Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Immediate to God": souvenirs, words, and the wordless

Click to enlarge.

The little artifact is about 58 mm high and adorned with a tarnished brass plaque reading


If we take this to the web, we can adorn it with footnotes. The battleship Queen Elizabeth, says Wikipedia, was commissioned in 1915 and scrapped in 1948 after service in both World Wars. She was rebuilt in 1926-27 and again in 1937-41, and the truncated history on the little brass plaque presumably dates it to one of those changes of form. But here she is in 1915: the only dreadnought at the Dardanelles.

Click to enlarge.

And the brass plaque touches our fingertips and tells us: "This little toy barrel is hereby a part of history. The words I bear are a manual of instruction, teaching you how to remember what a bit of wood once could have been."


Across a Turnerian waterscape of smoke and ice, the car ferry Michigan Central approaches its dock some time about 1900. The owner of the blog Shorpy (http://www.shorpy.com/node/7051) has photoshopped the image and brought out all the beauty that lay latent in it between 1900 and now.

Click to enlarge.

And Shorpy's readers have gratefully responded. In the years before there was a tunnel, this boat carried rail traffic across the Detroit River between Detroit, Michigan, USA, and Windsor, Ontario, Canada -- but on which side of the border, one reader asks, was the picture taken? Replying, other readers leap into the comment stream with helpful armloads of annotation. One identifies the large structure on the river's near bank as an industrial building which stood for many years in Detroit; another identifies the church on the opposite bank and notes that it is still extant in Windsor. And a hobbyist with a magnifying glass observes that the boxcar on the left is equipped with a modern knuckle coupling but the boxcar in the middle still has one of the dangerous link-and-pin couplers outlawed by the Safety Appliance Act of 1893.

We love to hear ourselves say such things. It's as if our words leave our mouths and return to us on tiny brass plaques, tokens of ourselves which we attach to what we have been allowed to see. Here in an image are immortal volume and immortal hue, and here is the ephemeral wordy lesson we have been vouchsafed to teach ourselves about it.

I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it . . .

But the ice and the smoke and the momentary forms they created for a single wordless instant once, one long-ago winter day -- what could we possibly say about those? How can we approach them without ridiculously seeming to stalk the impalpable with tackhammers and brads and strips of brass? And now, after all, aren't they and their unified form the only thing that matters? Among the water and the ice, hasn't the man smoking a pipe been entirely absorbed into the formalism of the design, all classical composition and glass plate and silver halide crystals faithfully modeling the ice he seems to be looking at, as we are looking at him?

In 1854, in his lecture series Eras of Modern History, Leopold von Ranke paused for a moment before the writing of his histories of men in an effort to understand. "Jede Epoche ist unmittelbar zu Gott," he finally said: "Every era is immediate to God." Then, as he had to, he turned his back on the phenomena, sat down at his desk, and began mediating in words.

[Source: Leopold von Ranke, Über die Epochen der neueren Geschichte, ed. Hans Herzfeld (Schloss Laupheim: Ulrich Steiner, 1955), 30. Cited in Peter A. Lawless, "The Nomad Past: German Histories, Italian Journeys, and the Visible Texture of Time" (dissertation, University of Michigan, 2009) 117.]

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Image against the exotic

To its American readers, National Geographic communicates translations of body language. It domesticates the exotic for us with comfortable frissons which (it assures us) come to us from the exotic. An exotic himself -- a little Mexican boy in an American school, reading a schoolbook in the presence of the Geographic -- Richard Rodriguez spent his first year as a reader paraphrasing the Geographic's composite language back and forth between its images and its translation into English words until he broke from image in order to write himself into words. Firmly in the words' lexicon now as he remembers his childhood lessons in remedial reading, Rodriguez finds himself seated again before a book full of words, learning body language's tale of a lost Eden of the wordless senses.

At the end of each school day, for nearly six months, I would meet with [a very old nun] in the tiny room that served as the school's library but was actually only a storeroom for used textbooks and a vast collection of National Geographics. Everything about our sessions pleased me: the smallness of the room; the noise of the janitor's broom hitting the edge of the long hallway outside the door; the green of the sun, lighting the wall; and the old woman's face blurred white with a beard. . . .

One day the nun concluded a session by asking me why I was so reluctant to read by myself. I tried to explain; said something about the way written words made me feel all alone -- almost, I wanted to add but didn't, as when I spoke to myself in a room just emptied of furniture. She studied my face as I spoke; she seemed to be watching more than listening. In an uneventful voice she replied that I had nothing to fear. Didn't I realize that reading would open up whole new worlds? A book could open doors for me. It could introduce me to people and show me places I never imagined existed. She gestured toward the bookshelves. (Bare-breasted African women danced, and the shiny hubcaps of automobiles on the back covers of the Geographic gleamed in my mind.)

-- Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982; rpt. New York: Dial, 1985) 64-65. Print.

In his next paragraph, Rodriguez tells the story of overcoming what he calls "my fear of the silence" and becoming a prodigious but strictly pragmatic reader, one who read not for his senses' sake but solely for words and the extra credit they could bring him. The nun and the Geographic were banished from memory now, and Rodriguez was launched on his journey toward text and away from color and sound and heat. That's a success story.

But the journey away from color and sound and heat must engender some sense of loss, and the sense of loss often articulates itself as nostalgia. On his blog at


for instance, the poet Pierre Joris is currently serializing the sense and text memoir of another poet, Robert Kelly, who recalls his childhood in Brooklyn sixty years ago this way.

On Sutter Avenue plenty of such nutrition was ready to be found:  the noisy greasy corner printing shops, Drukerey I could make out in the window, working from the German I was beginning to know in school, ‘printer,’ where men in undervests read clean paper with their inky hands, men with hats on always, printing the curvy thick Jewish letters that seemed as rich as foods, as deeply familiar as the veins that twisted down my wrist.  Hebrew letters:  I was amazed that I couldn’t read them, because they seemed to familiar, as if they were modeled on the inside of my own body, of every human body, organ and tube and channel and drop of seed.

They stood in doorways and looked at the sheets fresh-printed.  Little boys with velvet yarmulkes and velvety eyes and dangling peyos would carry big loads of fresh print along the street to the binder, another shop not far away, and there’d be the books and pamphlets piled high in the reading rooms, overflowing the doorways of what I took to be synagogues, what did I know, men in big black hats, and every now and then an elder great one wearing a big shtreiml, a fur-trimmed hat and long black shiny coat and high white stockings.  A stick he’d carry, and walk like a man from our own history, as if Benjamin Franklin had come alive as a rabbi now, and all our American sagacity were just one gesture of the timeless wisdom of these strange Jews.

Bare breasts, velvety eyes, or curvy thick Jewish letters secreted in the body like drops of seed: a general term for this class of emotive description is "exoticism." The trope had a history long before Kelly and Rodriguez encountered it, of course. Two years into the Hitlerzeit, for instance, Thomas Wolfe made use of it in his autobiographical novel Of Time and the River to articulate his sense of teaching college English to Jews in the exoticized city of New York.

