Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt. As he turned over the almost ​endless creations of the last century—and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed—this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:

“ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL. (Jane Austen, Persuasion)

The first lines in most of Jane Austen’s books strike right at the core of what follows. Though Sir Walter is not the hero, or even the principal character in Persuasion, his attitude points to the general object of persuasion: to move someone or something away from the tradition which we have become accustomed to, which gives us a sense of “place” in the world. Tradition is a comfort to most people, and reaching back into personal history is the most common trope at a writer’s disposal to elicit some sort of identification or sympathy with an unknown audience. Attention to the past can be a diversion or salve against the pressures of the present, but it provides one means of gaining grounded authority against uncertainty.

The common center of any definition of rhetoric is that persuasion is the goal, and I was surprised to find a twenty-five year old article from the DGS at Minnesota during my time there, Art Walzer, about Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Art argues, and I think rightfully, that this novel has at least a minor spot in the rhetorical canon due to its interface with rhetorical theory. Art’s core thesis is that Austen pursues the idea that persuasion functions using reason as well as desire.

The tension in the persuasive process between desire and reality is an instance of this broader theme, a process in which the will, under the influence of the imagination, is moved to act. As such Austen’s depiction of the process follows in its basic mechanics the account provided by the theorists. But while for Austen reason is often an effective critical faculty disciplining judgment to attend to what Bacon calls the “nature of things,” reason is generally an instrumental (rather than an independent) faculty in the persuasive process, a function of desire in the case of characters such as Sir Walter and Elizabeth, who are in the grip of their appetites, or of the moral passions in the case of Anne.

The relevance to my project here is that “reason is generally an instrumental (rather than an independent) faculty in the persuasive process” – Art always had a certain spare eloquence in scholarly writing. When humans desire new technologies, these desires are always rationalized using a number of strategies implying that new technologies are generally superior to old technologies. In this case, reason often fails us, blinded by better faster shiny new. Reason is simply one tool among many, urging us ever onward on our technological path, ignoring the inconvenient reality of planetary destruction.

Reason cannot, and will not, win over desire– particularly when there are as many reasons to gratify our desire as there are to deny ourselves. Resistance to technology (and change in general) often takes the form of a nostalgia for a time before the change, and like Sir Walter thumbing through the Baronetage to trace our place, we ignore the new at our peril. Witold Rybzynski’s second book, Taming the Tiger: The Struggle to Control Technology (1983), recounts the long history of the failures of reasonable means of resistance to technology. Desire, whether for technology or people, is tricky and often tragic given that what we want and what is good for us are seldom the same thing.

In Persuasion, once Anne Elliot is persuaded by Lady Russell that Captain Wentworth was a poor match for her, she resists desiring him although his circumstances have changed. She applies reason to her passions in service of thwarting change. Reason, in an Austen heroine, often restrains and disciplines decision making. It’s a complex and interesting tale in which competing interests apply a wide range of persuasive techniques to a somewhat surprising conclusion. Everyone involved is pulled between what they feel is their duty and their desires.

A similar process occurs when we suddenly discover a new attractiveness in old technologies, “quixotic attachments” to old realities as Rybczynski labels them: “The picturesque medieval hamlet is appealingly portrayed in charming paintings, but the smell, the putrefaction and decay that were part of a sewerless society are forgotten” (225). Self-satisfied revisionary reasoning slows decisions, but it does not stop the progress of change (or desire). The troubling part, regarding technology, is that new technologies are generally portrayed as inhuman while older technologies get a makeover as somehow more human in their impact on our lives. This does little to thwart the “progress” of technology. Most people inevitably give in to their desire for better faster shiny new. Does this make us weak?

The answer, for Austen, lies in a sort of feminist rhetoric. As Art Walzer describes it:

That persuasion is under the sway of the passions does not, however, make persuadability a sign of weakness, for the novel complicates the simple dichotomy of the rhetorics between a non-rational, weak, feminine persuadability and a strong, rational, masculine conviction. The novel invites the reader to subject the ethical questions the theory raises to Elizabeth Bennet’s more complicated test-whether a persuadable temper might indicate an affectionate heart, rather than a weak will, and a mind characterized by a discriminating moral sensibility rather than by a timid suasibility.

Understanding that we persuade ourselves to accept technological progress is an important part of my current thinking. It’s not simply a matter of capitalism overshadowing all decisions through “bad rhetoric.” Wanting things, however, may not be a bad thing. A desire to improve the range of possibilities seems natural, and perhaps admirable. But there should be a limit to what we expect from the tools we use. That’s the hard part.

Langdon Winner’s seminal The Whale and the Reactor: The Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (1986) aims at understanding how technology might actually be tamed (limited) by political will. In the eponymous essay that ends it, Winner describes visiting the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant as a whale swam by, driving the realization that reason wasn’t always the best way to approach the presence of the technology that surrounds us: “The thing should have never been put there, regardless of what the most elegant cost/benefit, risk/benefit, calculations may have shown” (176). The implication, obviously, is that deference should be given to the natural world that provides for our “common humanity.” It’s an old trope, really: the book of nature cannot be understood through reason. Like Sir Walter Elliot, he opens the book for comfort.

The core of Winner’s book, however, is frequently cited for a reason. It presents a cogent argument that we have been “sleepwalking” our way to our own destruction, largely by taking refuge in the idea that it isn’t the technology that’s evil, it’s the men that deploy it. The view doesn’t hold— technologies are far from neutral instruments of our will. Arguments for limits, or to position technology as “savior” for the human condition are notoriously bad. It’s time to work on better, more workable policies towards it in the political sphere. I found myself wanting to substitute “rhetoric” for “politics” in many key arguments in his book, wondering how that might change a reading of it in the 21st century.

Rybczynski’s aim is different from Winner. He suggests that it’s fruitless to try to separate “human” from “inhuman” technologies, and that we would be better served by thinking of technology (and the desire for it) as being inseparable from being human. This would be a positive turn and it necessitates better definitions of just what we consider to be technologies. The limits then, are not simply on which technologies we condone or adopt, but rather on our own desires and expectations for technology.

