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Columbarium_Blera.jpgEtruscan columbarium at Cava Buia, Blera, Italy.

We have seen how it is originally language which works on the construction of concepts, a labor taken over in later ages by science. Just as the bee simultaneously constructs cells and fills them with honey, so science works unceasingly on this great columbarium of concepts, the graveyard of perceptions. It is always building new, higher stories and shoring up, cleaning, and renovating the old cells; above all, it takes pains to fill up this monstrously towering framework and to arrange therein the entire empirical world, which is to say, the anthropomorphic world.

On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Frederich Nietzsche.

One of the most difficult things to cope with this past few years is the constant confrontation with death. Since my mother died, the most common question that pops into my head is "does it really matter?" I watched her lose her mind, unafraid of death for the most part and quite accepting of it. What mattered mostly were the little things, the little bits of dignity that so slowly slipped away from her. For the last five or six years of her life, I called her everyday. That is, until she could no longer stay coherent long enough to speak on the phone. I missed those calls, as they became less and less frequent before her death. I'd like to be able to say she slipped away quietly into a dream, but it was more like she just got lost in a nightmare that she never woke up from. It was chilling, filled with paranoia and delusions, and unsettling to the core.

In a profound sense, my world just collapsed. Her passing wasn't "natural" to me the way my father's was. My father simply drove himself to the hospital and died. My mother faced a long, slow, and unpredictable decline. I'd been thinking up to this point that my life was improving, moving ahead. I had more respect, had managed a more secure financial outlook, had a secure and satisfying romantic relationship and an intellectual project that seemed all-consuming; but what happened to my mother threw me. Is this what really happens? Are people inevitably reducible to (streamlining Earl Butz) to the desire for comfortable shoes and a warm place to go to the bathroom?

I'm finally managing to get some distance from the problem, but nothing seemed very important after that beyond simple human kindness. I put down my scholarly projects due to a deep depression and an inability to concentrate, and moved to other pursuits that were more tangible and bound to objective realities. I didn't stop theorizing, so much as I directed my hive-building into other areas. For the first time in my life, I'm buying my own home. I disconnected my self from Universities for a time, and began a different sort of life that wasn't centered on the catacombs of scholarship, in a hut as far away from it as I could manage.

Whereas the man of action binds his life to reason and its concepts so that he will not be swept away and lost, the scientific investigator builds his hut right next to the tower of science so that he will be able to work on it and to find shelter for himself beneath those bulwarks which presently exist. And he requires shelter, for there are frightful powers which continuously break in upon him, powers which oppose scientific truth with completely different kinds of "truths" which bear on their shields the most varied sorts of emblems.(ibid)
mikelonis_sm.jpg

I hadn't really thought about the time I spent at the University of Minnesota that much until the past week or so, when I started thinking about Vicky Mikelonis. I was excited to take her class on "Models and Metaphors." We read deeply into metaphor theory, which I had first encountered in Paul Ricouer's The Rule of Metaphor which I read alone at University of Arkansas. I had a lot of trouble with it, and there really wasn't anyone there to ask about it. With Vicky's help it made a lot more sense the second time around, as did the volumes of theory we read along with it.  Vicky used Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense" as the capstone for that class. 

I hadn't thought about it until lately, when a colleague at SU mentioned teaching with Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." The Orwell now horrifies me with its privileged white male perspective on language. I taught with it my first few semesters as a teacher and came to loathe and discard it quickly. It only took a few moments to remember the Nietzsche as a potential alternative view, with its major problem being that it would be incomprehensible to undergraduates while the Orwell is easily digested. Both see language as central to being human, tied to habit and convention and sometimes leading us astray. The difference is that Nietzsche accepts the inevitability of this rather than railing against it. The more I read the Orwell, the more I got Pete Townshend's "Won't get fooled again" stuck in my head. How barbarous to think that your own tired concept of language isn't just as barbarous as any that has been used before? I haven't been able to look away from the Nietzsche essay for the last week, and the more I looked at it the more I remembered Vicky.

