October 2002 Archives

Survivor

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Survivor, 18th Century Style

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was an instant success upon its publication in April of 1719. Four editions sold out before the sequel, Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was issued in August. Its fame was not fleeting, and the myth of the runaway who finds himself in solitude due to tragic circumstances and is later rewarded has persisted across time. Crusoe is the prodigal son of Milton’s new Christian hero. The story is not new, and owes much to John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress of 1678. Told in first person narrative, Defoe’s achievement is marked by a departure from indirect language into an experiential norm, where the locus of description is not mythic precedent, but immediate experience. Experience is related with matter-of-fact precision, and inventories of provisions and delineation of seasons. Progress emerges from commonplace facts, a bible, and the providence of nature. Like Behn, Defoe removes himself from the narrative:

The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to the Uses to which wise Men always apply them (viz.) to the Instruction of others by this Example, and to justify and honour the Wisdom and Providence in all the Variety of our Circumstances, let them happen how they will.

The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it: And however thinks, because all such things are dispatch’d, that the Improvement of it, as well to the Diversion, as to the Instruction of the Reader, will be the same; and as such, he thinks, without further Compliment to the World, he does them a great Service in the Publication. (Preface, Robinson Crusoe)

Rather than the top-down structure of the romantic hero, which lends itself so neatly to a tragic view of degeneration, the new Protestant hero of Defoe rises from low circumstances to triumph. The pursuit is clearly a heroic model meant to both entertain and instruct. The claim to history is of a different form— it is a experiential rather than genealogical. Through mastery and alliance with nature, Crusoe survives to tell his story, while Defoe recedes into the shadows. Edgar Allan Poe claims:

El Lissitzky

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El Lissitzky, 1928

Quotes

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“”

A word is worth 1,000th of a picture— Ian Baxter


Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles, each containing its own void. This discomforatory language of fragmentation offers no easy gestalt solution. — Robert Smithson


The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the war against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge— unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History


No account of the history of philosophy can be oriented to history alone. The consideration of the philosophic past must always be accompanied by philosophical reorientation and self-criticism. More than ever before, it seems to me, the time is again ripe for applying such self-criticism to the present age, for holding up to it the bright clear mirror of the Enlightenment. Much which seems to us today the result of “progress” will to be sure lose its luster when seen in this mirror; and much of what we boast of will look strange and distorted in this perspective. But we should be guilty of hasty judgment and dangerous self-deception if we simply ascribe these distortions as opaque spots in the mirror, rather than to look elsewhere for the source.

Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment


I say, then, that in hereditary states, accustomed to their prince’s family, there are far fewer difficulties in maintaining one’s rule than in new principalities; because it is enough merely not to neglect the institutions founded by one’s ancestors and then to adapt policy to events. In this way, if the prince is reasonably assiduous he will always maintain his rule, unless some extraordinary force deprive him of it; and if so deprived, whenever the usurper suffers a setback he will reconquer.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince


Let me

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Ed Rucha, 1976

Representative Thoughts

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Representative thoughts

It never came together. I was too distracted by the rain and the rumbling thunder. But I’ve got to note the shards, just so I can come back. The chain began with “Spare Parts: The Surgical Construction of Gender” by Marjorie Garber. She considers the word “make” in its gendered connotations. A self-made man, compared with making a woman— to make a man is to test him, to make a woman is to have intercourse. I was scratching my head. To “make a man out of him” can also mean to have intercourse— I think the distinction is forced. I think the real power is in the contrast of “making” as a testing of sexual limits, and “taking” as an expression of dominion in the same sexual context.

Then the comparison occurred again in Richard Bolton’s introduction to Contests of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. It contemplated “make” in the sense of making a photograph, compared to taking one. To express the sentiment of making implies the creation of an object, rather than stealing a view of one. Are photographs made or taken? Bolton’s article spins around this to land on a chord against “art for art’s sake”— for if art only makes, rather than participates in an interchange, a taking of the world in order to give it back with a point of view— it can have little practical impact. This made me think about the separation of rhetoric and poetics by Aristotle— art makes, rhetoric takes what is given in order to use it to advantage. Can they be separate? Is taking always an exercise of dominion?

Reading Paul de Man’s lecture on Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator,” he quotes Geoffrey Hartman’s thoughts on Benjamin’s paradoxical sense of history, a union of the rhetorical and the poetic, of hope and catastrophe:

This chiasmus of hope and catastrophe is what saves hope from being unmasked as only catastrophe: as an illusion or unsatisfied moment of desire that wrecks everything. The foundation of hope becomes remembrance; which confirms the function, as the duty of a historian and critic. To recall the past is a political act: a “recherche” that involves us with the usage of a peculiar power, images that may constrain us to identify with them, that claim the “weak messianic power” in us. These images, split off from their fixed location in history, undo concepts of homogeneous time, flash up into or reconstitute the present.

So it seems to me that those who take shelter in the idea of poesis, of making, ignore the true constitutive power of history. To take, in the sense of taking a photograph, is also to make history spiritual and present for us. To take is also to make, in the sense of testing assumptions of the present in the face of evidence from the past. The two words blur for me, and since power relations are defined entirely by context it cannot be said that to concentrate on taking photographs either subdues, rapes, or modifies the present. The reading of the past is outside the photographer’s hands, and resides in the viewer. I have always viewed working as a photographer as performing a real history, measured in fractions of a second, not as a rapist, harvesting the world for sinister purposes. Whether directed inward— as a personal history— or outward as a social one, photographs because of their position within time always constitute a history. Taking is making.

All histories always seem to carry with them a moral purpose. That’s why I wonder at the displacement of ethics from poesis, and the misreading of making as something disconnected from catastrophe. Is making just a test? Or is it intercourse with something larger outside ourselves? I’m still trying to figure out how to get this all together.

Equal

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Equal

Teaching research writing has evolved for me in bizarre ways. Because it is an intro class that crosses many subject fields, it seems pointless to spend too much time on specific databases or tools. Communication isn’t only about tools; it’s about attitudes and strategies for dealing with other people’s attitudes. I make it up as I go along, but I thought I might write down some of what I’m doing now.

The first concept I try to explore is people’s feelings about genius. The majority always seem to agree with Harold Bloom’s attitude. There are some people who are just special— above the norm. More and more, I find this incompatible with the idea that “all men are created equal.” Equal is a valuation, as is genius, and valuing things quickly becomes complicated. What constitutes a genius? A shifting cultural celebration of some values over others. I can only fall back on one of the earliest definitions of genuis— similar to genii, it simply means spirit. Can one person have more spirit than another? I don’t think so. It’s just that some can express it better than others, and we find ourselves drawn to some spirits more others. Genius— like heroism— is a rhetorical concept.

If these things are established rhetorically, then it seems essential to examine how language works. To that end, I use Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture. Orwell’s essay, despite its gross errors and conservatism makes an essential connection between thought and language, and the deadening nature of hollow political rhetoric. These days, in particular, I think this is an important issue to raise for anyone who steps into a voting booth. Morrison’s essay places control where it should belong, in the hands of the public, which must question in order to know. These first exercises are meant to get people questioning their beliefs about ideas that they take for granted— only “writers” should care about writing— that writing, like genius, lies outside what regular people should aspire to know.

After this, I examine some effective political rhetoric— starting with the US Declaration of Independence. This requires some deep historical context, to show that it isn’t a document that just emerged from the pen of a genius, but rather is built from an avalanche of commonplaces developed in other political precedents. It’s also a nearly perfect example of the syllogism, of inescapable deductive reasoning. Then, to show that imitation isn’t a bad thing, I teach the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. This one is far more accessible to students. It also shows just how long the fight for women’s rights actually took, and that freedom as they know it is quite a recent development.

The only weird thing about using this group of essays is that it can seem like I’m teaching political science rather than rhetoric. However, when it comes to ethical and logical arguments, political documents are a great place to turn for both good and bad examples. I teach them as arguments, not as politics. To counteract the heavy weighting on the political side, this time I decided to try something completely different when I turn the emphasis to pathetic argument— seduction poetry.

To this end, I use Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love and Sir Walter Raleigh’s The Nymph’s Reply and compare them with John Donne’s The Bait. The Donne poem, I hope, is even more effective in Arkansas. How many love poems are written with a fishing motif? The most common problem in arguing issues that students feel passionately about is that they alienate anyone who might feel differently, by assuming that their audience feels the same as they do— if this is the case, why write? Donne is incredibly shrewd in shifting the power to the maid he wants to seduce, rather than assuming that he has the power. I hope that this will encourage the writers to think about what they can gain by granting that their opposition has some power too.

What is a more common reason for persuasion than getting laid? Besides, it’s a great break from all the politics.

I am not teaching creative writing. I am teaching writing that works. Research writing begins with questions, and ends with actions— not answers. That’s the hurdle I’m trying to cross, and this is the twisted way I’ve chosen to get there. I’m sure I’ll change things every time I teach the class, but for now, I wanted to mark this down. I want my students to climb down off the ivory tower notion that only geniuses are worthy of writing, and learn to make reading and writing work for them. That’s the real equalizer.

Autorretrato

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Self-Portrait, 1980— Manuel Alvarez Bravo

Absent

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Whether Report

Soft rain outside, and cool air moving in. There were so many things I wanted to write about this weekend that the collision has left me dumb. I’m not sure whether I’m really getting anywhere, or just picking nits. But then again, the more I think about placing the representation of life in literature against the representation of life in photographs, the more fertile I think it is. What seems to be at stake is the definition of what reality is, because a person really needs to have a clear conception of the reality they seek to convey before they try to figure out the parameters of realism.

Today, I really feel foggy. Today, I feel like cleaning up this mess. I feel like baking bread and listening to the rain.

Every time I try to read something today I get caught in error. For example, Geoffrey Batchen refers to “English Poet John Thompson (1700-1748)” It’s Thomson damnit! To make matters worse, he cites someone citing the introduction to The Seasons, rather than bothering to look it up himself. I was thinking I hadn’t written anything about Bravo’s death, and probably should. Again, I see nothing but errors. I looked and see if Weston noted anything about their meeting in his daybooks, and glanced down in the index to see Robinson Crusoe by Herman Melville. Excuse me? I looked, and it was the editor Nancy Newhall’s mistake, not Weston’s. Weston remarked that the joy of reading it to his sons Neil and Cole was greater than the adventure of the story itself. On the same pages, I noted Newhall’s quote of Weston saying that he had “to save a jew notes, in no particular order”. A jew notes? Somehow, I don’t think that’s accurate.

