Hive minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heraclitus Shrugged

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 16×20, 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.


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.

Silent Objects

I can’t remember a time that I went this long without writing. I’ve become quite disenchanted with all sorts of symbolic activities, and become pretty much object-oriented. I have no idea what that means philosophically, what I really mean is that I have become far more interested in things instead of words/images/representations of things.

The unnarrated life goes on. I’ve been working with wood, and reading the loose canon of books associated with woodworking. Yesterday, it dawned on me what my problem with most of these works is: the fit between symbolic ideologies and the pragmatic realities of applying tools to objects is rough at best, non-existent at worst. The latest example is the summoning of anarchy to support a skeptical approach to big business (while promoting boutique, petit-bourgeois capitalism) in the name of working wood. Huh?

The Anarchist’s Toolchest contains a lot of interesting information but is ultimately a hypocritical buyer’s guide. If the ideological component (which is pretty much biographical rather than theoretic) were removed, the book would not suffer in the slightest. The cult of personality looms large in woodworking, though, and ideologies as a component of this are always fair game and fodder for the machinery surrounding them. I like Schwarz’s writing style, and will no doubt continue to read most of what he generates although most of what he creates could be classed as heat with little light. It reads like it is written by a tool reviewer, not a woodworker. I suppose, due to the title, I was looking for more philosophy and less consumerism. 

There are lots of historical precedents for this sort of capitalism cloaked in radical ideology. The grandaddy of it all in the U.S.A. is of course Gustav Stickley, who I had never even heard of until I moved into his stomping ground. Following William Morris, Stickley seems to mash-up guilded age capitalism with golden age feudalism. The Arts and Crafts philosophy just doesn’t quite gel with the wonderful objects that it produces, and its socialist/utopian underpinnings come off about as useless as anarchist capitalism (or, perhaps more accurately, libertarianism). Just what has any of this to do with furniture or working wood? While it is true that theory generally informs practice, it does not survive it. Theory pretty much comes up short every time. It is without doubt a trace component rather than the main event of material practices.

David Pye suggested that the failure of the Arts and Crafts Movement ™ was due to the lack of a coherent theory of workmanship. It was based more in connoisseurship rather craft (techné). The modern neotraditionalist woodworkers, as far as I can see, victims of exactly the same “theory” of production. For example, the worst possible move for a new woodworker would be to buy inexpensive planes sourced from India. It would be much better to troll flea markets for pre-WWII tools and nurse them back to health, or by expensive boutique tools. Huh? A quick google search will uncover rant after rant against cheap tools, especially Indian ones. Scratch the surface of any collection of woodworkers and you’ll uncover a lot of eagles, American flags, veterans, and survivalists. Of course you’ll also find a lot of vegan nature hippies, punk-rock DIY enthusiasts, etc.— in short, radical ideologies of every stripe The curious thing is that they all build tables, boxes, bookcases, etc. It would be impossible to recover the trace components of their ideologies from their works. Often, I think they delude themselves into thinking so, but it all seems like so much symbolic masturbation to me.

I think what has obsessed me most these past two months is that there is a truth in materials, particularly wood, and I’m anxious to learn it. There is something about a nicely made useful object that brings joy to people. The truth, I think, isn’t in the tools or “listening” to them as Schwartz argues. In his universe, wood is just “stuff” and the tools bring the glory. Other writers like James Krenov or Nakashima go to the opposite extreme, arguing for example that kiln-dried wood is dead compared to green or air dried wood, creating a connoisseurship of wood. Neither wood nor tools speak to me. Nicely made objects, however, do impart feelings that I would not have without them.

I’m pretty sure that the answers are more closely tied to the work itself rather than the mountains of secondary literature. I keep working, and occasionally reading, but I don’t think I have much to contribute to the pile— at least not any ideologies— I’m rather sick of them.

