Finished the second one, now what I need to do is order the second couch.
The maple end tables turned out okay, I'm not particularly proud of them though I suspect that most people other than me won't see the mistakes. Actually, you'd need an x-ray to see the heinous ones. I tuned up a couple of new planes (cheap jointer and jack planes1) and tested them out on a nice piece of butternut. I think I'll try something out of it next, a bathroom cabinet I think. I've never worked with butternut before. In fact, I'd never even heard of it until I moved to this part of the country. I can't stop thinking about the influence of material (i.e. material cause) and keep feeling the pull of hand tools over screaming machines. It's just more, well, peaceful. Hand planes don't upset the cat nearly as much as my planer.
1I really don't understand why people on the internet love to slam these cheap Groz planes. The nearest alternative is around 4 or 5 times the price. If you sharpen and tune it up (which does take some time) they work fine. I started with a #4 from them, and recently upgraded the iron in it (the stock one really does dull quickly). I figure I'll do the same with the other new ones. I have some small Veritas planes that are obviously much better, but I really didn't want to shell out that much on planes simply used to true lumber. Flat is flat; getting there doesn't have to be elegant.
A week or so ago I was driving in the North Country, taking photographs, and listening to an NGA podcast interview/lecture with Mel Bochner on the occasion of his exhibit of Theory of Boundaries. Listening to him, I found myself much more interested in installation art than I have been in a long time. I really was taken by his candor regarding the commodification of art, and the role of installation in bucking that trend. However, looking back from the present day of course, he rightly observes that anything including a momentary installation can be commodified. It was really naive to think otherwise. "Theory of Boundaries" is a set of language fractions (prepositions), presented on raw pigment (chalk, originally carpenter's chalk used for chalk lines). I confess that I hadn't heard of him, though I have known and loved the work of his contemporaries like Ed Ruscha. Bochner's language works seem really seminal in retrospect, and his recent collaboration with a landscape architect, Kraus Campo, fascinates me.1
With that in mind, it seemed reasonable to take a walk (a long one, though) from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh to The Mattress Factory. Krista was a bit in pain when we got there, and we walked (thanks to google) into some fairly questionable alleys complete with beat cops keeping an eye on lost tourists, so perhaps we were a bit less receptive than we should have been. Mostly, the installations there seemed pointless and silly. Jerstin Crosby's piece, in particular, elicited one viewer who happened to be there with us to exclaim: "I could do this!" My question would be: why would anyone want to? Free association has never really been all that interesting to me. I picked up the magic 8 ball, sitting on the piece of plywood that set the "table" for the tableau, and it said "I cannot answer at this time" (or something to that effect). Compared to installations I've seen at the Walker or at MOCA this place just seemed lame and pointless.
I've been wandering around a lot more lately, trying to figure out just what I want to do. Mostly, I'm enjoying making things but I've been contemplating a return to photography as well. I can't really figure out exactly what is up. All I know is that I feel downright energized by the visit to the Warhol museum, and by the Low concert, in a way that I haven't in a long time. The Mattress Factory was a relatively minor hiccup in an overwhelmingly interesting visit to a new place. I look forward to going back sometime in the near future, but the next trip on the books is to Tennessee. There's so much more to say about Pittsburgh and what I'm thinking about in general but I'm feeling a bit tongue tied. This often happens when I'm thinking about visual things. The visual and verbal always seem to clash in me. I can do either, just not at the same time.
This isn't the case with music, thank god. It seems to blend with just about anything. I listened this to a Michael Nesmith (yeah, hey hey he was a Monkey) album called "The Prison" this morning. I like it enough that I just located a vinyl copy to explore further; apparently it's written as the auditory "background piece" to a piece of writing included in the album's booklet. I can't wait to try the full experience. But the primary trigger for me was on the second cut, "Dance Between the Raindrops":
"Dance between the raindrops,"
Were the last words that he said
As I tumbled head long into the storm.
So rising to the challenge
I wrestled with the door
Using what I thought was my good arm.
But there is no way in
To where you already are.
There is no way out
No satisfaction can come
To that which is fulfilled,
And all the lies will fall away
With the cares.
Leave the door closed loosely
So the messenger will know
That it's all right to just walk in.
This fear that you've been feeling
Has no substance of its own
And though the battle rages fiercely, you will win.
For there is no way in
To where you already are.
There is no way out
No satisfaction can come
To that which is fulfilled,
And all the lies fall away
With the cares.
