Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ver novum

Advertisement for a 1956 Chevrolet Two-Ten
Click to enlarge.

The snow is gone now. A few dead leaves still lie in the gutter, blown about by the speeding Chevrolet, but the grass is beginning to turn green. Seen through the swept-back windshield of his car, the driver grips his big steering wheel and leans forward as if he were racing. Elsewhere in the picture, stylized whooshes of dust fly backward from the car and the police motorcycle speeding ahead of it, escorting from the lead. Accurate representations of readily observable phenomena, the whooshes signify that the driver's body language is accurate. He is racing.

Sitting calmly upright even though he is exposed to the wind, the motorcycle policeman is old. Watching from the sidewalk as the fast little parade races past them is a couple with a leashed dog. Their carefully layered clothes and the leash on the dog signify cautious middle age. But the Chevrolet's grinning, beefy driver is young. In the passenger seat beside him is a woman, also young, habited in a kerchief and a fully buttoned coat. 

Her clothing signifies stillness, demureness, and buttons fully buttoned wherever on her body they may happen to be. Her eyes are modestly downcast. Her happy half-smile, lips fully closed, signifies, "I have a secret -- but if you love me, you'll know what it is and I won't have to tell you."

Birth has been translated from biology to drama, and its playwright and set designer are at work on a comedy of manners. The middle-aged couple have a dog and a leash in symmetry with the young couple who are about to have a baby and a baby carriage. The motorcycle patrolmen is old because in comedy it's the job of a kindly old man to help the juvenile and the ingenue overcome the disorder of Act 1 and drive on to establish their continuity with the wise past. So we all know: in Act 3 the sign on the vacant lot will have given way to another suburban house, and the freshly exposed earth on the hill in the background will be covered with more houses, each with its garage. 

Half a century ago, for reasons that don't seem very comprehensible now, people who read books found vehicular comedies like this oh terribly upsetting, especially when they were engineered out of money and hard steel but marketed as if they were the unstable fabric of a dream. A journalist whose name actually was John Keats wrote a book about the awfulness of it all and called it The Insolent Chariots (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1958), and at the end of "For The Union Dead" (1964) Robert Lowell bellowed,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Lowell's histrionic elegy was for the moral greatness of Robert Gould Shaw and the artistic greatness of the sculptor who memorialized his part in a war against servility. That war can't be continued now, says Lowell. It can't even be spoken of, because its moral language has been replaced by the silent impulses of the animal in us and in our society. We are now in labor with silence, waiting with downcast eyes for time to deliver us.

But the young man's budget-model car in the painting is the pale yellow-green of new grass on a spring morning, and Samuel Johnson said this about the happy ending into which Nahum Tate delivered King Lear.

A play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life: but since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded, that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or, that if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.

In the present case the public has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity.

It seems to have turned out that Tate's excellencies weren't equal to Shakespeare's after all. On the other hand, I used to teach Robert Lowell a lot more than I do now. And what do you drive through the empyrean, Dr. Johnson: a professormobile like my own pure and moral 2005 Nissan Sentra, or something more cheery?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Universities: on the frontier of language

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tress and matrix

Night-blooming cereus on the campus wall at the Punahou School, Honolulu. Click to enlarge.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


In the first century AD, when the priests known as the "Salii" danced through the streets of Rome twice a year and sang their special hymn, no one (not even the priests themselves) had the foggiest clue what the hymn meant. Perhaps in the early periods of Rome's history, the participants had understood; or more likely it had always been mumbo-jumbo. All ancient religion celebrates its own incomprehensibility, as part of its mystique.  (Beard 8)


Bound for the government palaces of Mangyongdae, a Pyongyang bus pushes its way through a dark, snowy morning. The light inside the bus is brilliant and shadowless; Kim Il Sung was born in Mangyongdae.

Flowers for Kim Il Sung 118. Click to enlarge.

No, my semicolon doesn't mark a non sequitur. If we think our sense of sight is subject to natural law, we won't perceive a connection between President Kim's birthplace and the way an artist paints the light. But in North Korea, light is a special effect under the control of a totalized magic, and a bus bound for Mangyongdae will be seen to fill with the thought of Mangyongdae as it nears its destination. In this image of the plenitude, Mangyongdae's light is atmosphere and perfume.

Glowing in the perfume, the bus's passengers act out little genre scenes from their Korean culture. In Korean grammar, communication can't occur until the senior speaker and the subordinate speaker have been identified, and on this Korean bus where a middle-aged man in glasses lectures from a newspaper to two smilingly attentive younger man, the visuals of the performance enact a lesson in grammatical etiquette. Watching the younger men as they watch the older one, a young woman also smiles. Her smile is not directly focused on anyone, however, and she covers her mouth with her hand in a gesture that only women make. A warm, happy modesty flows from her to the young men, and from them to the older man.

