November 2010 Archives

Turkey on a Horse.
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Highway 11
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James Watt statue

Curiously, icon of the Industrial Revolution James Watt seldom claims to have "invented" anything, rather, he claims the title "improver." Huxley's assertion that he was an "inventor" of time appears to be primarily a twentieth-century invention. As the Wikipedia article suggests, it seems curious to think of patents as a mode of communicating discoveries rather than essays and articles— but this was Watt's way. Reading the 1853 "history" of Watt's "inventions" it seems clear that the legend of the industrial revolution is cast as a myth of originality and invention rather than evolution and improvement is only in a nascent phase. The facts show that his work/research was quite social in nature, and the labeling of him as a "great man" to the exclusion of his cohort occurred relatively slowly in cultural history. Even Huxley mentions him in conjunction with an heir to his improvements, H.F. Stephens.

Watt really seems more like a skilled repairman and tinkerer than an inventor. The events narrated after his repair/improvement of the Newcomen steam engine follow a similar pattern. I was tickled by the tale of Watt and his organ (as told by Professor Robinson):

A mason-lodge in Glasgow wanted an organ. The office-bearers were acquaintances of Mr. Watt. We imagined that Mr. Watt could do anything; and, though we all knew that he did not know one musical note from another, he was asked if he could build this organ. He had repaired one, and it had amused him. He said "Yes;" but he began by building a very small one for his intimate friend Dr. Black, which is now in my possession. In doing this, a thousand things occurred to him which no organ-builder ever dreamed of, — nice indicators of the strength of the blast, regulators of it, &c. &c. He began to the great one. He then began to study the philosophical theory of music. Fortunately for me, no book was at hand but the most refined of all, and the only one that can be said to contain any theory at all,—Smith's Harmonics. Before Mr. Watt had half finished this organ, he and I were complete masters of that most refined and beautiful theory of the beats of imperfect consonances. He found that by these beats it would be possible for him, totally ignorant of music, to tune his organ according to any system of temperament; and he did so, to the delight and astonishment of our best performers. (cix)

So, rather than just the improver of "fire engines," Watt was a dabbler in many areas, including "perspective machines," in Watt's description:

Perspective-Machine.jpg
The perspective machine was invented about 1765, on the following occasion. My friend Dr. James Lind, brought from India a machine invented by some English gentlemen there, —I believe a Mr. Hurst,—which consisted of a board fixed on three legs perpendicularly, upon which close to the the bottom and near the ends, were fixed two small friction wheels, upon which a horizontal ruler rested, and could be moved endwise horizontally, . . .[elaborate description of original machine] . . . This instrument very readily described perpendicular or horizontal lines, as these accorded best with its natural motions. But in diagonal or curved lines it was difficult to make the index follow them exactly, and the whole motions were heavy and embarrassing to the hand. Moreover, the instrument was heavy and too bulky.

I wished to make a machine more portable and easier in its use; and, at the suggestion of my friend Mr. John Robinson, I turned my thoughts to the double parallel ruler, an instrument then very little known and and at all used that I know of. After some meditation, I contrived the means of applying it to this purpose and making the machine extremely light and portable.

. . .The whole of the double parallelogram and its attached slips, (which were later contrived to be easily separated from the board,) were made capable of being readily folded up, so as to occupy only a small space in the box formed by the board when folded up. The sight piece also folded up, and readily found its place in the box, which also contained the screws for fixing the legs of the instrument; and the box, when shut, could be put into a great coat-pocket. The three legs were made of tinned iron, tapering, and one a little smaller than another, and formed a walking stick about four and a half feet long. (cxi-cxvii)

That the father of the industrial revolution (in elementary school textbooks, anyway) experimented with portable pantographs isn't all that surprising, but the extent of his involvement in reproductive technologies is. To put Watt's innovations in perspective, I need to return to Lewis Mumford, who lead me to consider all this in the first place:

This brief view of the course of the reproductive processes in art, from the wood engraving to the colored lithograph, from the photographic painting to the photograph proper, capable of being manifolded cheaply, does not take into account various subsidiary efforts in the same direction in many of the other arts, such as the reproduction of sounds, by means of the phonograph and the talking film; to say nothing of the fortunately abortive attempts of James Watt to find a mechanical means of reproducing, in the semblance of sculpture, the human form, an effort on which the inventor of the steam engine curiously wasted some of the best years of his life.

(Art and Technics, 95)

Just what Watt "invention" was Mumford on about here? I had to find out. Turns out it was the Polyglyptic Parallel-Eidograph. "The best years of his life" turn out to be his later years, because this machine is the last thing he worked on. He turned to it after giving up on inventing the first computer. Watt's "arithmetical machine" of 1785 was never built, though he speaks of making an attempt at making it. His forward thinking attempt at stone holograms, however, had some success. I don't know why Mumford dismisses it so cruelly.

