Working Metaphors

Michael Crawford wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft as a way to make sense of his work history:

This book grows out of an attempt to get a critical handle on my own work history; to understand the human possibilities latent in what I was doing when the work seemed good, and when it was bad to identify the features of the work that systematically preempted or damaged those same possibilities. In sorting things out, we have had occasion to think about the nature of rationality, the conditions for individual agency, the moral aspect of perception, and the elusive ideal of community. (198)

One of Crawford’s conclusions is that when a job is “scaled up, depersonalized, and made to answer to forces remote from the scene of work” that the results are disastrous. The formulation is not a new one. Karl Marx came to this conclusion in the mid-nineteenth century. I remember vividly getting tossed out of a high school government class because I agreed with Marx’s theory of the alienation of the worker, based on watching the slow gnawing despair in my dad as he coped with his job. The textbook (and my teacher) insisted that capitalism was perfect and that this “theory” was fatally flawed. She would not allow me to endorse such a “communist” thought in the classroom and she ejected me as a troublemaker.

I never can seem to think of “work” in the same way as other people. It comes from my upbringing. My father went to a job he hated every day. Increasingly, automation and MBA’s were running the oil fields from the central office and he felt as if he was not taken seriously. Dad seldom talked about this “work” but he constantly had work to do that he did discuss with me. Mostly, what he was interested in doing (and sometimes talking about) was the work at home—building fences, raising animals and crops, sawing firewood, shingling the roof. None of these activities resulted in any monetary benefit (other than spending less at the supermarket, I suppose). Work and the earning of money were completely separate activities.

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State of the blog address

As should be clear to anyone who has bothered to follow me for the last year (if you haven’t I don’t blame you) I have grown increasingly disinterested with writing/reading the Internet. I sort of hang on to the nostalgia of it by posting a fragment now and then, but the times when I was genuinely excited to be able to write in an arena where a public (however small) might be reading it are long gone. No matter how I might try to fight it—I just don’t care what the world thinks anymore. There are only a few people I’ve conversed with on the internet that I hold dear.

In the 3d world, I have lost almost every person I’ve ever cared about in the space of two years. One part of me wants to turn to the virtual environment for consolation—and around fifteen years ago, in similar circumstances, I did. It turned out well, and is perhaps the reason why I am married and happy and don’t require consolation from strangers anymore. But that’s simplistic. The internet was, and is, more than a repository of potential friends.

I’m not new to public discourse, and I am hardly surprised when things get ugly for no apparent reason. People who have no real responsibility to each other, as is the case of the imaginary internets (sic., for the humor impaired), can be unbelievably cruel. I won’t go into the reasons behind this observation, although a google search might ferret out the trigger for my discontent. It sort of puts a damper on my desire to actually start to write in public again. Chances are it won’t stop me, but it does make me sad that exposing oneself to the public is to invite being abused.

Things have changed, and I’ve updated my about page to reflect that. It’s been a cruel few years, though now on the other side of it I’m happier and more comfortable than ever before. I’ve recently rediscovered reading for the joy of it (books, not the internet) instead of for “work” and thought I might like to write again just for the joy of it instead of taking notes for work. This blog has oscillated between work notes and moments of personal whimsy while I have avoided strenuous mental activity.

I have become increasingly interested in image work again, and other types of physical work that don’t involve reading. I have read incessantly for most of my life, and it hasn’t always been good for me. I’m not giving it up, but I think it’s time I moderated it.

Dealing with so much death, stress, and disaster has left me sort of hollow. I worked so hard for so long that I cannot leave my research interests behind, but I want to approach them in a more grounded way. I’ve got a solid roof over my head and am secure personally and financially (for perhaps the first time in my life). More often than not I have the sense to turn these bloody machines off when they are not useful.

It’s a harvest time, of a sort.

Unpacking my library

Mark Woods posted an excerpt from Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking my Library” at the exact moment that I was unpacking my own.

I’ve adopted a strategy of imposed order on my books, because as I get older I find that I can’t instantly remember where certain titles are when I need them. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to confirm or explore something and then having to search half the day to find it. So, I use Delicious Library to record the books as I place them, for reasons of diminishing space, into numbered boxes rather than neatly arrayed (and spine bleaching) rows. Doing archival work inspired my approach. Archives generally lack a consistent organizing strategy but instead are simply placed into random arrays in numbered boxes with a finding guide. That’s how my boxes are done—simply frozen for a moment in the order they fell within reach of the computer, and easily found with a computer’s help. I found Benjamin’s Illuminations in a moment.