Cultures are built around stories. As they are repeated, and errors build up, it seems like we have to rewrite history to suit ourselves, to correct what we perceive as errors. I decided to note something Manuel Alvarez Bravo said:

Popular Art is the art of the People

A popular painter is an artisan who, as in the Middle Ages, remains anonymous. His work needs no advertisement, as it is done for the people around him. The more pretentious artist craves to become famous, and it is characteristic of his work that it is bought for the name rather than for the work— a name that is built up by propaganda.

Before the Conquest all art was of the people, and popular art has ceased to exist in Mexico. The art called Popular is quite fugitive in character, of sensitive and personal quality, with less of the impersonal or intellectual characteristics that are the essence of the art of the schools. It is the work of talent nourished by personal experience and by that of the community— rather than being taken from the experiences of other painters in other times and other cultures, which forms the intellectual chain of nonpopular art.

I think this is wrong too. Schools are made of people. Cultures are formed and transfigured through interaction and assimilation of other people. There is no golden age outside, no state of purity that ever existed. It’s all full of errors, misreadings, and passed down stories. Each time we rewrite them, we always want to construct a demon, and that demon is usually bad intentions. Only good intentions will do, to prop-up a mythic culture of repeated representations. I agree that the best art is local— in that it has an effect on the people who see or read it. But art always recedes into a past populated by people we can never know, people that we fetishize for their difference.

The power of anonymity was well exploited by Defoe, Swift, and Richardson. It’s just another cultural trope. It is not a badge of honor, nor the mark of a golden age. Anonymity is a self-imposed death which allows you to join the mythic past.

“The People” is a mythic construct too, and as such is always absent (just like my brain today).

Burning with Desire

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Burning with Desire

Wood s lot pointed at a review of Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography by Geoffrey Batchen a week or so ago. Of course, I had to get it. It’s very good, and at the same time, very bad.

I like where its coming from, but I have big difficulties with parts of the approach. It’s distinctly similar to what has been running through my head. Batchen attempts to position photography, or as he would prefer “photographies,” in a larger cultural context. It’s neatly digested, well organized, but far too shallow in many respects. I’d really like to read the thesis that it originates from, because Batchen picks up on some parts of the eighteenth century context that are crucial, but he doesn’t follow through as well as I think he could— and he relies on secondhand information in places where it would have been relatively easy to go to the primary source, perpetuating errors that are quite embarrassing. I suspect it’s the condensed nature of the book that makes them stand out. When you’re painting with broad strokes, you have to make them count. Invoking Derrida and Foucault isn’t good enough to guarantee credibility in approaching a historical subject, at least for me.

Above all, Burning with Desire sets out to show that history inhabits the present in very real ways; that the practice of history is always an exercise of power; that history matters (in all senses of this word). (xiii)

Chapter one opposes the high formalist criticism of John Szarkowski with that of the postmodernists like Alan Sekula and John Tagg. Batchen casts it in terms similar to that of gender theory— Szarkowski’s position is characterized as “essentialist” and the postmodern position is marked by its refusal to accept any core identity for photography as practice. There is no “static identity or singular cultural status” for photography (5). Photography is a “vehicle of larger outside forces” and “photographic identity” is fundamentally contingent on these cultural forces (9). The formalist aesthetic of Szarkowski and Bazin is traced to the influence of Clement Greenberg, and the histories of photography offered to this point are taken to rely on an originary hypothesis that positions photography within the broader context of art history. The essential nature of photography is derived from the drive for representation.

I think Batchen is perfectly right to mark that both these approaches share more similarities than either side would admit— both sides present creative histories to support the notion that photography is motivated by something— the logic of capitol, or the logic of formalist art. Recast this way, it is an argument of culture vs. nature. Batchen asserts that both approaches avoid the “historical and ontological complexity of the very thing they claim to analyze” (21). Batchen’s approach is to analyze the analysis of photography’s history— sounds good.

Chapter two takes a turn that I’m not so sure about. Batchen wishes to take the inquiry into the origins of photography back to the dream. I was constantly haunted by Milton’s assertion that thinking of a sin does not constitute a sin— it only becomes a sin once it is performed. Though I’m a big fan of desire, I’m not so sure that it has as much relevance to the questions at hand. Batchen’s work is clearly a rhetoric of motives, and those motives are neatly slanted to suit his thesis.

Chapter two discusses twenty-four or more possible inventors or dreamers about photography, traces the discourse as if it were a sort of paternity suit. It goes into great detail regarding Davy’s experiments, the relationship of Tom Wedgwood, Humphrey Davy, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It also discusses the possibility of early experiments by Samuel Morse. The originary schemes and debates are contextualized, very narrowly, in the chapter that follows. I’ll write at greater length about that later.

Repetitions

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Max Ernst, 1922

Back from the storm

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Back from the storm

I was thinking about my first obsession. When I heard Electric Ladyland when I was ten years old, I rapidly felt the desire to possess it. But the kid who played it for me wouldn’t part with it. I could only to manage to trade my Rand McNally world globe for scratched-up copy of Smash Hits. I think I was thirteen years old before I figured out that Jimi Hendrix was black. Even after I did, it didn’t seem important at all. It didn’t make him any more different, or exotic, or interesting. I think its because there was nothing that could possibly make him more interesting— I had already made up my mind that I had to have everything he ever recorded. Maybe it was the publicity surrounding his death that made me think about it. The media mentioned it, but the color of his skin seemed positively trivial. What was important to me was the music, and the idea that the incredible music could stop.

No one was like him. It was like an incredible new language that I could understand like few people I knew could. I suspect that’s what bonded me so deeply with my brother Stephen. I could tell that he felt it too. It wasn’t the words, it was the sound. The sound of a mind at work. I used to joke, as I turned into an adolescent, that I needed to put a sign on my door: Jimi Hendrix spoken here. My mind traced and soared with every nuance of those solos. It was if they took you places, places that no one else traveled. They didn’t follow a standard progression, or if they did, there was always a deep curve at the end that lead somewhere. I didn’t find his music ethereal, but rather incredibly concrete. Hendrix never left you hanging in space, and to this day when I put on his music it’s like traveling down the streets of my hometown, a hometown in my mind. Long before Shelley’s Skylark, there was Hendrix’s Nightbird.

I had to try to explain last night why William Blake was so special to me. The best term I could come up to describe the interaction between text and image was that it was a conversation. Sometimes, the image undercuts the text. Sometimes, it reinforces it. Sometimes it nuances it. But it always interacts with it actively, neither part is ever lazy, or rote, or meaningless. Listening to Hendrix today, I realized I could say the same thing about him. The music and words are inseparable, and while the music is often dominant, like Blake’s words, they cannot be separated without a great cost to this process of making meaning. As I find myself lost in thoughts too complex to relate, I can’t shake the urge that it has to go somewhere. You just can’t fade away into space— a lesson that far too few musicians or writers fail to heed.

I wonder if that’s why I feel the need to chase the thoughts down, and see where they lead? I wonder if that’s why I feel the need to bring this all together somehow? I need to figure out how words and pictures fit together, beyond the program of their separate meanings. Though I don’t think about it that much, I suppose Hendrix and Blake are my skylarks, and like Shelley, I wish they could—

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now

Maybe one day I’ll be able to hear Blake in my head as well as I hear Hendrix. I no longer need the albums I was so driven to collect. I can hear each one in my imagination, on demand. Those notes have been seared upon my brain. Now that I think about it, I probably only pull something out once every couple of years. But sometimes I’ll see something, and hear those notes in my head. It happens when I get near home.

Wide and Deep

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Wide and Deep

It’s been an intense few days. Mostly because all my classes have been about teaching, and I take that very seriously. I’ve been on the manic side, and haven’t slept much until today. Too many pools and eddies to describe. I haven’t read much email, or cruised many sites. Too much thinking, too little writing. I took a look at my referrer logs this morning to find an interesting query. Someone got here searching for anything interesting. However, less than an hour after I found myself at number 895 of 899, I had disappeared completely from the list. I wonder less about the mysteries of google than I worry about the boredom of someone who would scroll through nine hundred items of such a broad search to get here. After talking in depth about Thomas Bewick’s wildlife illustrations last night in my document design class, I was not surprised to find that artwork of an animal nature ranks number one in the crowded search for anything interesting.

I used to love to get lost in a crowd. Crowds are lakes filled with self-organizing pools of activity. For some reason, I started to think about Lake Isabella. I drove there when I was feeling restless. At the lake, unless it was a particularly windy day, the surface was always smooth. It was too small to feel the pull of the moon. Underneath its surface there are two towns, Kernville and Isabella. Lake Isabella is an artificial lake flooded by a dam. The towns still exist in new versions— they just moved. The guitarist for the Doors, Robbie Krieger, lived in Kernville for a while. I also remember the Hendrix song Izabella. It’s a minor classic, and it seems to reflect a sympathy for returning soldiers from Vietnam— “I’m fighting this war for the children and you / And if this war we’ve been fightin’ is true / Soon I’ll be holding you instead of this machine gun.” So often, we miss the ambiguity of fighting a war fueled with hate for love.

I desperately want to believe that deep inside the crowd, there is some kind of love. But humanity is so wide, and so deep, and all we really see is the shallow edge of the lake. That’s where the shallowness and turbulence is. On the edge the water to stirs, beating against the things that stand in the way. It’s shallow, and if you look beneath the surface, you can see what is making it happen. Silt dredged up from the depths makes it difficult and murky, but if you look carefully underneath there are stones. I love to listen to people’s stories. Sometimes, people throw them like stones.

When you see people interacting in groups you see why they gravitate to some people, and avoid others. It’s a game of relationships, a game of value— not just a game of power. Both power and value can be difficult things to see on the shallow end. You try to trust the depths, but you see the pettiness on the edge. Inside everyone, there are broken and jagged stones, waiting to snag you. There are currents that can trap you, and pull you down with them in dangerous riptides. The larger the crowd, the stronger the tide. In might be the pull of the moon. The world is both wide and deep. So are people.

Dr. Barb was arguing with me about me being smart. She said that it wasn’t just that I was well read, but that I put things together in ways that other people didn’t. That’s what being smart is supposed to be. I never looked at the lake as carefully as I looked at crowds. Maybe I should have, but I never felt love from a stone. I always found that crowds were a more fertile ground to find anything interesting than animals, rocks, and trees.

Cambodia

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6am RR Station Phnom Penh — Bill Burke


WH: Do you find it problematic that in a politically savage environment your pictures are often ambiguous as to who’s good and who’s bad?