There’s no place like Home


Karl Slover, one of the last surviving munchkins from the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz died a couple of days ago.1 One of the weirdnesses of moving to the eastern suburbs of Syracuse was discovering that the munchkins were regular visitors to nearby Chittenango; when I first came to locate a place to live they were having a parade featuring them for Oz-Stravaganza.2 I had always thought that the Wizard of Oz took place in Kansas. It was downright weird. Turns out that Chittenango was the birthplace of L. Frank Baum.

Birthplace of L. Frank Baum

I drove over there yesterday, because I was curious about just what sort of place Baum might call home. There’s no trace of it, really. The address on Falls Blvd. is in the shadow of a hill and it seems logical that someone would build there. The Baum’s only lived there for two years, so it seems unlikely that this is the place that Frank would have called home. But fittingly, in The Wizard of Oz the kingdom of the East is the kingdom of the munchkins.

Judy Garland Museum, click through for full photo set

I’d actually never read the Wizard of Oz before coming here. Like most people I suppose, most of what I know came from the movies. Krista, though, is a huge fan-girl of the movie. In 2007, we drove to the birthplace of Judy Garland— Grand Rapids, Minnesota— where they turned her childhood home into a museum. There’s more to see than just a tract-style home. Reading the book this week, I was somewhat shocked to find that there are no ruby slippers.3 In the book, it is sliver slippers and the magic phrase is “Take me home to Auntie Em!”— dashing my hope for a clever hook into musing that “there’s no place like home.”

Home is—more frequently than not— transformed beyond our recognition or memory in the blink of an eye. I had forgotten that The Wizard of Oz begins with just that sort of transformation. Dorothy’s home in Kansas is ripped from the ground and transported to a new place, landing on top of the wicked witch of the east. Having lived for a significant time in the West, South, North, and East now it makes for a really interesting read. Ray Bradbury, in his introduction to the centennial edition, sets up an opposition between Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz as touchstones of light and dark world views:

Choosing Alice, are you then a cynic, a skeptic, or just a disillusioned drop-out?

Choosing Dorothy, are you an impossible optimist, the happy warrior, the convivial far-traveler who runs his own lost-and-found to always be found?


I don’t claim that we can judge readers by such choices. There must be travelers, like myself, who can go a-journeying through both countries, dark and light, and come forth intrigued, insightful, and happy. Wonderland may be fog and drizzle, but Alice stands as a beacon in its midst, stays sane, comments, and survives 4 (xiv).

I suppose I’ve been living on the dark side for most of my travels, but as I get older I am more open to coming into the light of the Emerald City. Writing snarky comments is a lot easier than trying to write something that is both intelligent and optimistic. Cynicism has always come more naturally to me. That is perhaps why I have not really felt compelled to write that much the last few years— I’ve actually been quite happy living here in New York, although when I read the hyperbole painting Syracuse as the Emerald City it’s hard not to choke-up with laughter and wonder what these people have been smoking.

Roselawn: Boyhood home of L. Frank Baum
Site of Roselawn, boyhood home of L. Frank Baum— “Watch us change,” indeed.

Roselawn, Baum’s boyhood home was located on Brewerton (a.k.a. “Plank”) Road north of Syracuse. Naturally, the good witch lives in the north. Every other direction was the domain of the wicked.5 Interestingly, the plank road was the first toll road in the U.S. (opened in 1846). Some speculate that the road composed of hickory planks (yellowish wood) might have inspired the “yellow brick road,” but that really seems unlikely to me. I mean, after at least 20-30 years of wagon traffic one doubts that there was any yellow left under the mud. I’ve not been able to find out much about exactly where the 16.5 mile stretch of planks was originally, or when it might have rotted away. I suspect that since it isn’t visible in the 1878 book of views of Syracuse I’ve got, it was gone by Baum’s boyhood. That’s the nature of change, really. While it’s logical to assume that Syracuse had some impact on Baum’s writing, it just doesn’t follow that one might map his fictional work on this all too actual space.