Whether  we control technology by directing its evolution, by choosing when and how to use it, or by deciding what significance it should have in our lives, we shall succeed only if we are able to accept what appears at first to be an impossible shift in point of view: different as people and machines are, they exist not in two different worlds, but at two ends of the same continuum. Just as we have discovered that we are a part of the natural environment, and not just surrounded by it, so also we will find that we are an intimate part of the environment of technology. The auxiliary “organs” that extend our sight, our hearing, and our thinking really are an extension of our physical bodies. When we are able to accept this, we shall discover that the struggle to control technology has all along been a struggle to control ourselves. (227)

We control things by political choices we make, as Winner frequently invokes, but we also control ourselves by self-persuasion. I think that the future of our relationship with technology lies as much within, as it does without. It isn’t about not being persuaded by technology and our desire for it (Luddism) but rather by exercising better judgment with more meaningful expectations. Both technophobes and technophiles will be better served by being persuadable.

Pure, Perfect Sound–Forever

My wife is profoundly deaf in one ear and severely deaf in the other. What this means, from a practical standpoint, is that without electronic signal processing she cannot parse anything. This was strange to discover, partly because I met her in classes where conversation was a central feature of the class. She doesn’t speak with any sort of an accent, to my ears at least, and understands most everything (apart from the normal marital deafness, that is) that I say. We don’t talk about deafness much, and haven’t over the last 17 years or so, until the last few years where it’s been a topic of theoretical consideration.

This might seem odd to some, given my history of being a bit of an audiophile and music lover. My wife loves music and has a broad musical knowledge— in fact, we spend a lot of time talking about it. In the early days of our relationship, I did spend some time trying to figure out the sensual differences between us. She doesn’t hear in stereo, and until digital hearing aids (about 4 months before we met) she didn’t have any access to high frequency information. Obviously, her experience of music should be different from mine. Not exactly. We share more than you might think. From my years as an audio salesman and equipment trainer, I have been aware that even people with perfect hearing simply don’t hear subtle differences unless they learn how.

Music, like most human interactions, depends on a high degree of intuition to decode into meaningful content. Some folks don’t get it, or don’t give it much thought. Part of what really made me fall in love with my wife is her incredible intuition, learned in part I think from having to operate on less information than other people. She became deaf as a small child and has virtually no memory of standard hearing. Because of this, she has adjusted to technology fairly seamlessly. Each new generation of hearing aids brings greater information, making it easier to understand and interact with the world around her with less mental effort in filling in the gaps.

George Berkeley argued that the universe exists only in our minds because sensual information is incommensurate. Everyone perceives and processes the world differently, largely through the comparison between things which looks for difference. James Gibson’s big revelation regarding visual perception is that we are bodies in space and movement (both our own and of objects in the world) plays a large part in the way we mentally construct images. It’s not just the data, it’s how it changes as we interact with the world. In short, all perception is processed.

Attempts to transfer this processing to machine algorithms have given us socially agreed upon constructs as the JPEG, the acronym for Joint Photographic Experts Group, in 1992. Prior to this in 1980, the compact disc format was loosed upon the world by agreement on the Red Book standard. The promise, as promoted on a 1982 sampler recording from Philips, was Pure, Perfect Sound–Forever.

The slogan was met with almost immediate ridicule, with good reason. I remember the first CD machines we received at Sun Stereo in California– they were the size of a large toaster, and sounded downright strident and hard to listen to for long periods of time. Pure is not an adjective anyone could reasonably apply to sound except in the form of sine and square waves, certainly not music. And these machines did not sound like music. Nonetheless, the machines continued to improve and eventually took the world by storm. The consensus was that digital was convenient and “good enough” to satisfy our music recording needs.

The ironic part of the Phillips marketing strategy was the “forever” part. Early digital disks degraded quickly, becoming unplayable in 10-15 years. It was a bit like the early days of mass color photography; there’s a gap in the historical record because the dyes used were not permanent and present a jaundiced view of what colors in the 1950s and 1960s actually were. Natural degradation is a part of any artifact, usually a slow fade or a deposited patina on objects like oil paintings from atmospheric contamination. Digital did not repeal the laws of entropy.

Perfect, of course, is a matter of degree. People have long argued that the Red Book standard saddled the world with an imperfect musical product. Digital devices quantize sound in terms of the rate of samples and the number of discrete steps measured in those samples. The sample rate of Red Book is 44.1khz  with 16 bit steps. There are more choices available now, with more information, but not everyone cares or can be bothered to seek out better sound resolution.

The jury is still out as to whether more information (and larger digital files) really improve the subjective experience of digital audio. As my wife is quick to point out, having more information doesn’t always lead to greater understanding; for example, she still has difficulty appreciating early Joni Mitchell, or most all Joan Baez, because their vocal ranges are high and even when the frequencies are transposed down to the range she can hear she finds them painful to listen to, even though she can appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of the songs and lyrics.

A better example, though, is her listening difficulties in large groups, particularly in noisy environments. She makes sense of situations by reading a variety of cues, body language and lip movements (though, no, she cannot read lips). When there are more people and more sounds tossed in, it becomes harder to discriminate between what is important and unimportant. She can handle four people at a time these days, but five is pushing it. I have another deaf friend who works well when in close proximity with one person and can direct his attention solely to them. There is a human labor in all this beyond algorithmic signal processing.

Which brings me to the real difficulty, as I see it, with digital sound and picture files— the way they will endure through time. The only real answer to the problem of “forever” with digital files is to continually copy them to new media as it becomes available, and digital copies cannot be perfect. Dropped bits, in small or large quantities are replaced using CIRC error correction, and when this fails to live up to the “pure, perfect” hype, artifacts are the result. Machines interpolating missing information are not the same as humans reconstructing a sense of the world. There is an alien DNA wedding itself to our cultural memory

As time goes on, our world is increasingly digitally smoothed. In a profound sense, analog records (non-biodegradable petrochemical discs) are made when breath (aura) is transformed into motion incised in the world. They degrade, generally through clicks and pops and shadows from adjacent grooves. Digital files don’t degrade, they simply get interpolated out of existence.

Analog recording is metonymic in that air pressure is transformed into incision and then back to air pressure through transformation. In each groove, there is a part of the musical experience directly connected with the moment. As it degrades, the analog recording’s original vibrations disappear in a sea of random sounds: white noise.

Digital recording starts with a sample of the musical moment.  As it degrades, the algorithm will interpolate data until no original data exists. Then it will interpolate the interpolations until the sound that emerges has no direct connection with the original event. It will survive forever, but only as a metaphor for something that once existed.