Michael Nesmith, "Dance Between The Raindrops," The Prison (1994)
It's all about the prepositions, the boundaries I guess. There is no way in to where you are; there is no way out of everywhere.
Watching Low practice a craft that, at least for me, gives feelings substance and weight moved me deeply. I had forgotten what that was like. I had hoped to find moving spaces to occupy in Pittsburgh, but in the end I think the most valuable one was the "skull room" in the Warhol museum where mortality surrounds you, though the Warhol/Basquiat Last Supper was pretty awesome too. A great trip, really.
1Though it must be noted that public reaction appears to be mixed. I was unaware of this artwork when I was in Pittsburgh, but I'll definitely seek it out next time I'm there. I must say that the Strip alone begs another visit.
The last time fuel prices were headed this high I was touring California. I grew up there; hadn't been back in fifteen years or so. The Taft/Maricopa area is always a good benchmark for change. Things hadn't changed much. Skateboards at the Jolly Kone. Flickr user Richard Harrison has provided a welcome update:
I came wandering through here last fall and the kids had advanced to using scooters around the Jolly Kone. Not much has changed in the last couple of years.
I was listening to the Complete Funhouse Sessions this morning, not-so-suddenly during take 28 of "Loose" a huge lightbulb went off. I don't think it's a matter of technology making us incapable of sustained attention, it's more a matter of a decline in the popular understanding of the rewards of attention. Attention to detail matters. The Stooges relentless drive to getting all the elements/feelings of the song exactly right was incredible on that album. Each version has subtle and not so subtle differences, and somewhere around take 22 the engineer starts joking about releasing an entire album of versions of that song. The sense that the song was worth the effort never fades, for the band at least, and on take 28 real magic happens. Some might think that such relentless drive for perfection might be unhealthy. I think it's an example of the rewards of attention.
Is digital the cause of music's doldrums, or has it been the insatiable drive for technical perfection that has sapped music's spirit?1 No one can say for sure, but it's a fact that music's function has morphed so slowly from foreground to background listening that most people haven't noticed it happening. One thing is certain: Recorded music doesn't engage listeners the way it did in the analog days. Music now serves as a backdrop as people talk, read, drive, work, exercise, etc. Foreground listening is what audiophiles do— but other than us, very few people really listen to music anymore, even while attending live concerts. If recorded music isn't worth your undivided attention, it's not worth paying for.
Steve Guttenberg, "As We See It" Stereophile May 2011
Insatiable drive is what makes Funhouse an incredibly spiritual album, in my estimation. I think Guttenberg gets it wrong when he claims that only audiophiles pay attention to music. Ahem, musicians do too. And they keep making music. We kicked off our trip to Atlanta a few weeks ago by standing in a crowded club in Ithaca, NY to watch the Mountain Goats perform. Yes, it was noisy and sometimes impossible to hear the comments between songs. But that's a perennial problem— concerts sometimes foreground the social nature of the gathering rather than music. Just add alcohol, and people even try to invalidate the laws of physics— a woman with a full drink tried to plow past me directly into our leaning-table, spilling it over our coats (and my new Mountain Goats LP purchased at the merch stand). Does this mean music is dead? Far from it. A good portion of the crowd was downright passionate about their favorites as the came vibrating into the room.
I'm not claiming that digital has or will destroy music— just what's left of the record business. Musicians will continue to play music, and concerts won't disappear, but income from recorded music will continue to decline. Obviously we can't turn back the clock and return to the analog era. I'm just not sure what it would take to get people listening again.
After we got back from Atlanta, record store day rolled around. I usually don't pay much attention, but there were a couple of releases I was interested in. Rain was forecast that afternoon, so we went to the farmer's market early and ran out of things to waste time on and ended up on the doorstep of Sound Garden records a half-hour before they opened. The line was at least 40 feet long, and before they opened it probably reached 100 feet. Why were all these people standing in drizzle I wondered. Concert tickets? CD's? When the doors opened I got my answer. The LP section of the store soon turned into a mosh-pit with people clutching at rare limited edition singles and LPs. Manufactured scarcity still works, apparently. No one really talked about which of the myriad special releases they were there for. It wasn't any sort of unified phenomena, really. Just the coalescence of a wide variety of niche markets, I suspect. Krista and I split up and worked our way down both sides of the river of people, collecting more than a few LPs. Unfortunately, they didn't have the Low release I was looking for. We had to contact a friend in Minneapolis who scored it for us there.