BB: I have no problem with ambiguity. Again, all the information is filtered, everything I know about it is secondhand. I know what the refugees at the border say and what books say. I heard how bad the Khmer Rouge were, and then as I read more I found out the other people had been bad too. The people who were victims at one time were victimizing others at another time. There are two sides, the information is slanted, and it’s good that people understand that. . . . I would like things to be spelled out clearly so I wouldn’t have to think about it. But that’s not the way it is. I can’t say this is this and that is that. There is no indisputable truth.

New York City, June 1987— Willis Hartshorn interview with Bill Burke.

Gypsy Trash

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Gypsy Trash

I was standing outside a tall antiquated college building that looks more like a parking garage than a classroom. Long sweeping ramps, bathrooms on alternate floors, an impractical design. Near the adjacent Frank Lloyd Wright ranch style administration building, columns were forming. Two neat rows of guys in brown shirts, brown pants, and green caps. Each soldier held a white UALR plastic bag, and seemed impatient. They weren’t holding their ranks very well. I had a strange flash— I wondered if the Hitler youth were making a comeback. Except for the green insignia on the shirts, which I wasn’t close enough to read, and the green caps, the Aryan assortment was remarkably similar in appearance. Then I wondered if they were beer drinkers. I remembered a hypothesis by Frank Zappa that seems reasonable— only beer drinking cultures like Germany, England, and America succumb to marching.

When I got home tonight, Youth of the Third Reich was on the History channel. The episode was “Seduction.” It features interviews with former female members of Hitler’s BDM, and deep discussions about Hitler’s view of women as objects of beauty, and baby factories. The portrayal is skewed, as all of these easily consumable histories are, with the idea that only Germany placed an emphasis on eugenics, an emphasis on race, and carefully measured the features of children with calipers and rules weeding out those that did not fit the aesthetic concerns of a master race. While it’s easy to feel sympathy for the women interviewed who were only children at the time, locked into the childish games of bonding excluding all those who were different, I began to wonder how much stock we can place in the excuse “We didn’t know any better.” The supposedly enlightened English and American people played the same game, locking races on an evolutionary scale across the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It didn’t just happen in Germany alone. None of the “anglos” seemed to know any better either.

The most striking interviews were with a gypsy woman, survivor of a death camp, who talked about being spat upon and called gypsy trash by the cute little braided girls of the BDM.

I was thinking about what it was like in my high school growing up. There were black student associations, Mexican American student associations, and alliances available to most ethnic groups. Whites were only about 40 percent at the school. Stupid me, I wondered why we didn’t have an association. The answer always seems to be— “What are you talking about? Don’t you know that white society already has all the privileges?” I’ve got a different perspective on it now. I never found any of those privileges. Somehow I wasn’t comfortable with the labels people wanted to give me like cracker or pindeho— they never really fit. I like wheat or rye bread, not white. If anything, I must be a gypsy child.

Not in the sense of ethnic heritage, but in the sense of a lack of one. I did some tracing on a family tree a while ago and found that my family comes from virtually nowhere, and just wandered across the country— the deepest branch I traced came from London in the 1600s, entered in Maine, moved to Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, California, Arizona, etc. They were never in any single place for longer than a generation or so. There are no real roots to be found, except perhaps in the lower class drive to wander to greener pastures, new hopes of economic security, etc. I suppose I’ve always been envious of those who can say they are Irish-American, or African-American, or Polish-American, or whatever. I’m hyphen challenged. Just a mutt, a gypsy.

Ethnic roots give people a sense of continuity, of belonging. A feeling that you are not alone, a feeling that a line precedes you and will follow. But it’s such a thin line between ethnic pride and wearing brown shirts, though instead of screaming that a race is genetically superior, we now argue about which race was most oppressed. When ethnicity becomes a badge, it also becomes a weight. And it is all too tempting to measure that weight relatively, to create self-serving discourse aimed at propping up positions that only separate, weigh, and measure the relative worth of cultures. There has been far too much of that across history. I feel pretty good about just opting out, although I really have no choice. Garden variety white-guy, nothing special. But that’s just as well, I don’t want to be special if it involves marching. I’ll keep the beer, but skip the marching.

Pigeons and stones

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I am sure—I mean I am not sure at all but I believe— the master poets must come at their poems as a hawk on a pigeon in one dive.

I can't. I chip away like a stonemason who has got it in his head that there is a pigeon in that block of marble.

But there’s a delight in the chipping. At least there’s a delight in it when your hunch that the pigeon is there is stronger than you as it carries you along. There is no straining then nor are you strained— all assurance and confidence.

Oh, you can be fooled, of course— there may be nothing there but a stone.

Archibald MacLeish





—Photograph by Jill Krementz.

Exordium

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Exordium

Grading a big stack of essays today, I was struck by the same recurrent pattern I noticed last semester. Why do people have such a huge problem with the concept of writing an introduction? Of course, introductions are the most difficult part of an essay to write, largely because they are best composed last. I had hoped by starting with a cover letter (which is in essence, a long introduction) as the first assignment I might be able to spend less time on introduction strategies in the middle of the semester. I was wrong. While it works well for getting across the idea that thinking rhetorically means addressing the needs of your audience, it didn’t do squat to improve the second assignment, a bibliographic essay. The introduction to an essay of this type is simply “what I surveyed is this . . .” and still people failed to include any clue of what they were really on about until halfway through the essay.

It occurs to me that we live in an increasingly introduction free world. Everything is already in progress. We watch TV shows from the middle without blinking an eye, we follow political controversies without any pressing desire to know the historical background of the conflict, and we casually surf into the middle of sites on the net due to queries which effectively bypass any sort of front-matter, or declaration of what the site is all about. Is the introduction an endangered species? In a macro sense, perhaps yes, but on the micro level, certainly not.

Introductions become more a matter of visual style, rather than verbal survey. I know I’m reading a blog due to certain visual cues. I know I’m reading a news or commercial site due to the constant assertion of branding on every page. I know I’m reading an old, first generation site due to the garish backgrounds, embedded sound files, or crazy typography. Because in “real life” we immediately assign certain expectations based on these cues, it seems natural that a writer need not spell out his inclinations— “You know what it’s about, you assigned it!” We are so used to the application of context to introduce meaning in our day-to-day interactions that we think very little about being more “reader friendly.” This is libratory in a certain sense— free from constantly reintroducing our ideas, we can cut to the chase quickly.

The danger of this, is of course misunderstanding. Context is subtle and easily misread. This provides a skew to everything we read, a muddle of associations that may or may not be accurate. This can be an advantage, when it comes to something like a blog. I think most people want to project their experience on what they read, and the nebulous nature of ethos in the electronic world makes things seem far more connected than they really are. It’s a comfortable little lie, a bit of self-imposed universalizing that makes the society seem downright friendly.

A proper introduction takes time. The periodic nature of blogging makes repeat visits for fresh cues rewarding. We fall in and out of love with the people we meet as we are more properly introduced. Perhaps skipping the introduction isn’t so bad in the blogging world, because it spreads out the process of getting to know people over a longer time-scale. The casual visitor never really understands much about the person they are reading. They move on, untroubled by the pains of dissolving an illusory friendship to a person they were never really introduced to. Commercial sites rise or fall dependent on a concept of ethos built across multiple visits; personal sites, well, it’s a much more zipless flirtation most of the time, rather than a long-lasting friendship.

Blogrolls are an interesting twist on the problem. Mine has been fairly stable for a long while now, and I get the illusion that I know some of these people quite well. I like the feeling. I like anticipating what I might find on their sites next. I like getting to know people. Due to the intense nature of my place in life right now, I don’t say thank-you often enough to those people that I read every day. Though we haven’t been properly introduced, I’ve been following the stories long enough to feel like I know what’s going on. I count on all these people to take me outside myself, in these times that I must focus on my own personal projects.

The Philosopher's Lamp

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La Lampe philosophique, 1935— René Magritte

Desire

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Objects of Desire

Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them by Thatcher Freund is a peculiar book, but I like it. I’ve been using it to casually take a break as I weed through the heavy stuff (though I’m reading it for a class as well). Reading a chapter or two in between things, a familiar pattern emerges.

It starts with a localized, narrative description of a particular antique auction. Then it digresses into the history of the collector or figure, and then it digresses into the history of the piece. History is fun when it is presented in this way. You get the place, then the person, then the thing. However, I had to pause just for a second to record a curious bit of information about the then 22 year-old head of Sotheby’s Americana division’s first experience at auction:

What Stahl remembered most, however, was that soon after the auction began, a dealer from Philadelphia suffered a heart attack and died on the spot. “The individual was taken away and the sale went right on,” Stahl recalled many years later. “And I said to myself, ‘This is for me.’”

On one level, the reaction is horrific. However, on a deeper level it shows how much we guide ourselves through desire. When a desire is so intense that even death doesn’t interrupt it for long, it enters into the territory of the perverse.

In an interesting way, the book plays on the will to know. These people are intensely involved with knowing everything about the pieces they collect. I sometimes watch Antiques Road Show on PBS, and think to myself that they are all closet scholars, these people who collect and investigate remnants of human junk.

The will to know seems to be the strongest desire of all.

History of Sex (4)

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Notes on Part 4 of The History of Sexuality v.1. (cont.)

Near the end of the chapter entitled “Objective,” Foucault offers four basic prescriptive rules regarding any inquiry onto the nature of sexuality:

  1. Rule of immanence

  2. Rule of continual variations

  3. Rule of double conditionings

  4. Rule of tactical polyvalence of discourses

I think these rules are the self-constituting assumptions which underlie any critical technique which can be called “Foucaultian,” and personally, I find them easy to accept.

The first rule is an avoidance of dealing with transcendent concepts as an “easy out”— sexuality exists as a present sphere of discourse, not as an “essential” concept outside any mode of inquiry. It has been established as a possible object, as a target for discussion, and for that reason alone sexuality is immanent rather than transcendent. It its location as a “target” that allows us to examine it in this fashion, and Foucault then assumes that the examination of the “power centers” where discourse happens— the relationship between penitent and confessor, or members of society and those who make the rules, which localize this immanent power. Examining them is his primary objective. It is the discourse which is the focus, not a philosophical inquiry into origins.

Read My Lips

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Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion & the End of Gender

In the foreword, Riki Anne Wilchins distances herself from being a “spokestrans” or “spokesherm.” Read My Lips is outspoken, personal, and at the same time deeply theoretical. Though she is co-founder of Transexual Menace and Executive Director of GenderPAC, the opening statement makes it clear that if you put three different transpeople in a room, you’ll get three different opinions. This isn’t an ivory-tower book, but a practical reflection on the politics of gender told through a loose series of papers draped around a hazy frame.

