Reading Shirley Abbott’s book Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South for a class today, I decided to save some snips. It’s fairly well written, I think, and it makes some provocative assertions:

To grow up female in the South is to inherit a set of directives that warp one for life, if they do not actually induce psychosis. This is true for high-born ladies as well as for farm women, and no one has ever quite explained it. A North Carolina journalist named Florence King made a good try, though, in a book called Southern Ladies and Gentlemen. All Southerners, she observed, are insane and most especially is the Southern woman insane. The reason is that “the cult of Southern womanhood endowed her with at least five totally different images and asked her to be good enough to adopt all of them. She is required to be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy, and scatterbrained— all at the same time. Her problems spring from the fact she succeeds.” (3)

Tracing the lineage of Southern settlers to the Ulster Scots, Abbott returns to colonial records to find gems. I was taken by her description of Reverend Woodmason’s (from around 1766) perception of Southern cooking:

Their cookery, if indeed it can be so called, is, he says, “filthy and most execrable.” What provisions they have consist mostly of bacon and cornmeal, and clearly the women have already acquired the habit of drowning everything in grease. (40)

Now that I think about it, the quick exploration of the cooking dovetails nicely with her thesis that Southern ladies/gentlemen see themselves as descended from the English aristocracy. British food isn’t exactly renowned either. One of the interesting techniques used to frame her elaborate historical tale of family is that she marks the ahistorical perspective of her Southern mother against her Yankee father who feels attached to history. From this perspective, she deeply explores the nature of Southern identity as manifest in Arkansas.

Continue reading “Womenfolks”

Burning with Desire

Burning with Desire

Wood s lot pointed at a review of Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography by Geoffrey Batchen a week or so ago. Of course, I had to get it. It’s very good, and at the same time, very bad.

I like where its coming from, but I have big difficulties with parts of the approach. It’s distinctly similar to what has been running through my head. Batchen attempts to position photography, or as he would prefer “photographies,” in a larger cultural context. It’s neatly digested, well organized, but far too shallow in many respects. I’d really like to read the thesis that it originates from, because Batchen picks up on some parts of the eighteenth century context that are crucial, but he doesn’t follow through as well as I think he could— and he relies on secondhand information in places where it would have been relatively easy to go to the primary source, perpetuating errors that are quite embarrassing. I suspect it’s the condensed nature of the book that makes them stand out. When you’re painting with broad strokes, you have to make them count. Invoking Derrida and Foucault isn’t good enough to guarantee credibility in approaching a historical subject, at least for me.

Above all, Burning with Desire sets out to show that history inhabits the present in very real ways; that the practice of history is always an exercise of power; that history matters (in all senses of this word). (xiii)

Chapter one opposes the high formalist criticism of John Szarkowski with that of the postmodernists like Alan Sekula and John Tagg. Batchen casts it in terms similar to that of gender theory— Szarkowski’s position is characterized as “essentialist” and the postmodern position is marked by its refusal to accept any core identity for photography as practice. There is no “static identity or singular cultural status” for photography (5). Photography is a “vehicle of larger outside forces” and “photographic identity” is fundamentally contingent on these cultural forces (9). The formalist aesthetic of Szarkowski and Bazin is traced to the influence of Clement Greenberg, and the histories of photography offered to this point are taken to rely on an originary hypothesis that positions photography within the broader context of art history. The essential nature of photography is derived from the drive for representation.

I think Batchen is perfectly right to mark that both these approaches share more similarities than either side would admit— both sides present creative histories to support the notion that photography is motivated by something— the logic of capitol, or the logic of formalist art. Recast this way, it is an argument of culture vs. nature. Batchen asserts that both approaches avoid the “historical and ontological complexity of the very thing they claim to analyze” (21). Batchen’s approach is to analyze the analysis of photography’s history— sounds good.

Chapter two takes a turn that I’m not so sure about. Batchen wishes to take the inquiry into the origins of photography back to the dream. I was constantly haunted by Milton’s assertion that thinking of a sin does not constitute a sin— it only becomes a sin once it is performed. Though I’m a big fan of desire, I’m not so sure that it has as much relevance to the questions at hand. Batchen’s work is clearly a rhetoric of motives, and those motives are neatly slanted to suit his thesis.

