The Nebraska State Historical Society has some wonderful photos taken of children and adults who are in attendance at various Halloween gatherings and parties. Because the state has a wide range of immigrant influences, European traditions regarding Halloween have often been localized cultural events. Of course, the traditions had to adjust a bit, as well. The pumpkin, for instance, replaced the English turnip as the gourd of choice when carving a jack-o-lantern. A lot of credit for Halloween’s popularity goes to the Irish.

Nebraska History Blog

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.

Detective Stories

Put it in Wilson's head and smoke it.
This is not a pipe.

I can’t help it. I like to ferret out sources/origins/facts about things. I suppose my favorite part of “scholarship” is the chase, the search for the evidence that might support/refute a concept that has popped into my head. One of my first mentors, R. Paul Yoder, told me that he always wanted to teach an introduction to literature class (core for English majors) built around Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes novels: sort of a frame tale where one read detective stories to become a better literary critic/detective. Laurie Anderson’s claim that in detective stories, the hero is already dead in the beginning and human nature is thereby avoided seems counter-intuitive. It can be argued both ways. (How rhetorical!).

I think it’s easy to make the case that mid-century detectives (Marlowe et.al.) are antiheroes, and the victim (and resultant lust for “justice” in the reader) are indeed the heroes of the tales. The gradual accumulation/revelation of facts is the motive force: human nature, if it intrudes at all, is historical rather than of current importance. This is particularly the case in the CSI-style crime drama, where “science” solves crimes by the incessant (and infallible) revelation of data/facts. It was strange to read the (disputed) Wikipedia page that claims that late-century detective stories are driven by human nature in a way that the early/mid century versions are not (conveniently post-1984, after Laurie Anderson’s observation). The danger of such a claim is that it reeks of a sort of progressivism or evolutionary perspective that usually turns out to be wishful thinking. On the other hand, I find nothing wrong with such a claim when accompanied with evidence— moving it into the realm of historicism.

Of course, I digress. How I got here was a tantalizing moment in Assouline’s HCB biography. He describes Cartier-Bresson at 19 as “a man of principle — but not the same principles as everyone else’s” (23) who failed his baccalaureate exams three times, each time progressively worse, because of poor writing and disinterest in the curriculum. This thwarted his family’s plan for him to join the family business (of thread manufacturing!). Cartier-Bresson preferred contemporary writers, reading them constantly rather than his “proper” studies. His family tried to discourage his literary obsession, but:

It was all in vain, for nothing could keep young Henri from his reading. Family mealtimes were often tense. His father would repeatedly tell him that he must learn to control his impulsive nature, but such reprimands fell on deaf ears. Henri’s instinct always got the better of him, and this was taken for insolence. One day at the table he could no longer contain himself, and dryly responded to his grandfather’s criticism by quoting Hippolyte Taine: ‘One doesn’t ripen, one merely rots away in places.’

The white moustache of the patriarch quivered with rage, but his only reply was to summon the bewhiskered butler: ‘Would you please take Monsieur Henri out of here.’

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 24

As I find myself in a particularly reflective mood lately, I immediately loved that quote from Hippolyte Taine. I have found myself rotting away in places from time to time. Things that I once knew so solidly slip away. Just who wass Taine and where does this quote come from, I wondered. I never found it, but I found other tantalizing bits reading through some of his books. Turns out Taine was the father of literary historicism. What a delicious contradiction.

Taine’s appraisal of Chaucer is worth considering from his History of English Literature:

Here for the first time appears a superiority of intellect, which at the instant of conception suddenly halts, rises above itself, passes judgment, and says to itself, ‘This phrase tells the same thing as the last—remove it; these two ideas are disjointed—bind them together; this description is feeble—reconsider it.’ When a man can speak thus he has an idea, not learned in the schools, but personal and practical, of the human mind, its process and needs, and of things also, their composition and combinations; he has a style, that is, he is capable of making everything understood and seen by the human mind. He can extract from every object, landscape, situation, character, the special and significant marks, so as to group and arrange them, to compose an artificial work which surpasses the natural work in its purity and completeness. He is capable, as Chaucer was, of seeking out in the old common forest of the middle-ages, stories and legends, to replant them in his own soil, and make them send out new shoots. (130)

. . .

In love and satire he has experience, and he invents; in what regards morality and philosophy he has learning, and remembers. For an instant, by a solitary leap, he entered upon the close observation and the genuine study of man; he could not keep his ground, he did not take his seat, he took a poetic excursion; and no one followed him. The level of the century is lower; he is on it himself for the most part. He is in the company ol narrators like Froissart, of elegant speakers like Charles of Orleans, of gossipy and barren verse-writers like Gower, Lydgate, and Occleve. There is no fruit, but frail and fleeting blossom, many useless branches, still more dying or dead branches; such is this literature. And why? Because it had no longer a root; after three centuries of effort, a heavy instrument cut it underground. This instrument was the Scholastic Philosophy.