But one engrossing occupation, nearly akin to those of his earlier, but what we can hardly call his better days, Mr Watt also found in gradually perfecting a sculpture machine: a highly ingenious invention, the idea of which was suggested to him by an implement he had seen and admired in Paris in 1802, where it was used for "tracing and multiplying the dies of medals." He foresaw the possiblity, if only some mechancial difficulties could be overcome, of so enlarging its powers as to admit of it making in wood or the softer kinds of stone,—nay, even in marble,—copies of works of sculpture, which should be perfectly true to their originals, although of a smaller size; and the imagination of such an exploit seems to have been particularly delightful to him combining as it did some elements of more than one of his other favorite inventions.

. . .By April, 1809, he had made "considerable progress with the carving machine and it seemed necessary to christen it with a Greek name," which to Professor Young, then the accomplished Professor of Greek at Glasgow College, he suggested might be Iconopoia, Iconurga, Iconoglypta, Aglamotopiea, Glyptes, Polyglyptes, Glyptic Machine, &c.., names to which he afterwords added those of Bust-lathe, Statue-lathe, Pantograph, Double Pantograph and Double Parallel Lathe. (ccxlii-ccxliii)

The machine was not an "abortive attempt to reproduce the human form" but rather a prototype for what would now be named a CNC lathe, and it was according to the source I found, completed:

The invention having been thus fully completed and having been publicly used by Mr. Watt in making the frequent copies of various specimens of sculpture which he, from time to time, distributed to his friends, operated, in more than one instance, to prevent patents from subsequently being taken out by others for similarly ingenious machines.

. . .The sculpture machine, —the youngest of his mechanical offspring, —the child of his old age and of his right hand,1—had always been a great favorite with its venerable progenitory; and it is not difficult to imagine the sort of charm he must have felt in thus "searching for the beautiful forms in the hearts of marbles and of bringing them out into full daylight."

1See Gen, chap. xxxv,v.18 "His father called him Benjamin;""i.e.(adds the marginal interpretation) "the son of the right-hand" (cclii)

Watt did attempt to further push this into a machine that could carve forms from life, but never managed it. His biographer suggests that it was not necessarily a huge loss.

Only one problem, now seems to remain for such means to achieve; that, viz. of at once copying from a living model, in materials of lapidary hardness. For hitherto, in the object to be copied an inflexible surface has always been requisite, to enable the guiding point of the machine to traverse it with firmness. But even this appears to be a difficulty which may in time be overcome; possibly by the power being applied solely by the cutting tools, but their direction being regulated by a guiding point delicately moved over a soft surface, or even in air.

It is, perhaps, neither to be expected nor desired that such a process, which, however exact, must still be entirely mechanical, should ever supersede the freedom of inspiration which breathes in the works of a Praxiteles or a Phidias; any more than the angelic grace of a Raphael or a Correggio, or the glorious coloring of a Titian or a Guido, should be eclipsed by the photographic result of mere chemical action of light an a combination fo optical media.

. . .The classical "garrett" and all its mysterious contents,—the Polyglyptic Parallel-Eidograph with all its tools and models included,—have ever since been carefully preserved in the same order as when the hand and "eye of the master" were last withdrawn from them, and he crossed the threshold never to return to his work on earth. (cclv)

James Watt's Workshop
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Time and the Machine by Aldous Huxley (1936)

Time, as we know it, is a very recent invention. The modern time-sense is hardly older than the United States. It is a by-product of industrialism - a sort of psychological analogue of synthetic perfumes and aniline dyes.

Time is our tyrant. We are chronically aware of the moving minute hand, even of the moving second hand. We have to be. There are trains to be caught, clocks to be punched, tasks to be done in specified periods, records to be broken by fractions of a second, machines that set the pace and have to be kept up with. Our consciousness of the smallest units of time is now acute. To us, for example, the moment 8:17 A.M. means something—something very important, if it happens to be the starting time of our daily train. To our ancestors, such an odd eccentric instant was without significance  -  did not even exist. In inventing the locomotive, Watt and Stevenson were part inventors of time.1 [emphasis mine]

Another time-emphasizing entity is the factory and its dependent, the office. Factories exist for the purpose of getting certain quantities of goods made in a certain time. The old artisan worked as it suited him with the result that consumers generally had to wait for the goods they had ordered from him. The factory is a device for making workmen hurry. The machine revolves so often each minute; so many movements have to be made, so many pieces produced each hour. Result: the factory worker (and the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the office worker) is compelled to know time in its smallest fractions. In the hand-work age there was no such compulsion to be aware of minutes and seconds.

Our awareness of time has reached such a pitch of intensity that we suffer acutely whenever our travels take us into some corner of the world where people are not interested in minutes and seconds. The unpunctuality of the Orient, for example, is appalling to those who come freshly from a land of fixed meal-times and regular train services. For a modern American or Englishman, waiting is a psychological torture. An Indian accepts the blank hours with resignation, even with satisfaction. He has not lost the fine art of doing nothing. Our notion of time as a collection of minutes, each of which must be filled with some business or amusement, is wholly alien to the Oriental, just as it was wholly alien to the Greek. For the man who lives in a pre-industrial world, time moves at a slow and easy pace; he does not care about each minute, for the good reason that he has not been made conscious of the existence of minutes.3

This brings us to a seeming paradox.2 Acutely aware of the smallest constituent particles of time - of time, as measured by clock-work and train arrivals and the revolutions of machines - industrialized man has to a great extent lost the old awareness of time in its larger divisions. The time of which we have knowledge is artificial, machine-made time. Of natural, cosmic time, as it is measured out by sun and moon, we are for the most part almost wholly unconscious. Pre-industrial people know time in its daily, monthly and seasonal rhythms. They are aware of sunrise, noon and sunset, of the full moon and the new; of equinox and solstice; of spring and summer, autumn and winter. All the old religions, including Catholic Christianity, have insisted on this daily and seasonal rhythm. Pre-industrial man was never allowed to forget the majestic movement of cosmic time.

