not lie forgotten and his glory will live forever “in the memory of the race and its poetry.”

The ascetic nature of the hero who chooses modesty and nobility over the shorter route to happiness, artifice and disguise, is a deeply classical tradition. Through the milky-white lens of history we view the players on the stage, and the scenery recedes through carefully selective histories. Naming heroes reduces them to the symbolic. Cratylus debates the importance of names, questioning if there can be proper, “natural” names to represent things. In a profound sense, Cratylus marks the first crisis in representation.

How Prodicus would have responded to the question is uncertain. Contemporary accounts suggest that Prodicus was deeply concerned with the nature of definitions, of synonyms, and of the way we represent thoughts through words. As a sophist, it seems likely that he would have opposed Socrates’ assertion that there was a static ideal behind any name. In the comical exploration of Cratylus, Plato’s parallel definition of the hero emerges through creative etymology. For Socrates, the hero is born of love or rhetoric:

All of them sprang either from the love of a God for a mortal woman, or of a mortal man for a Goddess; think of the word in the old Attic, and you will see better that the name heros is only a slight alteration of Eros, from whom the heroes sprang: either this is the meaning, or, if not this, then they must have been skilful as rhetoricians and dialecticians, and able to put the question (erotan), for eirein is equivalent to legein (speak). And therefore, as I was saying, in the Attic dialect the heroes turn out to be rhetoricians and questioners. All this is easy enough; the noble breed of heroes are a tribe of sophists and rhetors. (398d)

The rhetoric of naming becomes more complex with the development of accurate imaging technologies. The interaction of images and words raises new questions on how we represent reality. At the most fundamental level, the name is the smallest particle of a representation or proposition— the smallest particle of truth. Though Cratylus is comical, the debate between an essential “objective” nature to be named precisely and a shifting community standard, a “subjective” practice of naming marks the deepest essence of what it means to represent humanity through text and image. Documentary practice sits at this nexus, and its heroes are indeed a tribe of sophists and rhetors.

Plato eclipsed Prodicus in history. A similar shadow has obscured people involved in the development of documentary photography in America in the 1930s. The myth of objectivity that has pushed them out of historical accounts must be examined in detail to provide an etymology of the modern American hero. Such an account cannot be free of the taint of commerce, nor can it be free of the whims of love. It also cannot discount the impact of sex and race, and the history of representation.

A Race of Men


A Race of Men

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
    A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
    And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
    And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
    And they don’t know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;
    They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of things that are,
    And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
    What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
    Is only a fresh mistake.

He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
    He’s a man who won’t fit in.


Women at Work

From American Economic Life by Rexford Tugwell, photo-editor Roy Stryker, photos by Lewis Hine, 1925.


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I started getting really depressed today for some reason. Actually, I know better— there is no reason. It’s just my chemistry. I wrote a thousand depressing personal things in my head while reading the first part of The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston (great book, BTW). Eventually, they quieted down and I was able to enjoy the . . . not really a novel— not really non-fiction . . .book. I should say more about it later. But for now, there’s another thought to put down.

I had no idea that engraving (real burin-type engraving) was flourishing in France in Blake’s day. This information comes from the Bann article I mentioned yesterday. I tracked it down after class tonight and read it over a steak and a margarita. Besides debunking a lot of myths of photo history perpetuated by people including Walter Benjamin, it opened my eyes to just how different the situation was for engravers on the continent vs. England. You see, true engraving never really flourished in England— almost everyone used a hybrid acid-etch/burin type of etching. Blake used this process through most of his career, excepting the Book of Job illustrations done on his deathbed. I hadn’t thought about that shift until Viscomi’s lecture. The situation for true engraving in England was, if you’ll excuse the pun, grave.

There are tons of things to write out regarding the article. I need to look at a few more of the contemporary photo-histories to see if the misinformation is as prevalent as I think it is— it seems as if the world is long overdue for a more accurate appraisal of the stature and market of photography in the early days. The connection between photography and the other graphic arts is much closer than most people imply. Bann confirmed my suspicion that book illustration was much more connected with woodcuts than steel or copperplate engraving in the beginning, and that really explains why it took so long for photography to be a serious force in illustration (50 years!). Early photographers really did not conceive their work in those terms— the market was quite a different one altogether.

So much to read and write . . . so little time. Perhaps all the work will eventually kick this chemical ennui’s ass.


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Why is it that every time I start to put things together I always find that someone else has been there first? I really need to get going on writing about the twentieth century aspects of my project, but when I so much as glance at the Romantic period my head gets sucked into it in a rush.

Here’s the deal. I must have rewritten that attempt at making sense of the transition from silhouettes to Humphry Davy’s experiments about a dozen times yesterday. And it still isn’t right. I found out from another source that what really prompted the project was a commission for the transfer of about 1,000 landscape drawings of Russia (done by camera obscura) onto dinnerware for Catherine the Great. The cool thing about that piece of trivia is that Catherine the Great also had her silhouette made around the same time. There are just so many incredible connections between the image-making mediums of the eighteenth century and the market environment that it’s hard to figure out how to write it out— how to present it. Just as it’s starting to come together, I stumble on this:

TITLE: Photography, printmaking, and the visual economy in nineteenth-century France
AUTHOR(S): Bann,-Stephen, 1942-
SOURCE: History of Photography v 26 no1 Spring 2002. p. 16-25

ABSTRACT: The writer examines the visual economy in France from about 1815 to about 1860 to show how some of the founding myths of photography sit awkwardly in this context. Defining “visual economy” as the sum of all the means of visual reproduction available at the time, he discusses the places held by engraving and lithography in this economy and the relationship of these printmaking processes to the genesis and development of photography. He considers how Nicephore Niepce’s work on photography can be illuminated by his dealings with printmaker and seller Augustin Lemaitre. He examines the complex conjuncture of art politics that attended the development of photography after the divulging of the photographic process in 1839. He concludes that the high standard achieved by French photography by the end of this period should be measured in terms of the aesthetic attention and laborious craftsmanship traditionally directed to fine reproductive prints.

The most amazing thing is that our little library has this obscure journal ($162 per year, quarterly). That article promises to save me a lot of time, but it’s also a bit ego-deflating. Gosh, I’m not the only person who thinks the early histories (or founding myths) of photography are wrong. The really shocking thing is the date of the article— it’s virtually brand new, though a little more research turned up a 2001 book from the same art critic with much the same agenda.

I suppose that’s why I always feel so damn stupid. Someone else has always thought of it first. However, I must admit that my scope is broader— I'm not just interested in what was going on image-wise, but textually as well.

The Graphic Muse

The Graphic Muse, detail of frontispiece to Hoare's Inquiry— Engraved by Blake, after Reynolds.



From the Shades

At the turn of the eighteenth century, the silhouette portraits of King William III and Mary II mark an interesting shift in the techniques of representation. Shadows on glass or plaster were filled with lampblack to present an abstracted contour of a person. The English called these portraits “shades.” Miniature portraits were the rage of the eighteenth century, and these new shadow portraits were cheap enough to be within reach of the rising middle class. By 1720, the practice had spread to France and the colonies in America creating a fad of staggering proportions.

The French name of “silhouette” stuck, for tongue-in-cheek reasons. Etienne de Silhouette was Louis XV’s finance minister, a man known for his thrift. His economic policies sent many examples of the gold and silversmith’s art to the smelter, to be reduced to the metal they contained. Early examples of silhouettes in France and England were often painted, not with facial features but with colorful uniforms making them a inexpensive addition to carefully wrought paintings of popular miniaturists, who did silhouettes when times were slow. The early American adopters of the form took a different approach— cut paper. Anyone with a pair of scissors and piece of paper could create a silhouette. Because black paper was scarce, the early outlines were often mounted in frames backed with black cloth to create contrast. However, in order to accurately reproduce the contours of the human shadow in small size, mechanical drawing aids were often employed.

The pantograph used to reduce silhouettes to miniatures may have its roots in Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing machines. Christoph Scheiner— a German Jesuit astronomer and mathematician involved in controversy with Galileo over the discovery of sunspots— invented the pantograph in 1630 to mathematically scale drawings. Blending art and science to reproduce images accelerated in the early nineteenth century. But it cannot be forgotten that most of these shadowy pursuits were inextricably linked to commerce, and the creation of an image to sell.

Silhouettes were a popular personal artifact, a keepsake image. Like more expensive miniature paintings, silhouettes could be carried about as a reminder. Robert Burns wrote his girlfriend, Agnes Craig M’Lehose (“Clarinda”) to thank her for posing for a silhouette saying “I want it for a breast-pin, to wear next my heart.” Portable reproductions of images found great favor among increasingly mobile populations, and the creation and sale of them was big business. John Miers, the silhouettist who preserved the image of M’Lehose and Burns was born in Leeds, but toured through Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh before setting up a profitable image-making shop in London in 1788.

Examined in this regard, the early photographic experiments of Thomas Wedgwood and Humpry Davy make more sense. “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings Upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light Upon Nitrate of Silver.” (emphasis mine) was published in 1802 as a process with possible commercial ends— a way to cash in on the boom in silhouette images. Wedgwood and Davy failed because all their images eventually turned completely black.