1. As far as I know, Margaret Pellegrini is still alive. Looking around the net, I find it interesting that she denies that the munchkins were hard partiers: “I was only 15 when the movie was filmed. There were a few of them who liked to drink, but it wasn’t what they said it was. A lot of those stories were false,” . The really interesting thing I turned up was that Toto the dog got paid more than the munchkins:

OzzyChangingHands02-20-2010.jpeg2. I suppose they had to call it Oz-stravaganza because Ozzfest was taken. Though if the rumors of hard-partying munchkins were true then it might be appropriate. In completely unrelated news, it seems that Black Sabbath announced on 11/11/11 that they were getting together for their first studio album in 33 years in 2012. As a big fan of the dark side, I find this to be good news.

Judy Garland Museum
3. There are no ruby slippers at the museum either. They were stolen just before we visited the place, and have not been recovered as far as I know. It’s a shame, really. The idea of some shoe fetishist somewhere privately adoring his big score is a bit frightful.

4. Coincidentally, my western home, Bakersfield, was renowned for its fog and drizzle. I once got lost in a parking lot down by the Kern River for three hours because the fog was so dense. I drove around with the car door open watching the curb for breaks that might signal the exit. Besides that though, I wouldn’t say that Bakersfield had much in common with Wonderland.

Chittenango5. While it seems unlikely that Baum held any animosity towards his birthplace in the east, his mother-in-law lived most of her life in Fayetteville, another eastern suburb. Wikipedia notes that Baum’s relationship to his mother-in-law was wrongly portrayed as antagonistic and any identification with the wicked witch of the west seems wrong on multiple levels.

Joshua Vogel

Stumbled on this video and article. Haven’t been over that way yet, and might just have to. The arc seems familiar. The same thing has happened to me: reevaluating one’s relationship to life with the passing of a parent. When you live facing up to death around you, which I have for the past decade or so, it changes you in drastic ways. Some things just don’t seem quite as important as they used to. Other things, forgotten things, become far more serious.


Central New York

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had trouble understanding just what was so great about nature. I mean capital “N” Nature filled with green stuff and rocks and critters— not “nature” in the sense of essence, or idealized cut-to-the-chase character or characteristics. I’m a big fan of the latter, even though it carries with it the burden of defining “normal” and excluding aberration. Nature, in the first usage, is full of aberrations and anomalies which defy easy classification into normalcy. Perhaps that’s why I don’t really feel attracted to it. It makes me uncomfortable in its harsh randomness.

I remember reading a book of poetry by Jim Morrison when I was in high school where he asserted that modern life was a journey by car. Certainly, a lot of evidence could be marshaled to support that position but what sticks in my mind now is the thought that a car is simply a room on wheels. I like them a lot, not because of the power and speed (motorcycles have cars beat there) but because they allow me to be mobile without confronting weather and bugs. It dawned on me a month or so ago that travelling really consists of moving from one room to another, mostly. You go from your room to someone else’s (friendly, civic, commercial or rented space). Nature then is the great “unroom” when you are not surrounded by purpose (yours or someone elses). I’ve never found much reason to be there.

Of course, my feelings on this aren’t by any means “normal” and it might be argued neither were Morrison’s. But I think that’s why I might find myself drawn, when walking outdoors, to always want to look at or photograph buildings or structures. I’ll walk through the forrest, but only to get to the outhouse/shack/shed or even just the trace of the remaining foundation of a room that might give purpose to an incomprehensible space. It’s the way I try to make myself comfortable I suppose. This is a far cry from the romantic/peripatetic tradition of collecting one’s thoughts in Nature. I’m more on Morrison’s side. This is not to say that I don’t like walking, it’s just that I prefer to be walking from one room to another. If I can get there by car, so much the better. I find it really easy to think in cars.