There was a short piece that my wife wrote long ago in Arkansas about the time just after we met. I was trying to explain what boiling water sounded like (she couldn’t hear it). I put some dry beans in some water in a jar and swirled it around, thinking that the rattling of the beans against the glass would be more within her range. It worked, this argument by analogy. Communication longs to succeed.

The recording angel has labored long across the twentieth century. I often think about Edward Curtis’s efforts at recording North American native tribes, both in sound and image. The images were designed for photogravure and broad circulation rather than as artifacts for a museum. And there were sounds, on Edison wax cylinders, mostly lost to degradation and accident. But some survive, as digital samples lurking on the internet. I think it’s important to keep emphasis on the human aspects of songs. Above all, humans fade.

I heard a perfect echo die into an anonymous wall of digital sound

I am reminded of the story of Echo and Narcissus. They failed to communicate, so he fell in love with himself.

Love is a rose

I hated the song “Love is a rose” when it dominated the radio waves. Later, when I discovered that Neil Young wrote it, it seemed to prove out the cliché that nobody’s perfect. From a formal standpoint, “love is a rose” is a metaphor, and one of many clichés circulating long before Shakespeare:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare (Sonnet 130)

At the most basic level, any metaphor is a “false compare” between two things that are not identical. It calls upon us to interpret, to actively try to constitute meaning from the information we’re given. At the word level, one is tempted to substitute a synonym but often this simply isn’t satisfactory. “Making an exposure” doesn’t have the impact of “taking a shot.”

As the ad copy here relates, the area of overlap between photography and shooting is broad and deep; it’s not simply a matter of using a simple substitution to make meaning out of the terminology. It’s a network of associations that are crowded around the word as connotations. But it isn’t a 1:1 comparison. A camera will never give someone a red badge of courage, a wound. Metaphors always entail a sort of tension between the expressed meaning, and its intended interpretation.

Exposure lacks the sort of immediacy, the flash of insight involved with taking a good shot. This is a major reason for the popularity of metaphor. Over time, photographic shots (or snapshots) have lost all associations with martial terminology. The camera is seldom assumed to be an instrument of violence.

Schemata derived from the networks of metaphoric comparisons seem to be foundational to our ability to acquire and deploy knowledge, particularly when new technologies are introduced. Metaphors, it seems, are one of the keys to framing knowledge. In short, we don’t know what makes a technology “good” or useful without some sort of frame of reference to slot it into. In fact, this idea of knowledge frames may hold a key to developing artificial intelligence.

What Shakespeare is poking with a stick is our conception of love as a mass of nonsensical metaphors. However, as a master of metaphor himself he knows full well that metaphor drives our intelligence forward on our journey to the undiscovered country. The riddle of it, or perhaps better still the joke, is that metaphoric knowledge almost always comes upon us quickly like a punch line, euphoria, followed by the satisfaction of having figured it out. Thank you Vicki Mikelonis.

The mechanism through which metaphor works its magic according to Paul Ricoeur is its distanciation. It renders the familiar unfamiliar, giving us a necessary distance to actively engage in the process of making sense. It is estrangement with the emphasis on strange.

In a weak sense, though, all language is metaphoric. When I see a chair, I can simultaneously apprehend a chair as an object of utility and hold its abstract word “chair” in my mind with neither being destroyed or altered by their apprehension although both are completely different with no overlapping characteristics. What is different about strong metaphors is that the tension between two terms creates a third, unnamable knowledge that once apprehended, is seldom forgotten. Eventually, though, the strangeness fades– as Nietzsche suggests, the face wears off the coin and it becomes useful only as metal.

In the late 19th century, there was an explosion of “new media” in the manufacture of stereographs. In 1873, the Kilburn Brothers of Littleton, NH were printing 3,000 stereographs per day and they weren’t alone. Stereographs work by means of an apparatus where two photographs taken from slightly different perspectives are fused in the mind of the viewer to create the illusion of a three dimensional image. The potential exists for great realism, but also for captivating illusions.

An ephemeral historical moment? Not necessarily. Stereograph publishers distributed actual photographs from just after the civil war (1865) in massive numbers until supplanted by halftone printing around the turn of the century. The cards were compiled and circulated like encyclopedias that could be purchased a single card at a time. With halftones, their currency was devalued until it was given away for free on cereal boxes in the early 20th century.

It wasn’t a bad run– perhaps comparable to broadcast television, which entered the scene with standards in 1961 before being supplanted by digital television at the turn of the 21st century. Stereographs lingered into the 1930s and 40s before transmuting into ViewMasters stripped of their 3d illusion.

Throughout, a process of estrangement dissolving into familiarity persists.

The Glad Game

Littleton, NH © 2017 Jeff Ward

It’s been hard to see a bright side to alienation / estrangement / detachment as I write my way through theoretical issues mired in them: a slough of despond, indeed. When I passed through Littleton, NH in 2017, it was by choice. It had a bit of the character of a pilgrimage, for multiple reasons. I had no idea, however, that it was the birthplace of Eleanor Porter, creator of Pollyanna

Pollyanna was the instigator of “the glad game,” a game in which the player is tasked with finding the bright side of any situation. In the novel, it’s origin was a particular Christmas where Pollyanna had wished for a doll, but instead received a pair of crutches.

“Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—NEED—’EM!” exulted Pollyanna, triumphantly. “You see it’s just as easy—when you know how!” (5)

I went to Littleton, NH, largely because it was the home of Benjamin W. Kilburn, one of the largest stereograph manufacturers of the late 19th century. There’s not really a trace of him there, that I saw– they are much more proud of Pollyanna. It’s just as well, at this stage I really wasn’t looking for anything.

But there was another reason: it was around ten years after Victoria Mikelonis, one of my favorite teachers at the University of Minnesota had passed away. I only took one class from her on theories of metaphor, and it was the most intense and rewarding experience that I had in grad school. On of my last memories of her was stopping by her office and talking, excitedly, about Kilburn and stereographs. She told me she had recently visited a granddaughter who lived in Littleton, and raved about what a nice place it was. Vicki was one of the few people who was always cheerful, always looking on the bright side, and above all always engaged with the world and the ideas around her.

Dr. Mikelonis was primarily engaged with working with women in Poland and the Ukraine, training them to be technical communicators using a wide variety of pedagogical strategies– cross cultural communication would be another way of labeling it. That’s where her research interest in metaphor, schemas and ontologies came from. How do we know things? How do we learn things? These are the questions that animated her.