The relative ease with which silhouettes could be created brought portraiture to a public hungry for images. Charles Willson Peale, an American painter, miniaturist, and sihouettist, carried his miniature case to the battlefield while a member of the Pennsylvania militia to paint likenesses of his fellow officers, and painted the first official portrait of George Washington to commemorate the victories at Princeton and Trenton. Peale later trained his brother Joseph, a nephew, and his sons in painting and turned over his business making miniatures to his brother in order to concentrate on his newly founded Museum of Natural History in Philadelphia.

Silhouettes, because of the accuracy of their reproduction, fascinated early natural scientists. A key factor in the proliferation of silhouettes and of natural history may have been the desire to match outsides with insides— a pursuit perhaps best exemplified by Johann Caspar Lavater. Essays on Physiognomy was first published in the 1770s and reproduced in numerous cheap knock-offs throughout the early nineteenth century. From its silhouette illustrations sprang other pseudo-sciences like phrenology seeking to find correlation between appearance and identity. Illustrated books catalogued both men and nature, perhaps reaching their peak in the monumental 18 volume Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1797.

The silhouettist’s legacy was short lived, though Lavater’s attempts toward a taxonomy of identity using silhouette images anticipates the nineteenth century drive to classify people and create categories based on appearance— the birth of a new conception of race. In silhouette, everyone is black— but these shadows were filled-in soon after the invention of photography.


A Life (March 18, 1897) double-page spread by Charles Dana Gibson

Culture Wars

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Culture Wars

Just a quick note in response to Jonathon: I have been looking at Ph.D. programs with a great deal of fear, for most of the reasons detailed in the Chronicle article. I am a bit of a traditionalist in some ways (some New Critical habits stick), in that I prefer to read primary texts rather than dense piles of writing about writing. The departments at my school (University of Arkansas at Little Rock) are fractured in amazingly complex ways.

The British literature specialists are mostly traditional— though my mentor was a Duke Ph.D. from the early 90s with a big po-mo background. The Americanists are a more volatile bunch who practice cultural criticism more than close reading— though they inflict it more through lecture than assigning critical texts. Around ten years ago, the Rhetoric Department was split from the English department— and most of the heavy gender/technology people went there. So, the conflict between canon and theory is mostly fought in the American Lit portion— most of the people there specialize in ethnic literatures, so there is no canon to teach if they stick to the “traditional” road. A person can, however, get a degree without reading much in the way of theory at all. Having no “canon-wars” to fight, the rhetoric people are mostly docile regarding shoving theory down people’s throats— though they have a definite political, social-constructivist, agenda.

I’m not allergic to heavy theory. I am however, concerned— like the writer of the article with the loss of primary texts in favor of theory. My notes on Darwin from a few days back were a response to what I felt was a misreading by a prominent gender theorist. The current situation makes me deathly afraid of many English departments. That’s why I really want a program with a strongly rhetorical focus for my Ph.D.— I want a job. A conventional degree in literature is usually a bad way to be assured of employment.

Technical writing is the hot field right now, field, though I just can’t bear to give up literature. That’s why I’m thinking more of a focus on a texts/technologies and cultural studies track. It’s sort of a combination of art/literature with professional/technical work. The problem is finding a department that doesn’t think this conflation is a contradiction incapable of resolution. I find it easier to fit in with the more theory-oriented crowd even though my views on literature are perhaps more traditional. I cannot see myself as an juridical aesthete, however— I'm much more practically minded. What this really means is that I don’t want to do Marxist or feminist or historical dissections of literary works per se, but instead try to figure out how specific works fit in a broader context of communication strategies— rhetoric, not traditional literary study. I don’t want to have to defend any canon, though there are many canonical figures that I love. I am very afraid of the politics that lie at the end of any path I choose.

English departments are scary places. The only plan I can think of to make it through is to try to understand just what the agenda of the place I’m headed is. Regardless of the label they hang over the door (Rhetoric, English, American Studies) I want to make sure that I’m not signing up to be an exponent of anyone’s ideology. I want to do research and teaching, not preaching or theory-mongering. I think that is still possible in many departments across the US— just not all— and that is the real shame.

Images and Print


From Image to Print

I managed to get Photography and the Book, a lecture by Beaumont Newhall printed in a limited edition of 2000 on interlibrary loan. My hat is off to Gary Saretzky for alerting me to it in his articles on Edwin Rosskam for Photo Review.I’ve got issues with Newhall, due to his close association with Ansel Adams and the myopic nature of his History of Photography but that doesn’t keep this particular lecture from being incredibly informative. From the first page, it has me rewriting some of my efforts. The connection between photography and printing is even stronger than I first thought. While Humphry Davy’s failed experiments were a clue— Davy and Wedgwood were looking for a way to avoid employing engravers— I had not thought about Niépce before.

A quick search turned up an incredible site on Nicéphore Niépce. The material there helps me in putting together a revised timeline with fewer gaps. But before I do that, I feel the need to return to the hopes and desires of the people involved. The aspirations of Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphry Davy are clear from the title of their 1802 Journal of the Royal Institution of Great Britain article, “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings Upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light Upon Nitrate of Silver.” Thinking about that title, usually abbreviated simply “An Account of a Method,” makes me realize how much the disparity between nineteenth century photography and the twentieth is exaggerated— the contexts are not really that different. Looking at it closely, method (agent) is privileged over the desired result (action).

First, photography is a method of copying— in Davy and Wedgwood’s case, of copying paintings. This legacy, brought to fruition by Henry Fox-Talbot, is subtly shifted into copying nature. Casting this into another light, Davy and Wedgwood were interested in reproducing texts (logos) whereas Talbot was interested in evidence of a different sort— nature— mirroring the search for authority common to most eighteenth century praxis.

The problematic nature of authority involved in any practice of copying is deeply explored in the writings and art of William Blake— a crisis exacerbated by the low artistic station of engravers. The conventions of captioning for engravings reflect this. Long into the nineteenth century, it was the painter (or inventor) of an image whose name appeared first in the visual field, on the left, whereas the engraver (sculptor) was placed in the lower right-hand corner. Mechanical reproduction of original works would remove the need for the second caption, and the interference of an intermediary on the “truth” of the image. The search was for a more direct route for authority in copying, whether of nature or art.

The second consideration, “of Making Profiles,” is a more commercial one. Given the limitations in detail and slow speed of light-sensitive materials, they might be a possible technological improvement on a rising commercial art practice of the day— making silhouettes. I had already been thinking about the rise of the daguerreotype and the death of commercial miniature painting in the early nineteenth century— but I had not thought of the poor man’s miniature— the silhouette. These had long been produced through the mechanical help of the pantograph. Davy and Wedgwood’s declaration foretells an interesting confluence: the satisfaction of the popular appetite for images through technological means. The appetite for representations of people as both a commercial endeavor and as scientific evidence for theories wishing to join internal states with external appearance was rising during the late eighteenth century.

Thanks to Newhall’s assertion (echoed in a more recent essay by Michel Frizot in A New History of Photography) that Niépce was alone among the early pioneers of photography in connecting photography with engraving, I just had to think about Davy again. I think they are wrong— reproducibility may have taken a back-seat with the rise of Daguerre, but the concern was prominent in many early experimenters. The goal, at least initially, was a direct route between the eye and paper— a mechanical means of reproduction.

Voodoo Juice

Weegee, from The Village

You Will Obey!


Isn’t it Hypnotic?

Notes on some more research from A History of Hypnotism by Alan Gauld. Though mesmerism was the rage in Europe from 1784-89, there seems little doubt that the French Revolution and general political upheavals slowed its introduction into Britain and the United States. Once it arrived however, it “set the brush ablaze” in the US, catching on more slowly in Britain. Gauld theorizes:

In the United States, authority in professional, intellectual, educational, and religious matters had not yet become highly institutionalized, centres of advanced learning were scattered, and a habit of individual thinking flourished even among the less well educated. Such a country was bound at a certain level to be more open to new social, religious, intellectual, and medical ideas than was Britain with its entrenched professional, intellectual and political establishments. Between 1830 and 1850 the eastern United States was a ferment of new ideas, new movements and new cults, many of a reformist or utopian character, and was uplifted by an almost euphoric optimism as to the prospects for improving man’s lot in this world or assuring his comfort in the next. The literary and intellectual side of these movements met and merged with the New England transcendentalism which grew up along with Unitarianism as the older style of Puritanism began to lose its grip on the American mind. (179)

Gauld notes that Emerson and most “eminent literary persons” took a poor view of mesmerism. It had stronger affinities with the more popular reform and progressive movements, including women’s suffrage, the abolitionists, child labor movements, socialism, Fourierism, “communitarianism,” free love, vegetarianism, penal and educational reform, homeopathy, phrenology, and Swedenborgianism (180). Gauld refers the reader to Orestes Brownson’s autobiographical novel The Spirit-Rapper (1854) for further details.

Ten years prior to the introduction of photography, hypnotism came into the country in much the same fashion— through a series of lectures by Joseph du Commun, a teacher of French at the US Military Academy at West Point, in 1829. It didn’t catch on until another French lecturer Charles Poyen St. Sauveur, author of Progress of Animal Magnetism in New England (1837), began private instruction in mesmerism in March of 1836. It spread quickly, mostly through lecturers trained by Poyen (181). Early supporters included Francis Wayland, President of Brown University, and J.C. Brownell, Episcopal bishop of Connecticut. It gained an intellectual base, and early accounts are filled with both with cures and references to clairvoyance (182). Mesmerism also gained a foothold in New Orleans, were a group began to meet in the late 1830s, founding the Sociétél du magnétisme de la Nouvell-Orléans in April 1845. By 1848, it had 71 members (183).