There's still a lot of passion out there both for and in music, I suspect. It's just in a different form now. Curiously, old school analog technology is falling into the hands of the niche musicians/collectors. I notice that the digital downloads that come with vinyl are generally handled by only a couple of jobbers/pressing plants. Nice. Distribution without the record company hype (though they are of course building up mailing lists every time you raise your freak flag high). Seems to me that "income from recorded music," though it is no longer in the hands of the platinum selling boy bands, is alive and well for more than a few folks. Major labels can now officially suck it.
Listening to a BBC Front Row podcast the other day, Elvis Costello commented about his album National Ransom that he didn't care how people wanted to hear it, just as long as they did. He continues to make the vinyl version available, complete with libretto, for those who like to sit and listen and hold a record album in hand. I think that's how I tend to divide it up. There are things that I listen to in the form of digital files that I have little or no investment in. But if I like something, I tend to have it in multiple forms so that I can appreciate it more. In that regard, I think we'll never really surrender the beauty and comfort possible in physical objects.
People are still listening, I suspect. It's just that the media/record companies just haven't been paying attention to how they listen, and how they get to the place where they really want to listen. Which brings me back to Iggy.2
In the early days of rock (particularly with the Who et.al.) music got louder and louder in an attempt to force people to listen. The Stooges represent a sort of peak in the technological sound, I think— but there's was the blue colar technology of the manufacturing plant with crashing metal machines, a far cry from what "industrial" eventually came to signify in music. The band that I'm leaving tomorrow to see at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Low, takes a decidedly different approach. Apocryphally, they are famous for turning down to force the audience to listen more closely. Different strategies, but the same ends in mind I think. It's hard to communicate effectively with people who aren't paying any attention.
1 In fairness to Guttenberg, I'm sure his comment is a more direct gesture at the rise of Pro Tools and the slicing and dicing of performances to gain technical perfection at the expense of soul.
Just off the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, creator unknown.
Driving through the north country on highway 3 yesterday, I was listening to a National Gallery Notable Lecture by Richard Brettell about The Hill by James Magee. Like most people, I suspect, I had never heard of this particular artwork. I've become increasingly interested in installation/land art, and as I listened to the podcast I became increasingly aware that this particular work is the complete antithesis of everything I think of as "art." It is exclusive, impenetrable, and generally thought to promote a sort of bourgeois "profundity" that just grates on me like fingernails on a chalk board. It came as no surprise that Magee once worked in "abject art" and that most of his work in that vein has not survived; in the words of the lecturer, "that's probably a good thing." The Hill, according to accounts, is incredibly important (to some, at least).
The Hill isn’t a repository for interpersonal relationships or emotional responses. It may generate them, but it doesn’t exhibit those of its creator. The Hill is nothing if not the product of great passion, but the erosive effects of time, intellect and the desert make for passion distilled rather than passion paraded. In my mind I complete this process. I see the complex as I never saw it in person — as it hopefully will never be until a very long time from now: stripped of people, the doors ajar, shadows slowly circling the structures like rearguard troops left behind after the war, when everyone else has gone home. The installations house colonies of insects and animals who come and go uninterrupted on the beautiful stone causeways, unconcerned about whose God made their home.
What really bothered me about Brettell's discussion of this work is his claim that it is mostly earth-shatteringly important when you experience it in a very small group (clique?) with the artist whispering his poems (titles) in your ear from behind. If experienced in a large group (as was Pamela Petro's experience) it is vastly diminished. All signs point to the commanding personality of Magee, the one thing that will not survive, as the truly singular aspect of this work. For me, I find it sad that there are clearly intelligences at work in the most mundane of landscapes that will not be preserved by 501C3 foundations like The Hill. Eventually, they just rot, with colonies of animals and insects wandering through.
I've been thinking about two major issues in my return to photography lately. First, that vision is selective and what we see represents only a small slice of the experience of being there. When one plane is in focus, another falls away. The mythos of the f64 group has loomed large for me, and for the first time in my life I am beginning to reject the illusion of perfect detail in photographs. Too much information is confusing, impeding the worth of many tableaus. I have never warmed to "fuzzy" arty photographs, or carefully manipulated planes of focus (a la "lensbaby" or large format swings and tilts) that distort the reality of a scene, but I have always liked the less predictable imperfections of less-than perfect hardware/optics (toy cameras and such). I suppose the best way of putting it is that I've come to accept that technology can never be perfect.
