Stuck on time

When I was a grad student in Minnesota I had a persistent difficulty with Aristotle’s framing/criteria for three genera causarum (general causes) for speech. On the surface, it seems easy. The first general cause for speech is forensic, or legal. This goes back to the earliest writings on rhetoric surrounding the story of Corax and Tisias and the usage of speech to defend property in the courts. At issue, in that case, is just who had owned particular pieces of property. It makes sense, then, that forensic rhetoric tends to look to the past: did they do it or didn’t they, to put another legal twist to it.

The other distinctions are harder for me to grasp. Later authors complicated thing by adding more nuanced treatments of general causes, and that really muddies the waters. Aristotle’s neat usage of three categories is certainly generic– adding more primarily makes the distinctions more specific. They also seem to sort well along a continuum of past/present/future. Legislative rhetoric, for example is easy: should we do it or not? Obviously, the general cause is arbitrating future behavior. But where i always got tripped up is present-directed rhetoric, usually labeled as epidactic rhetoric or more recently, rhetorics of display. At issue, at least in the classical framing of the problem, are matters of praise or blame.

Yesterday, I think I figured out my problem. You see, I always wanted to class speech directed at praise and blame as focused on the past. All evidence marshaled for praise or blame resides there, but the desired action rests in the present. However, the same could be said of forensic rhetoric– one can’t lobby for past action. The distinction shows cracks in its foundation here. As rhetorics of display, present focus is defensible as the bringing forth in the present both past and potential future actions to make people see. Remember that the focus here is on general causes, hence to decide past/future action is obviously different than simply showing something to an audience. Here, action must be framed as praise or blame, adherence or separation from a proposed view in the present. This seems confusing to me, so I always got it wrong.

This popped back into my head when i was thinking of a different sort of causation– material cause. I’ve been obsessed by that for a few years now. When I taught a photography class years ago I structured the fundamentals as time, space, and light. I tend to think of light as the best candidate for a photograph’s material cause, but photographs definitely have a proscribed relationship with time as well. Space will have to remain outside the discussion or I will never get this composed. The time of photographs, casting aside for a moment the mundane issues of shutter speeds or motion pictures, seems to me to be a perpetual past.

Makes sense– photography, the form of display that I am most familiar with, is always directed at the past. In fact, in a profound sense photographs generate what can only be described as a perpetual past. The “news” photograph is an oxymoron because whatever it displays always occurred in the past. You cannot photograph the future. The act of photographing something always arrests its subject like an insect in amber, dooming it to be a sort of curiosity. Good photographers embrace and work through that. It’s photography’s most commonplace trope. I was reminded of that today when reading a vivid description of recreating Britannia, that irrepressible panegyric figure, updated for the recent olympiad:

In any photographic situation where there is a danger that it might go all wrong, where the execution can be way too literal, I always try to steer it back towards the one element that is the most important: spirit. In this case, Laura Trott is a 20 year old girl from Hertfordshire. A week earlier no one, including me, outside of the world of track cycling had heard of her. In seven days she, among several others, had come to embody an ideal of how we would like our country to be. Hard working, modest, humorous, good at stuff and very much alive. Binding her up with spears, shields, togas and chariots would drag her down more than anything. How to make it work?

I close my eyes and I think of the canon. The canon are the photographers I draw on in times of doubt. They give me comfort, solace and inspiration. They include Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber, Lee Friedlander, Sally Mann, Corrine Day, Glen Luchford, Erwin Blumenfeld, Harry Callahan and, in this case, Irving Penn. I close my eyes and I go through the rolodex in my head thinking of them all until I find the one that instinctively feels like the inspirational match for the task at hand. That’s not to say I set about slavishly ripping them off. I use them as my starting point, my jumping off point. They are my photographic moral compass. They show me the light, guide the way and keep me company. Once I push off and get underway I’m then going forward under my own steam. By the time I get to the other side I will have, hopefully, added enough of my own ingredients to the dish for it to taste new and different.

Rule Britannia

It makes more sense to me now why i am perpetually confused by the idea that rhetorics of display are primarily present directed. They always transport me to the past.

