Flogged with a wet noodle

On my way to San Francisco a few weeks ago, I read John Tagg’s The Disciplinary Frame. Much to my surprise (I hated The Burden of Representation), I thought this latest book was truly outstanding. Though his claim that he’s been “misunderstood” since that first book feels hollow to me, this new book is well rounded and convincing. He hasn’t just spackled over the cracks in the first book, he’s crafted a sturdy fence to contain his Foucauldian strip-mining operation.

There’s a lot to say about the book, but what I’d like to highlight for the moment is his excursus into Walker Evans’s “melancholy realism” (chapter 3). I go through phases of love and hate with Evans. I taught his photographs for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in opposition to Margaret Bourke White earlier this semester, and Tagg followed the same path. Tagg’s treatment was well constructed, featuring most of the usual touchstones. Adding Archibald McLeish’s Land of the Free into the mix was a step in a new (and to my mind productive) direction.

Tagg’s overarching point was that all attempts at symbolic communication during the depression were fatally flawed, and that Evans was particularly instructive because it was conscious of that failure—marked by his resistance to meaning, a “lassitude” that was both philosophical and constitutional. Increasingly I feel that this is perhaps one of hallmarks of twentieth century art which shows no sign of abating in the twenty-first, as evidenced by Dorothy Gambrell’s latest Cat and Girl strip. However, there is more at stake than fragile artistic egos or the perversion of artistic products for profit. Tagg recounts multiple examples of Evans’s “melancholy realism” targeted at a more a specific end:

What interests me to bring into play in relation to Evans are, rather those accounts that place melancholy at the limits of sense, where melancholy holds to an impossible encounter with a real that is the condition of existence and failure of all systems of meaning.

For Julia Kristeva, melancholy points to the breakdown of symbolic bounds under the insistent pressure of an archaic and unsymbolizable narcissistic wound for which there can be no compensation for and which no agent can stand as referent, a wound arising from the loss of an unnamable, unseparated, elusive, unrepresentable Thing—“ the real that does not lend itself to signification.” (176)

Tagg’s book was fresh in my mind when I went to see Face of our Time at SF MOMA. Walking into that show (backwards, by accident) I was seized with a sort of revulsion that I seldom feel toward modern photographic work. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, “this is just predatory and wrong” (for a second time). I walked through the show in a forward direction the next day and my impression was still the same. It brought into sharp focus a growing dissatisfaction that I have been feeling with many contemporary photographers (Alec Soth being a prime example).

The photographs of Face of our Time were taken by four different photographers, Yto Barrada, Guy Tillim, Judith Joy Ross, Leo Rubinfien. Representing multiple continents, people were frozen seemingly surreptitiously (like Evans’s Subway Portraits) and captured in a somewhat standardized expression of abject boredom’ caught in between moments, where it seems they might have smiled, or been angry, or felt something rather than this dull sameness a split second before or after. Note the singularity of the title—the universal face of our time is (apparently) boredom. The pictures are all oddly dead, and the fault does not lie with the subjects. It was a matter of choice by the artists—the standard choice of many today—to be flaccid and ineffectual. I am not only growing bored with this boredom, I am seized with an active distaste for it. Walker Evans is an easy target as a ground zero for this indifference.

Tagg’s most striking examples of Evans’s flaccid attitude come from Lincoln Kirsten and John Cheever

Kirsten recorded his increasing frustration with Evans: “No resilience or energy He resists one only on tiny details—how a door should be shut, etc. If ever opposed in conversation he says ‘I don’t know.’ Tired, inert—reminds me of a constipated and castrated bulldog—old and squatting before his time.” Kirsten felt, to his aggravation, that Evans exerted a “negative personal magnetism which is his only and suicidal claim on people.” In December 1931, seeing Evans off on his cruise on the South Seas as the official photographer of the Cressida, Kirsten noted irritably, “Walker was as usual, nervous, jerky, devitalized and displaying ½ filament of magnetism.”

Caught between attraction and rejection, these were images other friends, colleagues, and lovers of this time shared and felt the need to repeat. Forty years on, Evans’s friend and one-time photographic assistant, the writer John Cheever, still pictured, or remembered, Evans in the mid-1930s as an unenthusiastic and “rather put off” seducer with “an enormous cock that showed only the most fleeting signs of life.” Flaccid, flickering, secretive, bored, sexually passive, inaccessible—the sense that Evans was not entirely there was oddly compelling to his New York acquaintances even as it exasperated them. (175-176).

I have not tracked down the Kirsten citations, but I could not resist the need to locate Cheever’s remarks in context. I feel that they are concrete and not as speculative as Tagg intimates—Cheever wasn’t speaking entirely metaphorically. Full evidence beneath the fold (not rated G).

March 28th (1974)
Dearest Allan,

My sexual and epistolary importunities are well-known. I do wish you would have been more yielding about the former. When I was twenty-one Walker Evans invited me to spend the night at his apartment. I said yes. I dropped my clothes (Brooks). He hung his (also Brooks) neatly in a closet. When I asked him how to do it he seemed rather put off. He had an enormous cock that showed only the most fleeting signs of life. I was ravening. I came all over the sheets, the Le Corbusier chair, the Matisse lithograph and hit him under the chin. I gave up at around three, dressed and spent the rest of the night on a park bench near the river. In the morning I drove to Massachusetts, embraced my dear brother and swam in the sea. I might have learned something from this experience. When we lived in the Palazzo Doria letters positively poured out of the portico. Bill bound his in tooled leather. Mike Bessie wrote: it is not possible to correspond with you. I was terribly hurt and went to the Café Castello and held hands with the girl who sold cigarets. Josie Herbst always responded with punctuality and zest and then sold all my letters to Yale. Last year a homosexual in Grand Central offered me twenty dollars for my body but I was late for the train. He was young and probably balmy. I was terribly polite. . . . (The Letters of John Cheever 304).

In my estimation, Cheever’s claim that he “might have learned something from this experience” places this recollection as a personal parable rather than a reflection on the flaws/strengths of Evan’s character. Again, I feel that the moments that Tagg selects are not the full story. I think it was Baudelaire that posited ennui as the essential character of “modern” life—in the late nineteenth century, that is. Can’t we get past this somehow? I think Dorothy Gambrell nailed it in her title—“Eight track wonders of the Ancient World,” though in the case of my reflection here, I am speaking of the modern. Still, it goes round and round like an eight-track tape. Offered twenty dollars, Cheever goes limp.

Maybe I’m just perverse, but I cannot adopt “going limp” as an acceptable communicative strategy when there is so much magic (and terror) in the world. To be fair, I don’t think that Tagg is suggesting that either—simply observing that this strategy exists.