Time and History

As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, yeah
And I said

Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry


Taking a break from packing, I was reading a short piece by Latour, On the Difficulty of Being Glocal, this morning [via wood s lot] and was wondering just when it was from. Obviously, it is from ART e FACT volume 1 issue 4. But just when was that published? I had to go back to the home page (several clicks from the original article just to figure out when the thing was first published, let alone written. 2005 is the short answer.

I began to wonder— why is publication date often trivialized on the web as if it just didn’t matter when the original material was written/appropriated/published? This seems to be almost a throwback response. Most photography of the 19th century wasn’t dated either, because the artifact just wasn’t of much importance to history. The internet is certainly not treated as a chronicle, even with the careful demarcation of serial publishing. But I digress.

Glocal is an ugly word. The only pertinent recent usage seems to be from a gallery in Surrey whose blog seems to have died in March. But still, it piqued my interest— as matters of time and space have a tendency to do. The tension between global/local is both a contemporary concern and a historical one. The emergence of documentary photography in the 1930s can be seen as a leveling force against regionalism. I have followed the return to “local” (but not glocal) as a meaningful term, and wondered about those chunks of the melting pot like the American South that are ultimately resistant to being rendered (in all senses of the word). Why is local consciousness in the urban east/west/north good when it is historically seen as the embodiment of evil in the rural south or midwest? Why are these areas infested with “small minded” people, feeding the clich&eacute “think globally act locally.”

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Plurality and Chaos

It is commonly assumed that the first human picture of the world was a mess: fragmentary sensations, unstructured but simply registered by unreflecting experience, severally endowed with spirits or demons by the just-evolving human imagination, only reprocessed later into coherent schemes by prehistoric bricoleurs who constructed the first categories. The earliest world-pictures we know about, however, are not of this kind. Human intellects make sense of things and, if anything, err on the side of coherence. Geniuses of my acquaintance, who almost seem clever enough to make sense of the world if they so wished, are more likely to accept it as a muddle than the common man who invests it with a transcendent character of its own or recognizes it as filled with divine purpose in which nothing is out of place. Pluralism and chaos are harder to grasp – harder, perhaps, to understand and certainly to accept – than monism and order. For a whole society to accept an agreed world-picture as senseless, random and intractable, people seem to need a lot of collective disillusionment, accumulated and transmitted over many generations.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

via Waggish

I found this snippet fascinating, and was oddly intrigued by the story of this man’s run-in with the Atlanta police. “Human intellects make sense of things and, if anything, err on the side of coherence” — I think this is perhaps the wellspring of photography, trying to relate and implied coherence hidden from the casual glance.

noeme, n.

A meaning or concept as an aspect of a unit of speech.

a1866 J. GROTE in Jrnl. Philol. (1872) 4 55 It will be necessary for me to make use of one or two new-coined words, which I will begin by defining as accurately as I can… When I mean words as thought I shall use the term noem. a1866 J. GROTE in Jrnl. Philol. (1872) 4 56 Logically, a noem may be called a concept, a notion, or what we will; but I would have the term bear simply a relation to language, and mean the thought-word, that, whatever it is, which the sound stands for.

The literal translation of the Greek root of noeme is thought. However, readers of Camera Lucida tend to translate it as “essence.” This is a frightening error. I’m pretty sure Barthes (the linguist) meant to use the term quite specifically rather than the more nebulous senses of geist or essence.

This has been bothering me for some time. Tracing it back to its original coinage, it is productive to consider his usage as substitute for photographs as thoughts. In other words, a marked departure from his initial phenomenological perspective— photographs are not simply an apparatus that provokes thought, but self contained thoughts rendered in a transmissible packages:

The noeme of Photography is simple, banal; no depth: “that has been.” I know our critics: What! a whole book (even a short one) to discover something I know at first glance? Yes, but such evidence can be a sibling of madness. The Photograph is extended, loaded evidence– as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence. (Camera Lucida 115)

Barthes continues to draw an analogy between photographs and “mediums” that put us in touch with people/things that no longer exist, reinforcing to some degree the reading of an “essentially” [sic] spiritual nature for photography. But Barthes’ core interest in the ability of photographs to communicate (not simply operate as phenomenological talismans) is obscured by too facile a reading of his terminology.

The madness of photography described by Barthes is not simply a private or mass hallucination, but a deeply rooted inability to deal with the thought-images that photographs provide.