Beneath every literature there is a philosophy. Beneath every work of art is an idea of nature and of life; this idea leads the poet. Whether the author knows it or not, he writes in order to exhibit it; and the characters which he fashions, like the events which he arranges, only serve to bring to light the dim creative conception which raises and combines them. (132)

So, after all this I began to wonder about the effect of “postmodern” (as if that were a coherent concept) philosophy upon literature. It would tend to explain Laurie Anderson’s conception that the human nature is superflous in modern genres such as the detective story or science fiction. It would also, in my mind, have a certain explanatory power regarding pervasive images of the detective.

The twentieth century (according to Kenneth Burke, at least) is ruled by the trope of irony and the emergence of detective-as-antihero seems to fit that. We aren’t meant to admire/emulate the hard-boiled detective as a chivalrous figure. Our admiration is ironic. And moreover, if we take lessons from deconstruction the best course of action in most cases is to look not for the human narrative, but for the contradictions inherent in them.

The benchmark figure, then, is not Holmes but Columbo. There’s always that one thing that’s bothering him. These contradictions among apparently established facts then frame the narrative’s resolution. We find the answer when we figure out why stories are not perfect. How very postmodern. Nonetheless, posthumanism seems yet a different project.

The thread that holds it together

Corning Museum of Glass

We do not know what the past preserves for us. There are some things that only the man himself knew about his life, and there are certain truths that will forever lie beyond the scope of documents and accounts. That is a good thing, because if everything could be reduced to its logical end there would be no mystery left. Facts that are strung together like pearls are made to fit a rigid pattern at the expense of all poetry, and therefore give a false picture. What is the use of knowing everything if you exclude the unknowable? It often happens that in our understanding of a work of art, it is the indescribable that lifts it beyond the scope of the most convincing analysis. Thus the effect comes from what the image does not reveal, the unseen world implicit in the photograph. Such is the vision of an observer like Cartier-Bresson, who was interested less in the pearls than in the string holding them together. The truth is found not in a comprehensive assortment of facts, but in the spaces in between.

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 11

The last couple of semesters I taught writing, I began with a basic assignment: introduce the person sitting next to you to the class. I graded this seriously, and aggressively. I told them up front that I was not looking for an inventory of facts, but rather something that would give some idea of who the person next to them was. Few took it seriously; most responses were rote and the reaction the resultant grade was always shock. “I don’t understand what you want!” was the usual protest. Students usually expect (and some claim that they deserve) clearly bounded assignments with well defined criteria for grades. I don’t agree. Life just isn’t like that. We don’t live in a fill-in-the-blanks world, or at least I wouldn’t want to live in one if it existed. Why should school be clear-cut? If instructors make it that way, they reinforce the delusion that life is fair and you always get what you deserve. Not helpful, in my estimation. Encouraging people to take things seriously and deal with ambiguity is what I think teaching is all about.

The look on these same students faces when I pressed them into reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men the following week, and more than that to actually try to make sense of it, was similarly confused. The presence of the images by Walker Evans seemed at first to make constructing an image of tenant families easier, but if you confront Agee’s text you are seized by the discrepancies between the black-and-white reality of the images and the poetic descriptions in the prose. Moving from there through Bourke-White and Caldwell’s collaboration, You Have Seen Their Faces and Lange and Taylor’s An American Exodus the brightest in the class would begin to spot the string— I wasn’t trying to give them a history lesson about the depression, but rather to deal with the problem of representing the lives of others. My first assignment wasn’t a rote “introduction” at all, but rather a direct confrontation with the problems of representation.

Of course I supplemented the primary readings with critical articles about them, particularly the po-mo critique of documentary. I also used documentary films (mostly contemporary) to drive home the fact that switching to multi-modal approaches does not negate the fundamental problems of scarcity and bias in the ways we slice up the world. The average college freshman, in my opinion, is capable of assimilating these issues into simple activities of information gathering and deciding who to trust when gather evidence to build their own cases. Each of the primary sources I used targeted the same problems of poverty and dislocation in 1930s America.1 Almost universally, students tended to trust the photographic interpretations more than the textual accounts— seeing is believing after all. When pressed though, they learn to see each of these sources as rhetorically savvy responses targeted at specific audiences.2

But I think the Assouline quote really cuts to the heart of the matter: noticing the string is the real skill. The mystery implicit in the photograph escapes most viewers who simply glance at them as “evidence” expecting transparency. Fill-in-the-blanks culture makes us all hunters and gatherers of facts; college reinforces this as the necessary skills for survival include critical reporting of booty via essays. Spinning a web of associations, or cultivating and nurturing a vine of connections is a different matter not so easily taught, but essential in the development of higher (perhaps fundamentally agrarian!) culture. I cannot see pastiche/remix culture as a new height; decrying the loss of shiny baubles to string ignores the core of creativity itself. Without the string, things fall apart.