Once you have approached the mountains of cases in order to mine the books from them and bring them to the light of day—or, rather, of night—what memories crowd in upon you! Nothing highlights the fascination of unpacking more clearly than the difficulty of stopping this activity . . .

Oh! bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! Of no one has less been expected, no one has a greater sense of well being than the man who has been able to carry on his disreputable existence in the mask of Spitzweig’s “Bookworm.” For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to that for a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting. (Zohn trans, 66-67)

What I find most interesting about the essay is that it suggests that arrangements of books share the order/disorder of memory. This order is neither alphabetic nor chronological; it is thematic and based in moments, not taxonomies. In my case, this thought was in box B018.

Blurbing Books

It is hard to get used to sitting still at this time of year. Krista reminded me that last year at this time we were in Northern California. I should be in Northern New York right now, but I’ve been procrastinating and writing here, trying to catch my stride again after having my breath kicked out of me by the (expected) death of my mother. I am starting to feel like my mind and eyes are working again, and there are a few things I meant to say something about that I keep forgetting.

As I mentioned in my confession about changing paths, I think I want to rediscover making photographs again. It’s been a long time. Many of the people I read in the beginning of this public writing exercise were also “lapsed” photographers (who knew that was such a large category?). One of them, James Luckett, published a book this February called Suginami. I confess, I’m one of the ten or so people who must have rushed to buy it. We really don’t know each other, but I was really interested about in what sort of quality a Blurb book might be capable of—because I’ve been thinking about making a few books myself, of past and future work. Thinking about this book and searching out the links lead me to an interview with James that points directly at the sort of feelings I’m having about such an enterprise:

James: I’ve never had any real idea of an audience. I can think of about ten people – relatives and friends – who might purchase a hard copy of Suginami. Beyond that, its hard for me to imagine anyone wanting to own the book. It’s been about eight years since I’ve made any real physical object that might be of interest to another. Nearly everything over those years existed publicly only in digital form on the Internet, a fairly passive sort of dissemination. So if I do have any kind of audience, that’s what I imagine, people out there sitting at a terminal browsing the Internets staring at rastorized ephemeral bytes. To think of my work taking up space, as something to physically contend with, manipulate, is a little unsettling. I worry about the responsibility of sending things into the world.

I haven’t started printing again yet, but when I relocate to New York I plan on it. James’s story is eerily similar to mine; I didn’t print for a forensic lab, but I did do a lot of work in medical photography and popular snapshots at a high volume lab in Arkansas as well as slides from x-rays, etc. while I lived in California. I stopped photography just prior to entering graduate school rather than after, and I changed relationships and states (and am about to again [edit: just states, relationship fine- sorry love). Our styles couldn’t be more different, or desires in what we expect photography to be/do. But one thing is common—I also worry about the responsibility of sending things out into the world, not to mention the weight of simply being in the world. I feel a lot lighter now, than I did eight or so years ago when I started this, and perhaps it’s really time to make something.

The Blurb books are pricy, but judging from James’s book and another limited edition, A Night at the Met by Larry Fink (an old hero of mine), the possibilities are good. I’ve read only one horror story so far, and when I get settled in New York I will definitely look into it more closely.

Holding on

Henri Cartier-Bresson Pour l’amour et contra la travail industriel (For Love and Against Industrial Work). 1931. Paper collage

This blog has stayed in a holding pattern for the last few years. It’s overdue for a change, and that will happen in the next few months. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I started blogging right before I started teaching—in 2001. I will continue to blog as I quit teaching, as of now. Perhaps “quit” is too strong of a word. It’s more like refuse to participate in a degrading system that values teachers at about the same level as Walmart greeters. My wife has secured a good job as a teacher, one that pays a worthwhile salary—most don’t. File me with the most. I was offered an adjunct post, but I feel as if the time has come for a career shift.

I am not really bitter about the situation—but as a profoundly middle class guy, I was actually looking forward to making that good “professor money.” Oddly, along the way I figured out how to make substantially more with far less effort; surrendering teaching comes easy when it only involves nearly trivial wages. In this environment, perhaps even because of it, intelligent investing pays quite well.

I won’t be deprived of anything, and my wife’s job will allow me to maintain access to research databases, good libraries, etc. without missing a beat. I plan on being one of those weird people labeled as an “independent scholar.” But I wear that label with no illusion that it is better or worse as being affiliated with an institution—each approach has its perks. This is just the situation that life has dealt me; I’m quite comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life. I plan to continue following and creating rhetorical scholarship, just not as a poorly paid “professional writing instructor.”