Walls of Words

When I read a short review piece by Brian Dillon this morning linked by Mark Woods, I realized that I had achieved a lifelong goal. I am now, without question, a dropout. It was hard to get past the first few sentences:

What mode or degree of attention does photography demand, or deserve, today? It sometimes seems the photograph as such is no longer really with us: suborned to contemporary art practices for which mediumistic integrity is beside the point, dispersed in myriad online quotidia that flummox efforts at a cult-studs overview, the medium meanwhile a decade and more past its heyday as gallery-bound pretender to painting’s spectacle and presence. And yet criticism carries on much as if photography were still parsable in terms of the old problems.

The photography that Dillon speaks of here is photography as an institutional or industrial (as in “art industry” or “culture industry”) practice. It’s a curious way to start a book review, steeped in academic jargon— but, after all, the books under review are targeted at precisely that sort of academic (or pseudo-academic) audience. Photographic practice has perhaps never been more omnipresent, as the glowing waves of cell-phone cameras at any social or political event easily demonstrates. But does it deserve attention? Uh, yes— is the only sane answer for a general audience. But for an academic audience, perhaps not. Glad I’m a drop-out from all that.

Driving to the hardware store for some track to continue the current “light the living room” project, I was listening to the Elson Lecture by Elizabeth Murray. Murray begins by talking about listening to a very intelligent man discussing the relevance of painting using terms like modality and temporaneity saying that she wondered to herself why he felt the need to use such terms to isolate and distance himself from his audience, in effect erecting an academic wall around himself when what he was actually saying was easily understandable and might be restated in plain language. As I read Dillon’s review of three books, which I do have some interest in, I had to ask myself why he felt a book review was the place to exercise his vocabulary regarding pointless debates. Murray suggested that, in the case of painting, people would still be doing it “until the rubble of civilization was bouncing.” I agree.

Of course, Dillon sidesteps his opening cynicism by lauding Tod Papageorge’s Core Curriculum (Aperture, 2011) as the indispensable antidote. Not the first rave of that one I’ve read, but I’m not moved to read it yet. James Elkins’s What Photography Is (Routledge, 2011) sounds a lot more interesting, though Dillon pretty much pans it. It dwells on Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes’ seminal (though a bit shopworn) text. Barthes book is yet another of those books that has launched a thousand misappropriations and misreadings. I’d be far more curious about Elkin’s correctives than Dillon’s.

But, given that I need to install more light in the living room to look at such wonderful recent acquisitions such as Robert Bergman’s A Kind of Rapture — a truly amazing piece of photographic / literary work (and a terrific corrective to Alec Soth’s pretentious twaddle)— I’ll have to put off Elkin’s book for another day. As for Dillon’s essay, well, I think I’d much rather listen to Toni Morrison reading her introduction to Bergman’s book again than comment further.

Now, back to that living room!

Villains and Redemption

Because when you find yourself the villain in the story you have written
It’s plain to see
That sometimes the best intentions are in need of redemption
Would you agree?
If so please show me

I gave up on photography to a certain extent when I left California (circa 1995). It seemed “hollow” to me, without real value in its truest sense. Getting involved with people and taking pictures of them for the preceding years hurt me in profound ways. In retrospect, I think its because I unconsciously felt complicit in the suicide attempt of a close friend. I had documented his life, and when he failed at suicide he called me up to document that too. The resulting photographs are powerful, yes, but at what cost? His life began an even more severe downward spiral just after that and I had to walk away. It wasn’t the only reason I left California, or even the main one, but it was a central event that pointed me away from everything I had ever known for thirty-plus years.

I never expected photography to be one of the casualties. In fact, after surviving another even more crushing failure to communicate my first move was to start taking pictures again and get a job in a photo lab. The attempt to suture up the wounds failed, miserably. I couldn’t play the thief any longer, because I had seen the cost of deluding oneself into believing that work as a documentarian was somehow “valuable.” I’m still working on that. You have to feel like what you do has value before you can commit yourself to it.

I suppose that’s how I came to study rhetoric/communications in the years that followed. Most turning points in my life resulted from a failure to communicate or understand the messages being sent to me.