The bus is a rolling exhibit of language enacting itself in pictures: a little zoo of specimens behind glass, guided through the snow by a driver we cannot see. Stationed outside the glass by the artist, we look in at the happy people forever acting out what (thanks to Mangyongdae) they are. And just below the window, on our side of the glass, is the moral that the happy people on their transport enact with all their being: an exhortation reading, "Let's work for the people!" On the snowy side of the glass, those words are part of the steel that encloses soft flesh. The people on the bus can't see the words, but they have become them. The words and the people and the light have all been generated by a manifest whose ordering words filled the bus and set it rolling toward Mangyongdae. 


On July 14, I speculated here that an automated censorship program may be responsible for the funny gray-outs which shield visitors to an online art gallery from the suggestively curvy sight of clouds over a mountain.

On July 19, a New York Times article appeared to confirm my guess. The online art gallery's problem seems specifically to have been a failure to engage the human faculty of discernment. "With the rise of Web sites built around material submitted by users," said the article, "screeners have never been in greater demand. Some Internet firms have tried to get by with software that scans photos for, say, a large area of flesh tones, but nothing is a substitute for a discerning human eye" (Stone).

The gallery, then, committed the Bergsonian comic error of trying to be thrifty with its budget for body memory. The demonstration that that kind of thrift with the human is a false economy was worked out long before the era of the robotic by Henri Bergson, who explained: "What is essentially laughable is what is done automatically. . . . Absentmindedness is always comical. Indeed, the deeper the absentmindedness the higher the comedy" (155). Bergson wrote those words in 1900, and in 2010 a censor made of software confirmed the insight by generating a notion that it had absentmindedly forgotten the difference between a woman and a cloud.

However, when an Internet firm does budget for human memory, the human contact that follows often becomes the mechanism of a terrible dehumanization. Brad Stone opens his article about that metamorphosis of the human by introducing us to a screener named Ricky Bess who
spends eight hours a day in front of a computer near Orlando, Fla., viewing some of the worst depravities harbored on the Internet. He has seen photographs of graphic gang killings, animal abuse and twisted forms of pornography. One recent sighting was a photo of two teenage boys gleefully pointing guns at another boy, who is crying.

For the men and women who live through many of those eight-hour days, the emotional consequences are deeply distressing. The screeners huddle together like survivors of a daily cataclysm, and Mr. Bess tells Stone, "We help each other through any rough spots we have." But the handsomely rendered passengers on the Mangyongdae bus will never have rough spots. Protected from seeing outward by darkness and their magic pane of glass, they are riding through Happily Ever After, forever. To imagine pain in their vicinity would be merely comical. An artist's compositional training in the aesthetic theology that is socialist realism

("A recurrent template is a quartet composed of a soldier, a worker, an intellectual, and a farmer. The helmeted soldier in uniform leads from the front, weapon in hand. He is followed by another male worker, either a miner or a steelworker in work fatigues, always wearing a hard hat and holding a drill or other tool. Next is a male intellectual in a suit, holding either a book, or a blueprint. Finally a female farmer, with a sheaf of rice and a headscarf completes this iconic representation of North Korean society" [De Ceuster in Heather 15])

has changed those who ride the bus from objects labeled with an imperative verb ("Work!") to pure paradigmatic noun. Now and forever after, they are nothing but particles of social happiness. They will never again be mistaken for body forms. They are machine-readable. They have been made into art.

Korean translation by Haeng Ja Kim.

Works cited:

Beard, Mary. "Shh!" Review of Mystery Cults in the Ancient World, by Hugh Bowden. TLS 28 May 2010: 7-8.

Bergson, Henri. Laughter. 1900; anonymous translation in Comedy (Garden City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday, 1956) 59-190.

Flowers for Kim Il Sung: Art and Architecture from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. (Catalog of an exhibition at the Museum of Applied Art, Vienna.) Nürnberg: MAK Wien / Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2010.

Heather, David, and Koen De Ceuster. North Korean Posters: The David Heather Collection. Munich: Prestel, 2008.

Stone, Brad. "Policing the Web's Lurid Precincts." New York Times 19 July 2010.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

All-encompassing love (heterosexual Christian)

1. The text:

Honolulu Star-Advertiser 24 July 2010: A13
Click to enlarge.