Industrialism and urbanism have changed all this. One can live and work in a town without being aware of the daily march of the sun across the sky; without ever seeing the moon and stars. Broadway and Piccadilly are our Milky Way; out constellations are outlined in neon tubes. Even changes of season affect the townsman very little. He is the inhabitant of an artificial universe that is, to a great extent, walled off from the world of nature. Outside the walls, time is cosmic and moves with the motion of sun and stars. Within, it is an affair of revolving wheels and is measured in seconds and minutes - at its longest, in eight-hour days and six-day weeks. We have a new consciousness; but it has been purchased at the expense of the old consciousness.
1I located this essay through the article on James Watt on Wikipedia, which referenced a magazine article from 1973 which cited the emphasized quote. It turns out that this six paragraph essay was printed in a wide variety of writing text books, including An American Rhetoric by William Whyte Watt. I love this Amazon review of An American Rhetoric:
This book is, unfortunately for the literary world, out of print although it is probably only of interest to 'true and thoughtful' followers of English composition and literature. I am interested in the teaching of Mr Watt and also other leaders and instructors who developed the notions of creative and responsible writing that influenced writers of the period from the 1950s through the 1980s, after which, sadly to say, literature seemes to have 'gone to hell in a handbasket'. I believe it is unfortunate that these fine Professors of detail and research have fallen into disfavor. I purchased the book at a premium price in order to once again enjoy the detailed works and guidance of one of the few who clung to attention and to fact and extactness. [sic]
2  The usage of this essay for evaluation of comprehension has persisted, a evidenced by this notation of the 2002 New York State Regents English Literary Arts Exams:
3. Day Two, Part One: The "Compare and Contrast" Essay: The exam uses the last two paragraphs of a six-paragraph essay by Aldous Huxley, Time and the Machine. The altered passage now begins with the sentence: "This brings us to a seeming paradox." Students cannot know what "this" refers to, without the preceding paragraphs. Compounding the problem, students are asked to answer a question about what the "paradox" refers to.
3 This paragraph, elaborating on the paradox of the culturally specific creation of time, was perhaps the offending part to the NYS examiners. Huxley's deployment of cultural difference was not politically correct, but it was hardly racist. These days though, it seems accurate because I suspect no corner of the globe can be characterized as "pre-industrial." This oversimplified version of culturally relative "time" doesn't wear well into the twenty-first century. It's more far more complex than six paragraphs can describe.
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Modern architecture crystalized at the moment that people realized that the older modes of symbolism no longer spoke to modern man; and that, on the contrary, the new functions brought in by the machine had something special to say to him. Unfortunately, in the act of realizing these new truths, mechanical function has tended to absorb expression, or in more fanatical minds, to do away the need for it. As a result, the architectural imagination has, within the last twenty years, become impoverished: so much so that the recent prize-winning design for a great memorial, produced by one of the most accomplished and able of the younger architects, was simply a giant parabolic arch. If technics itself could not, by itself, tell the story of the pioneer, moving through the gateway of the continent, the story could not, in the architectural terms of our own day, be told.

Lewis Mumford, Art and Technics (114)
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My way of working is just a long series of personal discoveries. I can't give anyone any secrets, something that I promise will work, because, finally, it depends on one's skill and intuition, and other things. But I can give hints, the benefit of some experience in the things that have happened to me. . . .

Many people don't realize these truths because they have never been close enough to real wood, beautiful wood in its natural state. They've seen veneered surfaces; they've lived with wood secondhand, and they are just not aware of the richness that is to be found in individual pieces, logs, and planks. So part of my struggle through the years, both with visitors in my shop and in some of my brief writing, has been to remind people of these things, to tell them not only about the richness of the material, but the connection between the material and how some few people, a very few people, work. In a way I can prepare them to receive these objects, or to meet these objects, and expose themselves to them with a degree of sensitivity which these objects, I hope, deserve. (A Cabinetmaker's Notebook, 12-13)

I have been building a basement wood shop for about a year now. I have little to show for it in the manner of objects (save shop fixtures and jigs), but the philosophy has enriched me immeasurably. I suppose it began when I moved to the village of Fayetteville, one of the centers of the Stickley universe. The Arts and Crafts Movement coincides with the historical period that fascinates me in photography though prior to locating myself here I had never really thought much about furniture design. I was immediately drawn to the beefiness and practicality of the Stickley designs, but wasn't really quite sure what to think about Krenov's spare bird-like pieces.