Any photographer worth his salt is a kind of thief, for no matter what angle you consider it from, any photograph is a kind of theft. You must shoot without thinking, because the unforeseen will never present itself again. From the exposure of his first films, Cartier-Bresson was immediately aware that he was committing an act of violence as soon as he incorporated human beings and not just nature or the inanimate world of objects. What would a passer-by think if the photographer pointed his Leica at him? You could be as discreet, as rapid and charming as you liked, but this aggressive cyclops eye would strip the subject naked in his most intimate moments.

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 72

In Assouline’s story, Cartier Bresson is aware of the violence his photography visits upon its subjects. But he justifies it by intimating that to see people “naked” is something of value. I’m not so sure. It’s part of what I’m struggling with right now. Perhaps the line between erotic voyeurism and an addiction to pornography is not as sharp as aesthetes would insist.

The thread that holds it together

Corning Museum of Glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contriving the exclusion

Lewis Mumford

The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do. (17)

Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

When I read Vicki Goldberg’s excerpt of Lewis Mumford’s thoughts on the economy of images emphasizing the curmudgeonly proclamation that the proliferation of images had placed us all in hades, my gut feeling was that his view must be more complex than that. Three quarters of the way through his lecture series published in Art and Techics there is indeed polemic. But he sneaks up on it, making his way through photography on the way as a democratic process:

Now, by perfecting a mechanical method, the “taking of pictures” by a mere registration of the sensations was democratized. Anyone could use a camera. Anyone could develop a picture. Indeed, as early as the 1890s the Eastman Company went a step further in the direction of automatism and mass production, by saying to the amateur photographer—this was their earliest advertising slogan—you press the button we do the rest. What had been in the seventeenth century a slow handicraft process, requiring well trained eyes and extremely skilled hands, with all the rewards that accompany such highly organized bodily activities, now became an all-but-automatic gesture. Not an entirely automatic gesture, I hasten to add, lest any photographers in this audience squirm in agonized silence or break forth into a loud shout of protest. For after all it turns out that even in the making of the most mechanically contrived image, something more than machines and chemicals is involved. The eye, which means taste. The interest in the subject and an insight into the moment when it—it or he or she—is ready. An understanding of just what esthetic values can be further brought out in the manipulation of the instrument and materials. (92)

Mumford equivocates photography with “registration of the sensations,” masking his overwhelming bias toward photography as monosensual: visual to the exclusion of all other sense records. I suspect this is because it allows him to paint photography as gestural, contingent on a button press. Lately I have been thinking that the athletic edge to photography (street photography, as a prime example) invites examination of the invocation of multiple sense modalities. Taste, in its broadest sense, can be stretched to the appreciation of the spatial qualities of representation (beyond trompe l’oeil)— and thus be forced to confront the problems of bodies in space and their relations. The impact of scale, for example, as explored by many contemporary photographers can create special types of comfort, discomfort, and sensual response that are not, strictly speaking, visual. Esthetic values involve more than just the eyes.

The effort to understand the visual often tries to leapfrog over the body to get to the eye stalk. Nonetheless, it is admirable that Mumford does recognize the human qualities of photographs, and has a sense of photography’s history/pleasures

All these human contributions are essential. As in science, no matter how faithfully one excludes the subjective, it is still the subject that contrives the exclusion [emphasis mine]. All this must be freely granted. But this is only to say that in photography another machine art like printing was born; and that the standards of esthetic success in this art are not dissimilar than those in printing. If we consider those standards for a moment we shall have a clue to one of the most essential problems connected with automatism and reproduction.

As with printing, photography did not altogether do away with the possibilities of human choice; but to justify their productions as art there was some tendency on the part of early photographers, once they had overcome the technical difficulties of the process, to attempt to ape, by means of the camera, the special forms and symbols that had been handed down traditionally by painting. Accordingly, in the nineties, American photographs became soft and misty and impressionistic, just when impressionism was attempting to dissolve form into atmosphere and light. But the real triumphs of photography depended on the photographer’s respect for his medium, his interest in the object before him, and his ability to single out of the thousands of images that pass before the eye, affected by the time of day, the quality of light, movement, the sensitivity of his plates or film, the contours of his lens, precisely that moment when these factors were in conjunction with his own purpose. At that final moment of choice—which sometimes occurred when a picture was taken, sometimes only after taking and developing a hundred indifferent prints— the human person again became operative; and at that moment, but only at that moment, the machine product becomes a veritable work of art, because it reflects the human spirit. (92-93)