Chapter two discusses twenty-four or more possible inventors or dreamers about photography, traces the discourse as if it were a sort of paternity suit. It goes into great detail regarding Davy’s experiments, the relationship of Tom Wedgwood, Humphrey Davy, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It also discusses the possibility of early experiments by Samuel Morse. The originary schemes and debates are contextualized, very narrowly, in the chapter that follows. I’ll write at greater length about that later.

Read My Lips

Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion & the End of Gender

In the foreword, Riki Anne Wilchins distances herself from being a “spokestrans” or “spokesherm.” Read My Lips is outspoken, personal, and at the same time deeply theoretical. Though she is co-founder of Transexual Menace and Executive Director of GenderPAC, the opening statement makes it clear that if you put three different transpeople in a room, you’ll get three different opinions. This isn’t an ivory-tower book, but a practical reflection on the politics of gender told through a loose series of papers draped around a hazy frame.

The first chapter, Why this Book reflects on the nature of divisions like pre-op and post-op, and the invasion of what Foucault would call Scientia Sexualis (my observation, not Wilchins). The “transgender studies” anthology is a ticket to an academic grant and a book— observations based on the perspective of the sociologist or anthropologist, the gaze on an “inexplicable distant tribe” (21). She speaks of the trans-experience as a peculiarly incestuous one, a case of being robbed of a sense of belonging to a community through a transgression that robs a person of their intimate moments— there is a sense of hiding, of dishonesty. The view of theorists peering into the community is characterized as being that of “tourists on a junket” (22). The questions she wants to address include: Why are transpeople so lonely? What are the actual conditions of their lives? Why are they economically and politically oppressed? Why are they so often the victims of abuse and crime? Wilchins asserts that trans-identity is not a natural fact, but a political category people are forced to occupy when they do certain things to their bodies.

17 Things You Don’t Say to a Transexual is hilarious. The real issues start to develop in What Does it Cost to Tell the Truth. Wilchins proposes that appearance is a category on “the far side of language,” a phrase appropriated from Judith Butler. However, we don’t get to participate in life without our own specific “gender id” which we carry with us, like a passport. The associations of appearance are socially constructed, and if your appearance matches a point on the cultural grid, fine— otherwise, the price of telling the truth is high. Video Tape moves back and forth through difficult situations from Wilchins’ past, landing on an interesting note.

Continue reading “Read My Lips”

Portrait of a Decade

Gordon Parks, Washington DC 1942

Portrait of a Decade

I don’t think anyone has done a really good “portrait” of the FSA decade (1932-42). But since I will be writing about it, I figured it would be a good idea to review some of the available books, both for their content and the mistakes I’d like to avoid.

Jack Hurley’s Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties (1972) is an excellent book in many respects. It has fresh, original research including first-person interviews with many of the people involved.

However, some of the basic concepts which it uses as a point of departure seem deeply flawed to me. Hurley ignores a lot of pioneering work through careful definitional exclusion. He feels that the Stryker was instrumental in enabling documentary work, work that would not have existed otherwise.

Edwin Rosskam gets a total of one paragraph. [I must amend— there are a couple more in chapter 6] Bourke-White and Caldwell are deprecated. The book follows a rather liberal party-line, where commercial=bad and all of the New Deal cheerleaders were the heroes. Evans is subsumed into this crowd, even though Hurley admits that it is an insult to him.

Intro. & Chap. 1
Chap. 2 — 9/1
Chap. 3 & 4 — 9/2
Chap. 5 — 9/8
Chap. 6 — 9/15

more to come later

Deep background in the “conventional” story sets this book apart. I like the book, but it is fairly shoddy scholarship. There are many errors, omissions, and travesties in the organizational structure. But it also has several leads I need to track down. The biggest problem is stripping away the obvious cheerleading to get to the meat.

Continue reading “Portrait of a Decade”

The American Evasion of Philosophy

The American Evasion of Philosophy

The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism by Cornel West has been on my list for a little while.

This book was frequently cited in Reason to Believe. Since the pragmatic point of view seems instrumental to the evolution of heroes in the American consciousness, and I will have to deal with many issues regarding race or ethnicity in the photographic representations of heroes, I suspect detailed notes on West’s take on Emerson will be helpful. Not to mention other figures like John Dewey, who clearly shaped the flavor of didactic practice in America.

It is an interdisciplinary study which encompasses Emerson, Dewey, Du Bois, Trilling, Quine, Rorty, Hook, Mills, and a few others. I’ve failed in my mission to finish it within a week, so I’ve had to reposition the entry.