She was living with cancer, and like Ian Dury, the man who gave us reasons to be cheerful, she also died from it. The class is burned on my memory; it was dense and rewarding. We began with short papers by Max Black and others in philosophy of language, and worked our way through Paul Ricoeur’s Rule of Metaphor. The basic plan began with a word level examination of metaphor, through sentences into larger schema in Hesse & Arbib’s The Construction of Reality. The capstone essay was Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies, with its oft quoted maxim regarding truth:

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

Pollyanna is a metonym for someone with irrepressible optimism, and as the 1913 novel and its Disney movie treatment fade, the word substitutes for an idea, a moment of illusion celebrated in a statue. In the mountains above Littleton, in Franconia another anthropomorphic image drew great excitement.

B.W. Kilburn and others did a brisk trade in stereographs of the old man of the mountain. The White Mountains are one of America’s oldest tourist destinations, and where there are tourists there is a market for souvenirs. A shared experience of a rock, a unique bit of sublime America, drew most of the great writers and statesmen to the the small towns scattered along the edge of wildness, to gather and be glad.

Postcard c.1955

Philosopher Patrick Maynard built a strong case that photographs are props in a game of make-believe, and like metaphors they allow for a form of transport to places we have or haven’t been. Thomas Southall’s essay “White Mountain Stereographs and the Development of a Collective Vision” further suggests that what was developing during Kilburn’s time was set of practices that contributed to a particular truth of shared experience. Photographers were encouraged to alter the landscape to reinforce the “glad game” of seeing awesome nature in a collective way. Southall cites Kentucky photographer James Mullen at the 1873 meeting of the National Photographic Association:

And let me advise you here to always have with you on your photographic trips a spade and a good axe, the latter particularly will often be found a ‘friend in need’ when it is desirable to cut a small tree or remove a branch that would otherwise obscure some important point of your view. (101-102)

Human intervention to stabilize an agreed upon truth operates in predictable ways. We chip away at the rough edges of truth, shaping it to fit what we need at the time. There’s a selective, arbitrary, and culturally driven need to reshape the world for our purposes. In the 1920s chains were brought in to hold the face of the old man of the mountain together, and later cement and other prosthetics.

The old man’s face collapsed in 2003: nature injects its own arbitrary elements. People still make the pilgrimage to the White Mountains above Littleton, NH, and the souvenir vendors still do a brisk business.

The truth is out there.

Time and Love

Sally Mann What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann was coincident with her exhibition/meditation on death.   Her choice of terms for corpses, “carapaces,” jibes with my experience: when I touched the body of my father, my first thought was “this isn’t my father.” The shell felt somehow plastic, although important to others. For me, it meant nothing. Mann says for her “what remains is time and love.” But if love remains, how is love manifest? Lately, I believe the essence of love can be found in our daily meals— the moments when we stop and sustain our bodies.

As the holiday season approaches, it seems important to note that most key social celebrations are built around feast (or fast) days. It’s where we find the intersection of past and present in its most poignant form. A photograph, as an aide–mémoire, is quite thin. In a recent talk, Sally Mann suggested that Proust never could have written A Remembrance of Things Past triggered by a photograph. To remember, it takes the engagement of more senses. For Proust, it was a madeline.  A photograph can evoke, but its affect is a surface one. Again, her use of “thin” seems apt. To stir our entire being, it takes something more than a breeze brushing across the skin, or the decayed bones of a dead pet. To really feel alive and connected to our fellows, both past and present, a meal is almost always called for.

Cooking is a craft, at times celebrated and at other times dismissed as secondary to more ambitious pursuits, “mere cookery” as Plato would have it. A meal is an opportunity, and for most, an opportunity lost, for reflecting and connecting with what it really means to be mortal. I started a recording my meals a few years ago, inspired partly by Jaques Pepin.

Jacques Pépin's Artwork

I lack the talent to draw or even hand letter menus; my experiment consists of a pedestrian list in a google document. But it started to matter to me. I liked being able to see what I used to eat. It didn’t start out as an artistic, or even poetic practice, however. It was more accurately a byproduct of reading The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. They recommended keeping basic records of consumption in order to better manage one’s household, and meals are indeed a part of that. It seemed hardly surprising that Sally and Larry Mann also were moved by the Nearings, at least according to her recent Q&A. The “love” part, so apparent in Pepin’s menus, exists, albeit thinly, even in something as simple as a list of the food consumed over a period of time.

Going through my mother’s things after her death, I was always struck by the incredible number of small bits of paper with “lists” on them, listing when flowers bloomed, when relatives visited, etc. She wrote it all down increasingly as she got older. I am reminded that the origin of civilization comes down to us through time as pedestrian lists of cellar and larder inventories. If what remains is “time and love” then these records, strange as they may seem, carry with them a kernel, a seed of the human condition.

As the contentious election heated up this year, my compulsion to keep some sort of record of what was “good” about life became stronger. My wife has long kept photo sets of things that made her happy, but I’ve been disillusioned by photography these last few years. Although I dedicated most of my life to it, it just didn’t seem to be a repository of joy for me. I’ve found a way to recover just a bit of that though by photographing my meals. To combat the constant stream of political memes coming my way, I started posting those photographs to Facebook. I was surprised at the response. It seems that lots of people like food, especially in troubling times.

These photographs, for me, are simply an extension of the lists. I don’t look upon it as an aesthetic exercise at all, though I do try to capture what’s significant about the colors and textures of the food. When Lloyd Bitzer died a few days ago, I began to examine why I like taking these pictures from a different angle. Bitzer was a rhetorical scholar whose signature essay, “The Rhetorical Situation” occupied a significant part of my time in graduate school. Thinking my way through those concepts, hashed out so long ago, has brought into focus why I think of meals (not photographs of meals) as an important thing to remember, and to think deeply about.

In a grossly simplified version, Bitzer might argue that meals are a reaction to the exigence of hunger; his critic Richard Vatz might respond that we also eat as a response to being persuaded that we are hungry, while Barbara Biesecker would suggest that both of these responses deny and obscure the potential for radical transformation that occurs at every mealtime. Skipping past the Derridian doublespeak, Biesecker’s point is well placed: we don’t simply eat to satisfy a need, or eat because we’re convinced to, we eat because every time we eat we are changed by it.  In turn, by exercising control over what we eat we can indeed change ourselves, with time and love.