Their dark flesh had in it the quality of a merciless tide which not only overwhelmed and devoured but withdrew with a powerful sucking glut all rich deposits of the earth it fed upon: they had the absorptive quality of a sponge, the power of a magnet, the end of each class left him sapped, gutted, drained, and with a sense of sterility, loss, and defeat, and in addition to this exhaustion of the mind and spirit, there was added a terrible weariness and frustration of the flesh: the potent young Jewesses, thick, hot, and heavy with a female odor, swarmed around him in a sensual tide, they leaned above him as he sat there at his table, pressing deliberately the crisp nozzles of their melon-heavy breasts against his shoulder; slowly, erotically, they moved their bellies in to him, or rubbed the heavy contours of their thighs against his legs; they looked at him with moist red lips through which their wet red tongues lolled wickedly, and they sat upon the front rows of the class in garments cut with too extreme a style of provocation and indecency, staring up at him with eyes of round lewd innocence, cocking their legs with a shameless and unwitting air, so that they exposed the banded silken ruffle of their garters and the ripe heavy flesh of their underlegs.

Thus, to all his weariness of mind, the terror and torment of his spirit, a thousand erotic images of an aroused but baffled and maddened sensuality were added: they swarmed around him like the embodiment of all the frustrate hunger, desire, and fury he had come to know in the city, with a terrible wordless evocation of men starving in the heart of a great plantation, of men dying of thirst within sight of a shining spring, with a damnable mockery, a nightmare vision of proud, potent and hermetic flesh, of voluptuous forms in hell, for ever near, for ever palpable, but never to be known, owned, or touched.

The girls, the proud and potent Jewesses with their amber flesh, schooled to a goal of marriage, skilled in all the teasings of erotic trickery, with their lustful caution and their hot virginity pressed in around him in a drowning sensual tide: with looks of vacant innocence and with swift counter-glances of dark mockery, they pressed upon him, breathing, soft and warm and full, as they cajoled, teased, seduced with look or gesture. . . .

The Jewish women were as old as nature and as round as the earth: they had a curve in them. They had gone to the wailing walls of death and love for seven thousand years, the strong convulsive faces of the Jews were ripe with grief and wisdom, and the curve of the soul of the Jewish women was still unbroken. Female, fertile, yolky, fruitful as the earth, and ready for the plow, they offered to the famished wanderer, the alien, the exile, the baffled and infuriated man, escape and surcease of the handsome barren women, the hard varnished sawdust dolls, the arrogant and sterile women, false in look and promise as a hot-house peach, who walked the street and had no curves or fruitfulness in them. The Jewish women waited with rich yolky cries for him, and the news they brought him; the wisdom that they gave to him was that he need not strangle like a mad dog in a barren dark, nor perish, famished, unassuaged, within the wilderness beside a rusted lance -- but that there was still good earth for the plow to cleave and furrow, deep cellars for the grain, a sheath for the shining sword, rich pockets of spiced fertility for all the maddened lunges of desire.

-- Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in his Youth (New York: Scribner, 1935) 483-84. E-text from Project Gutenberg Australia.

Now, something to note about this passage is that it comes to us much less from its author's life than from literary history. There are picture books about Thomas Wolfe which show us images of Asheville, North Carolina, wie es eigentlich (the picture books assure us) gewesen in the days when Wolfe walked the town's streets. But Wolfe's novels themselves owe as much to texts written by James Joyce and Otto Weininger as they do to any actual life lived by the "real" Thomas Wolfe. Likewise, Kelly's memoir is illustrated with photographs, but not photographs taken by Kelly. Instead, Kelly or Joris went to museums of New York history for some generic photodocumentation of the streets of Brooklyn, circa 1950. After all, for both Kelly and Wolfe the exotic was a memory; that is, not a documentable datum but a fiction of the senses.

Jacob Riis's ostensibly non-fictional book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) is another such fiction. However, because it also contains some non-fictional content in the form of photographs, it can be read as a bilingual dictionary of the exotic: Word to Image and Image to Word. Here on p. 104, for instance, is a visual setting rendered in words -- and here in the setting is a word right out of The Arabian Nights: "houri."

Click to enlarge.

And yet there are no houris in the photographs with which Riis documented his study -- either among the photoengravings in the original edition or among the many additional images from the Riis archive in the 1971 Dover reprint. After all, "houri" isn't a word that can actually be associated with any visualizable image from the streets of New York. As of 1890, its provenance was the composite vocabulary of writers like Byron and Beckford and Sir Richard Burton, as perhaps illustrated by the fanciful Baudelairean pornographer Félicien Rops. Made a part of the nineteenth century's lexicon of the senses by those writers, the word "houri" may have influenced Riis the writer. But in the nature of documentable things it couldn't influence Riis the photographer. So How the Other Half Lives reads now like two books, imperfectly translated into each other's language: one in dated nineteenth-century prose, the other in images that can never die.

For readers of that incompletely integrated doubleness, this disjunction between the images and the text that doesn't quite interpret them makes for an interesting disconnect. It's as if the part of us that reads and the part of us that sees have been severed by the book's double nature. And of course there's nothing unique to How the Other Half Lives about that effect.

Pierre Joris, for example, is now on record as an endorser of a petition sponsored by the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel at

As is the nature of such texts, this petition is in the imperative mood but with no clear indication of who is issuing the command. The command itself, too, is a metaphor. "Stand up," it orders us, "against Israel's ongoing scholasticide and . . . support the non-violent call for academic boycott, divestment, and sanction." Stand up against -- means what, precisely? Scholasticide would be what -- the murder of scholars, of scholarship, of scholasticism? And what would a violent call sound like? In its immediate context, the petition presumably means only that if an Israeli poet presents himself before Pierre Joris's blog in curvy thick Jewish letters as rich as foods, Joris won't publish him.

Well, no matter. The petition originates in the same wordy zone of the brain as velvety eyes or melon-heavy breasts equipped with crisp nozzles. It is a trace in words of the exotic, and the exotic itself is a trace of a fictive memory. But when photography goes in search of that memory, all it sees is in the present tense -- and there, the houris have always already vanished.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The failed escape from allegory

Why is the Christian Right so narrowly obsessed with abortion? Why is it so concerned with bringing a reductive clarity to its reading of what surely must be a tragic anthology of dilemmas? Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine offers an interesting explanation here,


in the form of an article about the Princeton theologian Robert P. George. Offering us a conspectus of George's conservative Catholic view that human (hetero)sexuality has a uniquely double purpose ("unitive and procreative"), the article claims that George's thought influences American political discourse everywhere on the political right.

Myself, I got depressed when I read it. Trained as a biologist, I make a distinction between the uninterpreted idea of function and the teleological idea of interpretable purpose, and it seems to me that the idea of function is infinitely richer and more productive of happy astonishment. The natural world is full of wonders, and when someone comes along to declare, "The one (1) purpose of the wonder of sexuality is . . ." I get sad. Declarations like that, I think, are a symptom of allegorical thinking, and allegorical thinking is a form of paranoia. It ties everything down on a Procrustean bed of preformulated interpretation. I think of the "Messianic Jewish" Haggadot which solemnly explain that matzot are perforated because Jesus was punched full of nail holes.