The central problem, for me at least, is: how can we communicate something meaningful about people and worlds outside ourselves? Photographs are at once a problem and a solution.

1If I had more time I might even throw in Sherwood Anderson’s Puzzled America for a more mono-modal approach. Or, there is Anderson’s Home Town edited and designed as a photo-text by Edwin Rosskam, or any of Rosskams other efforts including 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright, for a later (1941) glimpse of social problems.— that’s another lost gem from the era.

2Let Us Now Praise Famous Men reached almost no one at the time of publication; it’s impacted audience was a generation of artists/activists in the 1960s. You Have Seen Their Faces‘ audience was the Life magazine bourgeois public and beyond. A tremendous popular favorite denied the scholarly attention it really deserves. Bartholome’s anthology that I used for excerpts from several of these texts fails to include it because Caldwell’s writing is too lowbrow to teach composition from, I suspect. The book spread round the world; my first edition comes from Ireland. Bourke-White mentions signing a copy in South Africa in her autobiography. An American Exodus, though it remains popular for its lyrical Lange photographs, was written by an economist and it sounds like it. It perhaps had more impact on government relief efforts than most of these titles. The take away for composition students: audience, audience, audience.

The most perfect place is where you are right now.

April 1983
A motel next to an RV dealer on Union Avenue, Bakersfield, CA

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about places (and perspectives on them). I don’t think that I approach place in the same way as a lot of people, perhaps because of where I grew up. Coming of age in the 1970s, the tradition in photography (especially in California) was dominated by Ansel Adams and his descendants. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But those photographs did not describe my world, my home. When I looked out the window I saw something completely different. But it would be myopic to suggest that place is simply a matter of geography/time. People are mobile creatures, and perhaps always have been. It shocked me how far many photographers of the nineteenth century were able to travel, aided by technology or not. But perhaps it’s communication media that have had the greatest effect on leveling things, creating uniformity when there wasn’t any uniformity before.

I remember taking linguistics classes that explored the subtleties of inflection/pronunciation and meaning vs. places of origin (i.e. home). California is fairly nondescript linguistically, but I didn’t even test positive for California idioms. My speech patterns contained artifacts of most of the regions in the US. Talking to my mom, she told me that I learned most of my language and pronunciation from the TV. I watched a lot of TV growing up. The dissonance between the images I saw on television (those people didn’t look like anyone I knew, though the places seemed oddly familiar) and the images I saw in real life was pretty jarring. Just the same, I learned a lot from the box.

No one I knew ever confused TV with real life; “reality TV” is the ultimate absurdity. I think that what TV homogenized is not our lives, but rather our dreams. It sets a horizon that most of my generation never strayed far from. What has this to do with the places we live? Not much, I suppose, other than to promote a disconnect between ideal places and actual places: since we don’t live in pristine nature we make pilgrimages to it and some even fantasize about living there. Sometime around age 18, I turned the box off; I didn’t own one for a while, until they decided to put music on it (but that’s a different story).

I’ve mentioned before that I started collecting and sorting images when I was a teen. Again, these were idealized images and I was always trying to figure out just what made them ideal. Then, for lack of anything else to do I suppose, I went to Bakersfield College (the high school on the hill) and met Harry Wilson. Harry was a firm believer in the “garbage in, garbage out” school of picture viewing. Looking at crap images all the time drove you to imitate and produce more crap advertising images. This sort of penchant for imitation over innovation seems like a given now. The cornerstone of a liberal arts education is to view/read only the best and brightest so that you can converse with the best and the brightest. I dropped out of college then, but I developed more refined viewing habits when I was there (1976-77).

It was during those years that I was first introduced to conceptual art, and really became fond of the practice of landscape photography. When I first saw Friedlander and Winogrand it was like an icepick in the forehead, but what made me fall right over was interaction with my high school photography teacher who had taken a sabbatical in those years to complete his MFA at Cal State Bakersfield. It was Chris Burnett that introduced me to the idea of conceptual landscapes. I started following formulas of a sort, plotting coordinates on a road map of Bakersfield and Kern County to drive to random locations and take photographs. This odd procedural move helped take the idealization out of the process. While it was hard to stop idealizing the locations, being confronted with decidedly non-ideal subject matter constantly forces you to come up with more interesting ways to represent the world. 