I remember fondly shooting with an old Leica IIIg with a 28mm lens with a front element the size of a pencil eraser. It had an incredibly sharp hot spot in the center and delicious softness on the edges. Now I find that my main lens for many years (a Nikon 35mm f2) has some of the same qualities if I shoot with it wide open. I like it even more now; I never noticed its flaws on regular 35mm film, but the D-700s sensor makes them apparent. I think that continuing to use it implies an acceptance that no vision is perfect. My second issue is a longer-standing obsession with the traces left by people on landscape.
When I told Krista about the complex depicted in the last two photographs (above and here) she exclaimed "there has got to be a story behind that!" The photographs only hint at the nature of this complex (for sale, by the way) in Rural Hill, New York. There are at least three decaying boats, one old pick-up, two collapsed barns, one travel trailer, a riding lawnmower, and the shell of a house just off highway 3. Someone left this behind; no doubt they had reasons. I find it just as compelling (and certainly more accessible) than Jim Magee's hill.
Like Richard Brettell's experiences of The Hill, I feel transformed by the experience of being in this site and would like to go back once I've had time to process my thoughts a little better. I found it overwhelming; it was such a curious aggregation of things near the middle of nowhere. The voices in this place were merely in my own head; there was no poet standing behind me whispering non sequiturs in my ear.
I'm not really interested in decay or ruin. There's been far too much ink spilled on that subject, I think. What I am interested in, however, is what Pamela Petro called "great passion." What sort of person collects so many wrecks? I noticed that a lot of people up in the north country collect wrecks, especially wrecked SUV's. They are as ubiquitous as old Camaros and Trans Am's up on blocks in the South. The U.S. is obsessed by vehicles, of course, and I think that once they've been left behind they become more interesting as "the erosive effects of time, intellect and the desert make for passion distilled rather than passion paraded." At least, that's what I'm thinking about now.
I can't help it. I like to ferret out sources/origins/facts about things. I suppose my favorite part of "scholarship" is the chase, the search for the evidence that might support/refute a concept that has popped into my head. One of my first mentors, R. Paul Yoder, told me that he always wanted to teach an introduction to literature class (core for English majors) built around Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes novels: sort of a frame tale where one read detective stories to become a better literary critic/detective. Laurie Anderson's claim that in detective stories, the hero is already dead in the beginning and human nature is thereby avoided seems counter-intuitive. It can be argued both ways. (How rhetorical!).
I think it's easy to make the case that mid-century detectives (Marlowe et.al.) are antiheroes, and the victim (and resultant lust for "justice" in the reader) are indeed the heroes of the tales. The gradual accumulation/revelation of facts is the motive force: human nature, if it intrudes at all, is historical rather than of current importance. This is particularly the case in the CSI-style crime drama, where "science" solves crimes by the incessant (and infallible) revelation of data/facts. It was strange to read the (disputed) Wikipedia page that claims that late-century detective stories are driven by human nature in a way that the early/mid century versions are not (conveniently post-1984, after Laurie Anderson's observation). The danger of such a claim is that it reeks of a sort of progressivism or evolutionary perspective that usually turns out to be wishful thinking. On the other hand, I find nothing wrong with such a claim when accompanied with evidence— moving it into the realm of historicism.
Of course, I digress. How I got here was a tantalizing moment in Assouline's HCB biography. He describes Cartier-Bresson at 19 as "a man of principle — but not the same principles as everyone else's" (23) who failed his baccalaureate exams three times, each time progressively worse, because of poor writing and disinterest in the curriculum. This thwarted his family's plan for him to join the family business (of thread manufacturing!). Cartier-Bresson preferred contemporary writers, reading them constantly rather than his "proper" studies. His family tried to discourage his literary obsession, but:
It was all in vain, for nothing could keep young Henri from his reading. Family mealtimes were often tense. His father would repeatedly tell him that he must learn to control his impulsive nature, but such reprimands fell on deaf ears. Henri's instinct always got the better of him, and this was taken for insolence. One day at the table he could no longer contain himself, and dryly responded to his grandfather's criticism by quoting Hippolyte Taine: 'One doesn't ripen, one merely rots away in places.'
The white moustache of the patriarch quivered with rage, but his only reply was to summon the bewhiskered butler: 'Would you please take Monsieur Henri out of here.'
Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 24
As I find myself in a particularly reflective mood lately, I immediately loved that quote from Hippolyte Taine. I have found myself rotting away in places from time to time. Things that I once knew so solidly slip away. Just who wass Taine and where does this quote come from, I wondered. I never found it, but I found other tantalizing bits reading through some of his books. Turns out Taine was the father of literary historicism. What a delicious contradiction.
Here for the first time appears a superiority of intellect, which at the instant of conception suddenly halts, rises above itself, passes judgment, and says to itself, 'This phrase tells the same thing as the last—remove it; these two ideas are disjointed—bind them together; this description is feeble—reconsider it.' When a man can speak thus he has an idea, not learned in the schools, but personal and practical, of the human mind, its process and needs, and of things also, their composition and combinations; he has a style, that is, he is capable of making everything understood and seen by the human mind. He can extract from every object, landscape, situation, character, the special and significant marks, so as to group and arrange them, to compose an artificial work which surpasses the natural work in its purity and completeness. He is capable, as Chaucer was, of seeking out in the old common forest of the middle-ages, stories and legends, to replant them in his own soil, and make them send out new shoots. (130)
. . .
In love and satire he has experience, and he invents; in what regards morality and philosophy he has learning, and remembers. For an instant, by a solitary leap, he entered upon the close observation and the genuine study of man; he could not keep his ground, he did not take his seat, he took a poetic excursion; and no one followed him. The level of the century is lower; he is on it himself for the most part. He is in the company ol narrators like Froissart, of elegant speakers like Charles of Orleans, of gossipy and barren verse-writers like Gower, Lydgate, and Occleve. There is no fruit, but frail and fleeting blossom, many useless branches, still more dying or dead branches; such is this literature. And why? Because it had no longer a root; after three centuries of effort, a heavy instrument cut it underground. This instrument was the Scholastic Philosophy.
Beneath every literature there is a philosophy. Beneath every work of art is an idea of nature and of life; this idea leads the poet. Whether the author knows it or not, he writes in order to exhibit it; and the characters which he fashions, like the events which he arranges, only serve to bring to light the dim creative conception which raises and combines them. (132)
So, after all this I began to wonder about the effect of "postmodern" (as if that were a coherent concept) philosophy upon literature. It would tend to explain Laurie Anderson's conception that the human nature is superflous in modern genres such as the detective story or science fiction. It would also, in my mind, have a certain explanatory power regarding pervasive images of the detective.
The twentieth century (according to Kenneth Burke, at least) is ruled by the trope of irony and the emergence of detective-as-antihero seems to fit that. We aren't meant to admire/emulate the hard-boiled detective as a chivalrous figure. Our admiration is ironic. And moreover, if we take lessons from deconstruction the best course of action in most cases is to look not for the human narrative, but for the contradictions inherent in them.
The benchmark figure, then, is not Holmes but Columbo. There's always that one thing that's bothering him. These contradictions among apparently established facts then frame the narrative's resolution. We find the answer when we figure out why stories are not perfect. How very postmodern. Nonetheless, posthumanism seems yet a different project.
The detective novel is the only novel truly invented in the twentieth century. In the detective novel, the hero is dead at the very beginning. So you don’t have to deal with human nature at all. Only the slow accumulation of facts ... of data ...
In science fiction, the hero just flies in at the very beginning. He can bend steel with his bare hands. He can walk in zero gravity. He can see right through lead doors. But no one asks how he is able to do these things. They just say, “Look! He’s walking in zero gravity.” So you don’t have to deal with human nature at all.
When TV signals are sent out, they don’t stop. They keep going. They pick up speed as they leave the solar system. By now, the first TV programs ever made have been traveling for thirty years. They are well beyond our solar system now. All those characters from cowboy serials, variety hours and quiz shows are sailing out. They are the first true voyagers into deep space. And they sail farther and farther our, intact, still talking.
And as we listen with our instruments, as we learn to listen farther and farther into space, we can hear them. We listen farther and that is all we hear. They are jamming our lines. We listen and we hear them talking, traveling, going faster and faster ... getting fainter and fainter. And as our instruments become more sophisticated, we can hear them better .... speeding away ... the sound of speeding away ... like a phone continuously ringing.