I'd like to think that the Passover meal can be taken in more comprehensively than that. But no, it isn't easy to escape from allegory. When I took this picture yesterday, for instance, I'd just come from the ophthalmologist's, my eyes were full of atropine, and all I could really see when I looked through the finder was a white shape entering a circumscribed field of blue.

Iolani Palace, Honolulu, December 22, 2009
Click to enlarge.

That is: at the moment I pressed the shutter release, my vision was constrained to formal purity by a biological limit on what I was able to see.

A few hours later, though, with my eyes back to normal and the camera's memory card disinterestedly giving up its data to the computer, I found myself interpreting as I saw, and then photoshopping to force the interpretation on anyone else who might see what I thought the monitor was showing me.

The white tree and the dark: weren't those a white figure standing above and apart from something dark and gesticulating? A white shape, in fact, that could be Mr. Kurtz's Beloved? And a black tree dancing before the approaching whiteness like a frantic savage on the banks of the Congo?

That didn't have to be my interpretation, of course. It probably came to me only because I do my vocational reading in a largely Marxist department of English. There, allegory is one of the preferred modes of teaching, and it is understood by some of my colleagues that the purpose of a literature course is to smash colonialism. To departments like mine the canonical Norton Anthology of English Literature caters by following Heart of Darkness with Chinua Achebe's assertion that "Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist," and in departments like mine the undergraduates emerge from that simplifying juxtaposition feeling saved. At the beginning of the semester they were intimidated before Conrad's difficult prose, but now they feel superior to its discreditable purposes. They have been vouchsafed a moral interpretation and a language-free dichotomy -- Conrad the man or Achebe the man, evil or good? -- to vote on.

I like to think I read more interestingly than that.

But it seems that I really don't. A moment ago, for instance, didn't I reduce to illustration and allegory the pure image that my camera took in? As long as my impaired vision was subordinated to the camera's physical demands, I had to see without preconception -- but then my vision got better and I got worse. I began framing image's negative space with words, and thinking (in words) that I had to. I no longer saw without purpose. I was interpreting. I was as fallen as Robert P. George.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Chronopathetic, part 2



Jerome Rothenberg continues the retrospective project of posting his oeuvre as a blog. This particular entry reprints a collectively written poets' manifesto from 1968 which explains, among much else,

that Black Power is an ideal vision of African Divinity resurrected to save the white rational races from suffocating the entire planet in dung colored gas—We ask return to true tribal structure in which men use society rather than be used. ([Joel] Oppenheimer)

Forty years on, the word "tribal" evokes Waziristan and South Carolina. But you know the line about those who do not remember history. The first 21st-century comment reprinted below the manifesto comes from someone who lists his occupation, in 1968 language, as "Head." The comment begins:

As a poet of some merit, I have come to believe, the universe has only existed to give birth to the poem / stucture called

'a cup of coffee'.

But the second comment is a spam from a florist who delivers a wide range of flowers, cakes, and gifts. Fun bit of rationality for the 21st century: the florist and his delivery area are in India.

Eastward the course of empire takes its way.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Benjamin: I take back the chronopathos

That's what I get for trusting the Web. The photograph of Walter Benjamin in the Bibliothèque Nationale that I blogged about on November 22 was taken in 1937, not 1932, and Susan Sontag describes it and its context in the title essay of her Under the Sign of Saturn.

And of course the general weakness of my speculation about history is that it's just as easy to sigh, "Ah, the tragic irony of it all" about 1937 as 1932. You might, for instance, enjoy the sensation of placing your hand over your heart when you recall that in Paris in June, 1937, Prime Minister Blum's Popular Front fell. Just a year and a half earlier, Blum had been dragged from his car and beaten almost to death by followers of T. S. Eliot's culture hero Charles Maurras. Somewhere, some time, the world is always awakening from the pleasant dream called Library. But the moment of awakening will be more serviceable to the day that follows if we accurately know something about the night before, such as its date.

And of course we'll always need the dream called Library to help us understand why Gisèle Freund's photograph of Benjamin has a significance beyond its formal properties as an image. It's Library that makes us realize, with shock and sadness, that Freund's photograph of Walter Benjamin is a photograph of !Walter Benjamin!

But the curve of Benjamin's back and the fierce yet distracted look on his face as he gazes down toward a library's catalog slip -- regardless of the year, regardless of the stage to which history's nightmare had progressed at the moment when Benjamin's image entered Freund's camera, that is all photography.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Professormobile: the politics of rust

From the campus of the University of Hawaii at Manoa:

Click to enlarge.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Photography: setting as tragic intimation

Gisèle Freund's photograph of Walter Benjamin at work seems to be a study in the physical context of mind. Crammed into a corner of his image, Benjamin appears to have been, for the instant that Freund's shutter remained open, a functional part of a library; that is, an institution which exists to detect the airy traces of words and build around them a sense of shelter and permanence.

But the library where Benjamin busied himself, looking away from Freund's remorselessly disinterested lens toward a cataloged reference to some words elsewhere in the building, was the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the year when he sat among its words on his plain wooden chair was 1932. That year, France's President Doumer was assassinated at the opening of a book fair. The next year, the government of Germany would fall before the bookish Adolf Hitler. Books and their libraries, perhaps, provide us readers only with an illusion of order. They offer us grammar and syntax and dictionaries and firm wooden furniture and bright, flicker-free lighting and an exhilarating sense of exegi monumentum aere perennius, but all it took was a flick of the switch to extinguish Walter Benjamin.

Yet the library into which Benjamin so lovably inserted himself for that fraction of a second in 1932 looks real, looks lasting, looks as permanent as the Edwardian decor we see now in photographs taken, shortly before sailing time, in the salons of the Titanic. That, we can say now, is tragic. Can we go on to say that the camera, because of its mechanical disinterestedness, possesses a unique ability to insert itself into the stuff of history and potentiate us readers' sense of tragedy in history's aftermaths? Can we say that photography's most disturbing property is the mute accent it assumes when it speaks tragedy's key stage direction, "Little did he know"? When her camera took into itself an instant of the light of 1932, Gisèle Freund erected a barrier of dumb wordless irony along the camera's image plane between a wordless image of some words and us wordy talkers about them.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Edward Weston and digital photography

On November 17, I formally opened my photo exhibit in the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Kuykendall Gallery with this 9-minute talk about one thing I share with the great Edward Weston: a desire to perceive form with a minimum of technical intermediation between my eye and the reality. Here's a link to the video.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The year of Ulysses: reading right to left

For literature in English, 1922 was one of the great years. It was the year of The Waste Land and The Enormous Room, tombeaux over the century that conceived the Titanic and the Congress of Vienna but forgot to edit the builders' language for hubris. But it was also a year when language was rethought in other ways, from the refurbished Dickensian satire of Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt to the babbitized proto-Newspeak of Reader's Digest. All of these texts shaped and were shaped by the history that brought forth the year 1922, and the greatest of them all, Ulysses, demolished and rebuilt an edifice of culture that had been standing since the moment Odysseus shaped his bed from a tree rooted in the ever-enduring earth.