Each meal has the potential to be a uniquely kairotic moment (last supper?). Every meal presents the opportunity to change the world, and ourselves, simply by appreciating were we are at that particular moment. Such moments, when one recognizes the potential for love and sharing, can be radically transformative. The world can be made better by understanding the complexity of our place within it.

Get out the vote

Frank Zappa, 1988, photograph by Lynn Goldsmith
Frank Zappa, 1988, photograph by Lynn Goldsmith

AP, Associated Press

(AP) _ Rock ‘n’ roll singer Frank Zappa has pledged to register fans at his concert here tonight to vote, and the League of Women Voters couldn’t be happier.

The alliance prompted one elderly league member to joke that he would turn down the volume on his hearing aid during the concert, said Pittsburgh League President Marsha Bingler.

”I consider that an upbeat comment,” said Ms. Bingler. ”The gentleman who said that is about 70 years old. He does have trouble with his hearing.

”I’ve had no one in the league say anything other than that this is a worthwhile effort,” she said. ”The league encourages the widest participation in the electoral process.”

Zappa said 400 people registered at his recent concert in Boston, and about 380 registered at a stop in Hartford, Conn.

”The only way to change what is going on is to vote,” he said. ”Unless young people get involved, their decisions will be made by people older than them who don’t know or don’t care.”

In 1972, when the age requirement for voting was dropped to 18 years old, Frank Zappa began printing “don’t forget to register to vote” on his LP sleeves. I wasn’t aware that his huge voter drive, which began around 1985, was in partnership with the League of Women Voters. I’ve been thinking about voting in these perilous times, and about Frank Zappa, amongst other things.

Listening to the Looking Backward podcast with Chris Schwarz a few days back, he brought up an issue that I hadn’t heard him reference in any of his books or articles—the right of a workman to own his tools. During the time of the guilds, only “authorized” people could possess and use certain tools. To be truly free, access to tools is important. Frank Zappa famously quipped, “communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff,” but at the same time, he also railed against the abuses of capitalism and fetishizing property. There really isn’t an either/or decision to be made about this issue. There is, however, a big decision to be made about participation.

I find it completely beyond my understanding that somehow, starting in the late nineteenth century, many anarchists insisted that it was wrong to participate in the voting process. Schwarz is among the contemporary anarchists that abides by this today. Watching another Ken Burns documentary, this time on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony over the last few days reminded me of some parts of history that I had somehow let go of. The struggle for a woman’s right to vote began first as a property struggle.

I still remember fondly teaching, in first year composition at the University of Arkansas, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. It’s an astoundingly powerful document, penned by Elizabeth Cady Stanton for the First Women’s Rights Convention held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York on July 19th and 20th, 1848. It’s written with a kind of force that should resonate to audiences then and now, and an outstanding gateway to teaching persuasion to writers. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence penned by Jefferson, it provides impeccable Lockean logic for the struggle which began there. The incredible thing is that only one of the signers of this declaration was alive at the time that women finally achieved the right to vote in 1920, as the crowning moment for a movement that began there in Seneca Falls.

The movement didn’t stop there. In 1919, before the amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified, the women of that struggle banded together to figure out how to continue the fight after achieving the right to vote. The new organization formed was the League of Women Voters.

In a democracy, voting isn’t the beginning or the end of the struggle for human rights. It’s simply a pivot point, and an important one at that. What’s the first step to freedom? The right to not be classified as property, e.g., the Emancipation Proclamation. Not far beyond this though, is the right to own property. This was a right that women in New York didn’t have until just before the convention. The New York Married Women’s Property Act was passed April 7, 1848:

Sec. 1. The real and personal property of any female who may hereafter marry, and which she shall own at the time of marriage, and the rents issues and profits thereof shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts, and shall continue her sole and separate property, as if she were a single female.

Sec. 2 The real and personal property, and the rents issues and profits thereof of any female now married shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband; but shall be her sole and separate property as if she were a single female except so far as the same may be liable for the debts of her husband heretofore contracted.

Sec. 3. It shall be lawful for any married female to receive, by gift, grant devise or bequest, from any person other than her husband and hold to her sole and separate use, as if she were a single female, real and personal property, and the rents, issues and profits thereof, and the same shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts.

Sec. 4. All contracts made between persons in contemplation of marriage shall remain in full force after such marriage takes place.

Step one was a hard fought battle—this law made it possible for women to own businesses, like newspapers, to attempt to get the full benefits of civil society. Step two, the vote, took another 72 years. Step three, equal opportunity, stalled in 1982. The history of this battle is full of reversals of fortune, and advances followed by movements backward— losses of rights. It can, and does happen. The only thing that changes that is the ballot.

The thing that struck me the most in the Ken Burns documentary is the voices of those early women voters who proudly proclaimed that they had voted a straight republican ticket. Since that time, the parties have of course exchanged positions. My father and mother generally voted a straight democratic ticket, and my father remembered fondly that he managed to vote for F.D.R. once; he didn’t remain in office long, but at least my father felt like he had made a difference.

I got that same feeling when I managed to vote for Al Franken in my last vote before leaving Minnesota. Then I knew what my father really meant. That particular election was a hotly contested fight with an incumbent, which went through an arduous recount. It mattered, and Al has hung onto that seat and spoken out for issues that really matter to me. It hurts, physically hurts me, when people like Schwarz claim that this sort of civic participation doesn’t matter because they prefer to “opt out” of the system. There is no “outside” the system.

I note with terror that Donald Trump briefly formed the “Lions Guard” to protect people at his rallies, a direct analog to the brown shirts. I had suspected that this was coming. My wife just pointed out to me that the comparison, as far as efficacy goes, must be handed to Hitler because at least he had a coherent agenda. And the first move of any dictator is to suspend elections; first that goes, and soon your right to property disappears. The pathway to human rights can lead both ways. How can anyone opt out?

Home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, NY. Park Service Photo

Yesterday, my wife and I stood in front of this house. It’s a small house, really. Apparently it was larger when she lived there, with an equal wing with front porch on the opposite side. Just down the street is the Seneca River, just past the falls. We both marveled that besides being such a profound writer, she also raised seven children in this house, and at least one of her daughters continued the fight into the twentieth century.