What this passage makes clear is that Mumford is concerned with the improper use of symbols and the clear role of human choice in art as opposed to technics, his word for technology deployed without the human element. That’s the primary reason for his coinage of techics— it is neither techné nor technology, though it is derived from them— it is the deployment of mindless or inhuman means of reproduction. It’s a shame that Goldberg neatly skips this part (quite photographer friendly) in her anthology.

It is this human element that interests me most in all this; to center photography on one sense (vision) tends to render it mechanistic. The sensual/bodily side of it is difficult to address without resort to subjectivity or spirituality. I think there are objectively verifiable, physical elements involved in perception that are ignored in discussions of reproductive technologies due to a tendency to compartmentalize the sense modalities. That’s why I can’t seem to stop jumping between audio/music reproduction, photographic and sculptural reproduction, textual production and reproduction, etc. It seems like it should all fit together as furniture for living.

Pleasure, of a sort

OildaleBreckenridge Mountain views

Reflecting on the two photographs I chose from the cloud of images I took when I visited Bakersfield in 2008, my first return after a decade or so, I suppose the only criteria was that both pictures please me. It is tricky to speak of images as “texts” (I do not wish to offer a “reading” of either picture) and yet it is pleasing to locate the studium and punctum, a la Barthes.

On the left, the studium dominates— when I think of the California I knew it is punctuated with parking lots (in this case a Dairy Queen) and palm trees. These are the “facts” which I never really tired of studying, a perverse sort of pleasure in their constancy. On the right, it is the painted cattle guard as a sort of border between the valley and the mountains, what pricks me (punctum) is not an emotional connection with a pretty sunset, but rather an intellectual pleasure in the knowledge (only found outside the frame on a map) that this is a more than symbolic boundary1 between the open ranges of mountains and my fenced valley home suggestive of its properties. In both cases, reducing the images to symbolic content leaves a taste— a remainder from the division— of a place I once called home. The pleasure “for me” is complex and as Barthes suggests “neither subjective nor existential”:

If I agree to judge a text according to pleasure, I cannot go on to say: this one is good, that bad. No awards, no “critique,” for this always implies a tactical aim, a social usage, and frequently an extenuating image-reservoir. I cannot apportion, imagine that the text is perfectible, ready to enter a play of normative predicates: it is too much of this, not enough of that; the text (the same is true of the singing voice) can wring from me only this judgment, in no way adjectival: that’s it! And further still: that’s it for me! This “for me” is neither subjective nor existential, but Nietzschean (“. . . basically, it is always the same question: What is it for me? . . .”).

Roland Barthes, Pleasure of the Text (13)

When I read this passage a couple of days ago I puzzled over his usage of “Nietzschean.” It took quite some effort to track down the passage he quotes assuming everyone knows. Asserting that the”what is it for me?” question— in matters of pleasure— is not subjective seems to contradict the definition of subjective. After all isn’t all pleasure contingent on the existence of the self? It’s easy to accept that pleasure can’t be existential (because pleasure cannot exist outside the self). The implication that pleasure can be tactical or strategic (or have any sort of pragmatic dimension) is rightfully discarded, enhancing the connection with aesthetic pleasure. But why isn’t pleasure subjective? Perhaps only because of his disclaimer: pleasure in this Barthesian sense has no use and therefore is not a matter of personal benefit/perspective. So the pressure is all the stronger on the for me: to what end, if not a personal utility?

The answer, near as I can tell, is in the passage in Will to Power he quotes so ambiguously and imprecisely:

The answer to the question, “What is that?” is a process of fixing a meaning from a different standpoint. The “essence” the “essential factor,” is something which is only seen as a whole in perspective, and which presupposes a basis which is multifarious. Fundamentally, the question is “What is this for me?” (for us, for everything that lives, etc. etc.)

A thing would be defined when all creatures had asked and answered this question, “What is that? concerning it. Supposing that one single creature, with its own relationship and stand in regard to all things were lacking, that thing would remain undefined.