But that year Ulysses was not alone. In fact, another book from the great year, The Jews, by the Edwardian man of letters Hilaire Belloc, was even more daring than Ulysses in one respect, for Belloc was attempting to translate another ancient story into the language of 1922 with no command of any language but the language of 1922. He understood, too, that that effort had to eventuate in tragedy. Addressing readers whom he sometimes called "the white race" and sometimes called simply "us," Belloc brought them up against the full horror of historical unrepresentability this way.
(Click to enlarge.)

Yes: helplessly unable to navigate the impassable gulf, isolated on its barren shore by the presence of a Jew on the other side, the white race has been forced by that presence to acknowledge that it will never know itself. Because it can't know the Jew, it can't know at all. It is in danger of failing mind's primal duty.

Fortunately, however, history has equipped the white race with a reliable phrasebook: Belloc's The Jews. What has made the book invaluable to the white race was one of history's fortunate accidents -- an accident that happened to befall Hilaire Belloc in his own home. There, speaking English even as she dwelt under her master's alien roof, was a Jewish informant, communicating Jewish intelligence. The informant was, in fact, as Belloc says, one of his best friends. But it wasn't mere best-friendship that enabled Belloc to communicate with the informant. No; Belloc could communicate because (but how?) he too knew the secret Jewish code. And now, thanks to Belloc's heroic cryptography, you too, white reader, can know it. Only read from the back of The Jews to the front the ways Jews do, and you'll spot the spy lurking in the dedication, fiendishly disguised as Belloc's prose.
But don't stop there! Read on, sinking ever deeper into the dark backward and abysm, and there on the book's very title page, invisible to any but Miss Ruby Goldsmith, the members of her race, and the uncanny Hilaire Belloc, is a pair of words meant to be read, uncannily, from right to left, end to beginning. Transliterated from left to right into the chirality of the white race, the two Hebrew words say shalom l'Yisroel. In translation, that means "peace to Israel."
But as of 1922 Belloc's readers knew how untranslatable that word "peace" was, and how full of blood irony. If they didn't know it at the beginning of The Jews, they knew it by the end. After all, there at the end, on Belloc's title page, it's in a language that doesn't even sound white.


"(Silent, thoughtful, alert, he stands on guard, his fingers at his lips in the attitude of secret master. Against the dark wall a figure appears slowly, a fairy boy of eleven, a changeling, kidnapped, dressed in an Eton suit with glass shoes and a little bronze helmet, holding a book in his hand. He reads from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.)"

And as Joyce's stage direction here at the end of the "Circe" episode tells us, Mr. Bloom's cry to his dead child is also inaudible.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Piranesi II

Photoshopped to remove blemishes and adjust the contrast, this is a newspaper photograph of the zeppelin LZ126 departing from Friedrichshafen, Baden-Württemburg, Germany, on October 12, 1924, bound across the Atlantic to Lakehurst, New Jersey. There, a few days later, she will be commissioned as USS Los Angeles: the third of five zeppelins flown by the U.S. Navy between 1921 and 1935. A kind of lucky niece of the Titanic, the Los Angeles was the only one of the five Navy zeppelins that didn't come to its end as a twisted hulk bearing doomed men as it fell, motors still roaring, through an atmosphere more fatally energetic than had been calculated. The Los Angeles was also the only one one of the five to have been designed and built in Germany.

Thirteen years after that first flight, then, decommissioned but still on display, the Los Angeles was a designated vehicle of national hubris on the morning in 1937 when the Hindenburg in its own turn approached Lakehurst, swastika flag on its tail glowing darkly under thunderclouds. Nostalgic for Technicolor, we try to imagine the few seconds passing while the flag's red evaporated before colorless hydrogen flame. But this image from 1924 is black and white, and all happy beginning. If we think we see irony in its darkness, we're committing a retroactive imputation. As of 1924, the glow we see around the great airship's empennage is a dawn, both figurative and literal. The silhouettes of hatted German men and women in the foreground are all innocence.

Nevertheless, as Henri Focillon says, there can be a relation between blackness and time. In "The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet," sec. 4, Wallace Stevens quotes the observation from Focillon's study of Piranesi, quarryman of the dark.
Twenty years later, Piranesi returned to these etchings [the Prisons], and on taking them up again, he poured into them shadow after shadow, until one might say that he excavated this astonishing darkness not from the brazen plates, but from the living rock of some subterranean world. (Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose [Library of America, 1997], 672-73)
Piranesi's twenty years, as described by Focillon, were the maturing time of an artist. But the darkness we see in this picture is a couple of other things. It's the innocent mechanical literality of photography, of course: the aspect of a photographic image which floods the visual field with no help from anything except the facts of the subject and the light and the history of the photographed event wie es eigentlich gewesen. Beyond that, though, is a darkness imposed by an irony we find ourselves submitting to almost under protest. That is the darkness of poetry.

It is an irony which originates in an ancient and, I'd guess, universal metaphor about light and dark, the known and the unknown. "Dark," says the metaphor's vehicle, and its tenor completes the thought with "Little do they know." In the case of Piranesi's Prisons, specifically, the added darkness of the later states amounts to a lengthening of our sentence. We must now undertake an extra term of the hard labor of looking into the dark. But Piranesi the artist started innocent, and his first sentences were light.

As to us viewers from retrospect, we were almost born to dark. Having learned to read before we learned to see, we think we know what this image's silhouettes of the human don't reveal of themselves: their faces and their motives. We guess at those, but we luxuriate in the certainty of their darkness. "Little do they know," we think. And then we think, "I wish I didn't know."

Strange doom, imposed on us by our inability to tear our eyes away from the image produced by an all-seeing instrument innocently meant to stop history for a fraction of a second and record it as nothing but unmeaning light.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Survival supplies

For the Piranesi of our time, I'd like to nominate the photographer who blogs at DetroitFunk, http://detroitfunk.com.

This person appears to be anonymous. Just now, that nameless condition is an anomaly as full of dark meaning as the shadows in a Piranesi prison. Everywhere else in the American economy, art is a traffic in names. "Get me a Murakami," says somebody in the Art World, and in Japan somebody in an art factory turns on the lights for the night shift. But in Detroit, night is the default condition. There, names aren't readable anyway.

The photographer of DetroitFunk understands that, and when the sun is out he (or she) understands Piranesi's other subject too: ruin.

The anonymous photographer took this picture and the one above in the ruins of Detroit's Wilbur Wright High School, where artifacts from a Cold War fallout shelter rust and crumble. The large canister in the top image is labeled "Survival supplies," but the photographer of DetroitFunk doesn't do irony. In that respect, too, he's post-Art World. Jokiness turns out not to be necessary for survival in Detroit. That too marks a difference between Detroit and the Art World.

