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,
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.