2. The context: 

Earlier in July, Hawaii's Republican governor vetoed a bill that would have legalized civil unions, homosexual or heterosexual. Opposition to the bill was organized by most of Hawaii's churches, including one evangelical congregation whose members, in accordance with the Christian doctrine of supersession, circled the capitol building seven times on the day of the veto, blowing shofars. Hawaii's Republican lieutenant governor, now running for governor, has said that his political goal is to save Hawaii for Jesus.

3. However,

The Hebrew word haShem, "the Name," is employed by Orthodox Jews to avoid uttering the name of the Divinity.

4. And it will be noticed that haShem is a Democrat.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Words not seen, tears not shed

The other day some posts I had written in an older version of Blogger were rendered unreadable by a software upgrade which removed all the paragraph breaks. I stayed up all night restoring the breaks. When I went to bed it was 7 AM and broad daylight, and the mynah birds who nest in the crawl space under my roof were rehearsing their morning croaks and coos and whistles and bill-clacks. To them my missing blank spaces didn't matter. When I woke back up at 10, I belatedly realized that at any time my restored text could disappear again. To the rest of the universe, too, my missing blank spaces didn't matter.

A few days before that event in my nightlife, the conservative thinker Glenn Beck, whose specialty is crying on TV, stood up before a live audience in Salt Lake City and announced that he is going blind. Then he cried.

John Milton took his medical news a little differently. He probably wrote Samson Agonistes about his own blindness, and he certainly wrote three sonnets about it. Here's one of the sonnets, "To Mr. Cyriack Skinner Upon His Blindness."

Cyriack, this three years day these eys, though clear
To outward view, of blemish or of spot;
Bereft of light thir seeing have forgot,
Nor to thir idle orbs doth sight appear
Of Sun or Moon or Starre throughout the year,
Or man or woman. Yet I argue not
Against heavns hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope; but still bear vp and steer
Right onward. What supports me, dost thou ask?
The conscience, Friend, to have lost them overply'd
In libertyes defence, my noble task,
Of which all Europe talks from side to side.
This thought might lead me through the world's vain mask
Content though blind, had I no better guide.

One difference between this performance and Beck's is that there's a continuity between Milton's words and his medium. Milton is writing in words, about words and for words. But the medium of the TV performer Glenn Beck isn't really TV. Before the camera, Beck takes on the pretext persona of an old-fashioned professor, lecturing with an old-fashioned blackboard. But the blackboard isn't his medium either -- or at any rate it isn't the medium of his language. No; the tearful announcement of a personal misfortune, as if that mattered per se, is a speech in the language of Facebook. That language is a tiny lingua franca consisting only of a single phrase: "ME ME ME ME ME, per se." It isn't even a sentence, because it doesn't have a verb to make it a statement of doing, being, or occurring. It's only a pronoun: ME.

As to my vanished blank spaces between paragraphs, I've been caring about them as if they were destined to outlive me. But the medium of Blog reminds me that it too is reserved for the language of ME ME ME ME -- a verbless language which after all has to be as ephemeral as Glenn or I. Undoing, unbeing, un-occurring, both Glenn and I live only in the intervals between words, and the intervals will soon enough reappear between other people's words. Ubi est Lou Dobbs?

But Milton's language is another matter. Between those words there are no tears.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tidying up after the catastrophe

A technical note for anybody out there who understands Blogger:

The other day, when Blogger's software upgraded to a new version, I lost almost all the paragraph breaks from items I posted between the date I started the blog (May 29, 2009) and October 27, 2009. Everything I've posted since last October 27 appears normal. I think -- repeat, I think -- that October 27 was about the time of Blogger's previous update.

I usually compose my posts in Blogger's "Compose" window and generate paragraph breaks typewriter-style, by hitting the Enter key twice. In the posts from which the paragraph breaks disappeared, there was no indication in the "Edit HTML" window that the paragraph breaks had ever existed. However, if I positioned the cursor where a paragraph break once had been and then hit the Enter key, a strange two-step pathology occurred.

The first hit on "Enter" moved the cursor back to the beginning of the paragraph -- that is, in one of the completely consolidated files, all the way back to the beginning of the file. Yes, I said back.

But then a second hit on "Enter" opened a paragraph break where I'd originally placed the cursor and returned the cursor to where it belonged, at the beginning of the new paragraph.

That's the extent of my tech report so far. Last night I trawled the archives of Susan Schultz's and Ron Silliman's Blogspot pages, and everything there looked fine.

But I'll say again that I sure am glad I spent the money on PDFs and paper printouts of my own archive. The company that produces those (with some loss of formatting -- for instance, italics and margins) is called SharedBook.