Of course, once upon a time, some small person in Detroit may have thought for a while like Takashi Murakami. But she appears to have grown up after that, into tracelessness. In any case, she's gone now. All that's left of her in traceless Detroit is a totemic little mini-Murakami: source and derivative, a commercial token of transactional love, smiling for a little while longer into the empty sky.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


In this formal notice, Paul Zukofsky takes an aggressive attitude toward quoting the work of his father, Louis Zukofsky.


Among other things, Paul Zukofsky writes:
Despite what you may have been told, you may not use LZ’s words as you see fit, as if you owned them, while you hide behind the rubric of “fair use”. “Fair use” is a very-broadly defined doctrine, of which I take a very narrow interpretation, and I expect my views to be respected. We can therefore either more or less amicably work out the fees that I demand; you can remove all quotation; or we can turn the matter over to lawyers, this last solution being the worst of the three, but one which I will use if I need to enforce my rights.

 In general, as a matter of principle, and for your own well-being, I urge you to not work on Louis Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not. Working on LZ will be far more trouble than it is worth. You will be far more appreciated working on some author whose copyright holder(s) will actually cherish you, and/or your work. I do not, and no one should work under those conditions. However, if you have no choice in the matter, here are the procedures that I insist upon, and what you must do if you wish to spare yourself as much grief as possible.
So, in homage to Lawrence Lessig:


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Humiliation in life, art after death

Tyler Green's article about David Hockney's return to England is linked here. According to this article, the landscape of Hockney's art is now Yorkshire rather than California because Immigration and Customs Enforcement won't allow his partner to enter the United States.


England is the country that drove Alan Turing to suicide because his sexuality was like Hockney's, but here's its Alan Turing postage stamp by way of art in the aftermath.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Roman Polanski, Salvador Dalí, and Shakespeare

The New York Times's Opinionator blog


and Robert Baird's Digital Emunction blog


link to an interesting array of blog comments about the arrest of Roman Polanski. Collectively, the comments tend to break neatly on either side of George Orwell's "Benefit of Clergy," an essay about The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.

In that 1942 memoir, Dalí joyfully chronicles his experiments in transgression, from coprophagy to kicking his infant sister in the head. As Orwell ponders this document, he considers the hypothetical case of a Shakespeare whose hobby was raping little girls. Meanwhile, this morning's edition of my local newspaper, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 29, 2009, brings us news from what I guess we could call the Leona Helmsley side of the debate.

Helmsley, you'll recall, was the hotel magnate who boasted, "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." Above a story about the Polanski case, then, a pair of Star-Bulletin headlines read, "Rapist sentenced to 50 years" and "Man, 22, gets 15 years for sex with 2 teen girls." When the judge told Mr. Fifty Years, "You are a serial rapist. You are a violent and dangerous guy," Mr. Fifty Years replied, "Judge, please, I have too much to lose. I'm an only child." In the other courtroom, however, Mr. Fifteen Years was more philosophical. He sagely commented, "This is a perfect example why I shouldn't date younger girls."

What do you think -- is there a movie in that script?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Yawp: how to blow, how to translate

1. Song of Myself, section 24, lines 519-521:

I do not press my fingers across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is. 

2. Antiques roadshow: in nineteenth-century America, death was spoken of without euphemism and funerals were held in the home. By contrast, copulation was rarely spoken of at all, except for the purpose of inducing guilt and shame. We find that hard to think about now, from either side of the comparison. Consider, for instance, the emotion with which this fastidiously sanitized sample of the past was sealed into its specimen jar of 21st-century prose.

Edith was a nervous bride, wondering about the intimate side of married life. On her wedding eve, she shyly approached her mother with this question, only to receive a coldly dismissive response. Lucretia made reference to the sexual act by reminding her daughter of the differences in physiology between men and women as represented in statues in art museums.

(Shari Benstock, "Edith Wharton, 1962-1937: A Brief Biography." A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton, ed. Carol J. Singley [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003] 27) 

Signaled by the icy distaste of that prose, we pick up its social cue and perform a historical permutation on Whitman's comparison. Translating for 21st-century politesse, we make ourselves understand Whitman to say, "Death is no more rank to me than copulation is." That rationalizes the poet's awe before himself and gives his poem a new and more hygienic focus. As Whitman's son Hart Crane succinctly put it, at a time when Whitman's era was giving way to ours: "New thresholds, new anatomies."

3. "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,"

sang the elder poet at the end of Song of Myself, secure in what he thought was possession of a code unbreakable by time. But Leaves of Grass, the book whose paper Whitman pulled through the printing press himself, turned out to be not just decipherable in time but recyclable.

In the recycled libretto, what is Lattice Amethyst? A setting for the opera Kleenex. "Yawp into me," sings yearning Kleenex there, her flesh all sensitive tissue under amethyst moonlight. "Yawp into me," Kleenex repeats. "I am all Whitmanic acceptance. I am extra large, I contain germs. Receiving your exuberance with complete understanding, I absorb and silence and dispose of."

And "Yawp," breathes Walt Whitman into Kleenex, completing the duet. A copyright attorney slips the cuffs on at the coda, "Let it out," and into the sanitary landfill goes the translated song of the tenderest lover, yawping for the last time as it crumples under the bulldozer.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Arbus loses face

At a recent white people's rally in Washington, one of the marchers was wearing a shirt in Harvard colors bearing the slogan "Lingua latina": "the Latin language." The colors and the words placed the shirt's wearer in the Mel Gibson / Marcel Lefebvre wing of American conservative thought.

Stephanie Taylor, http://twitpic.com/hgefm.
Thanks to Susan M. Schultz for the link.
Click to enlarge.

On a sign held by clawed hands in front of the shirt, some other words referred to President Obama's health care initiative of summer 2009 and the recent death of Senator Edward Kennedy, a long-time champion of health care reform. I'm footnoting those details because I think Stephanie Taylor's photograph may wind up outliving the significance of the words it immortalizes. If that happens, the image captured by Taylor will have become purely an image. Its alphabet will have been reduced or elevated (take your pick) to nothing but shape and color.

But even then, after it has given up whatever verbal meaning it once had, it will remain a document in the history of body language. A librarian in some future archive, for instance, might shelve it for its textual content alongside this image by Diane Arbus from the era of the Vietnam War. But the two photographs could belong just as well together in a catalog of clawed hands.

In such a catalog of hands, the pair of images might communicate across a facing page with Eadweard Muybridge's study of a hand releasing a ball and rising away into pure, unburdened gesture. Mediating the series would be the hand grenade locked down forever in the hand of Arbus's boy. In that series, Taylor's and Arbus's and Muybridge's pictures might communicate an idea of the disappearance of thought before the advent and charmed presence of mute, disinterested shape (the shape of a ball dancing with a hand, for instance).