Facing the music

In time, music in particular and culture in general would provide Adorno the perfect vantage point from which to criticize what he saw as the alienation and false consciousness of bourgeois society. This was especially the case once Adorno reached Los Angeles, in the 1940s, where he could observe the radio and film industries first hand.

Yet even Mr. Claussen is embarrassed by Adorno’s ignorant and snobbish dismissal of American popular music, all of which he lumped together as “jazz.” This “seems to be a blind spot in his work,” Mr. Claussen acknowledges; but in fact it is more than that. Adorno’s contempt for jazz and those who listen to it, his belief that popular music is simply the tool of the Culture Industry for colonizing the consciousness of the masses, is suggestive of the arrogant absolutism that characterizes his thought in general.

Because he viewed music as a Hegelian progress from Beethoven to Schoenberg, keeping pace with the inexorable alienation of bourgeois society, Adorno viewed any 20th-century music that was less alienated than Schoenberg’s as a cowardly retreat, a refusal of difficult knowledge. (This applied to Stravinsky’s neoclassicism as much as to the Andrews Sisters.) In an analogous way, critical theory attempts to explain all of contemporary history as the inevitable working-out of a historical dialectic that culminates in Nazism. Adorno is upside-down Hegel: instead of trying to prove that history is driven by the cunning of reason, he tries to show that it is marching in lock-step toward mindlessness.

The Stern German

Sleeping Sickness

One of the greatest pleasures of being done with coursework is the ability to take time to process things rather than simply layering in a dozen more potential things to think about. But old habits are hard to break, and every time I encounter a text that has references that I’m unfamiliar with, I still feel compelled to read half the things listed in its bibliography—a time consuming, and perhaps nonsensical reaction. I mean, what have I got to prove to anyone? It’s absolutely impossible to have read everything. I wish I could fall back on Derrida’s tongue in cheek response when questioned if he had read all the books in his house— “oh no, I’ve only read about four or five of them. I’ve just read them very carefully.”

There is always the feeling that I haven’t thought things through carefully enough. I used to use sleep to think things over in a more relaxed manner. That hasn’t been happening as much as it used to, I think because of the increased level of family stress. I used to write a lot in my sleep, and wake up and try to get it down. There’s this sort of magical clarity when you’re in that sort of drifty half-waking moment between things. There is less pressure, less compulsion to make immediate sense as the ideas sort of arrange themselves in a non-object driven format. I was watching a Walker Evans biography the other day and someone mentioned that he just couldn’t get up and motivated before around 11am each day. I can empathize. It might have been that he was hung-over. I prefer to think that he was just using the time to think.

I read a story about the impact of sleep deprivation on cognitive abilities this morning and was struck by this part:

Convinced by the mountain of studies, a handful of school districts around the nation are starting school later in the morning. The best known of these is in Edina, Minnesota, an affluent suburb of Minneapolis, where the high school start time was changed from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30. The results were startling. In the year preceding the time change, math and verbal SAT scores for the top 10 percent of Edina’s students averaged 1288. A year later, the top 10 percent averaged 1500, an increase that couldn’t be attributed to any other variable. “Truly flabbergasting,” said Brian O’Reilly, the College Board’s executive director for SAT Program Relations, on hearing the results.

Another trailblazing school district is Lexington, Kentucky’s, which also moved its start time an hour later. After the time change, teenage car accidents in Lexington were down 16 percent. The rest of the state showed a 9 percent rise.

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What, then, is 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.

I only had one class with Dr. Mikelonis, but we hit it off right away. My research lead me back to Nietzsche today, and I remember the concluding essay she shared with us at the closing of one of the first graduate seminars I attended—I don’t recall the course title, but it was a survey of theories of metaphor. She invited me discuss visual metaphors in subsequent incarnations of the class, and we spoke from time to time about photography and stereography. She was incredibly generous with her time, and inspiring in her love for the genuinely complex. Most of her professional resume reflects her interest in pedagogy and intercultural communication, but this wasn’t the Victoria I knew. Most of her friends called her Vickie, but I somehow couldn’t—perhaps because she always called me Jeffrey (no one except my mother does that—but it’s the name on my transcript). Names aside, our relationship was entirely informal.