What becomes instantly apparent when you read much woodworking literature is that it is dominated by machine expediency. The philosophy of people like Gustav Stickley is stripped away in favor of quick-and-dirty methods of replicating the Arts and Crafts look. One has to search pretty hard to find Stickley's thoughts on craft and life, but it's findable (though a subject for another day).

Reading Krenov has been a revelation. His thoughts on originality, composition, and materials are first rate concepts for consideration for anyone considering matters of craft. In making sense of things, I cannot help but compare Krenov's concepts with the craft I dedicated such a huge swath of my life to: photography.

This might seem a bit forced, given that wood is an organic material and photography is currently dominated by talk of megapixels and evanescent virtual bits, but I think that the real gist of photography is just as organic due to the shaping of its human subject. The materials that all photographers work with are primarily time, space, and light.1 The education of a photographer should always begin with a sensitivity and embrace of those three essential elements.

Fall Drive

I am reminded of an incident shooting outside CaTony's diner last week.

A woman (perhaps "Cathy" of CaTony's) came out and interrogated me: "What are you taking pictures of?"

"The light, mostly. Isn't it beautiful?" I answered. The blank look on her face just broadcast suspicion and a complete failure to grasp what I was saying at all. Most people aren't all that sensitive to light, I guess. If I had answered that I thought her ice-cream shaped lights were distinctive and novel, I might have gotten a more collegial response; it was as if I was speaking a foreign language to her.

Photography is most easily understandable when it addresses the novel, the unusual, the out-of-the-ordinary (celebrity, unusual natural phenomena, etc.). The actual materials of it are subsumed in searching for matters of more impressive visuality. Krenov actually centers this emphasis on visual novelty geographically as the passage quoted above continues:

This is truly an unexplored chapter in the United States. Expression in wood, if I may say so, is a bit heavy handed there; oversimplified. So often the emphasis is on form— as in sculpture. It is primarily a visual experience, with the wood not always having its say, not always as important as it should be—sometimes not important at all. Some artists in wood order their material by telephone, and admit it is not of that great importance. This is not a criticism; it is merely stating that there are different relationships to the material. (13)

Krenov expands his thoughts on visuality and originality in his second book, but this early passage really seems to dig at the bulkiness of most of the Arts and Crafts furniture as exemplified by Stickley and his imitators. Sensitivity to objects, and sensitivity to the tools that create them is central to Krenov. He has little love for the perfection of machines (a quality that Stickley embraces to a much greater degree than his English/European counterparts in the Arts and Crafts Movement). But it would be facile to take this as simply a matter of preferring one sort of form over another. The relationship of material in form (as objects) is what Krenov emphasizes:

So we talk about tools, we talk about objects, and I hope that gradually I can get across this relationship, this love affair or whatever you will. How it comes to be that woods whisper to you about tools and methods and shapes—shapes within shapes, really, because when you become aware of certain ways of using wood, then you realize something about a straight line. To me there is no real life in a perfectly straight line or a perfect circle. But in wood you can make a rectangular object, give it tension and countertension and balance without complete symmetry, and you can give it rhythm by choosing the wood. You may have just a rectangular frame, but you can make it almost soft, almost a sensation of oval for the eye, if you choose the wood in the right way. And you can do the opposite; make it unpleasant by making the wood bow slightly upward and inward so that the corners appear extremely sharp to the eye; this will be disturbing, whereas the other is harmonious. But it is not dead, or lax, because wood is a living material when used in this way. You are always experimenting. You are playing with textures, tensions, the things that happen, and, if you are sensitive, if you are lucky enough, then you exceed your expectations. (14)

I will never forget my first impressions of the work of my mentor Harry Wilson— it seemed as if space itself curved in his photographs, as if you could sense the bulge of the earth. But it was not a lens distortion, or an optical illusion caused by strong and predictable lines. It was a subtle thing, a palpable feeling about space that was not a formal thing, but rather a subjective quality. This quality was real to me, though no one I ever tried to describe it to sensed it in quite the same way (even Harry himself). I just could tell that it was a Harry Wilson photograph because of the space and tensions within that space. It was personal, but at the same time it seemed to be more than that. It was not that Harry "invented" this space, but rather that he identified arrangements of objects in the world that were evocative of that particular space. The space was apparent even in his multiple exposure work, so it seemed to me a matter of selection rather than invention.

I've never believed that you have to be all that inventive. Form, for me, is not the primary thing, form is only the beginning. It is the combination of feelings and a function; shapes and things that come into one connection with the discoveries made as one goes into the wood that pull it together and give meaning to form. (Krenov, 14)

The materials of photography are, for me, the world itself which greets us with time and space and light. Photography, for me at least, is about the love affair that I have with the world. I tend to look at photographs as utilitarian objects that give me the chance to examine the world more closely, to know certain aspects that would be invisible without this recording technology.

The difficult thing, then, is dealing with the utter loss of photographs as objects in the contemporary schema of the world. I miss holding them, looking at them, and furnishing my space with them. I have yet to find the skill I need in ink jet printing (or furniture making for that matter) so I feel myself at an impasse. But one thing is certain: I want to focus my effort at creating, rather thans simply consuming, in the space and time that avails itself to me.