Muybridge's "Human Figure in Motion": CD-ROM and Book
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2007), image 164

A compiler of a catalog of hands, then, would be the curator of a purely formal, entirely inhuman beauty. If we had such a catalog to scroll through, we'd see that there are formal parallels between the wordless grimace captured by Arbus and the faceless words captured by Taylor. The major difference between them is only this: Arbus's grimace can stand alone as an image, while Taylor's words have no independent significance. Removed from their picture, they would be only a grammatical curiosity: a free-floating imperative metaphor without a speaker, an agent, or a tenor. (Who is telling whom to bury Obamacare? What does "bury" mean?)

And so much for Harvard and the lingua latina. But the Astroturf organizers of the rally seem to have wanted that emptying of meaning to occur. After all, in the era of America's first black president, their crowd formations reenacted (complete with men in Revolutionary War tricornes) one of the greatest victories of modernism's revolution against paraphrasable content: Kasimir Malevich's study of pure wordless meaningless form coming into being in the matrix of pure wordless meaningless form.

 The title of Malevich's martyrdom operation against words was White on White.

Monday, September 7, 2009

"Afflicted by the real world": juxtaposition without comment

1. From Wikipedia, "Glenn Beck":
Beck was born in Mount Vernon, Washington in February 1964, and raised a Roman Catholic. His mother and one of his brothers committed suicide and a sibling had a fatal heart attack.[2] He graduated from Sehome High School in Bellingham, Washington in 1982.

 A 2007 profile in "LDS Living" magazine provides a comprehensive history of Beck's early life and career in radio, and states that his first significant exposure to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came at age 18 when, after graduating from high school, he moved from Washington to Salt Lake City, Utah and shared an apartment with a former Mormon missionary. The article goes on to say that his first marriage ended in divorce at age 30 (1994). He and his second wife, Tania, joined the church in October 1999, partly at the urging of his eldest daughter, Mary, who has cerebral palsy.[3]

Beck was admitted to a special program for non-traditional students at Yale University while he was working for a New Haven-area radio station, having received at least one of his recommendations from Senator Joe Lieberman. During this time Beck took a single theology class, dropping out around the time of his divorce.[4]

Beck is a self-described recovering alcoholic and drug addict.[5] He also has a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. [6] He and his first wife divorced amid his struggle with substance abuse. Beck cites the help of Alcoholics Anonymous in his sobriety, and he eventually converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,[7] which teaches against the consumption of alcohol.

2. "We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."

-- Richard Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" (Harper's, November 1964), conclusion. http://karws.gso.uri.edu/jfk/conspiracy_theory/the_paranoid_mentality/the_paranoid_style.html 


Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002.
Click to enlarge.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Standing, breathing flame, bending upward

Click to enlarge.

The Butts print of Blake's "Behemoth and Leviathan" is an elevation of chapters 40 and 41 of the Book of Job from narrative to image. Cued by God's language

("Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee. . . . Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth. He taketh it with his eyes: his nose pierceth through snares"),

Blake translates it into a single comprehensive gesture. Concentrating his full creative power behind the gesture, God scornfully points downward. On either side of him hovers an angelic sycophant, watching with an attentive, worried, Father-is-in-one-of-his-moods expression. Crushed beneath the weight and warmth and odor of the divine body, Job and his comforters crouch as God's words pour over them in the cramped reservation between his heaven and his creation's earth.

Below the reservation, just touched by God's finger, Earth is a brown sphere filling itself to bursting with muscle and coil. Their creator points and touches, extending himself strenuously downward to the thick matrix of what he says he is bringing forth. As he penetrates, he remains colorless. But in their skin-colored earth, Behemoth and Leviathan are all color and red flame. These are a bioform, and its source is themselves. Having been made by a word, they have incorporated the word and translated it into silent color. Words are for the cold, limitless atmosphere. Wordless within the ownership of their silent light, Behemoth and Leviathan merely and wholly are.

At times, however, something from within earthlight points back upward to heaven. But the gesture cannot be retranslated into a scripture because it is still a part of earth's silence. It does not say; it only is. It is not an upward-aimed echo of God's downward-pointing motion. It does not attend upon words. And the wordless traces that it leaves across our perception map a free zone within the slave economy of the Book.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Math quiz: what is a photograph?

At http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/fashion/23loreal.html, the Fashion & Style section of the August 23 New York Times reports from France on a case involving Liliane Bettencourt, the 86-year-old heiress to the L'Oreal fortune, and François-Marie Banier, a celebrity photographer who is accused of abus de faiblesse in the amount of some 1.3 billion euros' worth of cash, life insurance policies, and art bestowed on him by Mme. Bettencourt.

The case will soon be in court, but in the run-up the parties are maneuvering in the media. Banier, for example, describes himself as an artist, but the attorney for Mme. Bettencourt's estranged daughter recently sneered, "Calling Mr. Banier an artist is a grand word. How many artists do you know who are sponsored for a billion euros? You could construct the Louvre with that. And Mr. Banier — with his little photos — he merits that?"

Well, the art world is all about spreadsheets, and Banier replied to the attorney in proper quantitative form. His e-mail summary of his oeuvre didn't begin, "Madamina, il catalogo è questo," but it might as well have. "500,000 photographs, 27 books and catalogues, 27 exhibitions," wrote Banier. And he added: "500 paintings, 1,200 drawings, 3,000 painted photographs."

So here's your quiz.

If an artist brings to realization one image a day, 365 days a year, it will take him approximately 1370 years to accumulate the record of 500,000 moments of vision. François-Marie Banier has recorded 500,000 presses of a shutter release. Since he is only 62 years old, those 500,000 recorded presses probably can't be photographs. They haven't had time to become photographs.

But what are they?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pictures going silent

Roman Vishniac, "After twenty years with one firm, he
has been fired because he is a Jew. The boycott committee
demanded it." Warsaw, 1937. Collection of the International
Center of Photography, http://icp.org, accession no. 1992.1983.
Click to enlarge.

How universal the woman's hand-to-cheek gesture may be, I don't know. On the streets where I walk through my own culture, I interpret the gesture as a sign of distress -- a specifically feminine sign. The man and the woman in this image from a culture basically similar to mine are walking in step, and their complementary masculine and feminine body languages seems to communicate distress through an intimacy in which words are unnecessary. But the image is accompanied nevertheless by two sentences full of words, explaining. It's almost as if the photographer regarded the image as invisible in the absence of explanation.

But of course it is invisible in the absence of explanation. In fact, this image's general explanation preceded the image itself. In 1934, understanding from some words he had read that he would be witnessing the last moments of a dying civilization, the biologist and photographer Roman Vishniac made the decision to interrupt his scientific work and document Jewish life in eastern Europe before it came to an end. The image at the top of this page constitutes one of the experimental data which followed that protocol. After he had generated a composition as a photograph, Vishniac would enter it into a history of the future by paraphrasing it in words. Stringing themselves between the image he saw in the present and the idea that he hoped would take form in the future, Vishniac's words became a bridge extending toward language from silently gesturing figures, draining them of any other significance and reducing them to an illustration.