I find the writing style incredibly lucid and not bombastic or propagandistic. West seems very sensitive to the complexity of Emerson’s position, and the nature of the shifts in perspective over time.

Intro — 8/30
Chapter 1 — 8/31
Chapter 2 — 9/1
Chapter 3 — 9/6-9

The introduction is polemic, as one might expect. But it’s a polemic I largely agree with. The first chapter deals with Emerson, with glancing references to Karl Marx and Andrew Jackson. Chapter two deals with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Chapter three goes into great depth regarding John Dewey (finally finished!).

more to come later

Continue reading “The American Evasion of Philosophy”

Reason to Believe

Reason to Believe

Reason to Believe: Romanticism, Pragmatism, and the Teaching of Writing by Hephzibah Roskelley and Kate Ronald promises to be an interesting read.

The subheading on the title page doesn’t match. It reads: “Romanticism, Pragmatism, and the Possibility of Teaching.” Perhaps this reflects an earlier working title. I like it better, myself. This situates the book in the continuing debate (since Plato) regarding the very possibility of education. Indeed, the title of the first chapter reflects concern over these issues— “Is Teaching Still Possible?”

What lead me to this book was its engagement with Romantic ideology. While the book is specifically focused on American Romanticism, Emerson in particular, the general principles are of importance to me. This book is the only rhetorical scholarship listed in the Bedford Bibliography that deals with Romanticism and pedagogy in a positive light. Elsewhere, Romanticism is a demon to be slain. Here, the authors propose that engagement with the issues debated during the Romantic period can be a redemptive force in writing pedagogy.

Preface — 7/10
Chap. 1 & 2 — 7/12
Chap. 3 & 4 — 7/13
Chap. 5— 7/15
Chap. 6 & 7 — 7/17

Chapter one opens with contemporary theory. Chapter two continues the discussion, and procedes into American history. The third chapter provides careful consideration of Emerson, Thoreau, Fredrick Douglass, and Margaret Fuller. The fourth deals with pragmatism, and the fifth, neo-pragmatism. Chapter six deals with the presentation of romantic pedagogy in Dead Poet’s Society, and the final chapter presents real world examples of teachers using the romantic/pragmatic method.

Continue reading “Reason to Believe”

Literature in its Place

Literature in its Place by James Britton

James Britton’s Literature in its Place begins by invoking John Stuart Mill’s definition of imagination: “that which enables us, by a voluntary effort, to conceive the absent as if it were present, the imaginary as if it were real, and to clothe it with feelings which, if it were indeed real, it would bring along with it.” Mill later glosses it as “the power by which one human being enters into the mind and circumstances of another.” He might as easily have used Percy Shelley’s definition from Defence of Poetry, but the first chapter leans heavily on the anti-romantics, like Eliot, Pound, and Auden. I remember being struck, while reading Eliot’s critical articles on Shelley, that Eliot seemed to damn the qualities in Shelley that were distinctly apparent in his own poetry. In this context, Harold Bloom’s Oedipal hypotheses don’t seem too far off the mark. Similarly, Britton invokes the ghost of Shelley without ever mentioning his name.

Seen in such severely logical terms, I don’t think anyone could doubt that imagination is an essential element in the powers of perception and cerebration that characterize the human mentality, and not a special gift, bestowed only upon writers, painters, and other artists. And then, like so many of our abilities, we have to admit that it grows above all from use— from use in ever wider and more complicated areas of our concern. (vii)

Amen. I particularly like his nominalization cerebration. It is homophonic with celebration, and should be a synonym, at least when approached with the fervor of Shelley. Literature in its Place is a short little book, and I want to make some notes as I read through it. Britton makes an interesting case for the utility of imagination as a driving force for the foundation of identity, and the development of language skills. It starts, as many works on rhetoric do, with cognitive research regarding the acquisition of language by children.


7/6 Chap. 2 and 3
7/7 Chap. 4 and 5
7/8 Chap. 6 and 7

One of the most common observations by people I meet, regarding my personality, is: “You’re so creative.” I’m never sure what to say about that. I firmly believe that everyone is. They just don’t label it as such, and perhaps don’t flex it quite as often. I suspect there are cultural reasons why cerebration— for most people— is not equivocal with celebration. This isn’t the case when we are growing up.

Continue reading “Literature in its Place”