1These distinctions have been with me since I first confronted the problem of trying to teach photography at the University of Minnesota. It was a short class, but useful I think both to me and my students. It surprises me that I have never written anything about that (that I remember or can find).
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Lewis Mumford
The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do. (17)

Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

When I read Vicki Goldberg's excerpt of Lewis Mumford's thoughts on the economy of images emphasizing the curmudgeonly proclamation that the proliferation of images had placed us all in hades, my gut feeling was that his view must be more complex than that. Three quarters of the way through his lecture series published in Art and Techics there is indeed polemic. But he sneaks up on it, making his way through photography on the way as a democratic process:

Now, by perfecting a mechanical method, the "taking of pictures" by a mere registration of the sensations was democratized. Anyone could use a camera. Anyone could develop a picture. Indeed, as early as the 1890s the Eastman Company went a step further in the direction of automatism and mass production, by saying to the amateur photographer—this was their earliest advertising slogan—you press the button we do the rest. What had been in the seventeenth century a slow handicraft process, requiring well trained eyes and extremely skilled hands, with all the rewards that accompany such highly organized bodily activities, now became an all-but-automatic gesture. Not an entirely automatic gesture, I hasten to add, lest any photographers in this audience squirm in agonized silence or break forth into a loud shout of protest. For after all it turns out that even in the making of the most mechanically contrived image, something more than machines and chemicals is involved. The eye, which means taste. The interest in the subject and an insight into the moment when it—it or he or she—is ready. An understanding of just what esthetic values can be further brought out in the manipulation of the instrument and materials. (92)

Mumford equivocates photography with "registration of the sensations," masking his overwhelming bias toward photography as monosensual: visual to the exclusion of all other sense records. I suspect this is because it allows him to paint photography as gestural, contingent on a button press. Lately I have been thinking that the athletic edge to photography (street photography, as a prime example) invites examination of the invocation of multiple sense modalities. Taste, in its broadest sense, can be stretched to the appreciation of the spatial qualities of representation (beyond trompe l'oeil)— and thus be forced to confront the problems of bodies in space and their relations. The impact of scale, for example, as explored by many contemporary photographers can create special types of comfort, discomfort, and sensual response that are not, strictly speaking, visual. Esthetic values involve more than just the eyes.

The effort to understand the visual often tries to leapfrog over the body to get to the eye stalk. Nonetheless, it is admirable that Mumford does recognize the human qualities of photographs, and has a sense of photography's history/pleasures

All these human contributions are essential. As in science, no matter how faithfully one excludes the subjective, it is still the subject that contrives the exclusion [emphasis mine]. All this must be freely granted. But this is only to say that in photography another machine art like printing was born; and that the standards of esthetic success in this art are not dissimilar than those in printing. If we consider those standards for a moment we shall have a clue to one of the most essential problems connected with automatism and reproduction.

As with printing, photography did not altogether do away with the possibilities of human choice; but to justify their productions as art there was some tendency on the part of early photographers, once they had overcome the technical difficulties of the process, to attempt to ape, by means of the camera, the special forms and symbols that had been handed down traditionally by painting. Accordingly, in the nineties, American photographs became soft and misty and impressionistic, just when impressionism was attempting to dissolve form into atmosphere and light. But the real triumphs of photography depended on the photographer's respect for his medium, his interest in the object before him, and his ability to single out of the thousands of images that pass before the eye, affected by the time of day, the quality of light, movement, the sensitivity of his plates or film, the contours of his lens, precisely that moment when these factors were in conjunction with his own purpose. At that final moment of choice—which sometimes occurred when a picture was taken, sometimes only after taking and developing a hundred indifferent prints— the human person again became operative; and at that moment, but only at that moment, the machine product becomes a veritable work of art, because it reflects the human spirit. (92-93)

What this passage makes clear is that Mumford is concerned with the improper use of symbols and the clear role of human choice in art as opposed to technics, his word for technology deployed without the human element. That's the primary reason for his coinage of techics— it is neither techné nor technology, though it is derived from them— it is the deployment of mindless or inhuman means of reproduction. It's a shame that Goldberg neatly skips this part (quite photographer friendly) in her anthology.

It is this human element that interests me most in all this; to center photography on one sense (vision) tends to render it mechanistic. The sensual/bodily side of it is difficult to address without resort to subjectivity or spirituality. I think there are objectively verifiable, physical elements involved in perception that are ignored in discussions of reproductive technologies due to a tendency to compartmentalize the sense modalities. That's why I can't seem to stop jumping between audio/music reproduction, photographic and sculptural reproduction, textual production and reproduction, etc. It seems like it should all fit together as furniture for living.

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I was really shocked that Krista hadn't seen Pecker, since she is a John Waters fan. Watching it toward the end of last week, I was reminded of just how much I love that movie. Few movies have really captured the joy of taking pictures quite so well. Though it's been roundly panned by many people as Waters' "sell-out" movie, I think they just don't get the joke. Art is about doing what you like; doing what you like has consequences.

