Pluralize this!

DSC_1229.jpg
Robert Frank, 40 Fotos

In an effort to fight the oppressive nature of a “master narrative” the easiest step is to pluralize narrative(s) with, as Jim W. Corder would have it, “a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities” (“Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love” 31). Corder’s time is conceived as narrative time:

We must pile time into argumentative discourse. Earlier, I suggested that in our most grievous and disturbing conflicts, we need time to accept, to understand, to love the other. At crisis points in adversarial relationships, we do not, however, have time; we are already in opposition and confrontation. Since we don’t have time, we must rescue time by putting it into our discourses and holding it there, learning to speak and write not argumentative displays and presentations, but arguments full of anecdotal, personal, and cultural reflections that will make us plain to all others, thoughtful histories and narratives that reveal us as we’re reaching for others. The world, of course, doesn’t want time in its discourses. The world wants the quick memo, the rapid-fire electronic mail service; the world wants speed, efficiency, and economy of motion, all goals that when reached, have given the world less than it wanted or needed. We must teach the world we want otherwise, to want time for care. (31)

Published in late 1985, email and electronic communication had already begun to nibble its way into our consciousness. In a sense, the personalized self-written web could be seen as a backlash against efficiency in its messy twit-stream of personal narratives. I think one of the interesting influences of Corder on most of my teachers at the University of Arkansas was the emphasis on the personal in scholarship, the instance on weaving not only the research, but the narrative of that research into the final paper. I was resistant to this move then, as I am now. I think my misgivings stem from the simplified conception of time and space in conventional narratives.

The pairing of images from Robert Frank at the top of this entry are not narrative; they are, at least in the scholarly narrative constructed by curator Sarah Greenough, a thematic confluence. [excellent resources and inspiring podcasts here] They are taken from Frank’s 40 Fotos showcase book, which secured him work with Alexey Brodovitch in 1946. Pairing in a page spread was a technique pioneered across the 1930s, and it is the seminal insights which grew from this which made possible the more complex sequencing of Frank’s book The Americans.

The Americans was essentially anti-narrative in nature, resistant to the conventionalized narrative that emerged in the photo stories of the 1950s. In my opinion, a simple image pair is to The Americans as twitter is to blogging. The difference: apprehension at a glance contrasted with the reflection of reflections in complex series.

In a profound sense, The Americans made new flavors of compositional complexity the alternative to simple stories with beginning, middle, and end. Like literary modernism before it, it pushed the limits of what could be considered sensible in communicating a message. One has to work hard to apprehend it, and in the end you can never be sure that you have embraced all the riches that lie within the confines of the book. Photographic books, in my estimation, have a lot to contribute to our understanding of communication—even in more standard written forms. Consideration of non-narrative works has much to offer in improving the relatively simplistic conception of communication (at least taken at its surface value) offered in Corder. Nonetheless, writing always emerges from conflicting narratives always in progress—this much, I really appreciate about Corder:

There is only our making, sometimes by design, sometimes not. None of us lives without a history; each of us is a narrative. We’re always standing some place in our lives, and there is always a tale of how we came to stand there, though few of us have carefully marked the dimensions of the place and where we are or kept time with the tale of how we came to be there.

The catch is that, though we are all fiction-makers/historians, we are seldom all that good at the work. Sometimes we can’t find all that’s needed to make the narrative we want of ourselves, though we still make our narrative. Sometimes we don’t see enough. Sometimes we find enough and see enough and still tell it wrong. Sometimes we fail to judge either the events within our narrative or the people places things and ideas that might enter the narrative. Sometimes we judge dogmatically, even ignorantly, holding only to standards that we have already accepted or established. We see only what our eyes will allow us to see at a given moment, but eventually we make a narrative of ourselves that we can enjoy, tolerate, or at least not have to think about too much. (16)

Time ultimately flattens most stories into manageable proportions—but the world and our experience of it happens in 3-D. I find it hard to believe that the simple version is often considered the best. Pluralizing the narrative(s) into rhetoric(s) doesn't really increase the complexity, it simply increases the volume— already nearly deafening— emerging from our fellow man.

Offering new ways to see/read/think like Robert Frank seems more useful. While I still think that there should be as many stories written as there are people on the planet, there is a special significance in altering the extension—depth/breadth/height of what gets recorded. Simple stories, for me, are not necessarily the best stories.

There are some odd confluences that should be noted. Jim Corder started teaching at TCU the year I was born; the year that The Americans was first published, just over a half century ago: 1958.

Posted by Jeff at May 23, 2009 8:59 PM

Love and Ethos

Colin Pantall linked to a post about Goldin (among other things) at World Press Photo 09 that reminded me of this bit on the BBC photography series. It offered this observation:

In a bravura presentation that had many in the audience wondering if she would make it through to the end, she covered her life in pictures, in a literal sense as her autobiographical exploration of human relationships, psychologies and emotions. She echoed Mayes’ desire to see more work from communities the photographer lives in rather than the exotic, declaring ‘ I think you can only really photograph your own tribe’. Yet in a gratifying admission for the audience, she admitted that despite her early animosity to journalism, that the need to find out about the rest of the world had led her to a realization that to photograph someone else’s tribe in a far away land could have some validity in informing us of the lives of far away others.

The ethos of any photographer is their primary currency, and I feel sympathetic with Goldin. Thinking about Jim W. Corder’s hippyish pronouncement “rhetoric is love” I found myself tracing some of the path that took him there in 1985—an early essay with the twisty title “Varieties of Ethical Argument, With Some Account of the Significance of Ethos in the Teaching of Composition”

Last spring I went to a concert at our daughter’s high school. From where we sat, we could just see our daughter with her violin. Father’s being what they are, she being lovely and the music sweet, I found myself welling over. Among other things, I thought, “How can any other outside the family know her and love her so, not being joint members as we are of her whole history?” I wanted to answer, “No one can.” But then I remembered that there is such a thing as love between a young woman and a young man who did not participate in her whole history. And that let me think that it is possible for any of us—if the stars are right and we work to make ourselves human—to enfold another whose history we have not shared. In this act of enfolding, the speaker becomes through speech; the speaker’s identity is always to be saved, to emerge as an ethos to the other, whose identity is also to be cherished. Then they may speak, each holding the other wholly in mind.

Jim W. Corder, originally published in Freshmen English News 6, No. 3 (Winter 1978), Landmark Essays on Rhetorical Invention in Writing (1994).

I feel that there is a connection at the basest levels between documentary photography and documentary rhetorics.

Posted by Jeff at May 23, 2009 3:24 PM

May 2009 (2)