I’ve got seven years of being a writing instructor in, so I feel like I’ve made some contribution, but shifts in the field make me feel increasingly estranged from the educational “industry.” You see, educational institutions are at their core focused on institutional environments and practices. I have no hardcore interest in “technical writing” though I have a degree and years of coursework in it. Yes, I’m interested in technical subjects but not technical communication practices. I’m interested in communication practices, and increasingly I’ve found myself more aligned with scholars in communication studies rather than the emergent field of writing studies. But my degree path has not pointed me there, and crossover is difficult on the professional level.

At the core, what I have practiced/taught is Rhetoric (with the capital R) which is a discipline that seems to lack any specificity or exclusivity within academic departments. It wanders, passing in and out of fashion without ever really disappearing or finding a home—labeled as techné, not epistemé. Thus the containers are filled with it, e.g. communication uses rhetoric, but is not necessarily rhetoric; most if not all writing deploys rhetorical methods, but is not strictly speaking rhetoric. It is confusing to anyone outside the problem—why not call it communication, or writing? Well, because it’s different—but what is it? The modern trend is simply to pluralize the practices as rhetorics as if that resolved the definition.

Surrendering the element of teaching writing (or composition, if you prefer), what remains is my research agenda—which I have tried to place inside the container of “visual rhetorics” with little success. The fundamental problem with this, simply swept under the rug for the last several years, is the stature of visual images as propositions. The propositional nature of images, hotly contested for a time, is simply assumed without proof and endless interpretations are being spun from those propositions. But the assumption bothers me. Although I’ve made the claim myself for photographs—each photograph includes an implied verb “to be” making it implicitly a proposition that the subject “is”—I am no longer so sure that this is a sufficient explanation.

The problem of photographs as rhetoric lies in the domination of rhetorics that lie completely outside the object itself; thus the rhetorics are not at their core “visual” at all. The label itself is a red herring, an argument based simply in indirection. As W.J.T Mitchell has argued, “visual studies” may not necessarily need to exist as a self-contained discipline because cannot be mapped into a stable configuration. Just as “writing” is unstable, moving from English departments to business schools to writing studies departments, etc., visuals also migrate to where they are welcomed most. Photography first found a home in chemistry and physics departments, then art departments and journalism schools (coexistent with writing!) and now it seems to be taking up shop in communications departments (as visual rhetorics) at least to a minimal degree. My two obsessions, it seems, have no constant home.

Ultimately, I think that rhetoric and photography are intellectual twins. Both are wedded to industry, but at the risk of sounding maudlin, both can be attached to the humanities in an urgent sense. As Jim Corder once described it, “Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities.” Classical documentary photography began from the same premise. I started revisiting Corder today because my mentors at the University of Arkansas, when I first started this public writing project had placed him high on the reading lists for teaching composition. Perhaps it is just nostalgia, revisiting where I began as a teacher, or perhaps Corder has been lost through consistently shallow readings.

The Rogerian approach has long fallen out of fashion (both as documentary photography classically conceived from the “family of man,” and expressivist composition centered on actualizing the self) but it had an influence deeper than I sometimes admit. I prefer love to industrial work.

What next? I suspect that my sidebar for this Public Address 5.0 will change from “rhetorician/photographer” to “photographer/rhetorician”—because photography is always what I have loved the most. I’ve just been away from it for a long time. It’s a large move, physically, from Minnesota to New York. But it’s a small move linguistically. As I suggested back in 2002, “It’s easy to move, hard to change.”

It happened

PDN: You have a picture at one of the balls that looks like it has at least a hundred people holding up cameras to take pictures. What do you think about that?

EE: Everybody and their uncle has a camera. Everybody’s taking pictures. Even on the stand during the inauguration, people were taking pictures. It’s really extraordinary. No event goes uncovered.

PDN: There’s a lot of ways to read that development. Do you think that’s a positive thing, or do you think people maybe ought to live the moment a little more, and spend less time documenting it?

EE: I think there’s a bit more than necessary of people playing with their little instruments, but I don’t know. With regard to the event, you can’t help that. You just want to know that you were there. It’s kind of proof that you exist almost. So from that point of view I think it’s fine.

Elliot Erwitt on covering the inauguration

My mother died around 1am today. In the last year, I didn’t take pictures of her as she changed totally in appearance, becoming someone I hardly recognized (or, for that matter someone who had difficulty recognizing me). I have always felt that taking pictures helps make things real—I didn’t want this to be real. I didn’t want to take any pictures. But it happened.