Robert H. Collyer began attracting audiences of 500-1000 in Boston and New York in the early 1840s. Samuel Gregory, an advocate of medical education for women published Mesmerism, or Animal Magnetism and its Uses in 1843 (183). A class of “professional magnetizers” grew up quickly, with one contemporary estimate citing two hundred of them in Boston alone by 1843. Many of the practioners were also allied with phrenology, following Dr. Johann Spurzheim who died in New York in 1832 (185). Mesmerism became quickly entangled with phrenology. Of these early “missionary” hypnotists, the theories of J.S. Grimes seems most in keeping with other social trends.

Grimes called the mesmeric fluid etherium, and proposed that hypnotism worked through a practitioner’s ability to connect his etherium with a passive subject, to “induct” them into a state, or by playing upon the organ of the subject’s Credenciveness. “Credenciveness is ‘a conforming social propensity. The whole group which it belongs have this peculiar character, that they all tend to conform to the wishes, feelings, actions, commands, and assertions of others’” (186). Stage hypnotism appears to have developed in the late 1850s.

In the later Victorian era, mesmerism became closely connected with the spiritualist movement, and with Christian Science. Gauld ties this to the tendency in Puritanism towards “conversion experiences” and with the growth of scientism— “The American mesmerists were the first to encourage popular audiences to abandon a scriptural based theology in favour of psychological principles said to govern an individual’s ability to inwardly align himself with a higher spiritual order” (194).

A culture of cross-dressing

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Rollin Howard (in wench costume) with George Griffin ca.1855 Cross-dressing was a common feature of American theater during minstrelsy’s early days. . . . The practice was not restricted to comedians, however, because cross-dressing was not uncommon among both white and black men during the antebellum period.

Peter Sewally, alias Mary Jones, who was wearing female attire while he was arrested in 1836 for grand larceny, said that he “attended parties among the people of [his] own color dressed this way.”

The burnt cork masks, costumes, and wigs of early minstrelsy’s best female impersonators— Maximilian Zorer (famous for his Jenny Lind roles), William Newcomb (noted for his appearances as Mrs. E. Oakwood Smith), and George Christy (renowned for his “wench” characters)— did not represent women any more accurately than did the cross-dressed characters of Mose— the Bowery B’hoy— and his companions portrayed working class women of the Bowery and Broadway in Benjamin Baker’s Glance at New York (Feb 15, 1848), where Mose, who is a man and no mistake— and one of de b’hoys at dat”— makes a pass at Mrs. Morton to show his manly aggressiveness.

(Behind the Burnt Cork Mask by William Mahar, 312)

Mahar also makes the point that minstrel shows also parodied popular lecture forms such as political rhetoric, and lectures regarding the latest “sciences” of the day, like phrenology and mesmerism. I love the bit about the “bump of lub” that causes swelling problems:

Lecture on Phrenology

Freenology consists in gittin'nolage free, like you am dis evening; it was fust discubered in de free schools, and was always looked 'pon by de larned as being closely connected wid "E Pluribus Unum." . . .

De hump in a cullered man's hed . . . am siterated on de top, and called by de siantifick de cokanut bump; dis bump lays in a triangular form ober be bump of don't care- a-d-nativeness, which every black man's hed am vully blessed wid . . . .

De bump dat am moss cultiwated in de cullered man hed, am call'd on Fowler and Wells' map ob de brane, "Amativeness." Dis am de bump dat plays de debil wid de fair sex, bekase dat am whar Kupid springs from; dis bump lays in de back ob de neck, near de coat collar; it am call'd de bump of lub . . . .

It am de bump what all de selfishness and wickedness ob mankind lays; and I wod say a word to dem fellers as hab got an ober quantity ob it. Look out how you fool you time 'round de opposite sex, kase wen you fall in lub dis bump swells to such an 'xtent dat it overwellms de hole brane, common sense am kicked out do be drainum, and lub rain 'spreme till every ebenue leadin to de soul am oberflowed wid de milk ob human kindness, and it takes an "orfullpoletice," as we say in French, to traduce de swell'd bump to its proper size."

From Black Diamonds (1855) cited on 72-73, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask.

A real kiss

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André Kertéz, 1915

Higher Innocence

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Higher Innocence

The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true. as I have heard from Hell. For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite. and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.

This will come to pass by a improvement of sensual enjoyment.

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 14

I read this for the first time when I was fourteen years old. I tracked it down once I found out that this passage, and not Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception was the root for the name of The Doors. Through the lens of age (and more in-depth study of Blake) it seems well worth revisiting right now. Several nuances need to be explored, beyond the sentimental rebellious perception of either myself, as a boy, or Jim Morrison’s limited understanding of Blake— The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not a sales pitch for psychedelic drugs. Blake was not a Satanist. Going back to the third plate, here is the definition Blake offers of Hell:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

Performing the easy substitutions (and noting the ironic nature of “Hell”) it is clear from this that Blake’s “infernal method” is caustic, melting away the “apparent surfaces” of things, to reveal the “infinite” that is hid. I would submit to my compatriots Duemer and Delacour that the infinite is not hid by sentiment, but rather through an underdeveloped notion of what “sentiment” really is— reverting to a Chaucerian definition— sentiment is deeper than sensation alone, and beyond the chinks of the cavern. The apocalypse of vision which Blake proposes shall come about by “the improvement of sensual enjoyment,” through the reintegration of body and mind. Revelation happens when the notion that “mind” and “body” are distinct and separate is destroyed. All discourse involves feelings; commonplace feelings, or sentiments, are really the first step on the ladder toward deeper ways of feeling— what Blake scholars call “higher innocence.”

My adulation of transparency, of dispassionate inquiry into representation using people like Walker Evans as idols has become deeply tempered by acceptance that all expression evokes— and includes— feelings which though easily exploited, are inseparable from art. Discarding the commonplace sentiments is an exercise which was for me essential to the pursuit— not of dispassionate knowledge— but of higher feelings. I know this is what Duemer and Delacour are really on about. I'm just playing with the vocabulary, obviously. The mode of inquiry which purges sentiment can be a trap as well, worse than anything that might be lost by too deep an exploration of sentimentality. Too much corrosion destroys the plate— it’s a delicate balance. Growth happens through “an improvement of sensual enjoyment” not the purging of it. That is what The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is all about (at least in part).

The oppression of sentiment does not really get you closer to truth— it merely promotes oppression, control, reason. Sentiment naturally fades with experience— it need not be purged. In Literature in its Place, James Britton cites some really beautiful evidence from the empirical study of reactions to poetry. Almost universally, adults reject poetry which contains powerful emotions— unless they are cloaked in complexity. Why this happens is hard to say— I suspect that it’s because of the social construction of identities that are trained to distance themselves from their bodies, their feelings— the rejection of sentiment is very pronounced as we reach adulthood. Using a group of poems, some “real” poems and some horribly sentimental fabrications, Britton charted the reactions of children from 13-18 years old. The fabrications were enjoyed by adolescents, but older children gradually began to prefer less overt expressions of emotion. Britton has an interesting theory about the cause:

We suggested at the time that under the strain of the emerging adult world, the adolescent may need to withdraw into some imagined world: when the strain is too great, it may be into the most docile and accessible world that he or she withdraws— a world represented by sentimental values. In matters of emotion, the familiar and safe kind of love— love of animals, pity— may be acceptable where passionate love is too threatening. (46)

The summation of that study, quoted in the book, echoes the sentiments of Warren Zevon and Charles Lamb that I quoted last night:

Such imagined experience— the stock response, the unoriginal, undisturbing type— gives time to recover balance, but does not itself allow for grown, reintegration, advancement into living. For this we must try to graft genuine poetic experience onto the counterfeit, regarding a taste for the counterfeit in adolescence as the first rung on the ladder rather than the first step to damnation. (47)

Feeling, or sentiment, is an important first step. It’s important that the progression from it to deeper and more complex feelings be natural and not forced. I like Britton’s usage of graft to describe the process of growing to appreciate deeper things. Many artists flirt with the sentimental and some (like Kertéz), have the depth to portray truly poetic experiences within the most commonplace of frames. This flirtation with the child-like, sentimental world— an improvement of “sensual enjoyment” is in many ways what I think Blake was on about regarding higher innocence.


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André Kertéz, 1927

Sentimental Hygiene

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Sentimental Hygiene

I’ve been following the bashing of sentiment for a few days, headache-filled, and unable to enter the fray. Like Loren, I like the word, and interpret it much the same way that he does. I am not a Modernist— I have a tendency to blame them for most things that are so perverse these days, for example the conventions that declare words like romantic and sentimental to be evil. I do have post-structuralist leanings, but I never lean so far into it that I allow it to destroy the humanist that I am at the core. I think that the current usage of the word, with the spin that Duemer puts on it in particular, is just a manifestation of the modernist hangover. The now terminally-ill Warren Zevon puts it pretty well:

Every day I get up in the morning and go to work
And do my job whatever
I need some
Sentimental hygiene
Everybody's at war these days
Let's have a mini-surrender
I need some
Sentimental hygiene

Everybody's had to hurt about it
No one wants to go without it
It's so hard to find it
Sentimental hygiene

Delacour sounds almost like John Locke in his appropriation of Duemer’s definition to soundly condemn sentimentality as a fallacy of argument. My, how things change. Looking at the OED, I see an interesting progression. Beginning with Chaucer, in 1374, sentiment was:

1. Personal experience, one’s own feeling.

2. Sensation, physical feeling. In later use, a knowledge due to vague sensation.

3. Sensible quality; in quot. = flavour.

4. Intellectual or emotional perception.

5. in sentement (Lydg.) = ‘in sentence’: see SENTENCE n
Beginning in the renaissance, it develops these senses which carry over into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:
6. What one feels with regard to something; mental attitude (of approval or disapproval, etc.); an opinion or view as to what is right or agreeable. Often pl. with collective sense.