The PDFs are cheap and the paper books are expensive, but it's all money well spent. I've tried to post the PDFs online, but so far it appears that their filesizes are too big.

Comparative masochism: the H-Net listserv at Michigan State is always having trouble, and the bloggers on Scienceblogs are always complaining about poor technical support. I suppose blogs in general are where TV sets were sixty years ago, with the weekly calls to the serviceman. But how's WordPress? 

Absolute Schadenfreude: reinserting the paragraph breaks kept me up till 7 o'clock this morning.

But go ahead, Comic Book Guy: emit a deep sarcastic sigh and ask, "You mean you compose in the Compose window? Are you sure you aren't using AOL too, or maybe Richard Simmons's website?"

At this point, I can take anything.

Final score: Gutenberg 1, Electronic literature 0

I started this blog just over a year ago, at the end of May 2009. Since that time, Blogger, the software program I use, has been updated twice. As of the recent second upgrade, almost all the paragraph breaks have disappeared from my older posts.

So much for the idea that a blog can be used for anything but Facebook ephemera, and so much for the expectation that the Web will replace the library. In the aether, language is perishable indeed. I certainly am glad I've been using SharedBook to reproduce my entries as a book on paper.

And now please stand by. This will probably be my last blog entry, but I'll try to find out what went wrong before I commit to the end.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Art Deco

Click to enlarge.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hommage à Bela Lugosi

"I navherr drrhink . . . wein."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Descartes and Plato: humorists in the algorithm

In the sidebar to the right you'll find a link to an online art gallery where I've posted a few of my photographs for sale. One of the photographs is a shot of a mare and her foal,

 Click to enlarge.

but until today this image was covered by a click-through warning page marked, in capitals, "SAFE FILTER IS ON."

"Well," I thought when I first saw the warning, "the gallery is family-friendly." After all, the friendship filter has long been a part of American culture. We may think of the Jacksonian era as a time of exuberantly expanding frontiers, yet in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) Frances Trollope describes a civic landscape whose emotional architecture is all House of Usher.

An English lady who had long kept a fashionable boarding-school in one of the Atlantic cities, told me that one of her earliest cares with every new comer, was the endeavour to substitute real delicacy for this affected precision of manner; among many anecdotes, she told me one of a young lady about fourteen, who on entering the receiving room, where she only expected to see a lady who had enquired for her, and finding a young man with her, put her hands before her eyes, and ran out of the room again, screaming, "A man! a man! a man!"  (136-37)

Still, the emotional technologies of reading and seeing do change. The modesty screen before my image of love among the calmly unashamed Houyhnhnms has been taken down. 

Not yet so, however, with the unlucky oeuvre of Leland Howard, an Idaho photographer who specializes in Rocky Mountain landscapes. As of July 13, 2010, his page in the online gallery looked like this. 

The man just out of sight in this blasted landscape could, I suppose, be Edgar Poe, and he might be muttering something like, "Accursed!" My guess about the blocks of gray among the colors, however, is that the gallery's censor isn't an Edgar, or even a human being, but a software routine. An algorithm can't (yet) react to allusion and connotation or the emotions they can stimulate, but somewhere there's a programmer who has realized that some families of curves are associated with sexual desire as stimulus to response. Flag the curves with a warning sign, then. In translation, the sign will read: "Hazardous emotion watch." If the curve then turns out to be a mere mountaintop cloud (as it does in Howard's images) -- well, no harm done. The modesty screen has been programmed to go transparent at a click, and whatever emotion the clearing reveals won't be detectable by the software. 

Still, the moment of clearing is memorable, isn't it? For that memory, then: 

Thank you, René Descartes, great prose stylist who showed us how to reduce curves, those wordless forms, to a wordless mathematical grammar. Transcending the human desire to visualize physically and express the visualization in words, your discovery turned out to be one of the great comedy routines. Malvolio and Laurel and Hardy and Captain Gulliver have an essential family resemblance: by perseveringly refusing to see what's there to be seen in the human world, they dehumanize themselves. For reasons that Henri Bergson explains, that sometimes comes out funny.

Thank you, Plato, for showing us that when we look at a body we see first curvature and then invisible love. 

And (why not?) thank you too, mare and foal standing before my camera two years ago, for helping me understand what the Platonist Wallace Stevens meant when he mused, "The body dies; the body's beauty lives."

Source: Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans. 1832; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Listen! (Listen!) Time! (Time!) Passes! (Passes!)

(Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood: two readers reading antiphonally)


This morning:

Click to enlarge.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Hopkins, "The Lantern out of Doors"

         where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light? 

Click to enlarge.