Voting is central to freedom, not something that you can simply ignore while you dream of a better world. I was amazed to read her daughter, Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch’s book Mobilizing Woman-Power from 1918. Obviously, it central concern is World War I. The pragmatism of the women’s movement, 70 years on, is well considered:

Let us admit the full weight of the paradox that a people in the name of peace turns to force of arms. The tragedy for us lay in there being no choice of ways, since pacific groups had failed to create machinery to adjust vital international differences, and since the Allies each in turn, we the last, had been struck by a foe determined to settle disagreements by force.

Never did a nation make a crusade more just than this of ours. We were patient, too long patient, perhaps, with challenges. We seek no conquest. We fight to protect the freedom of our citizens. On America’s standard is written democracy, on that of Germany autocracy. Without reservation women can give their all to attain our end.

There may be a cleavage between the German people and the ruling class. It may be that our foe is merely the military caste, though I am inclined to believe that we have the entire German nation on our hands. The supremacy of might may be a doctrine merely instilled in the minds of the people by its rulers. Perhaps the weed is not indigenous, but it flourishes, nevertheless. Rabbits did not belong in Australia, nor pondweed in England, but there they are, and dominating the situation. Arrogance of the strong towards the weak, of the better placed towards the less well placed, is part of the government teaching in Germany. The peasant woman harries the dog that strains at the market cart, her husband harries her as she helps the cow drag the plough, the petty officer harries the peasant when he is a raw recruit, and the young lieutenant harries the petty officer, and so it goes up to the highest,–a well-planned system on the part of the superior to bring the inferior to a high point of material efficiency. The propelling spirit is devotion to the Fatherland: each believes himself a cog in the machine chosen of God to achieve His purposes on earth. The world hears of the Kaiser’s “Ich und Gott,” of his mailed fist beating down his enemies, but those who have lived in Germany know that exactly the same spirit reigns in every class. The strong in chastizing his inferior has the conviction that since might makes right he is the direct representative of Deity on the particular occasion.

The overbearing spirit of the Prussian military caste has drilled a race to worship might; men are overbearing towards women, women towards children, and the laws reflect the cruelties of the strong towards the weak.

Whether the comparison is with the conditions leading to the first, or the second world war, we have no need for another tyrant who places the strong over the weak. The head macho-man himself, Teddy Roosevelt puts it succinctly in his introduction:

No man who is not blind can fail to see that we have entered a new day in the great epic march of the ages. For good or for evil the old days have passed; and it rests with us, the men and women now alive, to decide whether in the new days the world is to be a better or a worse place to live in, for our descendants.

In this new world women are to stand on an equal footing with men, in ways and to an extent never hitherto dreamed of. In this country they are on the eve of securing, and in much of the country have already secured, their full political rights. It is imperative that they should understand, exactly as it is imperative that men should understand, that such rights are of worse than no avail, unless the will for the performance of duty goes hand in hand with the acquirement of the privilege.

I was taught that voting was a basic “performance of duty.” Without that sense of duty, we stand to lose whatever privileges we have gained so far. Being a member of civil society means that you fulfil your duty, even if you may have “a tendency to mistrust organizations.” Without organization, the law would still sanction (as it does in many parts of the globe) women being bought and sold or being treated as the property of a husband.

The Impressionist Home

A web piece from Smithsonian Magazine, “Step Into Van Gogh’s Brilliant Bedroom” lead me down an interesting cul-de-sac this morning. I’ve been wondering about rooms as jigs that shape behavior for a while, and I’m really interested in the Art Institute of Chicago’s airbnb project that allows you to stay in a replica of this famous interior. Would a person start to think like Van Gogh if they slept there?

It reminded me of a song by David Byrne, “Social Studies”, which I used a long time ago to teach extended possibilities for rhetorical analysis. It was never the hit with students that I hoped it would be.


The basic premise is that in order to understand people, you might become them if you consume what they consume. It’s not that outlandish, really. Marketing companies depend on getting us to buy products that allow us to be like the model or spokes-celebrity who shills for them. My longstanding interest in shopping malls stems from the belief that understanding what people choose to buy and how they buy it is important to the understanding society as a whole.

However, lately I’ve taken a deeper turn. I think that lived environments are important not because of what we buy to put in them, but because of the historical reasons why we need/choose these objects to begin with.

Sometime soon, I want to start writing about Wendy Hitchmough’s The Arts and Crafts Lifestyle and DesignI really like the organization of the book as well as the content—it moves from room to room to discuss not only the decoration and furnishing of the rooms, but the social rituals that furnished reasons for the rooms and their contents. It’s focus on the British strain of Arts and Crafts has really filled a gap in my education in that regard.

In reading about Carl and Karin Larsson recently, I cited a passage from an essay by Gillian Naylor that cites Herman Muthesius proclamation that the real innovation of the English was the creation of “the artistic house.” Wendy Hitchmough begins by invoking Muthesius as well, but from a different angle:

Hermann Muthesius concluded that the English derived their confidence and easy assurance from a tyrannical system of rules and customs which dictated what people must wear and how they must behave, and this determined the furnishing and arrangement of their surroundings. It was never necessary to worry about formalities—about where to put the display cabinet, for example, or which room would be auspicious for a proposal of marriage—because the matters were ruled by strict social conventions. “The most striking characteristic that the foreigner notices about the English is that their patterns of life are immutable and fixed for all time. . .Not only  is the domestic routine in the individual and as punctual as clockwork throughout the year but all households of similar economic standing are as like one another as peas in a pod.” (8, 10)

The only way to break free from this regimentation, Hitchmough argues, was “the artistic home.” In the last few decades of the 19th century, it seems that the artistic home was an often repeated trope. It’s there in Van Gogh’s letters as well. His thoughts about home are amazingly profound. From Letter 674:

How I’d like to set myself up so that I could have a home of my own! I never stop telling myself that if at the start we’d spent even 500 francs on furnishing, we would already have recouped all of it, and I would have furniture and I would be free of lodging-house keepers by now. I’m not pressing the point, but what we’re doing now isn’t wise. There will always be artists passing through here, wishing to escape the harshness of the north. And I feel myself that I’ll always be among that number. True that it would probably be better to go a bit further down, where you’d be more sheltered. True that it won’t be entirely easy to find, but all the more reason; if we set ourselves up here, the costs of moving shouldn’t be enormous. From here to Bordighera, for example, or somewhere near Nice. Once we’d settled, we’d stay there for the rest of our lives. Waiting until you’re very rich is a sorry system, and that’s what I don’t like about the De Goncourts, although it’s the truth — they end up paying a hundred thousand francs for their home and their peace of mind. Now we’d have it for less than a thousand, in that we’d have a studio in the south where we could put someone up.