In short: the essence of a thing is really only an opinion concerning that “thing.” Or, better still; “it is worth” is actually what is meant by “it is” or “that is.”

One may not ask: “Who interprets then? for the act of interpreting itself, as a form of the Will to Power, manifests itself (not as “Being” but as a process, as Becoming) as a passion.

Will to Power

I am certainly not an expert on Nietzsche, and I have many quarrels with most of his interpreters, but it seems to me that most of this is fairly easy to grasp— up to a point. To say that something “is” always entails an opinion and a corresponding value judgment. But the conclusion alludes to (this is a fragmentary and incomplete text) a sort of metaphysical (at least it seems to me) resolution of the problem of missing universal things: universal will. Described here as a passion, it seems to me that what Barthes is summoning in his “Nietzschean sense” is a sort of will to pleasure that exists beyond the existential and the subjective.

Thus, Barthes’ parenthetical benefits from the more emphatic/complete substitution from Nietzsche’s notes

. . . that’s it! And further still: that’s it for me! This “for me” is neither subjective nor existential, but Nietzschean [Fundamentally, the question is “What is this for me?” (for us, for everything that lives, etc. etc.)]

So the aesthetic impulse (pleasure) in this case a universalizing one, a conjecture that the pleasure might be something more than personal/subjective feeling. I like this idea a lot; the possibility that taste, in some way, might transcend its social/communicative utility. But this is a big leap. The commentators I have read on Barthes’ text emphasize the pleasures of text as a way of escaping the subject position, the possibility of liberation— but no one I have read seems to notice that this path leads through universals.

Universals just aren’t Barthesian. The dissonance jars me; I don’t have that much problem with universal claims, as long as they are identified as such. This way of circumventing universals is sly: his claim is for universal processes rather than universal values. Nonetheless, following Nietzsche’s suggested substitution of “it is worth” for “it is,” there is no escape from value judgments and pragmatic utilities. Barthes core claims are at odds with each other.

Who interprets? I think we are doomed to ask that question. 

1Although the lines are an illusory barrier, they are nonetheless a physical presence in the world and not merely a symbol.

Close your eyes

Rock Out.jpg

A screen capture of this Shure ad has been sitting on my desktop for a year or so now. It bothers me a great deal— historically, I think music has been a way of connecting with the world not blocking it out. But music is also linked to escapism and flight to a sort of internal spiritual realm. The dichotomy doesn’t resolve itself neatly. There are a lot of things that I could suggest about this image. For one, music began as a social activity that has been gradually marginalized into privatized spaces, culminating in its domain being simply the distance between your ears. It seems like a rip-off and impoverishment of experience when looked at from that angle.

But in the space between your ears, and more importantly with your eyes closed, there is a sort of purity to it. Metaphorically speaking, it’s as if god whispers to you. To block out the world requires closing your eyes. But closing your eyes—returning to the dark side— suggests a form of death. Not an actual death, but deep separation from our social natures. I am reminded of a song by Steve Wynn about the ending of a relationship:

When they bring down the curtain
In an hour and 45 minutes
we can talk about the play
and pretend that we were never in it

flashes lit up the skies
thunder and then surprise
you can close your eyes

when the earth shakes,
opens up and swallow itself
I won’t be thinking about anybody else

fury and fire flies
it’s too late for compromise
you can close your eyes

words turn to anger,
anger comes to blows
nobody feels the hit but everybody knows

when nothing can tantalize
it’s gonna take a new set of lies
you can close your eyes

Close Your Eyes, from Dazzling Display

The complexity is rewarding. Part of what I read into this is a sort of necessary blindness in the name of moving forward, in the name of getting to the next sort of fiction you have to believe to be safe within a social relationship: “a new set of lies.” The implication is not that closing your eyes grants purity, but rather simply that it shuts out the previous deception. The headphone listener closes their eyes— a different sort of deception, a different relationship with music.