Our end of Vishniac's bridge is in a library, then, and we wait there for Vishniac's man and woman to cross over from their illustration and submit to being read about. We can't cross over to them, of course. Creatures of a depiction which entered the past a fraction of a second after it came into being in 1937, this photograph's man and woman speak a dialect which can be understood only by the dead. In Vishniac's image of that moment of change from life and significance to death and incomprehensibility, we see the moment when the human is reduced to an optical effect in historical space. The illusion, the man and the woman, are actually real now only in translation.

So Vishniac's image of this speaking, gesturing man and woman can never again be more than anecdotal. It is nothing more, now, than an illustrative figure attached to some words housed in a library. In the library they -- the words, the man and the woman -- can neither be heard nor seen but only read. Take away its wordy caption and the picture will go as blank as it is already silent.

Erich Hans Krause for the U.S. Works Progress
Administration, ca. 1936-1938. From http://vintagraph.com

These words, too, have originated in a library -- in fact, a medical library containing a technical term. But the words for the technical term ("Syphilis"), its significance ("May destroy your future"), and the course of action that it entails ("Have your blood tested") have shaped themselves into a font and a color scheme that are part of an image. They don't translate or explain the image's depiction of a wordless gesture of distress; they complement it.

Imogen Cunningham, portrait of Martha Graham, 1931.
Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, http://sfmoma.org

Martha Graham, shaper of a new body form out of textiles and mythologies, rewove the integument that her literary culture had clad her in. She still needed program notes full of references to Aeschylus and Hart Crane, but when the lights were up onstage or in Imogen Cunningham's studio it was too bright to read there, and too dark to read anywhere else. Nothing was left to see except a woman, gesturing. In the presence of her gesture, interpretation could never be more than a vulgar afterthought.

Strelitzia reginae

And if a dancer can succeed in putting off even gesture and sinking roots into still ground, there is no mime, there is no allegory to remind us of anything, there is no explanation to be had. A curve that once might have been thought of as resembling a human form now communicates only the geometry of itself. I deliver the quiet flower to Warsaw.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Duccio, Madonna and Child.
Click to enlarge.

Dorothea Lange's "On the road with her family one month from South Dakota. Tulelake, Siskiyou County, Calif. September 1939" is culturally encoded for viewing in an American system. In the Whitney, for instance, the Coca-Cola bottle that holds the baby's milk would signify only desperation, but in the Louvre it might just as plausibly signify American materialism or American vulgarity. In a European museum in 1939, too, the idea that a family could own a car yet be poor would require a large wall caption, explaining. And of course migrant labor wasn't of much aesthetic concern to Europe during the month when World War II began.

So Lange's image is culturally on its own, like the mother and children it depicts. In western art, we'll approach almost any image of a mother and her baby in the expectation of a view of the Christ, but Lange's madonna doesn't respond to our inquiry in either of the two traditional European ways. She looks neither out of her picture at us nor down within her picture at her child, but only forward through her car's windshield. In her glasses we can see, reflected, what look like utility poles along a highway. They lead our gaze out of the picture and on. With us, they are bound to the woman through the passage of a time measurable on the heroically human scale of miles per hour.

Library of Congress, from http://shorpy.com.

To read the picture in that way is almost automatically to think of it as a work of American art -- specifically, of American art of the Popular Front era, when W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten were at work on an operetta about Paul Bunyan, Heroic Worker Turned Exploiter. But those lenses complicate everything. Under the Khmer Rouge, a need for glasses was a capital offense. Lange's woman from South Dakota may be a member of the bourgeoisie who has lost everything except a vestige of her former class taint, or she may be a kulak wealthy enough to own spectacles. In the cultural nationalist terms of the 1930s, either of those possibilities constitutes an aesthetic embarrassment. If the woman from South Dakota were being painted by John Steuart Curry or written about by Stephen Vincent Benét or composed about by Virgil Thomson, we can be sure that the artist would buff up her muscles and lose the glasses. But if the artist is a photographer, the embarrassments will have to stay in, and the second drafts of the artist's vision will have to be turned over to us spectators.


One of the twentieth century's iconic images of a woman in glasses lives on in our nightmares as an aftereffect of Eisenstein's Potemkin. Early in the film, a ship's doctor removes his pince-nez, folds the two lenses together to make a magnifying glass, and stares through it at a side of meat crawling with maggots which he says aren't there. Obligingly, the camera peers over the doctor's shoulder and transmits its view through the lens to us who sit in our theater. Yes, says the image onscreen, and Yes, we agree, passing judgment: those are maggots. The doctor's lens works for the camera, but it doesn't work for the doctor. No matter how much we may shout at the screen, he won't see. His officer's uniform is only a costume, his glasses are only costume jewelry, and the regime for which he obligingly refuses to see is only a movie. But then, in its Odessa Steps sequence, the movie Potemkin shatters a lens. I am not a movie now, it tells us. Look at me lensless. My eyes are undefended.

By contrast, the lenses in Edward Weston's portrait of José Clemente Orozco reflect light defiantly back from Orozco's face. Fully equipped, Orozco, an artist, will now deal with light on his own terms. The space beside him is empty. He needs no child; he needs no woman. When he goes pioneering, it will be into unlensed light, light seen on its own unmodified terms. And when light is in the hands of the shaper Edward Weston, it hammers the transparent and leaves it bulletproof.


As to Dorothea Lange's woman from South Dakota, we were probably used to thinking of her in photographic terms even before we were aware of her existence. In 1939, in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck told her story in the general terms of a myth, and the next year John Ford retold the story in a moving picture which is still showing in the American dream. But thanks to Europe in 1939, the historical substrate of that chapter of the dream has changed. Steinbeck's Okies and Arkies soon migrated from California's orchards to California's defense plants, and once they were there they ceased to be peasantry. Then, as their postures and their faces and their bodies underwent metamorphosis, some of the most beautiful among them began returning the idea of American photography to a European model.

Alfred Palmer, "Bombardier nose section of a B-17F
Navy bomber at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach,
Calif. October 1942. The B-17F 'Flying Fortress' is a later
model of the B-17." Library of Congress, from http://shorpy.com.

The woman in this image, for instance, is post-Lange and post-Eisenstein. Even as she plays a part in a war, she is clean and made up, and wearing a ring and a golden watch. One of her fingers is bandaged, but her nails are manicured. Her eyes are modestly downcast, and her head is curved downward in the immemorial gesture of maternal love. Quietly living through her great adventure, she is safe. She is studio art. All around her, enclosing, nestling, is a great lens.

Like Duccio's madonna, this image entered history with a purpose. At considerable expense for 1942, it was made on 4-by-5 inch Kodachrome by one of many photographers working in a coordinated effort for the United States Office of War Information. Within that context, it would be anachronistic to say anything explicit about the function of the death-dealing thing through whose curved opening a woman emerges into black drapery. We are to think of that solid transparency only as a shell which encloses goodness. The madonna of this shell is a madonna not for eternity but only for the duration. Three years earlier, she may have been one of Dorothea Lange's migrants, but now she is a lady. After the war ends, who can say what she'll be? But for now, unfaded in Kodachrome, she lives on.