The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself. This drive is not truly vanquished and scarcely subdued by the fact that a regular and rigid new world is constructed as its prison from its own ephemeral products, the concepts. It seeks a new realm and another channel for its activity, and it finds this in myth and in art generally. (ibid)

We read glorious theories in that class, which always have some sort of fatal flaw. Vicky passed away in 2007, and I always wondered why she never wrote much on the subject of metaphor outside of pedagogical applications. She taught technical writing, primarily, and the things she taught made a deep impact on the world and her students. She could walk through the air of complex theories, never losing sight of the real and grounded human potentialities behind them. One of her favorite comparisons about the moment at which we truly "get" a metaphor and see its aptness, as the same sort of "ah-ha" moment that we get the punch-line of a joke. She took these theories and applied them to how people learned, not in a dry way, but in a way that made you smile with the sheer humanity of it all. She seemed fascinated and interested in my comparatively arcane research agenda (19th century photography), and unlike most of the professors I knew at UMN was always available just to chat about strange and beautiful things. I knew she was sick, but I never thought about her dying. She was always too busy living to get dragged down by death. In a strange coincidence, she was also the only woman besides my mother to consistently call me "Jeffrey" even though I frequently protested. 

I haven't read the Nietzsche since she passed, and since my mother passed. It takes on a new sense of urgency for me now, although the drive to compare, and shape metaphors was stronger then. Now, I'd rather build than write. I want to reshape my world, not conceptually but physically— and not as art, but as craft.

This drive continually confuses the conceptual categories and cells by bringing forward new transferences, metaphors, and metonymies. It continually manifests an ardent desire to refashion the world which presents itself to waking man, so that it will be as colorful, irregular, lacking in results and coherence, charming, and eternally new as the world of dreams. Indeed, it is only by means of the rigid and regular web of concepts that the waking man clearly sees that he is awake; and it is precisely because of this that he sometimes thinks that he must be dreaming when this web of concepts is torn by art. (ibid)

Sometimes I feel like I'm drifting away, only brought back when I shape actual objects to fill my world with. It's a struggle to be awake.

Clio is a Stanley Jordan fan

Off and on for the last year or so, I've been trying to listen to all my LPs. It's a major task, given that I've got a few thousand. But with my acquisition of a record cleaning machine it made sense. I'm doing it in alphabetical order, and I think today I'll manage to finish "J". I took a look through my archives, and I guess it's been almost two years— I think I got the cleaning machine for my birthday in 2011. It seems weird, and sad, that in all the time I've been writing I've never said anything about Ken Hunter— I think of him from time to time, and it's always with a smile. Ken was the one that got me listening to more jazz, and jazz of lighter varieties like Stanley Jordan.

I suppose one of the reasons why it becomes difficult to get up the energy or enthusiasm about writing is the fact that the majority of people that I'd really like to have as an audience are dead. Kenny was one of the first that I lost, and for the most bizarre of reasons. He moved away, a year or two before I left Bakersfield, to take a job as a prison guard on the coast of California. I heard, just after I arrived in Arkansas, that he was playing basketball one day and a blood clot tore loose in one of his legs and caused a heart attack. He died in the emergency room. He had just started a family, and the loss to them and his friends was devastating. It was one of those cases where you just can't understand why such a young, healthy guy is just suddenly gone. I'm not sure he was even 30. I don't think he was.

I met Ken when I was working at Leo's Stereo. He was one of the stock people, along with Wilson Gambi, (a Nigerian fellow that I liked as well). When you stepped off the floor to take a breather, Ken was always there to talk music with, and though we didn't always agree, we respected each other's opinions. One of the things that defined Kenny was his faith, and he would always joke around with the sinners who worked in that industry with very little sense of judgement. Salesman, aren't generally the most moral people, and for Ken even the most vile of us wasn't beyond redemption. He tried to preach, in subtle ways, in every act of kindness that got us all through the day smiling. I wasn't surprised that he moved on to being a prison guard. He wanted to make a difference in the world, and hanging out with the converted wasn't what he considered to be the most important thing to do.

I wasn't much interested in Christian music when I met him, and I suppose I'm still not that interested in it. But I was interested in Kenny's music. He never really recorded anything much that I know about, though I suppose it's possible since he was always in bands and some of those bands did go on to record. Mostly, I just went out to see him at coffeehouses and such.