But if we have to make a fortune first……… we’ll be totally neurotic by the time we reach that sort of tranquillity, and that’s worse than our present state, in which we can still stand all sorts of noises. But let’s be wise enough to know that we’re getting dull-witted all the same.

It’s better to lodge others than not to be lodged ourselves here, especially lodging with an innkeeper, which even when you pay doesn’t provide you with a lodging where you feel at home.

The reference to the De Goncourts is a matter of some discussion among Van Gogh scholars, apparently, as to how much or little Van Gogh had read of their work. In describing Van Gogh’s strategies and rhetoric as a letter writer, the suggestion has been made that Vincent might have viewed Edmond and Jules De Goncourt as a sort of crusading role model for the Van Gogh brothers, and they had written about “the artistic house.”

Félix Nadar, Portrait of Edmond et Jules Goncourt
Félix Nadar, Portrait of Edmond et Jules Goncourt

References tothe De Goncourt brothers occur in several of Van Gogh’s letters. I found the Wikipedia entry on  them interesting. French naturalism has had a lot of impact on many visual artists. The 1911 Britannica describes their specific flavor in this way:

“To the Goncourts humanity is as pictorial a thing as the world it moves in; they do not search further than ‘the physical basis of life,’ and they find everything that can be known of that unknown force written visibly upon the sudden faces of little incidents, little expressive moments.”

This aligns closely with Richard Sennett’s assertion that character, for the Victorians, is something that can be “read” from the external appearance of things.  It’s a shift to the visual coupled with an embrace of the emotional and contingent:

“The soul, to them, is a series of moods, which succeed one another, certainly without any of the too arbitrary logic of the novelist who has conceived of character as a solid or consistent thing. Their novels are hardly stories at all, but picture-galleries, hung with pictures of the momentary aspects of the world.”

This returns full circle to the “situated” versus “planned” worldview in the AI articles I was exploring yesterday in remarkable ways. Recall that Muthesius spoke of an English “planned” lifestyle that Hitchmough counterpoised with an Arts and Crafts “artistic house” alternative. Life, for an artist, is contingent and arbitrary. Nonetheless, Van Gogh had big plans:

It’s not the least little bit urgent, but I have my idea. I really want to make of it — an artists’ house but not precious, on the contrary, nothing precious, but everything from the chair to the painting having character.

So for the beds I bought local beds, two wide double beds, instead of iron beds. It gives a look of solidity, durability, calm, and if it takes a bit more bed-linen, that’s too bad, but it must have character.

Most fortunately I have a charwoman who’s very loyal; without that I wouldn’t dare begin the business of living in my own place. She’s quite old and has a mixed bunch of kids, and she keeps my tiles nice and red and clean.

I wouldn’t be able to explain to you how pleased I am to find a big, serious job this way. Because I hope it’ll be a true decoration that I’m going to undertake there.

So, as I’ve already told you, I’m going to paint my own bed, there’ll be 3 subjects. Perhaps a naked woman, I haven’t decided, perhaps a cradle with a child; I don’t know, but I’ll take my time.

I now no longer feel any hesitation about staying here, because ideas for work are coming to me in abundance. I now plan to buy some article for the house every month. And with patience, the house will be worth something for the furniture and the decorations. (Letter 677)

The plan, ultimately, was to exhibit both studies for the decoration of the house, and then the house itself. Van Gogh’s emphasis on physical decoration is supported by a definite amount of reading on the subject:

I read in the literary supplement of Saturday’s Figaro (15 Sept.) the description of an Impressionist house. This house was built, as would be the bottoms of bottles, of bricks of rounded glass — purple glass. With the sun glancing off it, the yellow glints flashing from it, it produced an extraordinary effect.

To support these walls of glass bricks in the shape of purple eggs, they had devised a support in black and gilded iron, representing strange shoots of vines and other climbing plants. This purple house was right in the middle of a garden, all of whose paths were made of a very yellow sand. The beds of ornamental flowers were naturally most extraordinary in their coloration. This house, if I remember well, must be in Auteuil. Without changing anything at the house, either now or later, I’d nevertheless like to make it, through the decoration, an artist’s house. That will come. I shake your hand firmly. (Letter 681)

Scholarly notes trace this reference to “an Impressionist house” back to the De Goncourts, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s correct or not; the article Van Gogh refers to actually describes “a modernist house,” so suffice it to say that the house is beginning to develop into an extension of beliefs, attitudes, and predilections of the designers and inhabitants. Van Gogh, like many others at the time, was concerned with putting together a well considered lived space.

At present I’ve also bought a dressing-table with all the necessaries, and my own little bedroom is furnished.

Gauguin’s or another lodger’s — we’ll still need a dressing-table and a chest of drawers, and downstairs I’ll need a large stove and a cupboard.

None of that’s at all urgent, and as a result I can already see the goal, to have the means of having a roof over my head for a good long time.

You wouldn’t believe how much that calms me; I have such a passion to make — an artist’s house — but a practical one and not the usual studio full of curios.

I’m also thinking of planting two oleanders outside the door, in tubs.

Anyway, on this studio we’re probably spending several hundred francs less than Russell, for example, who spends thousands.  And actually, even if I had the choice between the two, for my part I’d prefer the few-hundred-francs method, as long as each piece of furniture was four-square and substantial. But still, the room in which I’ll put up those who pass through here will be like a boudoir, and when it’s finished you’ll see that it’s not a haphazard creation, but a job done that way deliberately. (Letter 685)

The sense of hope in these letters is almost palpable. Like any good frugal house-husband, Van Gogh is striving to shape his surroundings by careful selection and decoration, to make everyone know he meant to do that. This is nearly contemporary with Carl and Karin Larsson and most of the British Arts and Crafts designers.

There was something in the air internationally regarding intelligent domestic design and everyone wanted in on it.