7. A mental feeling, an emotion. Now chiefly applied, and by psychologists sometimes restricted, to those feelings which involve an intellectual element or are concerned with ideal objects. In the 17-18th c. often spec. an amatory feeling or inclination.

Ah ha! It’s connected with sex. We can’t have that now, can we! The transition is complete by the late eighteenth century into the senses in which Duemer uses it:

8. a. A thought or reflection coloured by or proceeding from emotion.

9. In generalized use. a. Refined and tender emotion; exercise or manifestation of ‘sensibility’; emotional reflection or meditation; appeal to the tender emotions in literature or art. Now chiefly in derisive use, conveying an imputation of either insincerity or mawkishness.

But the word refuses to surrender without a fight. I doubt that Warren Zevon had read Charles Lamb’s essay “On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century” when he wrote “Sentimental Hygiene,” but the plea seems much the same to me:

We have been spoiled with— not sentimental comedy— but a tyrant more pernicious to our pleasures. . . the exclusive and all-devouring drama of common life; where the moral point is everything. . . We carry our fireside concerns to the theatre with us . . . All that neutral ground of character, which stood between vice and virtue; or which in fact was indifferent to neither, where neither properly was called into question; that happy breathing-place from the burthen of perpetual moral questioning. . . is broken up and disenfranchised, as injurious to the interests of society.

I intend to remain unabashedly sentimental. I need the breathing space— the sentimental hygiene, if you will— to believe that there are things that are neither virtue nor vice, life nor death, but rather merely pleasant and diversionary. I like art that “appeals to the tender emotions” myself. You can keep the high (and dull) seriousness of modernism.

Oh, and there was a second alternative to the ninth definition listed above— it didn’t live long, only from 1851-1908 (death by modernism):

b. Emotional regard to ideal considerations, as a principle of action or judgment.

Of course, that’s just the humanist in me surfacing again. I tend to think that there is no intellect which can be fractioned off, sucked dry of the regard for human emotion— but the poststructuralist in me sees those “ideal considerations” as verbs, not nouns.

Ben Shahn


Being integrated, in the dictionary sense, means being unified. I think of it as being a little more dynamic— educationally, for instance, being organically interacting. In either sense, integration implies involvement of the whole person, not just the selected parts of him; integration, for instance, of kinds of knowledge (history comes to life in the art of any period); integration of knowledge with thinking— that means holding opinions; and then integration within the whole personality— and that implies holding some unified philosophical view, an attitude toward life. And then there must be the uniting of this personality, this view, with the creative capacities of the person so that his acts and his works and his thinking and his knowledge will be a unity. Such a state of being, curiously enough, invokes the word integrity in its basic sense; being unified, being integrated.

Ben Shahn, from The Shape of Content.

Thomas Bewick

Thomas Bewick, 1795

I wish I’d known more about Thomas Bewick when I talked to Joe Viscomi. I did mention his name, and Joe gently corrected me on the pronunciation— it’s pronounced “buick.” There’s a weird confluence going on. I had read The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer a year or two ago, and seemed to recall a reference or two. Then, his woodcut technique showed up in the survey of American book illustration. Now, revisiting Brewer’s book I find some really relevant stuff.

In most ways, Bewick is like the anti-Blake. But like Blake, he was a city dweller. Bewick was from Newcastle, perhaps the fourth largest city in England at that time. He was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, a prosperous engraver— later becoming a full partner in the thriving commercial engraving firm. Bewick became incredibly famous as an engraver, and people flocked to collect his work after his first major work A General History of Quadrupeds. His engravings were primarily of animal forms, infused with the sort of personification of moral conscience popular in the eighteenth century.

A question central to most of his life’s work is identical to Blake’s concerns: the relationship of art to commerce— or as Blake would put it, “the prolific and the devourer.” In this, Bewick was closer to the eighteenth century sensibility, while Blake foreshadowed the nineteenth. As Brewer puts it, “the frequency with which they addressed ‘the consistency of LITERARY and PHILISOPHICAL with COMMERCIAL PURSUITS’ betrays both the novelty of their claim and their uncertainty of its success” (511). Bewick used animals as an allegory of “the benefits of association, the value of social intercourse in cultivating the self” and became a central figure arguing for “provincial enlightenment”:

Have we forgotten in our hurried and imperfect enumeration of wise worthies— have we forgotten the ‘genius who dwells on the Tyne’ the matchless Bewick? No. His books lie on our parlour, bed-room, dining room, drawing room, study table and are never out of place or time Happy old man! The delight of childhood, manhood, decaying age!— A moral in every tailpiece— a sermon in every vignette.

Growing from children’s books mostly, it seems as if book illustration came of age through Bewick. However, common to the concerns of the 1930s photograph/text combinations, no one really read his moralizing, they just looked at the pretty pictures. They raved about his woodcut images, and either ignored or denigrated the moralizing text. Bewick was the inspiration for Audubon, and his texts did fuel the sort of naturalistic moralizing perhaps most felt in Wordsworth, who adored him. He was a rationalist, and a fan of natural religion that bordered on deism who felt that art must moralize. Blake, had he mentioned him (he didn’t— I checked), would have despised him. Bewick was a shrewd, entrepreneurial rustic who lived in a highly developed city.

The more I look at the history of illustration, the more I admire Blake. He managed to stop the overpowering nature of images, by creating overpowering texts and images. No other early illustrator really even comes close.

Warren Zevon

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Sad News

From USA Today:

Shortly after he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, Warren Zevon handed his pulmonologist copies of recent albums Life’ll Kill Ya and My Ride’s Here and said, “Doc, just look at the titles and ask yourself why I have this eerie acceptance.” . . .

“I've often infuriated sincere interviewers who asked why I write all these death songs,” he says. “I’d tell them, ‘I don't know.’ I guess I have the answer now. Maybe as writers, we carry some kind of physical knowledge of our fates, and work through them.

“To me, the message of my songs, of all songs, is ‘enjoy life.’ My message as a person who evidently doesn’t have much more planned is the same. It’s the only message I ever thought art had any business having.”

Though Zevon would have chosen a sunnier destiny, he’s grateful his diagnosis reawakened a personal philosophy to “notice you’re alive.”

“You make the most of every word, every poem, every flower,” he says. “I sure notice that I’m alive now. I did before, but not as much as I should have. All I can say is what I’ve always said: If you break your leg, stop thinking about dancing and start decorating the cast.”

As a bit of an “excitable boy” myself, I find this news very disturbing.

Portrait of a Decade

Gordon Parks, Washington DC 1942

Portrait of a Decade

I don't think anyone has done a really good “portrait” of the FSA decade (1932-42). But since I will be writing about it, I figured it would be a good idea to review some of the available books, both for their content and the mistakes I'd like to avoid.

Jack Hurley’s Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties (1972) is an excellent book in many respects. It has fresh, original research including first-person interviews with many of the people involved.

However, some of the basic concepts which it uses as a point of departure seem deeply flawed to me. Hurley ignores a lot of pioneering work through careful definitional exclusion. He feels that the Stryker was instrumental in enabling documentary work, work that would not have existed otherwise.

Edwin Rosskam gets a total of one paragraph. [I must amend— there are a couple more in chapter 6] Bourke-White and Caldwell are deprecated. The book follows a rather liberal party-line, where commercial=bad and all of the New Deal cheerleaders were the heroes. Evans is subsumed into this crowd, even though Hurley admits that it is an insult to him.

Intro. & Chap. 1
Chap. 2 — 9/1
Chap. 3 & 4 — 9/2
Chap. 5 — 9/8
Chap. 6 — 9/15
more to come later

Deep background in the “conventional” story sets this book apart. I like the book, but it is fairly shoddy scholarship. There are many errors, omissions, and travesties in the organizational structure. But it also has several leads I need to track down. The biggest problem is stripping away the obvious cheerleading to get to the meat.

Coming into Urbanity

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What They Were Hunting For

Finished the second book of McPhee’s Coming Into The Country. The land is clearly the star of the work. Though the second book is ostensibly about the urban areas, the people are hollow and the forces of nature are pushed center stage. It’s framed around the search for a new capital, to replace the remote and inhospitable Juneau. It rains so much in Juneau that the houses remain unpainted— it’s never dry enough. The wind blows so hard it breaks wind gauges constantly, etc.

There were some interesting facts considering the process of planning a location for a new city, and comparisons with Brasilia and Canberra. I had no idea that Canberra was planned by Walter Burley Griffin of Chicago. McPhee describes Canberra as “a somewhat sterile place, undeniably attractive,”— “it has tended to depress some visitors because it offers nothing but government, and no relief from government” (138). I could say the same thing about the second book of Coming Into The Country.