I find it interesting that I’ve reverted back to working things out in pictures rather than words these days. I don’t get the urge to write much anymore, but I’ve started to make pictures again. It’s my oldest method of thinking things through, I suppose.

Letter from Elsinore

Dear Ophelia—

Elsinore isn’t quite what I expected, or maybe there’s more than one, and I’ve come to the wrong one.The high school football players here call themselves “The Fighting Danes.” In the surrounding towns they’re known as “The Melancholy Danes.” In the past three years they have won one game, tied two, and lost twenty-four. I guess that’s what happens when Hamlet goes in as quarterback.

The last thing you said to me before I got out of the taxi was that maybe we should get a divorce. I did not realize that life had become that uncomfortable for you. I do realize that I am a very slow realizer. I still find it hard to realize that I am an alcoholic, though even strangers know this right away.

Maybe I flatter myself when I think that I may have things in common with Hamlet, that I have an important mission, that I’m temporarily mixed up about how it should be done. Hamlet had one big edge on me. His father’s ghost told him exactly what he had to do, while I am not operating with instructions. But from somewhere something is trying to tell me where to go, what to do there, and why to do it. Don’t worry, I don’t hear voices. But there is this feeling that I have a destiny far away from the shallow and preposterous posing that is our life in New York. And I roam.

And I roam.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, 34-35 (1965, 2006).

We watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) last night (it’s hard not to drink while watching that movie). The story begins with the violation of a trust, the disclosure of a secret imaginary story shared by an academic couple (George and Martha, America’s founding parents, played impressively by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton). It doesn’t take long to figure out that the form of the scathing banter is the point— not its content. The outsiders, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, furnish the only “trustworthy” content. You grow to expect that Burton and Taylor are simply confabulating from every fact they can get their hands on. The posing is all quite cruel and as a side effect, somewhat funny. It’s hard to look away, once this expectation is aroused in the audience.

This effect, interestingly, is precisely where Kenneth Burke begins his excursus on “Psychology and Form” (1931) in Counter-Statement (1931, 1953, 1968). Burke uses Hamlet as an example, painstakingly describing how Shakespeare sets up the audience to receive, indeed to expect the ghost that drives the narrative ahead. In retrospect, Burke sees his own early approach as an oversimplification:

Counter-Statement shows signs of emergence out of adolescent fears and posturings, into problems of early manhood (problems morbidly intensified by the market crash of ’29). The role or persona of the author seems not that of a father, or even of brother, but of conscientiously wayward son (whom the Great Depression compelled to laugh on the other side of his face).

He had early decided that ideally, for each of Shakespeare’s dramatic tactics, modern thought should try to find the correspondingly critical formulation. But he soon came to see that any such orderly unfolding of the past into the present would be greatly complicated, if not made irrelevant or completely impossible, by the urgencies and abruptness of social upheaval.

Kenneth Burke, “Curriculum Criticum” published in Counter-Statement, p. 213 (1953, 1968)

It is interesting to me that Vonnegut’s Rosewater and Albee’s Woolf both address dealing with the past through the distortions of alcohol and questionable deployments of history. Albee’s past is a mixture of fabrication and fact, while Vonnegut’s approach is clever punning. Eliot Rosewater is writing from the Elsinore California Volunteer Fire Department. His grasp on reality is under scrutiny as we meet him through the revelation of certain facts about his life, always a mixture of fact and fabrication. Vonnegut invented word that suits it: chronkling. He explains it in the dedication to his collected essays:

This book is dedicated to the person who helped me regain my equilibrium [his wife, documentary photographer Jill Kremenz]. I say she chronkled me. That is another coined word. She came to me with an expressed wish to “chronicle” my wonderful life from day to day on photographic film. What eventuated was much deeper than mere chronicling.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. “Preface,” Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons p. xxi (1974)

Even here, Vonnegut is punning with newscaster Walter Cronkite (most trusted man in America!). Both Vonnegut and Albee self-consciously interrogate the ends of literary form. What Burke, Albee, and Vonnegut (in the sixties, at least) have in common, though, is a celebration of the conscientiously wayward son. I’m not familiar enough with Albee to know if he rejected this eventually, but Vonnegut and Burke do conclude that this approach is fatally flawed.