The problem with this maneuver, is that it forces your thinking into a sort of grid. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (it works fine for Chuck Close). This just didn’t satisfy me totally, so I would head out to the Kern River. I was always torn between a gridded, systemic approach to things and an more organic and loose approach. But there has always been one constant:

I think that the best place to be is where you are. 

Going back trying to tag my ramblings, I encountered an entry from 2001 where I mentioned taking a findyourspot survey (remember surveys? How 2000!) that suggested that the best places for me to live were all in the South. I took the survey again (it still exists!) to find that the best places for me to live are all in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Give it another year, and I’ll bet it’s saying that my preference is for Central New York. Our ideal expectations are always inflected by what we are viewing/hearing at any given moment.

North Country Strip Mall
I was here a few days ago

Pumping and Dumping (the Art Marketplace)

Postmodern theory has proposed that all the questions that thoughtful photographers had begun to ask in the late 1950s and early 1960s — about the non-neutrality of photography, about lens-based observation and photographic seeing, about the tension in a photograph between its transcriptive, descriptive, translative, and interpretive aspects — were insignificant, and had in any case been answered satisfactorily.

T’ain’t so, methinks. Those questions endure, still open, and such answers as we have for them — in the work of of Arbus, Friedlander, and Winogrand, among many others, along with the theories of Szarkowski and some of his successors — remain provisional, as perhaps they always will. Now that, in effect, all of those individuals have gained admission to the pantheon and all the results of their theory and practice have entered the canon, we stand poised at a particular moment of stasis: the pause between several generations that grew up with this work and its makers as living entities and those generations now to come, who will treat them as a distinct chapter in the medium’s history and exemplars of an established tradition to either draw from or ignore. What they had to say to the last third of the twentieth century is in any case indelibly inscribed on the record. Let’s see what the next century makes of them.

AMERICANSUBURB X: THEORY: A. D. Coleman, “Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander & Garry Winogrand at Century’s End (2000)”

Coming of age as a photographer in the late 70s/early 80s, I was railed against postmodern critics such as Andy Grundberg and Peter Galassi (still do, in some respects). A.D. Coleman was a breath of fresh air, and reading his constant columns in Photo Metro and elsewhere, I had the feeling that I wasn’t completely alone in appreciating both a rich tradition and new frontiers for photography. I met Coleman at an SPE conference a few years ago, though, and I wondered how he could be so consistently luddite and backward about the future of photographic education. Mainly, judging from his web presence, I really don’t feel like he “gets” the internets.

Continue reading “Pumping and Dumping (the Art Marketplace)”

The Graphic Method

Etienne-Jules Marey’s graphic method wasn’t simply a replacement for observation with the senses, but also a representational method that sought greater insight into phenomena by non-linguistic means. While in San Francisco, I picked up a discounted copy of Dagognet’s A Passion for the Trace which, although flawed, really whet my appetite for looking into him. Past research on Muybridge was interesting to me, but ultimately didn’t go anywhere. I think looking into Marey may get me closer to understanding the struggle for redefinition of time and space in the late nineteenth century—Bergson, Husserl, et al.

Continue reading “The Graphic Method”

The web that coheres the world

I watched Black White +Grey last night and was fascinated. It put a face on Sam Wagstaff that surprised me—I haven’t often considered collectors as thinkers. The root of aesthetics is pleasure, and Wagstaff is pleasure’s poster-boy. The film makes it clear that he received great pleasure from photographs, and the short clip above defines that pleasure as private and non verbal—in exaggerated discomfort, he brands it onanistic.

The uncut interview was taken from a symposium at the Corcoran museum occasioned by the exhibition of selections from his collection in 1978, and the credits of the limited footage list a tantalizing line-up of commentators. Several sections of Wagstaff’s comments during this symposium fascinate me, not he least of which the profound separation between photography and A-R-T that is echoed and riffed upon by virtually every modern commentator after the photo secession. But I must save that for later; what interests me most for now is the relationship between photography and language.

Exploring the Sam Wagstaff papers online after the film unearthed a typescript titled “Pictorial Logic” from another speaker, photographer Fredrick Sommer that runs parallel to Wagstaff’s comments. It also deals with the relationship between words and pictures, deserving full transcription below the fold.

Continue reading “The web that coheres the world”

Thumbs Up


SABRINA HARMAN: I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hilla, and so whenever I would get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands… So any kind of photo, I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just — I just picked it up from the kids. It’s just something that automatically happens. Like when you get into a photo, you want to smile. It’s just, I guess, something I did. (source)

bush thumbs.jpg
Obama Thumb.pngI’m not sure that this is a change I can believe in