Solnit: I feel a great affinity for photographers and I was told gently early on that I wasn’t  good at interpreting paintings and I never had a real affinity for them. You have to get into the cult of painting, both the craft of it and the lineage of it, neither of which interest me very much. Photography and non-fiction feel very close because, as you say, there is a very direct relationship to subject matter, which was taken in earlier eras as meaning they weren’t creative. There is a tremendous responsibility that goes with that. As a photographer I know if I take a photograph of you and I make it public, people will expect it to be true. If I Photoshop it so that you look like you are snorting coke, I know that will impact what people will believe, the historical record, and your life. Therefore I have tremendous creative possibility but I also have tremendous creative responsibility. When that responsibility is seen as confinement it bugs me—when people who are supposed to be doing non-fiction tweak the facts I feel that is a creative failure. You do not have to make shit up or misrepresent what happened to tell a fantastic story that has literary form. You just have to be good at it, be good at your job and let the constraints give you a more interesting solution. Constraint is often read like the word compromise, but there is a way of compromising that is like collaborating, finding common ground, where you serve truth and vision both, and those feed rather than sap each other.

I sense, just beneath the surface of this response, the core of the “Q” question— can rhetoric be defined as “a good man speaking well”? I hadn’t really thought of “truth” as a constraint before, but yes, I suppose it is. I’ve always felt that constraints are often a good thing.

Talking Shop

9780813931210You won’t find Talking Shop on many woodworker’s “must read” lists. I started it a while ago and put it aside, once I got the gist of it’s thesis. I was enjoying it, but it just didn’t seem relevant to the other craft reading I was doing until now. I thought of it soon after I finished Tarule’s book, because like another book I’ve read recently, it sort of degenerated into a sort of idolatry and presumption rather than making significant observations about craft.

It was a bit odd to think of Talking Shop while contemplating craft, because it’s really more about rhetoric than craft. But then it was the rhetoric of The Artisan of Ipswich that galled me more than real information about craft. From Talking Shop‘s jacket blurb:

“By arguing that what matters culturally, finally, is the representation of craft, the idea of craft, rather than the objects, Betjemann takes the whole subject of craft and stands it on its head. In doing so, he makes a substantial contribution to the cultural history of the United States, changing our way of thinking about craft by broadening its meaning considerably.”—Miles Orvell, Temple University, author of The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940

I’m quite familiar with Orvell from my studies in New Deal photography. He always irritated me too, because his primary focus was representation rather than documentary; to read most of the postmodern documentary critics the fact that people were suffering and well meaning people were trying to alleviate it was secondary to the oppressive nature of representing anything at all. This is uniquely unhelpful, and I suppose I was afraid that Betejemann’s book would be unhelpful as well. But it was really interesting to me at first, because it began with a long interrogation of Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography.

Cellini’s autobiography was on my nightstand for years, when I was photographing in nightclubs. I would come home and read it to unwind before I slept, I thought it was a real hoot. Betjemann’s use of it as a sort of 19th century lightning rod for descriptions of craft is apt. Cellini boasts endlessly about what a great craftsman he is, but he never really gets around to describing much about it. Instead, he’s too busy swashbuckling about having adventures and claiming that everyone else’s methods are inferior to his. What his method is, is of course ambiguous. Not many of his artistic works have survived, but instead his autobiography looms large as a sort of paradigm for the life of an artist.

Which is precisely Betjemann’s point. Craft remains outside, constructing a sort of platonic ideal which simply can’t be represented in the text except as a shadow doppelganger of a life fully lived. It’s the paradigm for modern DIY as well– grow your own tomato, make your own bacon, mill your own flour, bake the bread and make the condiments to produce your own BLT and only then will you be the consummate craftsman. The craftsman is involved, if not proficient, in everything.

I suppose Tarule’s book, as well as many others, follow a sort of Cellini model in resurrecting long dead craftsman. In a sense, the internet has created armies of Cellinis. Woodworking forums are filled with tool talk vs. object talk at the ratio of at least 100:1, not to mention digressions into cooking and other crafts at a fairly steady pace. Not much need to talk about the craft itself, because after all you just have to do it rather than represent it. To his credit, Tarule does talk about a single specific object and the construction of it— it is nothing if not object oriented and in that sense deviates from the Cellini model. It’s discussions of tools are only present when they have a direct impact on the object at hand. But hanging over it like a spectre is a sort of idolatry that is all too common. It was just the tone of certainty, built into a narrative of the consummate craftsman at work.

I’m really feeling chafed by this just now. I can’t agree with Orvell that removing the discourse from its context of the objects of craft is a great breakthrough. I think it’s useful in order to see how these discussions are so often derailed in various ways, and for that reason I’m now reading Talking Shop. The objects, and their places in our lives will always be more important than the things we say about them, just as documentary is more useful as a window rather than simply a fiction constructed about people outside our immediate sphere for political reasons.

Of course the window of documentary distorts, just as the narrative we construct about objects distorts.

There is much more to say, of course. But I wanted to get this off my chest. My primary concern isn’t really to classify things as good books or bad books, but rather to cross-connect some significant ideas.

I suppose it goes back to discovering David Pye’s Nature and Art of Workmanship. Pye takes Ruskin to task for idolizing “handwork” without developing a coherent theory of what handwork was. Betjemann’s book begins by examining the spread of Cellini’s “hand” as an object of admiration, and as such feeds into the Arts and Crafts movement. There are some important connections here, but with major differences in emphasis.

Betjemann’s task was to examine language, while Pye was examining workmanship. It really bothers me that the discussion started by Pye seems to have just been derailed and stagnated, buried by the weight of language. Contemporary writers on craft haven’t made much headway into theories of work and workmanship. More worrisome is that they really don’t appear interested in that at all, and would rather perpetuate a pantheon of artistic swashbuckling heroes.


9780520001961-228x228I’ve read a lot of Kenneth Burke and I really haven’t been a fan, although I used him a lot while teaching rhetorical analysis. His literary criticism always rubs me the wrong way and seems simplistic. Nonetheless, I keep getting sucked back into him.

I remember an old advisor frequently dismissed him claiming that though his frameworks were interesting they were far too vague and subject to interpretation to be useful in any concrete way.

My current theory is that perhaps its because I’ve primarily focused on the later Burke (Rhetoric of Motives, Grammar of MotivesLanguage as Symbolic Action, etc.) that I’ve missed the magic of his attempting to solve important problems in their seminal phase, reading to somewhat stuffy ossified versions instead. I think I should go back to the drawing board and start with Counter-Statement, his 1931 opening salvo.

This is Burke at his “loosest” I’m told, which is exactly what my advisor hated, but I’m thinking that it might be more useful to me than his more direct applications of “methods” to literature and life. Continue reading “Counter-Statement”