The excuse for lying and behaving badly? In all cases, it’s a matter of form. The villains (or heroes, it’s hard to tell through all the irony) are always champions of impecable form. As opposed to what? It seems fair to ask. Content might be the easy answer, but I think Burke nails it down better than that. For Burke it isn’t that content is somehow unimportant or bad, but rather the scientization of content as information which they seek to vilify. This is strikingly similar to the bit I posted a few days ago from Werner Herzog.

One of the most striking derangements of taste which science has temporarily thrown upon us involves the understanding of psychology in art. Psychology has become a body of information (which is precisely what psychology in science should be, or must be). Similarly, in art, we tend to look for psychology as the purveying of information. . . .[Joyce, Homer, and Cézanne are summoned as examples]

. . . Thus, the great influence of information has led the artist also to lay his emphasis on the giving of information— with the result that art tends more and more to substitute the psychology of the hero (the subject) for the psychology of the audience. Under such an attitude, when form is preserved it is preserved as an annex, a luxury, or, as some feel, a downright affectation. It remains, though sluggish, like the human appendix, for occasional demands are still made upon it; but its vigor is gone, since it is no longer organically required. Proposition: the hypertrophy of the psychology of information is accompanied by the corresponding atrophy of the psychology of form [emphasis mine].*

Kenneth Burke, “Psychology and Form” published in Counter-Statement, p. 32-33 (1931, 1968)

There’s a lot to digest in this short essay. One of the key things, I think, is his claim that information is intrinsically interesting but not necessarily intrinsically valuable. This tends to be borne out by the focus on the commonplace by many modernists like Walker Evans and Edward Weston; it’s as if they sought to provide a sort of value-added by reintroducing form to an audience’s perception of common objects. Of course, Evans did so with great irony and Weston might be considered irony-deficient. Both were uncomfortable with any sort of psychological criticism. I suspect it’s because, as Burke claims, people are too interested in the psychology of the hero (or artist) while ignoring the psychology of the audience.

I suspect we’d all be more comfortable if Hamlet’s father’s ghost would show up to tell us what to do.

And I roam, too.

*I’ll have to come back to that— I think that we might have swung to far the other direction in the ensuing years.

Villains and Redemption

Because when you find yourself the villain in the story you have written
It’s plain to see
That sometimes the best intentions are in need of redemption
Would you agree?
If so please show me

I gave up on photography to a certain extent when I left California (circa 1995). It seemed “hollow” to me, without real value in its truest sense. Getting involved with people and taking pictures of them for the preceding years hurt me in profound ways. In retrospect, I think its because I unconsciously felt complicit in the suicide attempt of a close friend. I had documented his life, and when he failed at suicide he called me up to document that too. The resulting photographs are powerful, yes, but at what cost? His life began an even more severe downward spiral just after that and I had to walk away. It wasn’t the only reason I left California, or even the main one, but it was a central event that pointed me away from everything I had ever known for thirty-plus years.

I never expected photography to be one of the casualties. In fact, after surviving another even more crushing failure to communicate my first move was to start taking pictures again and get a job in a photo lab. The attempt to suture up the wounds failed, miserably. I couldn’t play the thief any longer, because I had seen the cost of deluding oneself into believing that work as a documentarian was somehow “valuable.” I’m still working on that. You have to feel like what you do has value before you can commit yourself to it.

I suppose that’s how I came to study rhetoric/communications in the years that followed. Most turning points in my life resulted from a failure to communicate or understand the messages being sent to me.