The title track, and indeed the entire LP Dazzling Display nestles in the shadow of its cultural preconditions: the first Gulf War. Many of the songs reflect the shallowness of a television war, with all it’s deceptions and facades. But it seems fallacious to suggest that if we close our eyes to outside stimuli and “block out the world” that the messages we receive will have greater purity, particularly if what concerns us is this world rather than the next. It is a conundrum. Music is a communicative phenomenon that unfolds in space and time, not outside it— just like relationships and wars. Both require massive leaps of faith— suspensions of disbelief, or at the very least, cynicism. Nonetheless, we are easily deceived. Try this video for example:

Even when you know the trick involved, you still can’t help but be deceived. Unless you close your eyes. But live musical events are seldom experienced with eyes closed. Deception is a core feature of the aesthetic experience. If we knew precisely what the experience was, it would lose its attractiveness.

Lost Somewhere


I enjoy reading magazines about audio gear, largely because the multiple army of metaphors and absurdities used to describe sound in verbal terms is entertaining. Online, a wide variety of interested parties toe the line of science or subjectivity in an unquenchable thirst for what is generally identified as “the live experience,” a battle of words where various forums endlessly debate whether brand x or brand y reaches closer to the “musical truth.” It’s a battle waged mostly by absolutists, all firmly convinced of the validity of their experience.

What is less common, however, is the use of visual aids in the description of musical experience. I recently found this 1952 McIntosh brochure at a site called Hifi Lit. It deploys a lot of common tropes (such as the idea of mapping our way to understanding) while promoting its own trademarks, e.g. the little guy in the kilt. Music is portrayed as a visceral experience:


I suppose that in the quest for sound, McIntosh is a descendent of Braveheart? Or, at the very least you can purchase a pure brave heart for your system to assist in your quest to recover experience, perhaps so you can get your kicks on route 66?


It’s amazing to me the pervasiveness of these communicative metaphors. Remember that this is 1952, just after the Shannon-Weaver model of communication as messages down a conduit. Note that McIntosh wants to suggest that all sound (not just speech) contains messages. Such messages must be transmitted with purity. It makes me think of the launch code in Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove: POE, purity of essence, that wonderful twisting of peace on earth. We wouldn’t want to have listener fatigue from our stereo systems, now would we? Not very peaceful, is it? Especially when the little kilted gnome gets just as addled as you do.

As the brochure continues, it anticipates William Ivins 1953 argument for visual syntax in Prints and Visual Communication. The urge to impose verbal constraints on non-verbal phenomena was in the air. In this case, sound gets mapped on the alphabet:


Pleasure, alarm, discomfort and then back to school with a bribe for the teacher: I love it.

Syracuse Symposium- W.J.T. Mitchell

W.J.T. Mitchell

Went to a talk last night by W.J.T. Mitchell. In many ways, it just seemed to be a restatement of the same old problem: how do we reconcile the universal and the particular? I came away completely unsatisfied that this tangent really cast any light on the issue at all.

Mitchell built his talk around John Rawls original position, that of judgment through the “veil of ignorance.” Simply stated, in the liberal approach to morality we must base all moral judgments on abstractions rather than specific concerns. Law should reside outside the traditional communitarian patriarch/matriarch and rely on an imagined ignorance of the particular facts of real people living in the real world. We can only project our symbolic abstractions on a veil of ignorance. Mitchell noted that this approach seems to work within the boundary conditions of specific nations, but not as a global strategy. This, I would assume, fuels his reasoned designation of “beyond the veil of ignorance” as subtitle.

The set-up was pretty basic. One of the preconditions of Judeo-Christian law has been the prohibition of images (second commandment). Restrictions on images have been generally unsuccessful; restriction on the movement of peoples has been more successful—borders with checkpoints and immigration laws resulting in the “de-legalization” of people in specific territories. The ties between image politics and border politics was tenuous throughout the talk. The talk was probative and to my ears inconclusive. In the discussion afterward, Mitchell seemed to imply that the abstract and the specific can be held in suspension and that the veil can be upheld as a path to justice.

I was reminded of William Blake’s usage of “veil” in most of his writings. It seems odd that Mitchell, who began as a Blake scholar, was completely comfortable with Rawls’s use of the term. For Blake, the “veil” was generally held to be metaphorically equivalent to the hymen. Once rent, once you see behind the veil, it is impossible for “innocence” or virginity to grow back.