Looking around a bit, I found an old interview with Waters by Gerald Peary that demonstrates the durability and continuing relevance of one of Waters' choicer bits of "symbolic action":

Q-In Pecker, people from New York come to Baltimore and get "teabagged." Is that a real thing?

It's a "term." I saw it once in that bar, when someone hits you on your forehead with their balls! All heterosexual women have been "teabagged," if they had oral sex, or, accidentally, if a guy getting out of bed in the morning has to crawl to the other side! But I exaggerate: people don't go to that bar to get "teabagged" or anything. Even gay people don't know the term. It's obscure, but I hope my movie will make "teabagging" a pastime. (Laughs) It's safe!

source
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I have no idea what sort of tree this is. I found it interesting.

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Riverdale, CA

I've been obsessing a bit about Lewis Mumford lately, partly because I always encounter his writing in oft-anthologized inflammatory "theory bites." I couldn't help but think that there was more to it than a simple case of iconophobia. A used copy of Art and Technics, the source for Vickie Goldberg's anthologized snippet I blogged about a few days ago, showed up yesterday. I don't often just rip through things like I ripped through this book (a series of lectures)— but I read a hundred pages in about two hours. When it's had time to digest a bit (and I finish the remaining 50 pages), I'd like to say more. But for now I have to comment about this bit:

Each art has its technical side, and technics involves calculation, repetition, laborious effort, in short, what would often be, were it not for the ultimate end of the process, sheer monotony and drudgery. But in the period when handicraft dominated, the artist and the technician arrived, as it were, as a happy compromise, because, for one thing, their roles were assumed by the same person. By this modus vivendi, the artist submitted to the technical conditions of fabrication and operation, schooling himself to do a succession of unrewarding acts in return for two conditions: first, the comradeship of other workers on the job, with the chance for chaffer and song. companionship and mutual aid in performing the work; and second, the privilege of lingering with loving care over the final stages of the technical process and transforming the efficient utilitarian form into a meaningful symbolic form. That extra effort, that extra display of love and esthetic skill, tends to act as a preservative of any structure; for, until the symbols themselves become meaningless, men tend to value, and if possible save from decay and destruction, works of art that bear the human imprint. (49)

The distinctions that Mumford strives to make in his binary art/techic framework make for an interesting grid: arts are subjective, technics are objective; arts are human, technics are inhuman; arts are orphic, technics are promethean; arts are symbolic, techics are utilitarian; etc. He doesn't argue for the abolition of either, but rather suggests that they are codependent and in danger of losing balance in the contemporary (1952) world. The case that he makes in this section is that symbolic value has greater durability than utilitarian value. Which reminded me of a photographic series I was working on in the mid 1990s.

Songs from the Valley Towns was my name for a group of mostly square format images taken with my Rollei as I drove back and forth between Bakersfield and Fresno visiting my friend Slim, who had recently completed a collection of songs with the same title. What became clear to me was that there was a symbolic San Joaquin Valley, and there was an actual one. The two things were often at odds with each other. I remember passing through Riverdale, which was primarily a two or three block stretch of nondescript stucco strip malls and open farm fields, and laughing inside.

Riverdale was famous! This was the ancestral home of Archie and Jughead in the comics. I didn't see any sign of Riverdale high, where Betty and Veronica would have hung out though. Just a TV dealership, and I think a gas station on the corner. The symbolic content of the place (false documents, after all, because comic books don't exist) overwhelmed its actuality for me. Riverdale wasn't the only revelation, there was also Pixley, which I blogged as far back as 2002. Pixley was the home of Petticoat Junction on TV.

Pixley, CA

There was no sign of a railroad track for miles, just a note on the door of the unattended used car lot that payments could be made at the Pixley Cafe next door. There was a playful dissonance to all this. I remember reading somewhere that Paul Henning, creator of Petticoat Junction, Green Acres (coincidentally a suburb of Bakersfield) and The Beverly Hillbillies, had simply looked at a road map and pulled his place names from that. Many of the places in the popular imagination could be found, in their less than symbolic form, scatted across the San Joaquin. The symbol, as Saussure has so assuredly demonstrated, is strictly arbitrary.

This amused me greatly then. It still does now; one of these days I need to do some decent scans/ fresh prints of these images. But, back to Mumford:

Now, the dynamic equilibrium on which all life depends is a difficult one to maintain, and nowhere has this been more true than in the balance between art and technics. Esthetic symbolism for a long time seemed to man either a short-cut to knowledge and power or an adequate substitute. So he applied it, not merely to things that could properly be created or formed by these methods—works of poetry and art, systems of conceptual knowledge like mathematics, or patterns of law and custom—but also to the physical environment and to natural forces: he foolishly invoked art and ritual to bring on rain or to increase human fertility. Without the counterbalancing interests and methods of technics, man might have easily gone mad, in that his symbols might have progressively displaced realities and in the end have produced a blind confusion that might have robbed him of his capacity for physical survival. At some point in his existence man must leave his inner world and return to the outer, must wake up, so to say, and go back to work. [emphasis mine] The tool tended to produce objectivity or matter-of-factness, as my old teacher, Thorstein Veblen, used to call it, and objectivity is a condition for sanity. (50-51)

Thinking about Slim's semi-fictional songs, and the semi-fictional nature of the San Joaquin Valley tended to suggest that the world was filled with facades, and behind these facades there are a lot of ghosts. Mumford's insights are not wholly negative and technophobic, they are strikingly insightful and progressive for their age. I am drawn to Mumford's thinking, which tends to steer across the poles of print culture, photography, and sound reproduction technologies as lightning rods for productive discussion. There are no hard and fast lines between art and techics, between subjectivity and objectivity, and it seems a shame that he is colored as a curmudgeon.