Ken Hunter.jpg

I think about Ken every time I put on certain records. I cannot help but wonder how such a kind and sweet man could have just died like that, while so many of my less virtuous friends (including myself) seem to keep living. But thoughts of Kenny are always happy ones, because he simply wouldn't have wanted it an other way.

Kenny, Cornell, Louis, and DailyKenny, Cornel, Louis, and Daily circa 1994
Winter Drive

I really didn't mean to neglect this place, I've just been busy.



I haven't been able to really dedicate any time to writing since I've started teaching again. Oh well. Perhaps the muse will visit another day.

When I was a grad student in Minnesota I had a persistent difficulty with Aristotle’s framing/criteria for three genera causarum (general causes) for speech. On the surface, it seems easy. The first general cause for speech is forensic, or legal. This goes back to the earliest writings on rhetoric surrounding the story of Corax and Tisias and the usage of speech to defend property in the courts. At issue, in that case, is just who had owned particular pieces of property. It makes sense, then, that forensic rhetoric tends to look to the past: did they do it or didn’t they, to put another legal twist to it.

The other distinctions are harder for me to grasp. Later authors complicated thing by adding more nuanced treatments of general causes, and that really muddies the waters. Aristotle’s neat usage of three categories is certainly generic– adding more primarily makes the distinctions more specific. They also seem to sort well along a continuum of past/present/future. Legislative rhetoric, for example is easy: should we do it or not? Obviously, the general cause is arbitrating future behavior. But where i always got tripped up is present-directed rhetoric, usually labeled as epidactic rhetoric or more recently, rhetorics of display. At issue, at least in the classical framing of the problem, are matters of praise or blame.

Yesterday, I think I figured out my problem. You see, I always wanted to class speech directed at praise and blame as focused on the past. All evidence marshaled for praise or blame resides there, but the desired action rests in the present. However, the same could be said of forensic rhetoric– one can’t lobby for past action. The distinction shows cracks in its foundation here. As rhetorics of display, present focus is defensible as the bringing forth in the present both past and potential future actions to make people see. Remember that the focus here is on general causes, hence to decide past/future action is obviously different than simply showing something to an audience. Here, action must be framed as praise or blame, adherence or separation from a proposed view in the present. This seems confusing to me, so I always got it wrong.

This popped back into my head when i was thinking of a different sort of causation– material cause. I’ve been obsessed by that for a few years now. When I taught a photography class years ago I structured the fundamentals as time, space, and light. I tend to think of light as the best candidate for a photograph’s material cause, but photographs definitely have a proscribed relationship with time as well. Space will have to remain outside the discussion or I will never get this composed. The time of photographs, casting aside for a moment the mundane issues of shutter speeds or motion pictures, seems to me to be a perpetual past.

Makes sense– photography, the form of display that I am most familiar with, is always directed at the past. In fact, in a profound sense photographs generate what can only be described as a perpetual past. The “news” photograph is an oxymoron because whatever it displays always occurred in the past. You cannot photograph the future. The act of photographing something always arrests its subject like an insect in amber, dooming it to be a sort of curiosity. Good photographers embrace and work through that. It’s photography’s most commonplace trope. I was reminded of that today when reading a vivid description of recreating Britannia, that irrepressible panegyric figure, updated for the recent olympiad:

In any photographic situation where there is a danger that it might go all wrong, where the execution can be way too literal, I always try to steer it back towards the one element that is the most important: spirit. In this case, Laura Trott is a 20 year old girl from Hertfordshire. A week earlier no one, including me, outside of the world of track cycling had heard of her. In seven days she, among several others, had come to embody an ideal of how we would like our country to be. Hard working, modest, humorous, good at stuff and very much alive. Binding her up with spears, shields, togas and chariots would drag her down more than anything. How to make it work?