We do not know what the past preserves for us. There are some things that only the man himself knew about his life, and there are certain truths that will forever lie beyond the scope of documents and accounts. That is a good thing, because if everything could be reduced to its logical end there would be no mystery left. Facts that are strung together like pearls are made to fit a rigid pattern at the expense of all poetry, and therefore give a false picture. What is the use of knowing everything if you exclude the unknowable? It often happens that in our understanding of a work of art, it is the indescribable that lifts it beyond the scope of the most convincing analysis. Thus the effect comes from what the image does not reveal, the unseen world implicit in the photograph. Such is the vision of an observer like Cartier-Bresson, who was interested less in the pearls than in the string holding them together. The truth is found not in a comprehensive assortment of facts, but in the spaces in between.
Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 11
The last couple of semesters I taught writing, I began with a basic assignment: introduce the person sitting next to you to the class. I graded this seriously, and aggressively. I told them up front that I was not looking for an inventory of facts, but rather something that would give some idea of who the person next to them was. Few took it seriously; most responses were rote and the reaction the resultant grade was always shock. "I don't understand what you want!" was the usual protest. Students usually expect (and some claim that they deserve) clearly bounded assignments with well defined criteria for grades. I don't agree. Life just isn't like that. We don't live in a fill-in-the-blanks world, or at least I wouldn't want to live in one if it existed. Why should school be clear-cut? If instructors make it that way, they reinforce the delusion that life is fair and you always get what you deserve. Not helpful, in my estimation. Encouraging people to take things seriously and deal with ambiguity is what I think teaching is all about.
The look on these same students faces when I pressed them into reading James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men the following week, and more than that to actually try to make sense of it, was similarly confused. The presence of the images by Walker Evans seemed at first to make constructing an image of tenant families easier, but if you confront Agee's text you are seized by the discrepancies between the black-and-white reality of the images and the poetic descriptions in the prose. Moving from there through Bourke-White and Caldwell's collaboration, You Have Seen Their Faces and Lange and Taylor's An American Exodus the brightest in the class would begin to spot the string— I wasn't trying to give them a history lesson about the depression, but rather to deal with the problem of representing the lives of others. My first assignment wasn't a rote "introduction" at all, but rather a direct confrontation with the problems of representation.
Of course I supplemented the primary readings with critical articles about them, particularly the po-mo critique of documentary. I also used documentary films (mostly contemporary) to drive home the fact that switching to multi-modal approaches does not negate the fundamental problems of scarcity and bias in the ways we slice up the world. The average college freshman, in my opinion, is capable of assimilating these issues into simple activities of information gathering and deciding who to trust when gather evidence to build their own cases. Each of the primary sources I used targeted the same problems of poverty and dislocation in 1930s America.1 Almost universally, students tended to trust the photographic interpretations more than the textual accounts— seeing is believing after all. When pressed though, they learn to see each of these sources as rhetorically savvy responses targeted at specific audiences.2
But I think the Assouline quote really cuts to the heart of the matter: noticing the string is the real skill. The mystery implicit in the photograph escapes most viewers who simply glance at them as "evidence" expecting transparency. Fill-in-the-blanks culture makes us all hunters and gatherers of facts; college reinforces this as the necessary skills for survival include critical reporting of booty via essays. Spinning a web of associations, or cultivating and nurturing a vine of connections is a different matter not so easily taught, but essential in the development of higher (perhaps fundamentally agrarian!) culture. I cannot see pastiche/remix culture as a new height; decrying the loss of shiny baubles to string ignores the core of creativity itself. Without the string, things fall apart.
The central problem, for me at least, is: how can we communicate something meaningful about people and worlds outside ourselves? Photographs are at once a problem and a solution.
1If I had more time I might even throw in Sherwood Anderson's Puzzled America for a more mono-modal approach. Or, there is Anderson's Home Town edited and designed as a photo-text by Edwin Rosskam, or any of Rosskams other efforts including 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright, for a later (1941) glimpse of social problems.— that's another lost gem from the era.
2Let Us Now Praise Famous Men reached almost no one at the time of publication; it's impacted audience was a generation of artists/activists in the 1960s. You Have Seen Their Faces' audience was the Life magazine bourgeois public and beyond. A tremendous popular favorite denied the scholarly attention it really deserves. Bartholome's anthology that I used for excerpts from several of these texts fails to include it because Caldwell's writing is too lowbrow to teach composition from, I suspect. The book spread round the world; my first edition comes from Ireland. Bourke-White mentions signing a copy in South Africa in her autobiography. An American Exodus, though it remains popular for its lyrical Lange photographs, was written by an economist and it sounds like it. It perhaps had more impact on government relief efforts than most of these titles. The take away for composition students: audience, audience, audience.