However, it is worth sharing the discovery that the word “hooch” comes from Alaska. “The Indians of the archipelago distilled a drink they called hoochinoo” (141). The only other passage worthy of note is the argument for keeping the capital in Juneau, because of its remoteness and secrecy:

“Shouldn’t the state capital be near the population center?” I asked him.

“That argument doesn’t hold. The spectrum of public pressure is larger where people are. Can you imagine a march of welfare people? In Juneau, you don’t have pressures like that. You can sit with a clear head and do your work.” (159).

Somehow, one would expect a bureaucrat to respond that way. Secrecy is essential for any bureaucracy.

Beware of Darkness


Beware of Darkness

Woke up this morning and made the rounds. I was half watching/listening to Concert for Bangladesh while reading Mike Golby. There’s nothing like being reminded just how really small so much of the bullshit we wrestle with in the USA really is early on a Sunday morning. A song came on I hadn’t heard in a long while, and it made me think.

Watch out now, take care
Beware of falling swingers
Dropping all around you
The pain that often mingles
In your fingertips
Beware of darkness

Watch out now, take care
Beware of the thoughts that linger
Winding up inside your head
The hopelessness around you
In the dead of night

There’s a lot of darkness out there. It’s so hard to resist the paralysis it can bring. It’s hard not to be silent, and dark. It makes me understand more deeply why religion is so important to some people, a faith in something greater than the day-to-day which rolls around our ankles like quicksand, threatening to envelop you so that you cannot take a step.

Beware of sadness
It can hit you
It can hurt you
Make you sore and what is more
That is not what you are here for

Watch out now, take care
Beware of soft shoe shufflers
Dancing down the sidewalks
As each unconscious sufferer
Wanders aimlessly
Beware of Maya

But it was the last verse that hit like a lightning-bolt. The world wants to grow, and not be consumed in the dark silences of introspection. You can’t see where you’re going, if you’re constantly staring at your shoes.

Watch out now, take care
Beware of greedy leaders
They take you where you should not go
While Weeping Atlas Cedars
They just want to grow, grow and grow
Beware of darkness (beware of darkness)

Darkness and silence are the real enemies which must be resisted at all costs.

Politicizing Sex

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Politicizing Sex

More queer theory: Monique Wittig’s “One Is Not Born a Woman” travels some disturbing theoretical ground. The opening approach, common to most of the pieces I’ve been reading, is the destruction of “women” as a racial group of a special kind— a natural group considered to be “materially specific to their bodies.” She asserts that the presence of lesbian society destroys the “social fact” which constitutes women. The argument is that women are socially made as an idea of nature, and they are socially, not biologically, compelled to conform to expectation. The presence of lesbians is said to refute the concept of a natural essence which women are a manifestation of.

Wittig assaults the feminist notion of the biological nature of women because it relies on the normative presence of heterosexuality as the foundation of society— a biological essence, as it were, and a generative hypothesis which requires the biological differentiation of the sexes to posit an origin for society. Wittig wishes to remove both matriarchy and patriarchy from the social equation.

Wittig rejects “natural history” as a force to be dealt with at all. She wrongly cites Darwin’s opinion “that women were less evolved than men”— actually, rereading him I find that he didn’t consider them much of a factor in evolution at all. However, Darwin seemed to be deeply troubled by the inconsistencies of sexual behavior and secondary sexual characteristics as a part of his evolutionary theory. Sex and natural history didn’t get along well; even Darwin admitted that. “Sexual Selection” was a secondary force, and only slightly developed this in his theories. Like many people, I think she unfairly makes Darwin a whipping boy.

Instead of natural history, Wittig substitutes “materialist history” to explain the origin of sexuality as oppression. Gender is a mark bestowed by an oppressor. The “myth of woman” is only a mechanism by which women are appropriated by the dominant discourse. Wittig speaks authoritatively regarding race, claiming that “there was no concept of race before slavery.” I find this argument specious, because slavery has been a part society from the beginning. However, using the definition erected, it becomes only logical that lesbians, because they are neither men, nor adherent to the “myth of woman” are not a product of nature— they must be something else, because there is no nature in society.

Wittig seeks to construct “women” as a class, not as a gender. Lesbians thus form a sort of underclass to women, whose rebellion is a political rather than sexual struggle. They reject the normative “roles” they are supposed to play. The struggle, in these terms, is not an eternal one— but instead a class struggle for recognition. But before it can be that, it must be a struggle for an identity, outside the normative myths provided by society. The polemic she promotes is to destroy “woman” as an inclusive myth.

To destroy “woman” does not mean that we aim, short of physical destruction, to destroy lesbianism simultaneously with the categories of sex, because lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we can live freely. Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically or politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation we have previously called servitude . . .

I really have some major problems with her reduction. Most lesbians I’ve met enjoy the sensual myths of femininity, just not the political ones. Most of the radical theorists I’m reading really seem to want to abolish sex, period. I can’t see that as a solution. Most people (except gender theorists) seem to enjoy sexual myth-making.

Darwin on Race and Sex


Darwin on Race and Sex

Primarily some excerpts from Origin of Species that I may want to do something with later:

Silence is Sexy



Silence is sexy. “Better to be silent and thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt” (I don’t recall the source). I can embrace that thought. I cannot, however embrace the idea that silence can somehow be a perversely declarative utterance.

In linguistics, a declarative is a particular form of utterance that can be said to constitute a truth condition by its performance— the test is the insertion of the word “hereby” into the phrase without disrupting the meaning: “I hereby promise”. . . “I hereby declare” . . . “I hereby christen,” etc. A moment of silence contains no verb, and in my opinion is not a declarative utterance. It does nothing, except sit there looking sexy and allowing you to construct interpretation based on inaction. Tom asked, “Silence isn’t always silent, is it?” No, it isn’t. The declarations inferred are deafening. But it’s just sex, you know? It isn’t truth. I think the world needs a little truth to go along with the sexiness. But then, I suppose hiding behind silence is an age-old thing.

To Nobodaddy

Why art thou silent and invisible
Father of Jealousy?
Why dost thou hide thyself in clouds
From every searching Eye

Why darkness & obscurity
In all thy words & laws
That none dare eat the fruit but from
The wily serpent's jaws
Or is it because Secrecy
gains females loud applause

William Blake, Rossetti Manuscript (E: 471)

Cultivate Wildness

Thomas Rowlandson — “Dr. Syntax Sketching the Lake” — 1813

Cultivated Wildness

Another topic which came into sharper focus for me in conversations with Joe Viscomi is the incredible shift in the perception of nature which occurred in the romantic period. The mid-eighteenth century promoted the rise of gardening, but the gardens (particularly in France) were constructed to convey a sense of humanity’s conquest of nature. Carefully trimmed hedges in neat geometric rows— sculpted greenery to show how man had tamed the base nature of the wilderness. These gardens were not natural in any sense, other than in the presence of green objects. Of course, the translation of the bible into vernacular tongues set up a sort of oppositional value too: which had higher authority— nature untamed, controlled only by the hand of God— or the word, printed on a page and interpreted by humans.

The enclosure of common lands in England brought with it a sort of nostalgia for nature untamed. Gardening shifted its virtues from overt control, to a new sort of cultivated wilderness— the park replaced the commons. The rise of nature as a moral teacher was coincident with the fall of nature under the hand of man, and thus was born the desire for cultivated wildness. It was against this backdrop that modern book illustration developed, and the romantic impulse resurfaced after the waves of mid-eighteenth century moral abstraction from an imperfect source— a view of nature which few men had access to, let alone appreciation of. The “nature-lovers” of the romantic period were mostly city dwellers, who sketched their impressions from cultivated ground.

The situation in America was different. It was unenclosed, wild, and seemingly limitless. The American park system is constructed both of wholly prefabricated wilderness (of which Central Park in New York City is a prime example), carefully choreographed to appear wild— and fenced and improved natural lands, with roadway systems and easy access, like Yosemite. There is a mythic quality to the American park, but it is filtered through a European sensibility.

As McPhee points out in the first book of Coming into the Country, the concept of wilderness is foreign to those thrust from society into it. It’s a matter of unfathomable scale, of interconnectedness without end, which can never be fully subdued. The “natural” philosophy of the western tradition was ill-equipped to deal with the sheer expanse of mountains, lakes, and rivers of the America of the early eighteenth century. The primary tools of subjugation are the creation of parks, cultivated wildernesses where city-dwellers might visit and get “closer to god” through a flirtation with wildness. These days are little different; it takes a high-tech arsenal of camping supplies to even approach it— wilderness is always more comfortable in the mythic park around the corner. Few people want to wrestle a grizzly. They just want to inscribe the lessons of nature into a book.

Natural's not in it

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Exploring Nature

I made it through the first book of John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, and then I had to take a nap. I’ve got a low threshold for this sort of thing. It’s a book about Alaska, an extended non-fiction piece. The first ten pages nearly made me ill with the literary (and journalistic) pretensions. But it got better. There’s nothing that makes me want to puke quicker than literary/metaphoric explorations of fishing. Unfortunately, one of my teachers has a thing about that, so I think I’ve read at least five different variations on that theme in the last two years.

I’ve never been able to get the “nature” thing. For a long time, this impeded my reading of people like Wordsworth and Emerson. Joe Viscomi put an interesting twist on the problem during his seminar on the Songs. He said: “It’s only recently that the word ‘nature’ began to mean the green stuff.” It’s another one of those inventions of the romantics that has become a commonplace. I resolved to look into this a bit deeper, so after my nap I did some more tripping through the OED.