I close my eyes and I think of the canon. The canon are the photographers I draw on in times of doubt. They give me comfort, solace and inspiration. They include Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber, Lee Friedlander, Sally Mann, Corrine Day, Glen Luchford, Erwin Blumenfeld, Harry Callahan and, in this case, Irving Penn. I close my eyes and I go through the rolodex in my head thinking of them all until I find the one that instinctively feels like the inspirational match for the task at hand. That’s not to say I set about slavishly ripping them off. I use them as my starting point, my jumping off point. They are my photographic moral compass. They show me the light, guide the way and keep me company. Once I push off and get underway I’m then going forward under my own steam. By the time I get to the other side I will have, hopefully, added enough of my own ingredients to the dish for it to taste new and different.

Rule Britannia

It makes more sense to me now why i am perpetually confused by the idea that rhetorics of display are primarily present directed. They always transport me to the past.

CNY
Highway 31

That other writers describe as art things outside the subject [of a speech] and that they have rather too much inclined toward judicial oratory is clear; but rhetoric is useful [first] because the true and just are by nature stronger than their opposites, so that if judgments are not made in the right way [the true and the just] are defeated [by their opposites]. And this is worthy of censure. Further, if we were to have the most exact knowledge, it would not be very easy for us in speaking to use it to persuade some audiences. Speech based on knowledge is teaching, but teaching is impossible [with some audiences]

Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.11-12 George Kennedy trans

I was summoned for jury duty a while ago, and sat in a room viewing a film about modern justice. It was narrated by Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer, so I assume that it was probably produced sometime in the 80s. The gist of the matter was this: in the old days, people were tortured or drowned to get at the truth, but now we give them a jury of their peers.

Everyone in the room was from the Syracuse suburbs, and I'd say about 90% were affluent and white. We all had to march three flights to the courtroom. The accused was a thirty year old inner city black man, who seemed to be deeply involved in the process hanging over his attorney's shoulder reading our questionnaires during the selection process. I couldn't help but notice that on the "In God we Trust" placed on the wall above the judge's bench in stick on lettering, the "T" in trust had come lose and was hanging askew. I was among the first summoned into the jury box. The juror questioning process seemed like a review of several sections of Aristotle's Rhetoric. I answered a question posed to me about examining all the evidence before rendering a decision, and listened quietly while other jurors firmly insisted that they could tell if someone was lying just by looking at them.

I wasn't selected. I looked up the results later, and those who were found the man guilty.

None of the other arts reasons in opposite directions; dialectic and rhetoric alone do this, for both are equally concerned with opposites. Of course, the underlying facts are not equally good in each case; but true and better ones are by nature always more productive of good syllogisms and, in a word, more persuasive. In addition, it would be strange if an inability to defend oneself by means of the body is shameful, while there is no shame in an inability to use speech; the latter is more characteristic of humans than is use of the body. And if it is argued that great harm can be done by unjustly using such power of words, this objection applies to all good things except for virtue, and most of all to the most useful things like strength, health, wealth, and military strategy; for by using these justly one would do the greatest good and unjustly, the greatest harm.

Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.12-13 George Kennedy trans

I find it hard to trust that the good and just are always stronger. I did not weigh the evidence or participate in the decision, but Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer assure me that my presence there was of great importance to the polis. At least they sent me a check for $40 today to compensate me for my service.

Writing always seems to be a reconstructive enterprise. My old friend Slim had a song about it: The Story of How It Got That Way. The fun thing about the song is that each time the chorus repeats, key descriptions become their opposites. I think it’s common to construct most messages as stories. Lists make for a boring read. The core problem is the shifting nature of description and emphasis that makes storytelling a constant stream of reinvention. The postmodern mode of thinking casts this as a feature, not a flaw: it’s simply the play of language.

The difficulty comes when you try to imagine a message transcending context. I remember one of the great problems I had when I first started writing in public was my strong tendency to get lost in writing an introduction to whatever message I was composing. At some point, I figured out that I’d been introducing myself - or, more accurately, aspects of myself- for several years. It’s hard to get much done at that rate. Hello- out of time and energy now-I must be going. Approaching writing as a craft, it becomes a core skill to simply throw those introductory “throat-clearing” pages away. Everyone writes them, and it seems cruel to expect others to read them. The real test of the writer as a craftsman is developing the stamina/patience to plow through that part to get to the good stuff.

