June 2012 Archives


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

Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.11-12 George Kennedy trans

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

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

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

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

Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.12-13 George Kennedy trans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ve been trying to figure out why writing has become so difficult for me. I used to really enjoy it. Writing provided an outlet for observations that would otherwise fade too quickly from my consciousness, and although those observations were not necessarily of much importance to anyone else, I found them amusing most of the time. I liked writing in public because it suggested some measure of responsibility to the act- it’s best to strive for a degree of accuracy or at least fairness when others might be reading. But it has some drawbacks: leaving yourself naked and vulnerable, subject to judgement by friends and strangers for what are often momentary thoughts and impulses.

When I was an active researcher, I liked writing online because there are just so many interesting cul-de-sacs that aren’t developed enough for a full treatment, but simply beg to be blogged rather than lost. These often have a personal resonance that would be out of place in a professional or academic context. For “scholarly” purposes, I really think that this sort of context is best stripped away. I hate it when academics waste time telling you about their personal baggage- if I wanted that sort of information, I’d read their blogs. Research is fun and most people like fun stories, which is why I think they sometimes include them, but when reading/listening to papers it uses up time and brain space that would be better used for more relevant information.

My paralysis in the area of academic writing is fairly easy for me to comprehend. Insecurity, in a word, about any possible relevance of my research to a subject field focused on symbolic inducements. I found myself spending more time reading about the niches carved by such labels as “Composition,” “Writing Studies,” “Communication Studies”, “Journalism,” etc.. Each one has some degree of interest to me, particularly in the way they all deploy “rhetoric” as a descriptor of what they study. There has been a lot of progress in deforming the boundaries between symbolic/non-symbolic inducements- “material rhetorics,” “post-humanism” and whatnot. Visual rhetoric, to me, still seems mostly caught in the ditch of the symbolic. To stay interested in it, I broadened the net of my reading so wide that I slipped through the disciplinary weave. I no longer have any idea of who I would write for if I actually managed to write something relevant. This isn’t to say that I plan to stop writing or researching, it’s just admitting that I have had a crisis of confidence that has lasted years now. Paralysis, I think, is the best way to describe it.

Paralysis is also a good word to describe my inability to blog. But the lack of blogging has nothing to do with insecurity or a lack of confidence, and nothing to do with an ill-defined conception of audience. Quite the contrary, it is primarily a hypersensitivity to audience and a fear of appearing too confident or smug to people I care about. The last straw, I think, was when a famous writer misread something I posted (months before) and launched a vile ad hominem attack from his professional site. He repeated this performance of nauseating bile, directed at other people who participate in this wonderful agora shortly afterward. When otherwise smart people just fail to “get” the internet it gives me pause. Is there any chance of just sharing your thoughts publicly without being made the butt of jokes, threatened with legal action, or worse still- sympathized with to an inch of your life? Yes, nothing quite equals the experience of emails from well-wishers that want to stop you from killing yourself when the thought has never crossed your mind.

I’ve always had reservations about the “read-write web.” In the beginning, comments were thought to be an interesting and valuable addition to instances of public writing. Then came comment spam, and of course the ubiquitous troll. Anonymity, I thought, was part of the problem. I could circumvent the problems of undesired feedback by writing anonymously or turning off comments, as many have done. But as I mentioned, part of what I find special and irreplaceable about writing online is its accountability. You speak or write differently when there is a chance that someone will read it- I think you write better, unless you somehow get a thrill from being an ass. Read any newspaper’s comments, or an unmoderated forum and you’ll soon find a stream of bilious non sequitur nonsense. It does seem that some people enjoy being asshats. I don’t think unmoderated comments happen much anymore.

Even when benign or banal, though, comments have always been a problem for me. When blogging, I’m frequently holding many concepts and intensions in suspension in my head. When someone comments, it’s like a shock to my system. Everything sinks to the bottom when I find myself formulating a response. Most often, I don’t respond at all because a response really isn’t necessary. But pointless or not, I end up thinking about it. Worse still, when a response would be polite or at least civil, I think it over for so long that it would be downright weird to suddenly respond so belatedly. I’m simply inept in dealing with comments. Especially well-thought out private ones- those have increased in frequency over the past few years. It might surprise some to know that I get private comments on things written years ago, and that though I have seldom responded I have thought about responding at length. Turning off comments doesn’t really solve the response problem. In fact, I’d have to say I prefer public comments because other people can share in what are sometimes gracious and heartfelt responses. Comments can be a value-added component, and as such should be preserved. I recognize my problem coping with them as a personal problem.

Nothing has happened in this regard in the recent past, mind you. It’s just the gradual effects of thinking of the responses that I left hanging years ago and the responses that I wished I hadn’t found out about. It makes me feel downright antisocial and uncivil. I’m not, really. It’s just that when I step up to this stage I feel that way- struck dumb, paralyzed like a deer in the headlights.

Talking to Krista yesterday it sort of came into focus for me. Writing in public is much like stepping onto a theater stage. There’s a reason why they turn down the house lights. If you can see who you’re acting for, it is a hundred times more difficult. If the audience heckles you it’s hard too. Even applause, particularly when a dramatic moment is still in process of unfolding, disrupts progress.

I’ve aways thought of blogging as writing in process. And like it or not, it has a tendency to stop and start in the oddest places.

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