Exploding Head

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Exploding Head

Apologies if the stream of entries sure to follow don’t make much sense to a casual reader. So much has gone through my head in the last two days that if I don’t just spit it out, the headache will never fade, and I won’t be able to get any work done. I have over 800 pages of stuff to read in the next three days on top of all this explosive thinking. I suppose I could blame it on Joe Viscomi, because I got to spend a lot of time with him and it seemed like every other word out of his mouth directly related to the ideas I’m working with. But it’s deeper than that. Viscomi is perhaps the best place to start though.


Jeff Ward— 1992

Not Stopping

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Not Stopping

I was watching a video clip of Lemmy from Motorhead, and he uttered a very wise line: “The best way to keep going is not stopping.” I don’t know why, but I’ve got a problem with stopping on Wednesdays. I always get a headache for some reason.

I did make it to the Viscomi lecture though, and like a silly little fan-boy I had him autograph my copy of Blake and the Idea of the Book. We talked quite a bit, about book illustration and such, and his lecture subtly shifted my perspective on art in the late eighteenth century, and the importance of the clearly gestural style of engraving in Blake’s work. To have visible brush-strokes, rather than mechanical perfection was taken as a gesture of authority. In other words, prior to 1839, being able to discern the artists hand behind the work gave it a veracity that was inevitably displaced behind the growth of realism, and the photograph. That’s a powerful twist. I hadn’t thought about that part of it before.

There was a lot more I wanted to write today, but the headache definitely interfered. I never bought into the idea that surrendering your voice was a way to commemorate an inauspicious anniversary. I think that’s a cop-out. I’ve never understood the “moment of silence” thing at all. It seems to me that the way to celebrate people is to shout, dance, and be involved— not withdraw into a corner. The best way to keep going is not stopping.

Notes on Book Illustration

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Notes on the History of Book Illustration

This information comes from . A History of Book Publishing in the United States: Volume I The Creation of an Industry by John Tebbel. The earliest known copperplate illustration was a frontispiece to Increase Mather’s Blessed Hope from 1701, done by Thomas Emmes of Boston. It also appeared in Cotton Mather’s Ichabod, published in 1702. The first professional engraver in the colonies was Francis Dewing, who started in 1716. After 1722, copperplate printing was common and Benjamin Franklin was credited with producing the first copperplate press. The first notable engraver is argued to be Peter Pelham, an English mezzotint engraver who worked from 1727-1751.

Woodcuts were also featured in many books of the eighteenth century, notably including a 1740 printing of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Franklin produced “the first attempt printed in America to symbolize a political situation” using an illustration in a pamphlet called Plain Truth in 1747. Children’s books began to be illustrated in the mid-eighteenth century, and magazines featured political cartoons. The most prominent producer of cartoons was Paul Revere— a copperplate line engraver. The illustrated children’s books included Robinson Crusoe, released in its first American edition in 1774. In 1776, Astly released the first American sporting book— The Modern Riding Master but the engravings were crude when compared to the children’s books. The first American Mother Goose was printed in 1785.

Woodcuts became the dominant form, after improvements by Thomas Bewick. The most ambitious illustrated work of the eighteenth century was Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, at 792 pages with 60 illustrations, published between 1792-4. A two volume folio edition of the bible with 50 illustrations was published by Thomas in 1791, and the first American editions of the illustrated Encyclopaedia Britannica were produced from 1790-97, with 542 copperplates. However, Rees’s Encyclopedia, in 18 volumes from 1790-97 illustrated by 543 copperplates produced by American artists is said to be when “American book illustration came of age”(174). Lithography was developed in 1796, but did not appear in America until 1818. It didn’t begin to catch on until 1825, and woodcuts were still popular in the mid-nineteenth century.

* I was also looking at some copies of Survey Graphic from 1930-36 today. Woodcuts feature prominantly in many of them. Photographs appear in innovative layouts in 1935 and 1936 issues.

Memorialize this


Remembering the WTC

I have intentionally avoided any of the commemorative specials, sappy photo-montages, and historical reconstruction going on. I like to think in broader strokes, and when disasters are replayed as if they are somehow more important to historical consciousness than the day-to-day affairs before or after, I’m singularly unimpressed. What matters is how we learn from history— and this includes the moments before, during, and after.

I think Ray Davis has it right: the best way to commemorate September 11th is by going to work late. Past events can be learned from, and that is the primary lesson here, as I see it. The actions of fanatical folks who have no regard for human life can’t be controlled, and it is folly to believe otherwise. The real pity is that few seem conscious of what happened afterwards. What I remember most is not the image of the towers collapsing, but of the press frantically scrambling to put a spin on things— we must do something! Failing the invention of a time-machine, I can’t think of any way to put the lives disrupted and lost back in order. I’d also vote for turning the media off. Of course, all of this has virtually no impact on what I’m doing.

What I’ll be doing is attending a lecture by renowned Blake scholar Joe Viscomi. He’s one of the guiding hands behind the online Blake Archive, a pioneer scholar in the technical aspects of Blake’s printmaking processes, and from what I hear an all around great guy. I would not miss it for the world. I refuse to light a candle for the media’s benefit. I refuse to support the rebirth of American imperialism under the guise of celebrating such a heinous crime. I don’t want to be spun. I’d rather be enlightened.

The tide of wartime rhetoric has washed the world in blood again. I’d rather try to figure out more about William Blake’s rhetoric— Blake argued that we must stop corporeal war by elevating mental fight to the center of the agenda. We’ve got to stop creating enemies to demonize and lash out against physically, and deal instead with the mental conflicts at the core of it all. Why is it so hard to love one another? Maybe it’s because we’re constantly creating “others” to rage against to avoid raging against ourselves.


Jeff Ward— Gumby— Bakersfield, California, 1993




My first edition of An American Exodus by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor arrived today. I didn’t really need to splurge on this book, but I did. All the copies available in the continental US were $500 plus, but I got a copy from Ireland for $100. The modern version is virtually identical, but there is something about the smell, the yellowness that makes me feel closer to it. The end papers are filled with words from the people photographed, and the scale is jarring compared to the miniaturized version used in the modern copy.

I was reading the fine print, and noticed that Horace Bristol contributed a photograph to it. But more than that, I was struck by the concern over just what this sort of book was supposed to be. I posted my bibliographic essay on the Rosskams here just now, and Rosskam’s thoughts on the subject are still fresh in my mind. Both Lange and Rosskam wanted to sketch out a new category, a sort of none of the above, regarding their integrations of photo and text. This is how Lange and Taylor put it:

This is neither a book of photographs nor an illustrated book, in the traditional sense. Its particular form is the result of our use of techniques in proportions and relations designed to convey understanding easily, clearly, and vividly. We use the camera as a tool of research. Upon a tripod of photographs, captions, and text we rest themes evolved out of long observations in the field. We adhere to the standards of documentary photography as we have conceived them. Quotations which accompany the photographs report what the person said, not what we think might be their unspoken thoughts. Where there are no people, and no other source is indicated, the quotation comes from people we met in the field.

We show you what is happening in selected regions of limited area. Something is lost by this method, for it fails to show fully the wide extent and the many variations of rural changes which we describe. But we believe that the gain in sharpness of focus reveals better the nature of the changes themselves.

The ripples of You Have Seen Their Faces by Bourke-White and Caldwell are all over this book. There are multiple definitions of intent at work, from 1937 forward, and all these definitions of documentary photography are inherently rhetorical. Though Walker Evans’s photographs are usually taken to be the most “objective” they clearly are not. They are a highly subjective aesthetic reaction, combined with a ravingly subjective text questioning the very existence of objectivity. This compares directly to the “scientific” approach of Lange and Taylor, who realize however carefully they pursue their observations, they cannot contain the entirety of the changes in progress. Rosskam alone used multiple strategies, for multiple opinions, “to convey understanding easily, clearly, and vividly.” Rosskam’s incredible flexibility obsesses me.

Public Sex


Public Sex

I read the introduction to Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex by Pat Califa with great interest. One of the striking things about the work of Jame Pennebaker, which I previously considered in a class on “Writing and Healing,” is scientific evidence that repression=bad for you, health-wise. Califa’s “Introduction: Or It Is Always Right to Rebel” gestures at the same issues. The title’s reference to “radical sex” is meant to question the way that society assigns privilege based on adherence to moral codes. Califa’s identification of herself as a “sex radical” is clarified through a history of her professional and personal involvement.