Any photographer worth his salt is a kind of thief, for no matter what angle you consider it from, any photograph is a kind of theft. You must shoot without thinking, because the unforeseen will never present itself again. From the exposure of his first films, Cartier-Bresson was immediately aware that he was committing an act of violence as soon as he incorporated human beings and not just nature or the inanimate world of objects. What would a passer-by think if the photographer pointed his Leica at him? You could be as discreet, as rapid and charming as you liked, but this aggressive cyclops eye would strip the subject naked in his most intimate moments.

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 72

In Assouline’s story, Cartier Bresson is aware of the violence his photography visits upon its subjects. But he justifies it by intimating that to see people “naked” is something of value. I’m not so sure. It’s part of what I’m struggling with right now. Perhaps the line between erotic voyeurism and an addiction to pornography is not as sharp as aesthetes would insist.

In the edges

I’ve always been drawn to folk music, to roots music. I stop at Barry Manilow. From a very early age when I was a kid listening to Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five – you know, that’s very crude music in the one sense but it’s very sophisticated and advanced and harmonically interesting but its surfaces are crude. I suppose I fell in love with that sound when I was quite young and its something I’ve always looked for: sophisticated but crude.

. . .

They wanted me to transcend something and sometimes if it’s rough and has a rough quality it transcends. If you repeat music too often . . . if you rub the edges off music you take away the music itself. The music is in the edges, its in the rough bits. If you smooth it over there’s really nothing left. You’ve got lots of notes left but there’s no music, so its always a striving to keep it alive as something fresh that really has vitality to it.

[Richard Thompson]

I’ve been always after something like a deeper truth, an ecstatic truth. I’ve been after balance, after something like justice within pictures. Very strange to explain it and I’ve hardly ever seen a film that has complete balance within it. There are exceptions like Rashomon by Kurosawa where I’m sitting in awe and wondering how did he do that. How for god’s sake can I get somewhat close to this. Of course I never will but trying it anyway is okay and it gives some sort of meaning to my life and in a certain way going for the essential right straight without detour where is it . . . it’s the essential I’m looking for what is the deepest essential that defines us as human beings.

[Werner Herzog]

“In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Session” bonus feature on the Grizzly Man DVD

I have problems of different sorts with both Richard Thompson and Werner Herzog. One seems completely foreign, the other all too familiar. Richard Thompson has always been a bit weird for me because he is always “in character” in all his songs. There is virtually no sense of who or what he really is as a human being. Even watching/listening to something like A Thousand Years of Popular Music gives you little insight into what or who he is through his consumptive choices. It’s a bit like the split between the Romantic poets and the Victorians like Tennyson or Browning— with Blake or Wordsworth, you never fail to recognize who is speaking. Victorians are tricky role-playing creatures, impossible to take at face value. I tend to think of Thompson as a bit of a Victorian, and this extra bit is uncharacteristically revealing of his preferences.

At the onset of this featurette, Herzog declares that film and music are closely related, more so than film and literature. The discrepancy between container metaphors between these two collaborators is striking. For Thompson, the music is found at the edges. For Herzog, he wants to seek out the heart, the essence inside the human condition. “Straight without detour” hardly describes the arc of most of his films. He seems to want to play the trickster, dancing around the fire until the heat is unbearable. And always, the focus is on him and his feelings about the fire.

Grizzly Man is probably my favorite Herzog film so far (I haven’t seen that many) because of a profound affinity between the lunatic filmaker in charge and the lunatic filmaker under scrutiny. One sees nature as friendly and welcoming to kindred spirits, the other sees nature as hostile and unforgiving. The tension is in the dialog between the two. Because Treadwell is dead, though, he really can’t correct the crazy German. At least it’s easy to believe that although they disagree, these two guys would probably like each other.

However, the whole idea of the artist as a crazy egotist is just tired and rubbed in the ground. That’s why even after just a few forays into Herzog’s films it seems tiresomely familiar. The artist makes his statement, reality be damned. Herzog is often guilty of shaving off the edges, but less so here than in the other films I’ve seen.