Ahem. I didn’t start out as a writer. I started as a sorter; much like the early Internet fad “hot or not”, more often than not I found myself sorting things into piles: this is more interesting than that. The curious thing about this practice is that it insists on things to sort. Stories don’t sort easily; they are slippery. Images, at first glance, are much easier. I think that becoming a photographer seemed like the right move for me around the age of thirteen because it made sense to sort out the world. Photography is a curious vocation. The words art and craft tend to come up a lot. I was always a little uncomfortable with the label “artist” because it made the whole affair seem a lot more mystical and impractical than it really was. It was always more pragmatic than that. But craft makes it seem technical and less human somehow. There’s a tension here between unabashed subjectivity (“hot or not”) and genuine investigation. When I began, I was a child of Walter Cronkite. I really wanted to believe that if a photographer did their job well, you could say with some certainty “that’s the way it is” (or at least was).

One of the key things that I took for granted, as I pursued photography as a vocation for the first 25 years or so, was the idea that I was making objects. Photographs were, at least for the first 150 years or so, physical things. As things, they could be invested with a tangible sense of wonder and mystery- I wonder how that was made? Surface character is what always differentiated photographs from printed reproductions, though in a key sense photography is simply a different reproductive process than printing. Melding the two, bringing them together as ink-jet was for me perhaps the beginning of the end of thinking what I did was somehow “special.” The craft of photography, though it became many times more expensive (my current digital camera cost about 15 times as much as my favorite film camera), felt cheaper. The metaphoric shift really cements it though: instead of making photographs I just update my photo stream. Often, it feels as if I might as well pee in it for the difference it makes.

In a decidedly non-digital moment around 1996 in Arkansas, I reached pretty much the same conclusion. When I lived in California, I felt like what I did photographically had worth. People bought prints occasionally, and often asked me to photograph things they felt needed documenting. I had tried to pursue the same sort of documentary work after some major life changes that brought me to Little Rock. I felt privileged to see and photograph a local tribute concert raising funds for a Louis Jordan memorial. Jordan’s widow was there, and I had made a lovely photo of her holding Louis' high school marching band coronet. It seemed like a beautiful thing on many levels. I printed it 16x20, and mounted it with several other pieces. The owner of the venue had expressed an interest in showing them, and I returned to show him and the promoter. He didn’t show up to see them. Neither did the promoter. In fact, no one there in the microbrewery had the slightest interest. I found myself standing on a street corner in downtown Little Rock holding images in a high wind buffeting around like sails. Even people walking by on the street didn’t glance at them. They were not worthy of even a moment’s interest. I think that’s when I started to identify myself as a retired photographer.

Inevitably, it might have been productive to recognize that I wasn’t special sooner. It took a long time to get that through my skull. One of my final experiences in California was closely documenting Slim, who eventually attempted suicide. My pictures had made no difference in his feelings of self-worth. I documented the scars of the attempt, just as I had so many other moments before, but I just couldn’t admit to myself that what I did was worthless. It took the episode in Little Rock to really drive the point home.

Worthless is of course too strong a word. Ineffectual, perhaps. I picked up my first digital camera a year or so later- a super cheap pen camera with the resolution of a web cam. I had broken my ankle and entertained myself by shooting pictures out the windows of my apartment. Then there was a little Fuji 2mp job. These things were never serious to me. The only things I saved were from a trip to San Antonio with Krista. An internet friend gave me a membership to Flickr a while after that, and I started “streaming” my travel glances. The innocence I once had is long gone, though.

I figured out a few of the problems along the way. My interest in art and craft has less to do with self-importance and more to do with durability. Art, as Walker Evans famously quipped, is useless. Some claim that art endures. On the other hand, craft has utility but is ultimately ephemeral— at least inThomas DeQuincy's opinion. To me, though, durability seems to be a separate matter entirely. That’s where much of my research has focused these last two or three years. The death of my mother was a more recent catalyst. Death always leads you to question what matters.

I am resistant to identification as either a writer or a photographer these days because I think that both of these pursuits seldom lead to durable goods. I still want to understand the world better, to sort it out— but I harbor no illusions about writing or photographing my way there.