She describes her growth as beginning with “getting tired of the lies” (xiii). Califa came out as a radical because of “the destructive impact of the ‘feminist’ antiporn movement” on the lesbian community in San Francisco. “They attacked anybody who argued with them as an advocate of violence against women, a child molester, or (gasp) a sadomasochist” (xiii). Califa calls this response “storm-trooper tactics.” Califa sought a vehicle for public criticism of these people (xiv). The assertion she wanted to put on the table was this:

“I don’t think pornography causes violence against women. I don’t think feminists should ban pornography. This is a right-wing, homophobic, misogynist ideology. I think the only problem with pornography is that there isn’t enough of it, and the porn that does exist reflects the sexual fantasies of aging Catholic gangsters. I do some of the things that you find so scary when they are depicted in pornography, and I refuse to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of the lesbian ghetto on a rail.” (xv)

After publishing her first article, she was threatened with the cancellation of the publication of her book Sapphistry, a lesbian sexual manual. It was published but got vicious reviews. “But the real dykes, both feminist and nonfeminist, didn’t care what the self appointed leaders thought” (xvi). Califa characterizes most early lesbian professional publishing as “assimilationist” (xvii). The question Califa wants to pose is:

Why can’t sex be honored for its own sake, instead of being prettified by the euphemism “the erotic” and being blurred with human experience that are necessary and worthwhile, but not orgasmic? (xix)

Califa details her choice to concentrate on disenfranchised people and topics, because the mainstream feminist literature tends toward the non-sexual aspects of relationships (xx). In many ways, I can celebrate this— but not without wondering if it isn’t just another manifestation of the American penchant for rebellion at any cost. Califa argues that concentration on the core of human experience rather than the fringe is “pathetic crap” when “what we do in bed is illegal in about half of the states” (xxiii). The 1994 preface is filled with desperation: “I no longer believe a cure or a vaccine or even a treatment for AIDS will be found, no matter how much money the government throws at it” (xxv). Califa argues for prevention, and the acceptance of sex as a central part of “deviant” life:

We need the euphoria of the orgasm the way a junkie needs a fix, to kill some of the pain of being outcasts. And so we keep on dying and killing each other before we die. Because we believe we deserve it. (xxv)

Self-loathing is merged with the American ameliorative impulse: “If we cannot be our brother and sister’s keepers, then we do not deserve to live in sunlight” (xxv). She claims a sense of triumph, in that her “insides and outsides match” (xxvii). The ideology expressed in this preface is contradictory, conflicted, and passionate. While she claims that “the force of women united to defend one another” is a “divine” energy, she also argues for separatism, of fracturing out organizations for “lesbians only” (xxix). The tortured psychology behind this preface is as fascinating as a train wreck.

The poignancy of the close of the 1994 preface “Today, at the amazing age of forty, I am trying to cause as much trouble as I did when I was twenty-five. Fifty should be awesome, and sixty incendiary” (xxx) is amplified by her admission, in the 2000 preface, that she is suffering from an autoimmune disorder. One thing seems sure: this book won’t be a dull read.

The American Evasion of Philosophy

The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism by Cornel West has been on my list for a little while.

This book was frequently cited in Reason to Believe. Since the pragmatic point of view seems instrumental to the evolution of heroes in the American consciousness, and I will have to deal with many issues regarding race or ethnicity in the photographic representations of heroes, I suspect detailed notes on West’s take on Emerson will be helpful. Not to mention other figures like John Dewey, who clearly shaped the flavor of didactic practice in America.

It is an interdisciplinary study which encompasses Emerson, Dewey, Du Bois, Trilling, Quine, Rorty, Hook, Mills, and a few others. I've failed in my mission to finish it within a week, so I've had to reposition the entry.

I find the writing style incredibly lucid and not bombastic or propagandistic. West seems very sensitive to the complexity of Emerson’s position, and the nature of the shifts in perspective over time.

Intro — 8/30
Chapter 1 — 8/31
Chapter 2 — 9/1
Chapter 3 — 9/6-9

The introduction is polemic, as one might expect. But it’s a polemic I largely agree with. The first chapter deals with Emerson, with glancing references to Karl Marx and Andrew Jackson. Chapter two deals with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Chapter three goes into great depth regarding John Dewey (finally finished!).

more to come later

Rosskam and Woody Guthrie


Rosskam and Woody Guthrie

I spent most of the afternoon writing a bibliographic essay as a sample for my comp classes. I did it on the Rosskams, and as soon as I get the works cited page together I’ll post it. I’ve told the students that their survey need only be 3-4 pages, but of course I couldn’t survey these folks in less than six. At least it beats the 12 page bibliographic essay I used on views of the religious experience from someone else last semester!

Along the way, I discovered some other stuff that I wanted to preserve here, though they didn’t really factor into my essay. Searching the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress for “Rosskam” turned up a letter from Alan Lomax to Woody Guthrie recommending Edwin Rosskam as a good person to handle his autobiography. Which in turn, lead me to a short letter from Guthrie to Lomax which is permeated with the pragmatic point of view. Here’s a transcription of the part that got to me, as best as I can read the image:

I actually believe that most of us under all hard times did all sorts of wars and hungry spells have got just about the same idea about it all before we read a book or a newspaper and the thing for you to deliver and portray is what your head registers and what your ears hear and your nose smells and what your lips eat and when you disagree with books and papers or talk sermons you ought to find yourself a successful way of putting what you honestly believe into your shows. If you don’t like murder then don’t work for it and if you hate war then don’t show for it.

Of course, after I transcribed it, I found a transcription on the same LOC site. However, I think my reading of “lips eat” makes more sense than their transcription of “likes sat.”

But dammit Worldcat is down and I can’t figure out if Rosskam handled Guthrie’s autobiography. Checking the regular library catalogue, Bound for Glory was published by EP Dutton in 1943, so that means that chances are he didn’t— wrong publisher. Our library has a first edition though, I’ll have to check it out.

Japonize Elephants


Japonize Elephants from Zorlock Land of the Lost

An acquaintance of mine, Daniel Gold of An Honest Tune, sent me a description of Japonize Elephants that I have to pass on. I know a few of my old Raindogs friends are readers, and might appreciate them.

Japonize Elephants -- pronounce Japonize like a verb, like legalize— consists of 12 to 14 musicians from California by way of Zorlock, playing instruments such as: flute, 2 sax, fiddle, stand-up bass, homemade percussion and drum kit with buckets and pots and pans, accordion, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and they all sing at the same time like a yelling clapping polka party, a klezmer dance, a gypsy caravan, or a 12-ring circus. The sounds and styles are a unique fusion of world music and roots music, I can’t pin them down to 1 style or genre, but it was a very ethnic mix. Their website logo mentions bluegrass, but I did not hear much bluegrass from them. I detected Eastern European music, Middle Eastern, and more.

There wasn’t a specific story-line or narrative to the show, but every song seemed to have conversations and role-playing, with each member doing different weird voices, almost like they were talking at the same time, but singing. Often they made a funny face or sang from the back of their throat to make strange voices (Like a funny voice you would use when trying to make your sister laugh.). They are extremely comical, comedy is a big element of this band, so is theatrics: not just a band, they were a show. Did they have costumes? Or was that their regular clothes? I don’t know. One of the (male) sax players was wearing a purple dress. The female fiddle player named Curley had on a see-through peachy tutu (ballet skirt). The center-lead-singer and guitarist had bed-head with his hair going every direction and all in his face, he looked insane (and he was). The drummer on his homemade drums, had on a striped vest and a handlebar mustache.

Oh, and Scott Rogers has kindly informed me that Stu Odum, the incredible bass player from the last incarnation of Thin White Rope, is in a new band called The Graves Brothers Deluxe. So much stuff to keep track of these days . . .




But how insular and pathetically solitary are all the peoples we know! . . .

Such is the tragic necessity which strict finds underneath our domestic and neighborly life, irresistibly driving each adult soul as with whips into the desert, and making our warm covenants sentimental and momentary. We must infer that the ends of thought were preemptory, if they were to be secured at such ruinous cost. They are deeper than can be told, and belong to the immensities and eternities. They reach down to that depth where society itself originates and dissapears; where the question is, Which is first man or men? where the individual is lost in his source.

But this banishment to the rocks and echoes no metaphysics can make right or tolerable. This result is so against nature, such a half-view, that it must be corrected by a common sense and experience. . . .A man must be clothed with society, or we shall feel a certain bareness and poverty as of a displaced and unfurnished member. He is to be dressed in arts and institutions, as well as in body garments. Now and then a man exquisitely made can live alone, and must; but coop up most men and you undo them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude, 1870.

Reading Judith Butler, I had to track down exactly what metalepsis meant. I had a feeling it had something to do with metonymy, but of course I had confused metonymy with synecdoche. I thought it had something to do with a stand in value. I was both right and wrong. Once and for all, I can now sort out these rhetorical terms.

Synecdoche is where a part stands in for a whole, as in saying “turn the wheel” when you mean turn the car. Metonymy on the other hand, is using a indexical symbol to refer to a whole, as in saying the crown when you mean the Queen. Metalepsis is a double metonymy.

In other words, metalepsis an indexical symbol which refers to another indexical symbol. An individual’s conception of society is a metalepsis. We refer to our inner symbol of what society is, which can only refer to the outer convention (rather than a thing in and of itself). It is an individual index of a communal index. A game of smoke and mirrors, far removed form any directly referent reality. That’s what makes it so absurd to think about what comes first: self or society? There is no tangible referent, only a vague and nebulous concept. Butler believes that gender is a metalepsis. She has a powerful point.

Fuzzy & Lee

Jeff Ward— Fuzzy and Lee Rocker— Bakersfield, California, 1994

Group Writing


Group Writing Activities

I was asked in one of my classes to respond with my thoughts on group writing activities, and to detail my experiences with them. I decided that I would archive it here. Reading it back again, I realize that I did not make it clear that I feel that they are a valuable real world writing practice. However, in the academic environment I think they fail— that is the important distinction.