The first chapter, Why this Book reflects on the nature of divisions like pre-op and post-op, and the invasion of what Foucault would call Scientia Sexualis (my observation, not Wilchins). The “transgender studies” anthology is a ticket to an academic grant and a book— observations based on the perspective of the sociologist or anthropologist, the gaze on an “inexplicable distant tribe” (21). She speaks of the trans-experience as a peculiarly incestuous one, a case of being robbed of a sense of belonging to a community through a transgression that robs a person of their intimate moments— there is a sense of hiding, of dishonesty. The view of theorists peering into the community is characterized as being that of “tourists on a junket” (22). The questions she wants to address include: Why are transpeople so lonely? What are the actual conditions of their lives? Why are they economically and politically oppressed? Why are they so often the victims of abuse and crime? Wilchins asserts that trans-identity is not a natural fact, but a political category people are forced to occupy when they do certain things to their bodies.

17 Things You Don’t Say to a Transexual is hilarious. The real issues start to develop in What Does it Cost to Tell the Truth. Wilchins proposes that appearance is a category on “the far side of language,” a phrase appropriated from Judith Butler. However, we don’t get to participate in life without our own specific “gender id” which we carry with us, like a passport. The associations of appearance are socially constructed, and if your appearance matches a point on the cultural grid, fine— otherwise, the price of telling the truth is high. Video Tape moves back and forth through difficult situations from Wilchins’ past, landing on an interesting note.

Yuma

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Military Appreciation Day, Yuma, Arizona— Jim Stone

History of Sex (3)

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Notes on Part 4 of The History of Sexuality v.1.

I’m easily distracted. Foucault’s brief allusion to Diderot in the preface to this section had me tied up for a long time today. The problem with departmentalizing literatures by language is that it’s hard to have a clue about major figures in languages you haven’t studied. Of course, there doesn’t appear to be a translation of the work he alludes to— Les Bijoux indiscrets — which sounds like something I’d really enjoy.

In Diderot’s tale, the good genie Cucufa discovers at the bottom of his pocket, in the midst of worthless things— consecrated seeds, little pagodas made of lead, and moldy sugar-coated pills— the tiny silver ring whose stone, when turned, makes the sexes one encounters speak. He gives it to the curious sultan. Our problem is to discover what marvelous ring confers a similar power on us, and on which master’s finger it has been placed; what game of power makes it possible or presupposes, and how it is that each one of us has become a sort of attentive and imprudent sultan with respect to his own sex and that of others. (79)

I’m sure this is just a tiny episode in the book, magnified for rhetorical ends. But the question I have with this translation regards the word Foucault uses translated as sex. Is it equivalent to genitalia? If that is the case, then the story really sounds good. I suspect that is what it is, because Foucault goes on to lament that while we seem to be involved in conversation with other people’s “sex” we are “ineloquent towards one’s own mechanism.” It’s a curious image, to think of genitalia conversing. It’s a grand image to sum up the progress thus far.

What I found out in my limited research on Diderot was that he appears to be one of the pioneers of technical writing, and that he changed his philosophical viewpoint considerably across his career. Diderot connects with my project on representation significantly, and I need to find out more— however, for Foucault’s purpose, its just an anecdote. Silly me, when I run into yet another rhetorical theorist completely outside the conventional English and American canon, I get heavily distracted. But, back to the matter at hand. What Foucault has primarily attempted to establish up to this point is that discourse regarding sex has multiplied significantly since the seventeenth century.

Kissing Cousins

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Kissing Cousins, Mingo County, West Virginia, 1979— Bill Burke

Mapplethorpe

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Stuck in Mapplethorpe

It occurred to me yesterday that what has launched me on my most recent exploration of representation was that horrible binary of objective/subjective. I was reading Browning’s preface to Shelley’s poems over the summer. In Browning’s view, the problem with “subjective” poets like Shelley, is that their entire life becomes fair game in evaluating their stature. If you don’t like the kind of person that the poet is, it becomes difficult to judge their poetry fairly. The ill fortune of many artists who are less than admirable human beings, is that they are judged on their behavior rather than their art. The “objective” artist who sees himself in conversation with some mythic fabric of time (like Eliot) has been seen as superior across the early twentieth century. In Browning’s view, taking an “objective” stance, one evades criticism of one’s personal life— it becomes off limits, outside of consideration— if you successfully buy into the myth of objectivity. It’s safer, and more artistically sanctioned to remove yourself from your art. It’s so paradoxical— to assert the authority of your hand in your work, you must chop it off by denying that you control it. But it depends on the age. After the sixties, the rise of the “me” generation has swung the pendulum back to subjectivity.

The more I consider the problem, the more it seems parallel to Foucault’s theories regarding the repressive hypothesis and the formation of sexuality— and by extension, identity. Rather than looking at the endless cycles of repression and rebellion, or in my case, the assertion and withdrawal of subjectivity in representation, it seems like that question is all wrong. There is no denying that repression and subjectivity have happened, and continue to happen but no matter how these questions are cast, the approach becomes circular. For Foucault, breaking out of the box means turning instead to consider regimes of power. I think that in my case, what I’m looking for are the regimes of value.

I’ve been reading a articles on Robert Mapplethorpe lately, for a class. I never cared for his work much, and never really saw what all the fuss was about. I thought he was overwhelmingly average, not bad as an artist but certainly not groundbreaking. An idealizing, universalizing vision for the most part— the male nudes and flowers are neoclassical, or better still— high modernist. Heads are removed, body parts excised from context. In the S&M stuff, there is that modernist flouting of the very conventions they assert— stuffing a bullwhip up the ass of classicism. Yawn. It’s been done, folks. Provocation replaces personality as the value of the day. Since the romantic period, provocation has been a staple of our discourse. Posing as an outsider, subverting a system when you’re operating so far from within that system that your position is much like that of the bullwhip in the infamous photograph. Understanding how power works seems a more viable way of figuring a way out of the “identity crisis,” and understanding how “value” works is a better way of understanding representation. Subjective/Objective isn’t the real binary, useful/useless is. Somehow, I think Mapplethorpe’s creative stock is horribly overvalued, in no small part because his “objective” approach is misread as a subjective one. He was provocateur of the week.

The paradox of how a conventional artist following time-honored traditions should suddenly become a superstar due to confrontational value alone deeply mystifies me. The subjective side, the question of his lifestyle, rather than being a damning force as it was with Shelley becomes an object of intense valuation for the art establishment. To photograph something is to claim that it has value— that it is worth preserving as an object of study, of desire, or merely of fascination. The subaltern will always carry with it its own values, its own politics. And the reception of these objects by the core hegemony says much more about the purchaser, than it does the producer. What irritates me about Mapplethorpe is not his position as a radical representative of a cultural minority, but the conservatism underneath it. And more than that, the readiness of a critical establishment to attribute great depth to such a shallow puddle. I suppose it’s like Swift said— when a well is dark, it appears to be deep no matter how shallow it is.

I remember when I was worried, around ten years ago, regarding politics in art. I asked the head of a local arts council what her opinion was. She said: “I don’t care if works are overtly political, as long as I agree with the politics.” That seems to be the biggest value across the 80s and 90s in art curatorship. I accept now what I couldn’t accept then— all art is rhetorical, and hence, deeply political— the only difference is the strategy used to hide it. I agree with Foucault that power is more effective when hidden. The hidden power of the art establishment, like the literary establishment of Swift’s day, is deeply self-congratulatory and self-serving. You can hang your pictures in the service of the revolution but it never happens, because deeply seeded in each picture are the structures it seeks to overthrow.

Big

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Big

I don’t know why I can’t ever take on anything small. Or why once I start to get a picture in my head of something I can’t stop rolling it over, tweaking it, and messing with it. It gets very confusing for me to follow myself, let alone to try to relate it to someone else. I suppose it’s unusual to do this sort of thing in public. I don’t think about it that much, until something reminds me.

It’s been a weird couple of days. For the first time, someone physically recognized me from these pages— rather than finding these pages because they knew me. I was standing outside a building on campus smoking. A girl said “hey Jeff” or something to that effect. “I know you!” She looked vaguely familiar. But I couldn’t place her. Then she explained. “I ended up on your website on some sort of weird search . . . I saw your ogre photo. . . .” I can’t recall her name (I’m terrible that way) but she’s finishing a Ph.D. in English, and was there on campus teaching a class in marketing. We had a nice conversation, and I ended up explaining why I was looking at rhetoric programs instead of English. It comes down to being interested in everything, and not wanting to be tied down to literature alone. I said that I tend to write about too many different things to be satisfied otherwise. She said, “yes, I got that idea from your site.”

Talking to Krista the next day, she said “I don’t think you realize just how much its possible to learn about you from your site.” I freely assent that anyone who has read what I write here for any length of time can rapidly figure out that I’m more than a little bit neurotic, manic depressive, and above all else my hunger probably comes across fairly accurately. I’m obsessed with representation, and I try to represent my thoughts, feelings, and general attitudes as accurately as possible. I am well aware how hard such a project is, and given that I have a small audience to play to here in Arkansas, it has been exhilarating to try to relate some small piece of me to a larger audience without being too boring, morose, or too tied to the specific, resulting in a big pile of self-involved crap.

That’s the primary problem with portraiture. That was one of the directions my work as a photographer was evolving, and the audience for portraiture is narrowed by the desire to connect, or know more (outside the frame) about the person who is in it. Most (non-art) people have no interest whatsoever in pictures of people they don't know. It’s a major challenge to get a lay audience to even look at them.

Portraits can be the most intense form of lying, when the representation doesn’t have anything to do with the reality of the person in it. There has to be some connection of thought, feeling, or desire to get someone to look at a portrait. I think that’s why celebrity portraiture is the only form that gets much attention. Portraiture is torn between the impulse to universalize (the person represented could be you) and to particularize (the person is different from you, from anyone).

For me, blogs are like that. The ones I love are filled with personality. Some of them are lies. Some of them I identify with. Some of them are incredibly different from me. I think that this aspect of representing yourself on the Internet follows many of the same forms, and conventions, as portraiture. People oscillate between an idealized vision of themselves, and a raw version with every hair, mole, and wrinkle standing out. But always, the goal is to connect to someone else in some way. There is no standard, no generalized prescription for representation. Only different ways of authorizing it as something worthy of attention.