Human history, unfortunately, discloses many symbolic aberrations and hallucinations. Perhaps the fatal course all civilizations have followed so far has been due, not to natural miscarriages, the disastrous effects of famines and floods and diseases, but to accumulating perversions of the symbolic functions. Obsession with money and neglect of productivity. Obsession with the symbols of centralized political power and sovereignty, and neglect of the processes of mutual aid in the small face-to-face community. Obsession with the symbols of religion the neglect of the ideal ends or the daily practices of love and friendship through which these symbols would be given an effective life. (51)

I think this anticipates Habermas's concern with systematically distorted communication and the disjunction between system and lifeworld. The real treat for me is that Mumford faults not the systems, but the deployment of symbols inside them.

In a lot of ways, California was a sustained hallucination that lasted 37 years for me. My means of coping with it was primarily photography.

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OildaleBreckenridge Mountain views

Reflecting on the two photographs I chose from the cloud of images I took when I visited Bakersfield in 2008, my first return after a decade or so, I suppose the only criteria was that both pictures please me. It is tricky to speak of images as "texts" (I do not wish to offer a "reading" of either picture) and yet it is pleasing to locate the studium and punctum, a la Barthes.

On the left, the studium dominates— when I think of the California I knew it is punctuated with parking lots (in this case a Dairy Queen) and palm trees. These are the "facts" which I never really tired of studying, a perverse sort of pleasure in their constancy. On the right, it is the painted cattle guard as a sort of border between the valley and the mountains, what pricks me (punctum) is not an emotional connection with a pretty sunset, but rather an intellectual pleasure in the knowledge (only found outside the frame on a map) that this is a more than symbolic boundary1 between the open ranges of mountains and my fenced valley home suggestive of its properties. In both cases, reducing the images to symbolic content leaves a taste— a remainder from the division— of a place I once called home. The pleasure "for me" is complex and as Barthes suggests "neither subjective nor existential":

If I agree to judge a text according to pleasure, I cannot go on to say: this one is good, that bad. No awards, no "critique," for this always implies a tactical aim, a social usage, and frequently an extenuating image-reservoir. I cannot apportion, imagine that the text is perfectible, ready to enter a play of normative predicates: it is too much of this, not enough of that; the text (the same is true of the singing voice) can wring from me only this judgment, in no way adjectival: that's it! And further still: that's it for me! This "for me" is neither subjective nor existential, but Nietzschean (". . . basically, it is always the same question: What is it for me? . . .").

Roland Barthes, Pleasure of the Text (13)

When I read this passage a couple of days ago I puzzled over his usage of "Nietzschean." It took quite some effort to track down the passage he quotes assuming everyone knows. Asserting that the"what is it for me?" question— in matters of pleasure— is not subjective seems to contradict the definition of subjective. After all isn't all pleasure contingent on the existence of the self? It's easy to accept that pleasure can't be existential (because pleasure cannot exist outside the self). The implication that pleasure can be tactical or strategic (or have any sort of pragmatic dimension) is rightfully discarded, enhancing the connection with aesthetic pleasure. But why isn't pleasure subjective? Perhaps only because of his disclaimer: pleasure in this Barthesian sense has no use and therefore is not a matter of personal benefit/perspective. So the pressure is all the stronger on the for me: to what end, if not a personal utility?

The answer, near as I can tell, is in the passage in Will to Power he quotes so ambiguously and imprecisely:

The answer to the question, "What is that?" is a process of fixing a meaning from a different standpoint. The "essence" the "essential factor," is something which is only seen as a whole in perspective, and which presupposes a basis which is multifarious. Fundamentally, the question is "What is this for me?" (for us, for everything that lives, etc. etc.)

A thing would be defined when all creatures had asked and answered this question, "What is that? concerning it. Supposing that one single creature, with its own relationship and stand in regard to all things were lacking, that thing would remain undefined.

In short: the essence of a thing is really only an opinion concerning that "thing." Or, better still; "it is worth" is actually what is meant by "it is" or "that is."

One may not ask: "Who interprets then? for the act of interpreting itself, as a form of the Will to Power, manifests itself (not as "Being" but as a process, as Becoming) as a passion.

Will to Power

I am certainly not an expert on Nietzsche, and I have many quarrels with most of his interpreters, but it seems to me that most of this is fairly easy to grasp— up to a point. To say that something "is" always entails an opinion and a corresponding value judgment. But the conclusion alludes to (this is a fragmentary and incomplete text) a sort of metaphysical (at least it seems to me) resolution of the problem of missing universal things: universal will. Described here as a passion, it seems to me that what Barthes is summoning in his "Nietzschean sense" is a sort of will to pleasure that exists beyond the existential and the subjective.