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As Raymond Williams has described, it was the impact of industry and democracy in the nineteenth century which gave rise to a conception of culture as something separate from and “above” society. The ideas “culture in opposition” variously expressed by such members of the Victorian intelligentsia as Arnold, Morris, and Ruskin, were formed through their practical criticism of the social realities of their day. By degrees, however, the notion of culture as a repository of ideal values became a means not of criticizing the world, but of evading it. (3)

Victor Burgin, “Modernism in the Work of Art” (1976) from The End of Art Theory (1986)

Hostility to the word culture in English appears to date from the controversy around Arnold’s views. It gathered force in lC19 and eC20 in association with a comparable hostility to aesthete and AESTHETIC (q.v). Its association with class distinction produced the mime-word culcha.

. . . It is interesting that the steadily extending social and anthropological use of culture and cultural and such formations as sub-culture (the culture of a distinguishable smaller group), either bypassed or effectively diminished the hostility and its associated unease and embarrassment. The recent use of culturalism, to indicate a methodological contrast with structuralism in social analysis, retains many of the earlier difficulties, and does not always bypass the hostility. (92-93)

Raymond Williams, Keywords (1976, 1983)


Through the sacrifice of its possible relation to praxis, the cultural concept itself becomes an instance of organization; that which is so provokingly useless in culture is transformed into tolerated negativity or even into something negatively useful—into a lubricant for the system, into something which exists for something else, into untruth, or into goods of the culture industry calculated for the consumer. All this is registered today in the uncomfortable relation between culture and administration. (117)

Theodor Adorno “Culture and Administration” (1978) The Culture Industry (1991)

Symbolic Systems

Jeff Rice suggested that I revisit Roland Barthes’ work. I have, and I find that I really can’t connect with Jeff’s network. I find too much interference in Barthes’ texts.

To come to adopt a closed sphere of language under the pressure of all those who do not speak it, is to proclaim one’s act of choosing, if not necessarily one’s agreement with that choice. Writing here resembles the signature one affixes at the base of a collective proclamation one has not written oneself. So to adopt a mode of writing—or, even better, to make it one’s own—means to save oneself all the preliminaries of a choice and to make it quite clear that one takes for granted the reasons for such a choice. (Writing Degree Zero, 26-27)

In this passage, Barthes is specifically attacking the libratory potential of political writing (as a response to Sartre’s What is Literature). Most significant, I think, is the claim at the end of this particular chapter that “any intellectual mode of writing can only give rise to a para-literature, which no longer dares to speak its name” (28). In a direct sense, this is the discourse of professionals (politicians or scholars alike) that reify a mode of discourse by adopting it. Professional writing training cannot escape a particular “closed sphere of language”—a symbolic system not created by a student writer that they are expected to choose. In this arena, I doubt the utility of “student centered” or “libratory” pedagogies. I think political skepticism fuels much of Barthes’ early writing, and the mistrust of emancipatory schemes always comes back to the nature of language systems themselves.

An emancipatory sign system does not exist, but Barthes attempts to conceive of one in An Empire of Signs:

Text and image, interlacing, seek to ensure the circulation and exchange of these signifiers: body, face, writing; and in them to read the retreat of signs. (xi)

The perfect system in Barthes’ fictional Japan is an autodestructive (or autodeconstructive) one, not a system that forms professional or political systems:

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End of the Semester

Zugaro: You think, then, there’s no hope at all?

Lowenthal: Here I would agree with Walter Benjamin, whose words at the end of his analysis of Goethe’s Elective Affinities have been quoted a thousand times, namely, that we’re given hope solely for the sake of those who are without hope. This is the source of my irritation, not to say my obstinancy, regarding these postmodernist movements. You simply cannot abandon the critical thoughtfulness of a nay-sayer if you want to remain a yea-sayer. As a human being, you don’t have the right to teach almost systematically that the end of humanity in history has already occurred and that human energies capable of changing what Georg Luk�cs calls the “infamy of the status quo” can no longer be developed. As Ernst Bloch would say, you must remain true to this “utopian spark”; the situation may well call for sorrow, melancholy, and doubt, but never despair.

An Unmastered Past: The Autobiographical Reflections of Leo Lowenthal

Filling Station

The construction of life is at present in the power far more of facts than of convictions, and of such facts as have scarcely ever become the basis of convictions. Under the circumstances, true literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework; this is, rather, the habitual expression of sterility.

Significant literary effectiveness can come into being only in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that fit its influence in active communities better than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book—in leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.

Opinions are to the vast apparatus of social existence what oil is to machines: one does not go up to a turbine and pour machine oil over it; one applies a little to hidden spindles and joints that one has to know.

Walter Benjamin, from “One Way Street” (written 1923-26, published 1928)