Sometimes, this seems like a dusty album that belongs at the back of a drawer somewhere— moments of thought and feeling that pass as soon as they are uttered. I’m never the same from one day to the next, yet parts of me do seem constant and unchanging. Sometimes, it seems more like a giant atlas of places I’ve been, useful for research, useful because it contains a frozen moment of a fleeting congruence. I look up things that I haven’t thought about in a while sometimes and look at them and make fun of myself for being so stupid and ill-informed.

When I pulled out the Aperture special issue on David Wojnarowicz a couple of days ago, I remember how much it blew me away when I first saw it. It still does. I admire him as an artist not because he is the same as I am, but because he is so profoundly different. Sometimes, difference is good. I wish I had written about it then. I’m curious what I might have said. But the last few years are hanging around here, for praise or damnation, for anyone to see. It doesn’t bother me, really. When I started doing this it was with the feeling that I still have— that there is nothing, besides life-itself, left for me to lose. Now that’s a scary— and big— thought.

Recognition contains within it two amazing roots— re, which means to do something again, or to look deeper— and cognition— to think about it.

Subspecies

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Subspecies Helms Senatorus, 1990— David Wojnarowicz

Birth of the Critic

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The Birth of the Critic

Aristocratic poetic culture of the sort celebrated by Sydney collided with a rising popular culture on the restoration stage. In 1668, not long after the foundation of the Royal Society, another position authorized by the crown was formalized— the poet laureate. John Dryden, poet and dramatist, offered an entirely new model for the hero. Dryden was caught between the ancient and the modern, and responded with a new role for the hero. Rather than a militaristic hero, or a martyred saint/hero, or an impartial poetic hero, the hero becomes the critic.

The critic was seen as intermediary between producers and consumers of literary products. On the restoration stage, audiences would sit directly on the stage and were notoriously free with their criticisms of the product. Pamphlets and broadsides multiplied with deep criticisms of literary, political, and social concerns of the day. Who had the highest authority to judge the truth of these claims? The aristocratic model offered by Sydney contains the seed of one solution— the producer of the products. Any poet must first judge his own products, and thus if the poet was great then he was in the best position to judge. After the reopening of the theaters, the crucial question was a deeply historical one— which model should English drama follow, the classical tradition or the example set by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher?

Flouting the classical divisions between comedy and tragedy, and the unities of time and place was a constant source of debate. Dryden’s An Essay on Dramatic Poesy explores these issues in a distinctly modern form. It is neither a Platonic dialogue nor a formal treatise like Sydney’s. Instead, it is a drama without being a play. Four speakers debate the issues, which revolve around integrity. The problem is ultimately the definition of the play. Does a play follow rules, or is it “a just and lively image of human nature?” The shift occurring in the seventeenth century was not only to a greater “realism,” but to redefine of what realism is. If there are rules, who makes them? Royal and poetic authorities were tenuous and fleeting, and Dryden lost his laureateship with the accession of William and Mary. The redefinition of time, space, and realism was a battle fought among the critics of the popular press. Though he was opposed to critics, Jonathan Swift certainly was a critic.

The Battel of the Books addresses the same crisis dealt with by Dryden in An Essay on Dramatic Poesy but to a different conclusion. In the mock library battle, the ancient works triumph over the upstart moderns. In his introductory apology to these works, Swift proposes that “Wit is the noblest and most useful Gift of humane Nature.” The duty of the witty critic is to deflate. And yet, in his dedication “to His Royal Highness Prince Posterity” Swift undercuts the role of critic as mediator, damning it in no uncertain terms:

WE confess Immortality to be a great and powerful Goddess, but in vain we offer up to her our Devotions and our Sacrifices, if Your Highness’s Governour, who has usurped the Priesthood, must by an unparallel’d Ambition and Avarice, wholly intercept and devour them.
In Tale of a Tub the heroic role of the critic is elevated and deflated simultaneously. It is elevated in the sense that the scathing attack on the emergent authority of critics is itself criticism. While Swift celebrates the ancient, he satirizes the modern penchant for endless apologies, panegyrics, and inflations to the front of books. In the third piece of front matter, the preface, Swift marks out the heroic nature of the satirical critic:
Nature her self has taken order, that Fame and Honour should be purchased at a better Pennyworth by Satyr, than by any other Productions of the Brain; the World being soonest provoked to Praise by lashes, as men are to Love.
In A Digression concerning Criticks Swift proposes three critical types: the critic as judge who praises or acquits, who only reads to censure or reproof. Second, there is a critic who reads to restore “Antient Learning from the Worms, and Graves, and Dust of Manuscripts.” Given the nature his own work in the volume, though he ridicules it, Swift seems to fit his own satiric categories. In his third division, he uses the heroic tools of a critic to lampoon the authorizing modes of romance— the heroic genealogy.
THE Third and Noblest sort, is that of the TRUE CRITICK whose Original is the most Antient of all. Every True Critick is a Hero born, descending in a direct Line from a Celestial Stem, by Momus and Hybris, who begat Zoilus, who begat Tigellius, who begat Etcetera the Elder who begat B— — tl— y and Rym— r, and W— tton, and Perrault, and Dennis, who begat Etcetera the Younger.
The critic is descended from the Greek god of blame and mockery Momus, and the goddess of insolence, excessive pride, and violence— Hybris. Their offspring is traced to a carping grammarian, Zoilus, used as a foil by Plato and Isocrates, and then to Tigellius, a friend of Julius Caesar, who was a musician and a talented singer. The modern critic is thus positioned as both a practitioner, and as a rule maker. Swift moves quickly to connect this heroic stature with heroic virtue, and points directly to the self-involved priesthood of criticism emergent at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Swift’s view of humanity’s progress is clearly tragic, unlike the affirmative Puritan vision of Defoe. Romantic genealogy, the dominant trope for centuries, was out— though it continued to reassert itself in the poetic genealogy represented through imitation. New authorizing tropes emerged, and in Defoe the new tropes were used both as an assertion of a new realism, and a new dependence on testimony as evidence.

Just another night

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Just another night, 1995 — Jeff Ward

Silence

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Silence

It’s weird sometimes to think about how many truly wonderful/bizarre/talented people I’ve had the opportunity to know over the years. It’s also weird to think about how many racist/misogynist/misanthropic people I’ve known as well. It came up in conversation today, and I think I’ve finally figured out what’s different about me now— why I am not surrounded by the same sort of eclectic mix these days. Now I open my mouth.

When you hold a camera, it is a license not to speak. I used to marvel at the way that worked. When I was shooting and intensely involved with unfolding scenes, I seldom spoke. It reached a point, after hours of shooting that I would sometimes forget how. Visual thinking uses different parts of the brain. To be asked to speak, even to respond to a simple question was like disrupting the trance. It would take a while to get back to the level of efficiency that I’d discovered before, even after a simple task like ordering another beer. I was never a social shooter. Occasionally, I would go out with friends who were photographers— but the presence of someone that I would sometimes talk to would always make those trips less productive. It was best to be silent. I had a little ritual about that, before I would go to make photographs. I would sit silently, just listening to music until my speech centers were free of all those things I might think of to say. Making pictures and conversation, for me, never mixed.

I had a different kind of understanding with my subjects. They could tell by the look in my eyes what I was thinking without me talking, and my perception of them was much the same. It was almost entirely non-verbal communication. To speak would break the trance. It was a trust built almost entirely on the strength of my reputation or the work itself, or from my association with other people that the subject trusted. I would only call a few of the people I photographed close friends. Mostly, it was just a sense of acceptance and respect— when no words are spoken, it’s easy to assume that the person you are with agrees with you on some fundamental level, something beyond what words can convey.

But I didn’t always agree with them. Sitting in biker clubhouses filled with racist paraphernalia, or watching people show me their guns with pride— inside I was just getting sick. But I didn’t speak. I just took pictures, remained silent, and maintained the respect projected through my eyes. Sometimes I noticed things that no one but myself and the musician on the stage noticed— missed notes, things that fell into place that shouldn’t have worked but did. But that silent gaze made me feel so good, so connected with the other person. I remember a blues guitarist whose guitar was so far out of tune that he literally bent each note into tune after it was struck for an entire set. I’ve never seen a guy work so hard before. No one noticed. It was just another night, another night of trying to connect with an audience. We just looked at each other and smiled. At the afterhours party though, we talked about how oblivious the audience really is. He said he felt like I always noticed everything, so tried hard not to let me down. But I knew better. It was pride. He was one of those people who never gave less than a hundred percent. But then, I suppose, so was I.

I guess I screwed myself when I started to write / talk about things. That sense of connection got lost somehow. I try my best to make words fit the physicality of being in those spaces, of feeling those connections. They always come up lacking. But words can have such a complexity, something far beyond the level of image. They are machines for thinking, just like good pictures. In both media, I look for the things that bug me, the things I always have to return to. If it isn’t difficult, it doesn’t seem worth the effort. But I had forgotten until today just how difficult some of those silences were, as I experienced them. I forgot how much I used to just trust, blindly, that everything would be all right. These days, I’m not so sure. At least though, if I keep talking I don’t have to worry about it. Eventually everyone just goes away.

I’m really not sure what is worse— disappearing to become a better photographer, or opening up your mouth to finally reveal the fool inside.

Irish Child

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Irish Child, County Clare, Ireland, 1954 — Dorothea Lange


This photograph was used in Photos to Send. Lange used to put up a print of this around the house on the days that it rained in San Francisco. The filmmaker identified the girl after talking to people in the village. She died about a year after the photo was taken from a burst appendix. She was about fifteen years old.


More Sex

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More Notes on The History of Sexuality V.1 by Michel Foucault

Part three of The History of Sexuality turns to consider the Western European view of sexuality, which Foucault labels as “Scientia Sexualis.” However, the opposition used by Foucault seems deeply flawed— what he speaks of is the “procedure for producing the truth of sex,” which in the case of societies of China, Japan, India, Rome, and the Arabo-Moslem societies is described as “ars erotica,” to contrast them with the Western medical/theological view. This makes no sense to me. Who in their right mind would consider Muslim or Japanese views of sex as somehow more libratory? In Foucault’s view, these societies are closer to the truth of sex because “truth is drawn from pleasure itself” (57). Whose pleasure? Obviously, these societies pursue a patriarchal view of sex, and contain similar structures which disguise the power of sex, empowering women in some respects (The Tale of Genji comes to mind), but subjugating them in other ways. While the medical/theological view does seem vastly different, it seems to me that Foucault surrenders himself to wishful, “the grass is always greener” thinking when it comes to other societies. There are different closets for different societies, but most societies contain closets.