The Center of the World (according to the Cherokee tribe, at least). My center is stage left.
For the first time in a long time, I find myself with a bit of an urge to write. It's been a strange few years, and looking at it now from a distance I think part of the problem is that I've just been too happy. My imaginary audience for the most part would be bored stiff by a person signing on each day to say how great life is. Don't you just hate those people? It seems more pertinent to relate times filled with complexity and mixed feelings, because those are closer to the center of reality. In actuality though, I suspect that most who know me would be glad to hear that I'm doing well. But I just can't think of that revelation as interesting.
It is much easier to write about traumatic experiences or to scribe angry polemics that you just have to get off your chest. I've spend a lot of time avoiding the latter, at least until yesterday. And as for trauma, well, historically it seems as if there is an eternal spring of those that bubble up. What stopped me from going there, in the beginning at least, is the thought that I might hurt someone who was there during the endless procession of tragic people moving in and out of my life— or worse still, get it wrong and need to be corrected. Now, it seems that almost everyone I have ever known is dead. No, I'm not that old. It's just that most of my true friends lived that hard. You have to be a real overachiever to die when you are in your 20s or 30s.
The hurt of losing them (and the hurt of knowing them) was a key engine for creativity for me for many years. It didn't manifest directly as being about them, but more a desire and drive to do something of some significance. The death of my mother a few years ago changed that profoundly. She was the first person I've ever known who actually died at almost the right time. By that I mean, she left no unfinished business and her life had been full and rewarding until that point. But I have to add the "almost" because she did suffer from dementia for 18 months or so before the end. It was cruel because it was not self-inflicted, but no nearly so bad as living through various chronic diseases that afflicted both my older brother and other friends. They spent a lot of time in pain; she didn't.
But as my mother lost her mind, I began to realize that ultimately nothing matters as much as I thought it did. Success doesn't matter. Legacies really don't matter. Money doesn't matter. Being kind to people is the only thing that matters— for me, at least. It's the little kindnesses that make the world bearable. It's those kindnesses that I remember most, when I think of all the people who are gone. It's easy to subscribe to kindess as an abstract thing, I mean just who isn't in favor of being kind? But kindness is also things like cleaning fecal matter out of a rug. It's also continuing to talk to and visit someone long after they are recognizable as the person you knew. That sort of kindness is hard— hard and concrete.
I've lost most of my patience with the abstract these days. Talking about concepts like "coherence" and "identity" seems downright frivolous and trivial. What matters more to me is what we can touch, and what we can see. More and more I realize just how small and narrow that subset of things is. What we can imagine is vast; what we can actually experience is narrow and tiny. Recalling those years studying Blake, it's just Songs of Innocence and Experience, I suppose. For decades, I was enraptured by innocence. Now, finally, I find myself wanting to more directly confront experience.
I guess I always pictured myself as spending most of my time reading poetry/prose or making photographs when I found the freedom to do it. Instead, I find myself wanting to build tables and cabinets and feel their presence in a room. It's an odd adjustment, to be sure. A key adjustment is locating some sort of imaginary audience in my head that actually cares about such things.
I was horribly disappointed by the Atlanta aquarium and it took me a long time to figure out why. There are many animals there that you don't usually see, particularly whale sharks and beluga whales. They do a big business with their dolphin show, but after watching The Cove I wasn't really interested in helping to fund that. I rode the long escalator to watch the two token dolphins swimming circles and walked away really sad.
The vibe of the place was just different from any other aquarium I have visited. Forking over my $28 and passing through an airport-style security gauntlet, rewards you with a view of huge banners for corporate sponsors. Where most aquariums have tanks, Atlanta places video screens with virtual footage of fish. Not many plants or corals, just fish. There was little hint of interdependent ecosystems except to point out how necessary and rewarding man's (read corporate) interventions into wild habitats are. It was like stepping into an Exxon commercial. It was paid corporate propaganda of the sleaziest sort, and the spectators were asked to pay just as much as the sponsors. I refused to pay $16 to visit the Coke museum across the street.