Perhaps more disturbing, so does the formal beauty of the photographer's composition, and so does the formal beauty of that streamlined shell, protecting the woman even as it delivers her into the lighting that bathes her form. Refracted by a methacrylate matrix, time bends and the duration reaches from 1942 forward to us and backward to Duccio. Would you like to drink to that? There may be some milk left in the Coke bottle just outside the image.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Our intense fear and loathing of the homeless"

Starting from a photograph in the New York Times, John Louis Lucaites helps us understand our problem here: http://www.nocaptionneeded.com/?p=3605

Friday, August 7, 2009


In class, I sometimes introduce the modernist era in literature with a pair of books that communicate poetic information through embedded portraits. The first portrait, richly filling the front cover of Lyndall Gordon's biography of T. S. Eliot (Norton, 1998), shows Eliot as a senior man of letters. His hair is sleeked, his little smile is suave, modest, and self-controlled, and his tie is white, with a wing collar. What all this couture communicated to the camera was a physical representation of a moment in transit from literary history to state history. The camera freeze-framed that moment on the day Eliot received the 1948 Nobel Prize for literature.

The second portrait records a different sort of transit. It is not a stand-alone image, like the picture of Eliot. We see it as part of the design of a book, where it occupies a central but small zone of the back cover, just above a big bar code. The portrait's subject, another modernist poet, is tieless in denim. Scowling, he glares at the camera. Eliot's portrait is an image of a man whose apparently solid knowability seems to illustrate the phrase "It goes without saying," but this other poet isn't dressed for such an occasion. His dishabille requires a caption. EZRA LOOMIS POUND says the caption provided, identifying the poet accordingly. Then come a date and a pair of abbreviations: MTO DTC. If we open the book in search of definition, an editor will step between the poet and us and explain that the letters stand for "Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Disciplinary Training Center." The Disciplinary Training Center was an American military prison, and the photograph records the moment when Ezra Pound made his transit there to the cage where he would be held until he could be tried for the capital offense of treason. The editor's explanation serves both the image's place in its book about poetry and its place in the archive of the state.

In his caption-bearing photograph, then, the poet's uttering mouth is closed. On the back of the book about poetry, that image is an island of significance surrounded by a no-word zone. When the shutter clicked at it on a day in 1945, the poet's mind was in the process of delivering the words of the Pisan Cantos into life. But the moment the poet's face became a mugshot in archival space, our ways of reading his poetry came under the control of the archive's state prose. Wordy token of infamy, Pound's signboard is a barred and blacked-out prose window between poetry and us, preventing us from seeing the poems as they might have been if Mussolini had won the war and Lyndall Gordon, Jewish biographer of the poet whose central poem Pound delivered, were dead.

Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity 1956-1946,
ed. Omar Pound and Robert Spoo. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1999. Click to enlarge.

In the undergraduate classroom, the difference between the two photographs becomes educationally useful. What I don't tell undergraduates, though, is that every other portrait is a mugshot too, and there are always bars before it. Gordon's T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, for instance, isn't just a revision but a complete rewrite of her two earlier volumes, Eliot's Early Years and Eliot's New Life -- a rewrite forced on her by the letting down of bars. Looking anew at the manuscripts of Eliot's obscene poems, for example, Gordon explains:
Long ago, when I came across lines here and there, I assumed these were puerile aberrations, but seeing how the full poems incite the common impulse to sexual violence, and finding recently from an unpublished letter that Eliot continued to circulate these loathsome things as late as his forties, I have to recognise that this was part of a larger problem: disgust with the flesh in conflict with repressed desire. So, I now look more closely at what Eliot's Early Years called 'vitriolic' jibes, expanding my initial focus on Eliot's misogyny to his anti-Semitism -- a prejudice common, almost automatic, in his time, but having in Eliot a special character determined by a lofty 'hatred of life' that he called 'a mystical experience.' (xi-xii)
And of course, as Eliot knew, the letting down of one bar can only reveal more bars.
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
There even exists a special class of images which confirm that thought in complete and rigorous wordlessness. These images are the mugshots as such. Taken behind bars, they communicate the poem of bars.

http://thesmokinggun.com, July 8, 2009

Conceptual art from an archive, this celled array of mugshots was transmitted to readers in honor of the American national holiday, Independence Day. The human subject of each image was a captive recaptured in the course of being processed into a prisoner. And -- pedagogically useful irony -- the flag in the middle cell of the bottom tier is an early state of the original Star-Spangled Banner, the one that yet waves o'er the land of the free.

Is there a difference between these prisoners and Ezra Pound? Yes: the imprisoned poet is further imprisoned by his captors' words.

But is there a difference between the uncaptioned prisoners and uncaptioned T. S. Eliot? Yes, too. The prisoners have been self-captioned not with words but with a crude literary irony. Little did they know, as we say in the undergraduate classroom; little did they know, that morning when they put on their flag shirts in honor of the Fourth of July, that later in the day. . . . But we can't say "Little did he know" about the image of a poet who dressed up in white tie because he knew he was about to shake hands with the King of Sweden. After all, the impending royal gesture was meant to certify that there and then, at last, the contingency that once made T. S. Eliot's words into poems was over. At the king's sign (says the sign), words enter the canon of state. In the canon (says the sign), they can never again signify, "Little do we know." From now on, they will officially mean. They will have become Happily Ever After.

But even as they enter the canon, the words carry bars and signboards and cameras to present to wardens from a future state and a future poetry. Still celled in the archive of the human, what forms will the mugshots of future poets take?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"a sense of the struggle between a new language and a debased older language"

On his blog at


Jerome Rothenberg reposts his 2002 retrospect of his work along the borders between cultures and between historical eras. As a generalization about the arts and how they both reflect and change our ways of perceiving, this interview says some striking things.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Two skies

Sky 1

Jacob van Ruisdael, Winter Scene with Mill. Click to enlarge.

Pink with reflected light, the sails of the mill reach into the sky, not very far, and set its winds to work on behalf of Ruisdael's model civilization. On its mound, the mill stands by a road leading to our homes. On ground and slush and ice, people and building materials arrange themselves in an orderly pattern. They and the air and the water and the cold, they and the white and gray and pink, belong to one another. Every substance brought into being here -- flesh and cloth and snow, canvas and pigment and the warm motherly smell of linseed oil -- partakes equally of the sky. Everything that this sky comprehends is either weather or a comforting shelter from weather, and everyone is one flesh. There is no death.

Sky 2
Weegee, "Murder on the Roof," August 14, 1941.
International Center of Photography collection (http://icp.org),
accession no. 123.1982

In ancient Athens the people watching from their high roof would have been citizens of the polis, drafted into the chorus to ask what the chorus was created in order to ask: This that is happening before my eyes -- what does it mean? What does it teach me about how to live in relation to the gods and my city?

Here, though, the people on the roof are only an audience. They are separated from the drama of death and understanding by a void like the space in front of a stage which the audience is forbidden to cross. Behind them, too, the sky is blank canvas. Desert and tabula rasa of the air, it is a backdrop never to be marked by evidence of meaning.