Pull Down

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Pull Down and Pull Toward You

It was a good trip to Hot Springs. I saw four films, the latest paintings from Warren Criswell, and watched the freaks. Going down there is always like entering some sort of redneck time warp. I saw a grizzled guy wearing a Damn Yankees tee shirt, more Chuck Norris look-alikes on Harleys than I could name, and actually heard a car stereo or two. I remember my first impressions of Arkansas were based on the busy main-drag of Hot Springs. It was silent. No sound from car stereos, no music coming from the bars, no spill-over muzak, nothing— just the occasional horn or siren. No loud voices, no arguments, no struggles— just strollers, by the hundreds. It was more like a wake than a party.

The look this time was different. Film festivals draw a different crowd. Lots of people wearing square black-framed glasses. Lots of queer-as-folk. Lots of professorial types, and lots of people who seemed to be too-hip for their own good. And then there were the citizens, smiling friendly helping the tourists find their way around. I arrived just in time to rush into the theater to see Photos to Send.

It was a good film. There was a sense of discovery to it, as if the filmmaker allowed the chance happenings of the story itself play a role in the result. The theater was full when I got there, but I negotiated the balcony (which is a lawsuit waiting to happen) to find overflow seating at the front edge. I’ve never looked down on a film before. It was in progress, and I walked in to footage of a man riding a bicycle on country roads. You could hear the filmmaker say “I can’t believe it’s him!” repeatedly. A moment later, the original Lange photograph came on the screen. Yes, it was the same man on his bicycle that Lange had photographed. I got caught up in it, feeling much the same thing.

The director located and interviewed survivors, and relatives of survivors that Lange had photographed and juxtaposed it with quotes and pages from Lange’s journals. There were a few audio voice-overs taken from a 1964 interview with Lange regarding the project, and interviews with her son. The looks of the people as they saw for the first time photographs of their parents, and relatives that had passed on for the first time were priceless. What a great project. The faces of those people, looking at the photographs, reminded me of what I used to do. No amount of theory can strip away the power of the document to provide a window on the past. Photographs may be lies, but in a larger sense, so is life— and there are some lies we are compelled to embrace, to make it bearable. One of the fragments from Lange’s notebooks hit me hard:

Never straight-on. Always from the curves.

For years I struggled with the dead-on perspectives of Walker Evans and others. It was when I started to come at it from the curves that I really started to grow. There will always be artifice. The evidence of Stryker’s influence was all over some of the notebook passages, notes for things to research, like “Why no trees?” Ireland has changed since Lange was there, but as the filmmaker noted in the end— it was the things that had remained the same that were the most striking, not the differences. To see relatives sitting against the same backdrop as their parents, to see the continuity of life, seems to be one of those “lies” of photography that seems absolutely essential to living. As one of the descendents said regarding his farm, passed down for six generations— you get the feeling that you aren’t alone. Someone had been there before you. Somehow, that seems to be more important than the disruption and changes of time.

The second film I saw was David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge. It was outstanding, also. Several bits of information stand out, including Joshua Reynold’s portable camera obscura which folded up to be disguised as a book. I really liked the assertion that “intellectual property” was a part of life long before the juridical apparatus was there to support it. The technology used by the painters in the Middle Ages has been lost to mystery, however, because of this drive to protect it. However, as Hockney’s tee shirt proclaimed— optics don’t make marks. The idea that these painters used technology does not undercut their ability as artists. However, I’m not so sure about his proclamation that technology now will allow us to free ourselves from single-point perspective. Single point perspective is one of those comforting lies that I don’t see disappearing any time soon. However, the assertion that we are “in the world” rather than standing outside it looking in (the lie) is certainly food for thought as well. I remember seeing Hockney’s photo-collages on the beach in Venice, California in the mid-eighties. There was a sense of completion for me, in seeing this film. From the birth of an idea, to its fruition. Watching Hockney adjust the camera obscura, to sketch things at different points of focus reminded me of some similar experiments I was doing in the darkroom about that time too, trying to find new ways to see.

I wandered off after that to look at Warren’s latest at Taylor’s Contemporanea . Warren seems to be a bit time obsessed lately. There’s a little digital clock that keeps showing up in his paintings, always just after midnight. His sense of humor hasn’t dulled a bit though, Six Cent Still Life stood out to me, as did Books and Toilet Paper. Though the real connection is just a feeling that runs constantly through his work of flight. The web versions just don’t do the paintings justice— my favorite by far was Flash Flood. I walked the length of the strip, ordered a cappucino that came out of the same Krups machine I use at home, and went back to see the films we were supposed to see for the class.

Watching Daddy and Papa brought out memories of a different sort. The moment they flashed Anita Bryant on the screen, I started to get ill. Why can’t we just give Florida back to Spain? It might solve many of the country’s problems, though we would lose many fine beaches. It seems absolutely ridiculous to me that there is so much noise over gay adoption. It is so hard to find people who really want to be parents. Are group homes, filled with neglect really better “moral” environments for children? What a sham, and a disgrace. If people want to be parents, regardless of their sexual preference, I don’t see what the big deal is. Given the urge of children to rebel against their parents, it seems to me that if anything, it would increase the straight population.

The last film we watched was a real hoot. Georgie Girl is the story of the first transgendered MP in New Zealand. It seems to me that survival in such a difficult life role would be a guarantee of great political skill. The vintage footage of sex-clubs in New Zealand alone was worth the paltry price of admission. What was most interesting to me was a TV interview where the interviewer was just certain that there must have been a huge change in attitude once she had her genitals snipped. As if the root of identity was in a person’s genitals, and any change there must have had a profound effect. We went out for drinks afterward, and I’m sure I talked too much. It was a good day though. It’s just such a weird setting to see these films in. Hot Springs wants to be San Francisco (a few days of the year, anyway), but they really don’t have a clue. San Francisco is loud; open communities don’t come from silence and deserted shop-fronts.

In the bathroom of the restaurant where I ate dinner there was a towel dispenser that reminded me of an old album from the San Francisco band Hot Tuna: First Pull Up— Then Pull Down. It was named after the instructions on toilet seat protectors. The towel dispenser seemed more to the point: “Pull Down and Pull Toward You.” I like that advice better.

Vision

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The Vision After The Sermon— Jacob Wrestling With The Angel. Gauguin

History of Sex

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Notes on The History of Sexuality V.1 by Michel Foucault

Part one, “We ‘Other Victorians’” sketches a fairly fanciful history with little or no historical grounding. The mythic hypothesis begins by asserting that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, “sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit.” I would argue that what Foucault argues as a frank sexuality was indeed concealed through layers of aristocratic wit, and though the juridical apparatus was clearly not as developed, the societal oppression of deviant behavior was deeply in place from the Middle Ages. Contrary to his previous and later theoretical assertions, the proclamation that “twilight soon fell upon this bright day, followed by the monotonous nights of the Victorian bourgeoisie” seems hopelessly mired in golden age thinking (3). His framing of “history” is contrary to his theorizing against the “repressive hypothesis.” It’s a curious way to begin.

Foucault’s idea that “repression operated as a sentence to disappear, but also as an injunction to silence, an affirmation of nonexistence, and, by implication an admission that there was nothing much to say about such things” marks an interesting disjuncture— with the rise of repression came increasing levels of discourse regarding sex. The act of marginalizing behavior actually creates communities where discourse in “illegitimate sexualities” begins to be reintegrated through institutional means. The brothel, and psychiatric hospital begin to be instruments that authorize deviant behavior by providing a place where the forbidden discourse can occur (4). However, moving this legitimizing contradiction forward into the seventeenth century seems altogether too pat, too easy— placing it next to the rise of capitalism (5).

However, framing the problem in these terms— that the power structure, once instituted, facilitates the deviance is shrewd. It provides a deep explanation for the growth of provocation as a heroic characteristic. To speak against repression is to assume that there is a libratory discourse which can slip the bonds of power— that by saying (or performing) the prohibited we can reach outside the system that has caused the condition. It provides “opportunity to speak out against the powers that be, to utter truths and promise bliss, to link together enlightenment, liberation and manifold pleasures; to pronounce a discourse that combines the fervor of knowledge, the determination to change the laws, and the longing for the garden of earthly delights” (7). Deviance gains a market value, created through its own devaluation.

Update

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Not Fun

Apologies for not offering much content lately. Many things collided in my head at once. I have never had allergy problems before, but that’s the only thing I can chalk it up too, I suppose. It’s either that, or an un-diagnosed brain tumor. Until tonight, headaches have been ruling my life. I was actually considering seeing a doctor (a real rarity for me), until I heard a not so wonderful story from a student today.

You grow to expect “My grandmother died, so my paper isn’t ready,” and variations on that theme. But when it’s a guy who’s making great progress in the class who greets you with teary eyes to tell you that his step-father just died in the same hospital that you were in just a little over a year ago, you tend to take it seriously. It seems he was having difficulty breathing. He rang the nurses, but they didn’t come. He staggered out to the nurse’s station. He died on the floor.

In the other class, there have been two surgeries on students, complete with the scars and drugged-out gaze. It’s an epidemic of misfortune. Makes me feel better about my silly little headache problem. I’m still breathing, even if I’ve only been managing to sleep for two or three hours at a stretch before the skull-crushing pain wakes me up. I hope tonight will be better. I suspect it will. What makes it worse is what I’m trying to read with these blasted fireworks going off behind my eyes. Just when Judith Butler and Foucault were seeming completely comprehensible, I have to try and tackle some Heidegger. Bad timing. If I didn’t have a headache before hand, those sorts of philosophical brain-twisters would give me one. If I were smart, I’d just put it down. But I hate it when I don’t understand things. I tend to be rather persistent that way. Not to mention trying to get a better handle on Swift. People who think deconstruction is new have never read Swift. He slashes everything with his razor tongue so deep that you’re never quite sure if he’s really serious about anything.

On the plus side, I’m going to try to go to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival this Saturday. That is, provided the headache situation continues to improve. It seems to pass when the weather shifts, and the rain the last few days seemed to help. It will be good to get down there and hit the galleries. I haven’t been in over a year, though it is only about 40 minutes south of here. It’s a pretty little tourist town where Al Capone used to vacation.

I’ve got a lot more think-writing that I need to do around here really soon, and I’ll apologize in advance if it gets a little dull. It is so hard to sort out the birth of so many things that we take for granted, hero-wise, across the eighteenth century. I’m struggling for coherence. It’s difficult to write mostly because it’s all happening simultaneously, and doesn’t fit into a convenient chronology. And there is also a bunch of gender-theory I need to sort out, just so I can keep track of who-said-what for future reference. Not exactly light reading. Sometimes, I just want to write stories instead.