No thanks. The whole experience just seemed fishy (and not in a good way). Unlike Monterey, or even the Duluth Great Lakes aquarium that promote the preservation of unique and diverse environments, the Georgia Aquarium sells you the "great mammal' view of history. The otter, for instance, is trumpeted as "the protector of the kelp forest" while man helps contribute to longer whale lifespans by trapping them and putting them in big glass tanks emblazoned with advertising. I felt like I needed a shower afterward and deserved a tip. Instead, tourists are encouraged to pay for the privilege of being told how important big mammals are.
I've long been resistant to profound declarations about ceasing/rededicating blogging activities. I've tended to just let this thing go in fits and jerks. It just doesn't make much sense to me to talk about issues like "sustainability" anymore. I foolishly tried to raise that issue at the 4Cs conference in 2004 in the "blogging" special interest group, and no one really seemed to care.
It seemed to me then that the "models" for academic blogging available circa 2004 didn't have much of a chance of continuing. By that, I mean that it seemed unlikely that institutions would embrace casual blog writing as evidence of scholarly worth (the dream at the time). It also seemed to me that the usage of blogs as "social capital" or networking tools was doomed because who really wants to read a stream of constant advertisement and self-promotion? What I didn't anticipate was the sponsorship of linking/blogging/networking activities by clearly commercial concerns (social media, publishers and journals such as The Chronicle of Higher Education). No matter. It seems that when you try to define social phenomena they are already "over." It happened with blogging, and then podcasting, and soon it will probably happen with twittering as well. Most of the people I talked to in 2004 were already beginning to think along those lines, scanning the horizon for the next new thing.
The real take away for me in retrospect is that searching for "what's new" is the cornerstone of unsustainable activity. Someone in the profession remarked that people in rhet/comp discuss the same "problems" for decades of conferences. Seems to me that we've been doing that for more than a hundred years, actually. Such pursuits are deliciously sustainable. Does that mean that such problems are unsolvable? I think it's more likely that they are insoluble— they just don't ever dissolve and go away. That's why they are of recurrent interest as pressure points. Jumping tracks back to the problems of blogging, it seems to me that the long tradition of carefully reasoned blogging "sign-offs" is more interesting as a symptom of the difficulties of sustaining writing rather than evidence of the impoverishment of blogging as a social activity. Sustain neither desires nor requires novelty. But the question remains: why have so many of my electronic friends signed off?
Talking to one of the blogging "pioneers" at Cs (who wasn't among the group from 2004 previously mentioned) he supposed that the main reason why he blogged less that he was investing most of his energy in other writing projects. That makes sense; most of my blogging friends are, after all, writers— and no writer wants to write in the same form forever. There are more productive ways to spend words than scribbling moderate-length missives. Most of the really active bloggers have rechanneled their electronic writing energy into short-form tweeting or facebooking. Most still blog, just not as much. It takes a lot of energy to write fiction or scholarship, and any longer form ideas are better worked out there. But in my case, I think it's something more fundamental.
I started reading Pierre Assoluline's introduction to his biography of Henri Cartier-Bresson today (picked up from the wonderful show of his work at the High Museum in Atlanta) and he talks about the problem of disclosure. Describing his first interview with HCB, Assouline says:
At the moment of our parting I was moved by something difficult to describe; I felt frustrated by his reticence when it came to discussing the war. At the risk of offending his modesty, I questioned him again about his years of captivity in Germany, the overcrowded conditions, the failed escapes. He seemed lost in thought for a while, his gaze focused somewhere distant, and then began to talk again. The further he went on the more convinced I became that intimate confidences are most easily addressed to complete strangers. He himself told me that one day in a Parisian taxi he had unveiled to the driver secrets that he had never confided in anyone before, so certain that he would never see this man again
When he recalled the names of the comrades who had been denounced, tortured and shot, his voice choked. And when he murmured their first names, he turned his head away unable to keep back the tears.
I suspect that what has passed in this type of writing is an age of innocence where you never felt the suspicion that you would meet those voices in the dark. After around a decade of doing it now, I have met more than a few of those voices. It becomes much harder to search deeper for those passionate things that once came so easy. And it was those things, revealed perhaps purely because of naivete, that made blogging (as a form of writing) most interesting. It's hard to continue to write, and even harder to reveal secrets, when you have a clearer conception of just who is reading you.
Perhaps that's the reason for the goodbye notes that shut the door on so many blogging friends: when you've been caught in an embarrassment, or a truth, one feels the need to apologize before walking away.
1 I did not attend the 4Cs conference this year, though I was there in Atlanta when it was going on. I have stepped outside the profession to catch my breath.