Thus, Barthes' parenthetical benefits from the more emphatic/complete substitution from Nietzsche's notes

. . . that's it! And further still: that's it for me! This "for me" is neither subjective nor existential, but Nietzschean [Fundamentally, the question is "What is this for me?" (for us, for everything that lives, etc. etc.)]

So the aesthetic impulse (pleasure) in this case a universalizing one, a conjecture that the pleasure might be something more than personal/subjective feeling. I like this idea a lot; the possibility that taste, in some way, might transcend its social/communicative utility. But this is a big leap. The commentators I have read on Barthes' text emphasize the pleasures of text as a way of escaping the subject position, the possibility of liberation— but no one I have read seems to notice that this path leads through universals.

Universals just aren't Barthesian. The dissonance jars me; I don't have that much problem with universal claims, as long as they are identified as such. This way of circumventing universals is sly: his claim is for universal processes rather than universal values. Nonetheless, following Nietzsche's suggested substitution of "it is worth" for "it is," there is no escape from value judgments and pragmatic utilities. Barthes core claims are at odds with each other.

Who interprets? I think we are doomed to ask that question. 

1Although the lines are an illusory barrier, they are nonetheless a physical presence in the world and not merely a symbol.
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I started thinking about Bakersfield again; I'm not sure why. Some things are best viewed from a distance. I'm trying to find perspective, and consequently I keep thinking about how strange it felt to return there in 2008. There's a weird sort of oscillation, between near and far, between looking at something and yet through something. It's a part of who I am, but at the same time I could be from anywhere. It's just a place, among many places I've been. But it is where I'm from.

Or more accurately, I suppose, where I really grew up was here:

Breckenridge Mountain views

It's more accurate to say that I found perspective by leaving town and looking back from a higher prospect. It's the barrier here that interests me— white lines painted on the pavement. This cattle guard is a red herring at the base of of the climb up Breckenridge Mountain; further up the road, as I recall, there was a real one. One had to be careful navigating a bicycle across that one. The mixture of faux and real grates is the norm. I suppose it's so the cattle won't get wise and realize that they really can leave town if they want to. Or, I suppose you could think of the success of these "virtual" guards as a an intelligence test. Many of my friends growing up suggested that it wasn't really possible for people from Bakersfield to leave. I suppose it depends on how easily fooled you are.

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Rock Out.jpg

A screen capture of this Shure ad has been sitting on my desktop for a year or so now. It bothers me a great deal— historically, I think music has been a way of connecting with the world not blocking it out. But music is also linked to escapism and flight to a sort of internal spiritual realm. The dichotomy doesn't resolve itself neatly. There are a lot of things that I could suggest about this image. For one, music began as a social activity that has been gradually marginalized into privatized spaces, culminating in its domain being simply the distance between your ears. It seems like a rip-off and impoverishment of experience when looked at from that angle.

But in the space between your ears, and more importantly with your eyes closed, there is a sort of purity to it. Metaphorically speaking, it's as if god whispers to you. To block out the world requires closing your eyes. But closing your eyes—returning to the dark side— suggests a form of death. Not an actual death, but deep separation from our social natures. I am reminded of a song by Steve Wynn about the ending of a relationship:

When they bring down the curtain
In an hour and 45 minutes
we can talk about the play
and pretend that we were never in it

flashes lit up the skies
thunder and then surprise
you can close your eyes

when the earth shakes,
opens up and swallow itself
I won't be thinking about anybody else

fury and fire flies
it's too late for compromise
you can close your eyes

words turn to anger,
anger comes to blows
nobody feels the hit but everybody knows

when nothing can tantalize
it's gonna take a new set of lies
you can close your eyes

Close Your Eyes, from Dazzling Display

The complexity is rewarding. Part of what I read into this is a sort of necessary blindness in the name of moving forward, in the name of getting to the next sort of fiction you have to believe to be safe within a social relationship: "a new set of lies." The implication is not that closing your eyes grants purity, but rather simply that it shuts out the previous deception. The headphone listener closes their eyes— a different sort of deception, a different relationship with music.

The title track, and indeed the entire LP Dazzling Display nestles in the shadow of its cultural preconditions: the first Gulf War. Many of the songs reflect the shallowness of a television war, with all it's deceptions and facades. But it seems fallacious to suggest that if we close our eyes to outside stimuli and "block out the world" that the messages we receive will have greater purity, particularly if what concerns us is this world rather than the next. It is a conundrum. Music is a communicative phenomenon that unfolds in space and time, not outside it— just like relationships and wars. Both require massive leaps of faith— suspensions of disbelief, or at the very least, cynicism. Nonetheless, we are easily deceived. Try this video for example:


Even when you know the trick involved, you still can't help but be deceived. Unless you close your eyes. But live musical events are seldom experienced with eyes closed. Deception is a core feature of the aesthetic experience. If we knew precisely what the experience was, it would lose its attractiveness.

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