I was talking to an incredible Modernist scholar on Tuesday, Russell Murphy, and he told me that he was thinking about retiring to write. He said: “I got into this to be one of those people who gets studied, not one that does the studying.” He laughed when I told him that I’d thought of that too, but I figure that I have at least another ten years of this before I try to step to the other side. I just feel so damned stupid most of the time, there is so much more to read and to know. And it’s very difficult to get far when you’re having crushing headaches that make thinking unprofitable. Oh, and while I’m in such an apologetic mood I should mention that the server is behaving strangely, and making parts of the site inaccessible. It’s not just you.

Ralph Gibson

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from The Somnabulist— Ralph Gibson, 1973

Swift Blogging

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I have one Word to say upon the Subject of Profound Writers, who are grown very numerous of late; And I know very well, the judicious World is resolved to list me in that Number. I conceive, therefore, as to the Business of being Profound that it is with Writers, as with Wells; A Person with good Eyes may see to the Bottom of the deepest, provided any Water be there; and that often, when there is nothing in the World at the Bottom, besides Dryness and Dirt, tho’ it be but a Yard and a half under Ground, it shall pass, however, for a wondrous Deep, upon no wiser a Reason than because it is wondrous Dark.

. . .

I have one concluding Favour to request of my Reader; that he will not expect to be equally diverted and informed by every Line, or every Page of this Discourse; but give some allowance to the Author’s Spleen, and short Fits or Intervals of Dullness, as well as his own; And lay it seriously to the Conscience, whether, if he were walking the Streets, in dirty Weather, or a rainy Day; he would allow it fair in Dealing in Folks at their Ease from a Window, to Critick his Gate, and ridicule his dress at such a Juncture.

Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub

The Yard

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“The Yard,” 1993— Shelby Lee Adams

Shaping Time

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Shaping Time

The conception of time in allegory, romance, and epic was nearly amorphous. A causal chain authorized through genealogy was a common organizing locus. However, the dramatic components of comedy and tragedy imply particular shapes for time. In comedy, time is progressive and improving. A series of events that includes setbacks, results in a positive result— often marked in Shakespeare’s plays by a wedding, a form of birth. A downward spiral, usually resulting in death or exile, marks tragedy. The criticism of chronicle as a genre, which reoccurs constantly, is found in its flatness— the chronicle recites facts without imposition of purpose. In this sense, the disappearance of the chronicle in the seventeenth century and its replacement with history is an attempt to provide a shape for time. Genres are seldom pure, and bleed together promiscuously.

There is perhaps no greater demonstration of this promiscuity than Daniel Defoe. Best known for one of the world’s most successful books, Robinson Crusoe, Defoe was the author of over two hundred books and pamphlets. His first successful long composition, An Essay on Projects published in 1698, argues for the establishment of an academy where no one would be admitted but the learned, and “yet none, or but very few, whose business or trade was learning.” There would be room in Defoe’s academy for “neither clergymen, physician, or lawyer”— and its purpose would be to provide sufficient authority for the use of words. In essence, Defoe calls for a new authority, outside the established realm of King, court, and clergy for education. He divides it equally between nobility, “private gentlemen,” and a remaining third to be determined by merit alone. Defoe’s goal was to bring “our English tongue to a due perfection.” He also argues for the construction of an “Academy for Women” where men are excluded— where virtue might rule over custom. While clearly working within custom, Defoe moves to redefine it.

Defoe’s view of history was clearly progressive, though his fame was not established until he published a poem in defense of King William III, True-Born Englishman in 1701. Defoe was not an educated man, and his early failures in business were later repeated through mistakes in publishing. His 1702 satirical pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters landed him in jail, and in the pillory for sedition. However, gaining the support of Robert Harley in 1704, Defoe became a secret political agent as well as creating a venue for his essays, The Review. The Review changed its politics with each ministry until 1713. After that, his primary task as a secret agent was that of editor, posing as a dissident while editing the opposition pamphlets to keep them ineffectual. Eventually, Defoe’s duplicity became obvious and at the age of sixty he was forced to turn to other means of income through faked confessions and autobiographies. Robinson Crusoe, published anonymously in 1719 to cement its stature as a “True History,” is a fiction passed as moral truth, and the fruition of Milton’s call for a new Christian hero.

Jonathan Swift worked for Defoe’s political patron, Robert Harley, as an unpaid propagandist. The loyalties are difficult to sort out. Harley was a Tory, with Whig sympathies— Defoe was a Whig, and Swift a Tory. The political climate was nothing if not promiscuous as well. While Defoe dabbled in satire, Swift was its master. The progressive, comedic plots of Defoe find their tragic counterpoint in Swift who represents the emergent customs, and battles for authority in an entirely different perspective. Though they were both outsiders working to subvert an existing order, they had nothing in common besides Harley. Their heroic models, their view of history, and their sense of authority were miles apart. Swift’s Tale of a Tub, The Battel of the Books and A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, published together in 1704, systematically undercut the complex heroic rhetoric and structures of authority in the early eighteenth century through an established restoration form— the satire.

White Sands

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White Sands, 1964— Garry Winogrand

History

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History

The defining characteristic of the novel offered by Ian Watt is its realism. In a broad sense, the novel represents a shift in representation away from allusive generality into particularity. Watt suggests that this particularity is of a unique spatio-temporal type, tied deeply to a new sense of time. Citing John Locke’s contention that identity can only be defined in relation with memories of past thought and action, Watt draws a dividing line between the historical consciousness of Shakespeare and the early eighteenth century. His contention is that the world of ancient Greece and Rome, and that of the Plantagenets and Tudors, were so close that Shakespeare’s worldview was “a-historical.” This seems essentially incorrect. While the labeling of his plays, as “histories, comedies, and tragedies” is a textual phenomenon outside their first performances, historical consciousness was indeed a part of the English Renaissance.

Sir Philip Sydney, a prototypical aristocratic hero— soldier, statesmen, and poet— aligns himself with Aristotle’s Poetics by claiming that history is an “inferior form.” In his 1598 Apology for Poetry he denigrates the role of history as a moral teacher:

The historian scarcely giveth leisure to the moralist to say much, but that he, laden with old mouse-eaten records, authorizing himself (for the most part) upon other histories, whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of hearsay ; having much ado to accord differing writers and to pick truth out of partiality; better acquainted with a thousand years ago than with the present age, and yet better knowing how this world goeth than his own wit runneth; curious for antiquities and novelties; a wonder to young folks and a tyrant in table talk, denieth, in a great chafe, that any man for the teaching of virtue, and virtuous actions is comparable to him.

Histories composed across the seventeenth century are a peculiar blend of direct documentation and the sort of hearsay and reliance on previous histories that Sydney indicts. Poetic heroism is proposed as the antidote for unreliable history— “for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Placing poetry above the obscure teachings of philosophy, Sydney rests heroism at the center of moral instruction:

But if anything be already said in in the defense of sweet Poetry, all concurreth to the maintaining of the heroical, which is not only a kind, but the best and most accomplished kind of poetry. For as the image of each action stirreth and instructeth the mind, so do the lofty image of such worthies most inflameth the mind with the desire to be worthy, and informs with counsel how to be worthy.

The “true history” which surfaces mid-century, based on supposed first-hand accounts recombines the heroic consciousness of poetry with documented authority. The spatio-temporal shift noted by Watt does occur, not as a move from an “a-historical” perspective to a historical one, but through a redefinition of what constitutes authority and heroism. The shift begins close to the middle of the seventeenth century, as Descartes places experiential knowledge, and thus human testimony, closer to the center of authority, and Milton redefines the Christian hero in Paradise Lost.

Romantic epic — the staple of Sydney, Spenser, and most medieval quest-romance— was focused on combat. Milton’s muse, in the opening lines of Book IX, denigrates the traditional celebration of “fabl’d knights / In Battels feingn’d” instead privileging the Puritan values of patience and “Heroic Martyrdom.” The exhaustion of the romantic model of heroism, anticipated comically by Cervantes in Don Quixote (1615), is complete. Epic heroism had long been constituted historically through genealogy, first originating from gods, i.e., Heracles, and Gilgamesh— two thirds divine, one third human— and later becoming genealogies of evil, such as the monster Grendel in Beowulf, descended from Cain. Romance and epic were authorized with the historic authority of genealogy, but not with direct temporal experience or realism. Allegory was marked by an oblique sort of linguistic genealogy, signaled by a typological similarity of naming. These conventions eroded, creating new temporal and linguistic modes of authorizing texts, new particularities in naming, and redefinitions of heroic status in the complex atmosphere after the restoration.

Romance and chivalry were dead, but they would not die without a fight.

Souvenir From Utopia

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Museum Catalogue Title: The Duchess of Sardonicism Relinquishes Any Claim To A Personal Childhood By Desecrating The Embodiment Of Young Girls Dreams
The Unicorn Poacher — Robert Williams

One Wrong Step

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One wrong step

Walking back from the El Chico restaurant next-door, stuffed with fajitas and margaritas, I watched three shadows trace their way down the alley. It reminded me of Swift’s Tale of the Tub, for reasons that would take too long to explain, and I contemplated the shortcut down the retaining wall.

Don’t do it. One wrong step, you know what happens. All I did was get out of my car, and I fell down for four months. The ankle is still weak, and I can feel the metal plates protruding from the side. I can remember when I didn’t worry about that sort of thing. The only valuable things you achieve are always gained through taking chances. Risk is the friend of people who are alive. I walked so many thin lines, took so many chances when I was young. Why am I getting conservative? I don’t think it’s inevitable, and I don’t think it’s good.

I think it was the other wrong step— telling someone I could quit smoking when I couldn’t. Telling someone I could leave all my memories behind. I was more successful in the second respect; the memories did have to go, but for different reasons. That was the road that was slowly killing me. The long nights, the endless assumption of the pain of other people, listening to so many stories that in the end I didn’t feel like I had one of my own. I wanted to write a new story. But I couldn’t quit smoking.

And I left the cabinet doors open. And I forgot to turn out lights. I was careless, inconsiderate, self-absorbed. Not like her husband, who lived every waking moment for her. One wrong step. I suppose it was the step of believing that someone could care about me that much. Over six years now, that wrong step has haunted me. It’s always been a flaw of mine— not being able to tell the difference between friendship and love, between need and desire. I suppose that’s why I study these things. I don’t want to take another wrong step.