I feel they [group writing activities] are rarely successful, unless done among people who are equally motivated and at the same stage of educational development. They privilege the vocal, and minimize the contribution of those who are at lower levels of development in the pursuit of affirmation. They increase the disparity between those who can and those who can’t. However, collaborative writing can be highly successful among those of different skill types where distinct and individual functions with some degree of autonomy are assigned. I have great reservations about the focus on group writing in lower level courses, where skill levels and types are difficult to discern; while it is useful to use reading groups, I think writing groups grossly fail.

The majority of my experience in the English department was in a seminar group environment. It was quite successful. My group experiences in the Rhetoric department were horrible failures, with only two exceptions: A group presentation in Rhetorical theory (graduate level) where each group member explored a single topic (not a writing project), and Advanced Expository writing with Dr. Herrmann. Again, the class with Dr. Herrmann was more of a seminar-reading-response type atmosphere, rather than collaborative writing.

I believe that writing is individually constructed but socially constituted. Too much emphasis on either pole is dangerous. If the project is to constitute meaning, then group-work is essential for effective communication. However, the production of a text is an individual activity necessarily deals with the metalepsis of individual cognition of a perceived audience. Group writing does not remove this limitation, but usually exacerbates it by introducing a sort of noise into the process of invention, in the form of contradictory perceptions of the audience envisioned. Unless bound together by distinct individual talents (distributed cognition) toward a distinct action-oriented end, group writing fails. Loose structures, facilitated by the expressivist turn in most compositionists, thwart the distinctness needed for successful group projects. Group writing is a poor fit to most current pedagogy, but it is forced there by a poor understanding of social constructivism.

In my experience, most group writing activities are purely bullshit sessions. I have generally taken a submissive role: if there is a dominant voice, I will listen and do whatever task they decide for me. In the case of the Rhetorical theory assignment, my task was “Jeff improvises for fifteen minutes.” I could handle that. The dominant voice prepared a beautifully choreographed presentation, built from individual tasks. In undergraduate groups, the lack of motivation and the absence of a complex task made it easier for me to just complete the “group” assignment myself, and allow the rest of the group to coast along with me. I refuse, in most cases, to step up to be a dominant voice. I spent many years as a manager, and a trainer. If tasks assigned in school were complex, and people in the group had differing skills to access, I would have done what the dominant voice in my graduate group did. This, in my undergraduate experience was never the case. Given the simplistic nature of the tasks involved, there was no need for distributed roles. To assign them would be an unnecessary imposition of my character on the group. It was easier just to complete the assignment myself. I did not come to school to relearn “manager-mode.”

Information Heroes

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Information Heroes

A while ago, I stumbled onto Edward Tufte. It was a welcome relief for me, to hear someone argue for three-dimensional design principles in a time when the prevailing currents in web design were toward flat display, and the suppression of things like shading to give depth to a display. I still think that sort of approach to web design is a flat-out bore. I bought Envisioning Information and was really thrilled by the graphics, though I must admit his approach is way outside my skill range in creating graphics. Imagine my surprise when Tufte was nearly demonized in my document design class— everything I had read up to that point was overwhelmingly positive.

Visual language: Global Communication for the 21st Century by Robert Horn is one of the texts for the class. At first glance, I found the book to be really ugly. It uses tons of clip-art images, repetitively. I was not at all upset about the sheer density of the graphics, but rather the downright commonplace nature of the graphic usage. Reflecting on it now, I can see that using “canned” imagery was part of his point. Textually, however, it’s an easy book for me to like— it uses a foundation from linguistics to argue that the combination of text and image is a sort of creole language, with its own syntax and morphology.

Comparing and contrasting the two approaches to information design it seems that both Horn and Tufte want to disrupt the myth of transparency in communication— Tufte uses breathtaking aesthetics, whereas Horn uses sheer density to force a reader to contemplate the surface of the text, rather than just extracting the information behind the text. These approaches stimulate the same sort of oscillation that Richard Lanham’s “at / through” is all about: separate means, same ends. In conversation with Professor Kuralt, it occured to me that it’s also a manifestation of the different heroic types I’ve been trying to resolve. Tufte is nearly Byronic— championing individual artistry— whereas Horn is more of a democratic/communistic hero type. Clip-art is within everyone’s reach. From a theoretical standpoint, though I find him visually repulsive, Horn is a lot easier to defend.

Resisting the mainstream avalanche of canned templates, clip-art, and Microsoft wizards is an assertion of individuality. However, study of the visual effect of the commonplace does seem more productive than just staring in awe at the works of distant artistic “geniuses.” Perhaps the key is some sort of balance between them. It’s nice to have another point of view.

An Accurate Deception


An Accurate Deception

For those who are interested, I have written summaries of four articles which attempt to define “literary journalism.” Of my readings this afternoon, however, the most interesting was a piece written by my professor Dr. Charles Anderson: “Coming into the Country . . . and Living There: Literary Nonfiction and Discourse Communities” (1991). Dr. Anderson proposes that literary nonfiction can be roughly divided into a tree:

The collision of “literary journalism” and cultural criticism is not demarcated by any of the articles I read earlier. Like the evasion of philosophy sketched by West, there seems to be an evasion of the term “criticism” by most people who attach the label of journalism to nonfiction. I would call people like Didion and Wolfe cultural critics, not journalists.

Heavy Ironing


Heavy Ironing

I was going through Cornel West’s chapter on John Dewey with great fascination. I haven’t read any Dewey yet, because I just have so damn many things to read. But I was really struck by some lines quoted by West:

If the older Scholastic spent his laborious time in erasing the writing from old manuscripts in order to indite thereon something of his own, the new scholastic also has his palimpsest. He criticizes the criticisms with which some other Scholastic has criticized other criticisms, and writing upon writings goes on till the substructure of reality is long obscured. (82)

I did a quick search of Wilson Web for some articles, so that I might get a sense of the contemporary perspective on Dewey. I discovered 251 articles from the last five years, including several long chains of responses to previous articles. I am actually going to read through one of those threads (on eros and teaching). Isn’t it ironic?

Now I really have to read Dewey. I had a good time in class today, teaching in a rather authoritarian manner while deconstructing the authority of an authoritarian article from the NY Times. Hmm, I sense an inescapable pattern here.

I’m not so sure I can finish West’s book in a week. I keep getting distracted by a monumental stack of reading. I started printing out Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Lady Byron Vindicated from ultrafiche. The bloody thing is 423 pages long! But quickly scanning the stuff as it came across the screen, it seems really fun. As hard as I try, I just can’t put anything pertaining to the British Romantics down.

Someone asked the other day why I was so fascinated by the Romantics. It’s the indictment of ideology, I suppose— the anti-systematic systematizing. Oh no, I’m doing it again . . . I’d better shut up now.

Berol's Cafe

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Jeff Ward— Berol’s Cafe —outside Bakersfield, California, 1987




I have been s-l-o-w-l-y working my way through Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables. Not because it’s a difficult book, far from it, but because I see in it a deep allegory about the American character. I took another pause today, to look up some critical articles. In an article from The Explicator (Winter 2002), Max Loges traces the roots of the name of a major character, Hepzibah. The story arc of Hawthorne’s novel is amazingly parallel to Isaiah 62. What blows me away about it is that this passage, coincidentally, connects with one of William Blake’s major concepts: Beulah.

For Blake, Beulah was the land of dreams where men could mingle with angels. Beulah, in Isaiah 62, is where Hepzibah dwells. Of course, where Hepzibah dwells in Hawthorne’s novel is a ruined house, run down and falling apart, where a descendent of a proud line is forced to turn to commerce to survive. Not much of a dream, really— more like a nightmare. However, in the time-frame of the passage from Isaiah, where Hepzibah hears this prophecy of the married-land where she will dwell, she is in the desolate ruins of a city. This context adds depth to both Blake’s usage, and Hawthorne’s. Both Hepzibah and her brother Clifford were spurned by the people of the town initially, though they are vindicated in the end. What stands out to me most is the conflict that Clifford feels when considering, in his own demented way, the price of society gazing at an organ-grinder’s monkey from his window:

The spectator feels it to be fool’s play, when he can distinguish the tedious commonplace of each man’s visage, with the perspiration and weary self-importance on it, and the very cut of his pantaloons, and the stiffness or laxity of his shirt collar, and the dust on the back of his black coat.

In order to become majestic, it should be viewed from some vantage point, as it rolls its slow and long array through the centre of a wide plain, or the stateliest public square of a city; for then, by its remoteness, it melts all the petty personalities, of which it is made up, into one broad mass of existence,— one great life— , — one collected body of mankind, with a vast, homogeneous spirit animating it. But, on the other hand, an impressible person, standing alone over the brink of one of those processions, should behold it, not in its atoms, but in its aggregate,— as a mighty river of life, massive in its tide, and black with mystery, and, out of its depths, calling to the kindred depth within him,— then the contiguity would add to the effect.

It might fascinate him that he would hardly be restrained from plunging into the surging stream of human sympathies. (154)

There are many ways to read this passage. Crazy Clifford was thinking of jumping out the window; Hawthorne himself jumped into the utopian experiment at Brook Farm and was the worse for it. It could be a reflection on individuality vs. society. Yet again, it professes an interesting point of view toward representation— it might be best to view things from a distance, rather than in its atoms, because looking too closely, things fall apart. Looking at things from the long-view is always more seductive, and hopeful. Even for a depressive like Hawthorne, there is a sense of hope in the parallel with the arc of Jerusalem in Isaiah.