My discomfort with silence is offset by the fear of starting to care about people too much again. It’s a thin line. What makes a good photographer, or a good writer, is empathy. The ability to internalize other people’s feelings. But when you start becoming more comfortable with other people’s feelings than your own, you’ve stepped over the line. Crack. Something breaks. When you’re older, you don’t heal as fast. It’s harder to climb out on the ledge again.

Comfort with suspending my own feelings to take on the feelings of people in books is what makes literature so easy for me. I can feel it, as I read it— it becomes me, so I don’t need to deal with the fact that I’m broken. I still smoke. I still leave cabinet doors open. I’m still deathly afraid when people even hint that they might care for me. I know better. The feeling always passes.

I keep thinking about those three shadows. I keep thinking about myself as a photographer, as a writer, and as a person. They come from the same source, and yet they never converge. I only see them when they fall on someone else’s wall.

Audience

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Audience

Besides the death of romance, my most mind-shattering shock after moving from California to Arkansas was the loss of audience. The stereotype of life in the Southern/Midwestern states is that people are friendly. Arkansas is a bit of both, perhaps more Southern than Midwestern— it did join the Confederacy, after all. I think that it’s the misreading of visitors, and natives, to make the claim for the happy helpful down-home folks. I find them cliquish and closed, as they smile big and say “no thank you.” Politeness and friendliness are discrete quantities. The shadow of politeness is dark, like most shadows.

I’ll never forget the gasp of horror when I first said “fuck” in public. It wasn’t that I used the word, people in Arkansas certainly do cuss frequently— but I said it in public. People around here never swear in front of people they don’t know. They also don’t ask anything of strangers, or impose their feelings upon them without extreme circumstances. Deep social networks make it possible to live with little exploitation (except of friends and neighbors). Arkansas is uniquely tolerant of outsiders, really— but it is tolerance, not acceptance.

I come from a freeway town in California. No one stays in a place like Bakersfield by choice, except those who have become complacent enough to accept that it’s an easy place to be. And it was easy. There was no veil of politeness, guarding you from what people were really thinking— they would tell you to “fuck-off” in no uncertain terms if the situation demanded it. Because everyone seemed to be in a constant state of passing through, the urge to exploit people for whatever talents or skills they had was strong. Get it while you can, in no uncertain terms. Life is rootless, wandering, and evanescent. One advantage of the climate of exploitation is that in some ways, you always feel wanted, needed— there’s always something that you might be good for. A ready-made audience of hungry eyes, and ears.

Strangers in the South aren’t needed. I walked through this state with my “exploit me” neon sign flashing for the first few years. I photographed for a charity, and made myself known to many of the musicians. My phone never rang. Unless you’re selling, they don’t want to take. They are far too polite for that. I’m sick of selling, and I really never want to do it again. I’m more intimately acquainted with being sold. For years in California I seldom bought a drink. There was always someone who wanted to seduce you into their project, their vision of how you might be used. I mistakenly thought that because I had some talent it should be easy to find some project to distract me, some new audience for my particular historical skill. No one ever bought me a drink in Arkansas. I had an exhibition in the most popular “counter-culture” hot spot in the city after a year or so. No calls, no comments, no thank-you. I discovered that to be exploited, I’d need to sell myself into it. I want to avoid selling, but in order to get an audience I suppose you do have to sell someone.

Without an audience of some sort, life becomes a bit meaningless. I think that’s why I felt like teaching was the only way out. A group of people sits on the other side of the room. You do your best to fulfill your obligation to impart something to them, to help them understand the subject you try to teach. You don’t have to sell them on exploiting your talent, the environment itself dictates the relation— you have something to give, and students are free to take what they want from you. The only real coercion involved is convincing students that the subject is important enough to pay some attention to. Of course, this means to a certain extent I’ve got to sell again— sell an establishment on my mastery of the material, and my ability to convey it. I’m looking at that as my final sales job. All I really want is an audience willing to exploit me, and I hope I can convince the guardians at the gate to let me in. My abilities as a photographer became unimportant to me when I found that there was really no one who wanted to look at my photographs. Without feedback, reactions to the work, you merely stand in one spot and stare at your navel. There can be no progress, no growth. Ever the adaptive, I’ve been forging new skills with words in the hopes that someone might want to exploit me for it.

I really just want to be exploited. I just came to the wrong part of the country for that. The land of “please” is also filled with “no thank you.” I hope I can find my way out of it soon. The place is incredibly beautiful, polite, picturesque— but my tastes lead into a gaudier sense of the sublime. One day I will return to photography, I'm sure— when I have satisfied my need for exploitation.

despond

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Christian in the Slough of Despond — William Blake

Keeping it Together

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Keeping it together

It is great to get feedback from the really smart people like Ray and AKMA. It’s a thin line I’m trying to walk with this writing project, between excessive mind-numbing depth and dilettantism. AKMA’s comment made me step back for a moment. I need to do more research (so what else is new). I think I’ll try to go on with the slant I had in mind on the positioning of the author at the dawn of the novel in the next day or so, but I suspect it will need to be heavily revised once I get a few more things together.

However, the delay in writing about the novel has been a good thing in some ways. I did some interesting sleep-writing last night, and it occurred to me why the emergence of the novel is such an important part of my overarching argument (which is difficult to express concisely). In many ways, the duo of Bourke-White and Caldwell is similar in approach to Samuel Richardson— Lange and Taylor are similar to Defoe— and Evans and Agee are analogous to Fielding. Clear as mud? It has to do with their approaches to what constitutes effective evidence for representation. This is a long road to take to get to the 1930s, but it’s getting clearer in my head. This pilgrim is actually making progress.

Or, as another way of expressing it— it’s the battle of the lumpers and splitters. Allegory lumps, the novel splits. Natural history lumps, romanticism splits. The entertainment (and advertising) industry lumps, and the social documentary workers of the 1930s split. That’s another simplistic reduction. There are so many things going on that it’s difficult to write. It will take so much background to establish the pattern effectively that I think I’m looking at a full two chapters to get to 1890. It’s going to be a long trip, folks.

I just wish I could manage a better mood to make it through. The comments on the fragments thus far have really helped. Thank you. I love writing in an open environment. Closets make me very nervous. I’ve got intense issues with silences, and with secrecy. They have never worked out well for me. The dice roll when I’m out of the room, and I lose. In so many ways, having a space like this is a dream come true for me. No one has to show up if they don’t want to. There is no obligation. There’s a random flow of strangers, of course, looking for nudes of one sort or another. There are more than a few I’m sure, who just glance at the pictures and skim. But when I get deep comments on issues of importance, it makes it all worthwhile.

But of course, even the slightest evidence that someone cares to read what I say helps me keep it together. It makes me want to write more. As long as I’m talking, I feel like the insanity will stay away. Yes, I know, that’s dangerously delusional in itself. I’m scared of that though.

I watched a screener copy of One Hour Photo today. It hit just a little too close. I used to be one of those guys, watching other people’s lives scroll by on the screen and coming home to my empty apartment. That’s when I decided to come back to school, to try to find some kind of better life somewhere. I never want to turn into “Sy, the Photo Guy”.

dreaming

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John Bunyan dreams a dream — William Blake

aside

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I couldn’t take it anymore. It’s so hard to watch sappy romantic movies on TV. I could change the channel, but I used to like them for some reason— my hand freezes on the remote, paralyzed. The reminder that in some fairy-tale land people are happy and live happily ever after is just too much. Seeing happy people in real life is beginning to have a similar effect. I don’t want to be like this. I just freeze, locked between a sort of vicarious thrill of seeing that happiness is indeed possible— and the fear that I might actually begin to despise people for their happiness. That’s sick. The movie had been on for an hour when I decided I just had to get out of the house.

I went to the bookstore, to buy more books I don’t need. I ran into a woman from one of my graduate classes, where I will present some of the fragments I’ve been writing here tomorrow night. She asked the tough question: “What’s it all about?” If I knew what it was about, I wouldn’t feel compelled to write a book about it. It’s difficult to explain. It’s a picture in my head. Like the fantasies on TV, I can see it scene by scene. I just need to write them down. It sounds more like fiction than non-fiction, when put that way. Right now, I’m not sure that there is a significant difference. I was looking for more Henry Fielding; I’ve avoided him because I don’t like novels the size of bricks. I’m more of a poetry guy. But I read Shamela this afternoon between classes, and loved it. We talked for a while, and then I got a cappuccino and left with Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, The Resistance to Theory by de Man, and Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel.

I need to write another scene about the emergence of the novel. I’m actually trying to write this to a lay audience, so I don’t want to get too deeply buried in theory. I want it to be readable, above all else. It has to be concise. I have this horrible nagging fear that I’m always wasting people’s time. I’m not that smart. I just read a lot. One of my teachers e-mailed someone in a Ph.D. program she wants me to consider, saying: “This guy reads Judith Butler [a very dense and complex gender theorist] like it’s the back of a cereal box.” Comments like this bother me, but for bizarre reasons.

I wish I didn’t understand it. Butler goes deeply into Lacan and Freud’s theories of identity. I think that’s part of what made me tip over into depression. Though she’s arcing to refute most of it, I haven’t been able to shake the idea that our identities are formed by prohibition, by all the things we can’t have. If that’s the case, my identity is pretty screwed. I’ve had to accept that the things I really want, I’ll never have (based on experiential precedent). That thought hasn’t left my head since I started reading this stuff— I really hope that it isn’t right. I hope the refutation is as convincing as the Lacanian argument. I had an odd thought in class today, as we were discussing it. What if Freud had been a pothead instead of a cokehead? Maybe he wouldn’t have been so damn oppressive in his theories. I’d trade understanding for happiness any day of the week. I really don’t think ignorance and bliss are related, but there is no direct correlation between understanding and bliss either.

I’ve been trying not to write thoughts like this down, and concentrate on more productive writing. It’s not working. The whining just keeps wanting to come out. As I was leaving the bookstore, I looked over at the crowd of chess-players. There was a guy in a green army jacket that reminded me of my first real friend. Everyone in junior-high hated him, because of his strange manner and dark horn-rimmed glasses. We’d sit in the back of the classroom and play chess, and talk about British TV shows. We’d smuggle little bottles of liquor to class, and drink when people weren’t looking. He joined the Air Force, and was never the same. Now that I’ve had the time to read this much, I don’t think I’ll ever be the same either.

I’m not fishing for support here, just thinking out-loud. I’ll cope, I always do. One way that I cope is just writing about it. Writing, I’ve gotten fairly good at controlling. Life, well, that’s another story.