12/16/14

Monet and Ghita: In Memory of Michael Stowers

Today would be Michael Stowers’ fifty-second Birthday! To celebrate his memory I’m posting his Note on Monet and Roxana Ghita’s photography. He wrote it two years ago but I discovered it only today!

Bridges of Light and of Time
Michael T Stowers
August 28, 2012

In 1917, an aging and soon to be deceased Claude Monet was photographed by Etienne Clémentel standing before a background of his treasured Japanese Bridge at Givernyi. The Bridge would not pass into popular imagination for another fifty years, but to Monet it had already acquired an almost sacerdotal importance. Though this photograph of the white-bearded artistic innovator is iconic, what is less commonly known is that it is one of a pair of almost-identical photographs, differing only in the spatial position from which they were taken, each being taken from a point roughly three inches, horizontally, from the other.

Of course, any such pairing of photographs, when viewed using appropriate equipment, encodes one view of a three-dimensional scene. Monet then, in allowing himself to be photographed in such a novel manner during the twilight of his painterly career, when his own focus had shifted, from his early preoccupation with the capturing in paint of the light which constitutes the immediacy of perception, of removing the filtering processes which with rare exceptions artists had previously and perhaps perforce been used to employing, of trying to make of painting what would later be attempted by photography, toward an increasing obsession with the slow manipulation and control of his subject matter, by then constrained, as he himself was, to the confines of his beloved gardens.

Monet’s later work is best known to us now through his series of paintings of the lily pond at Giverny, and its distinctive Japanese Bridge. At the time, though, these paintings were less favorably regarded by critics, that is, if they were regarded at all. It is clear, from the old man’s choice of these same views for his new “portrait-in-light-and-space,” that he saw the gardens as expressions of himself in and of themselves, and he painted them as such. The stereograph is a re-placement of the artist in the forefront of the avant-garde, in the place he had once been used to occupying, captured in a few instants of light, and captured in such a way as to re-astound the viewer with the novel quality of the process of capturing.

Turning now to another Japanese Bridge, to other renditions of the immediate using the medium of light and to another lily pond, light might be shed on the light that was shed for both Monet and the builder of the other Bridge, the Romanian photographer, poet and film-maker Roxana Ghita, and on the processes which both artists use, in their distinctive ways, to “make life of the eternally-passing moment.” Specifically, on their use of color, composition, abstraction, depth, scale and, particularly, time: terms which will acquire unorthodox yet more precise meanings as their nature is explored.

More than a century and a half separate the two artists, yet even a cursory examination of their work reveals that they are, in a meta-temporal way, near contemporaries who, though unknown one to the other, share an aesthetic and an aim which are almost identical. The media they use are worlds, and years, apart, yet what they achieve with these radically different methods are almost superpositions of one’s way of looking upon the other’s, the other’s ways of knowing upon the one’s. Both seek to elucidate the same subjectivities, both – in a very real yet also absurd sense – use the same brush and the same palette, the same lens and the same recording medium: the lens of their eye, the brush of their seeing, the palette of light itself, the film of the retina. For both, the subjective and the objective coalesce, for both comprise the moment, the evanescence which constitutes the percept, the ineffability of the experience of the particular moment of time.

And both, consciously, deliberately bring to bear, upon their representations, ways of seeing common for centuries in the Sino-Japanese artistic tradition, yet which even now are relatively new in the European West; so too both utilize a combination of the old and the new to reveal representational and meta-representational truths which might still challenge the Western eye, jaded as it is with perspective, tradition, and the expectation of a conformity to a Graeco-Roman notion of ‘classicism’ which, compared with its East Asian counterpart, is itself – though seemingly ancient – very much the newcomer.

Taking Ghita’s series “The Golden Beyond” and Monet’s Triptych of the Lily Pond at Givernyii as starting points, let us examine these works comparatively, contextually and counter-textually. For this comparison, the metaphor of the ‘bridge’ serves well as both linkage and decoupling, as a figurative means to bring together and to emphasize separateness, in much the same way as the presence of a material bridge serves both to link two spaces separated by an impasse and also to emphasize the very difficulty of crossing which necessitates bridging.

Ghita’s “Golden Beyond” series comprises seven photographs, four of which are interpretations of the Chinese Garden in the “Gardens of the World,” Berlin. (The remaining three, figuring Magnolia blooms against a background of the same golden hues as those which figure in the pond photographs, are outside the scope of the present paper, though much suggested herein applies also, though in subtly different ways, to these). These photographs are not given names, only numbers, and for the purpose of this analysis the principal subject shall be the photograph ‘One.’iii

The concentration on ‘One’ is not arbitrary, rather it is due to the conviction that this photograph is, in many senses, a ‘summation’ of the others or, put another way, that the other images operate through the isolation or extraction of aspects to be found in ‘One.’ The ‘numbered anonymity’ of these images is serendipitously useful in any comparison with Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ paintings, as few of the latter are identifiable by name, only by number (in this case the number comprises the date of completion). In the case of Monet, this number grows far larger than four: the total number of Lily Pond paintings is unknown, but it lies in the region of two hundred and fifty, made over a period of forty years. The Triptych dates from 1920, post-dating the Clémentel stereograph by three years, although this is a completion date and it is likely that the artist had worked and reworked the piece over a period of several years and had been, most probably, working on it at the time Clémentel made his image of the artist.

It is, perhaps, of interest to note that Monet’s triptych was largely painted during and immediately after the First World War, in the nation arguably most traumatized by that conflict, while Ghita’s ‘One’ was produced twenty years after the end of the ‘Cold War,’ by an artist who had spent her formative years in the shadow of that more recent, ideological, conflict, and in a country which was a member of the Warsaw Pact and one which had been ruled by one of the most notoriously totalitarian (and hypocritically self-obsessed) dictators of that bloc. To what extent these factors did or did not impact the work of these artists is, as is always the case, a matter for debate and speculation, although it is hard to believe that the seemingly pointless slaughter taking place in the land of the old man had had no effect on his work, or that the abuse and violence of Ceausescu – toward the end, directed most conspicuously against the young – had had no effect on the work that Ghita was later to produce.

When one first views Ghita’s ‘One’ the immediate impression is one of ‘elemental shift.’ This is closely en-raveled with a sense of temporal shift, with the two spatial axes of the two-dimensional image implying a third axis, a spindle of time, running perpendicularly to the two-dimensional image’s surface. The water appears as though it were liquid metal, not mercurial silver but more fluid bronze or gold, as though the tints of the surface of the Sun had been dissolved in some magical amalgam of weighted light in which fish, fired as though with flame, had been able to make a home and through which they had found a way of swimming.

It is on the surface of this liquid light, in the top-left corner, that the lily leaves float, also sheened with metallic luster, as though they had been cast of some strangely-reflective metal, perhaps Iridium, from the molds of the original leaves’ evanescent lives as they burned to carbon on contact with the liquefied Sun. Adding to this impression of the leaves being, themselves, impressions of what was once but is no more, is the suggestion of ash scattered upon the floating rafts; a fine black dust, reminiscent of leaf-ash with its flakes and stick-like shapes, or of some dreadful ash fresh-fallen from the skies above Hiroshima or condensed from the chimneys of Belsen, or from any arbitrary genocidal pyre. Such a cinereous deposit is not to be discerned on the liquid surface itself, as though that which might have fallen there had been utterly consumed, an absence suggestive of past presence which is threaded through the image, totally in keeping with its Chinese aesthetic and its perpendicular temporality. The water itself, arguably, along with time, the ‘subject’ of the work, is almost mirror-smooth, as though stillness had been captured by the camera shutter rather than it being artefactual of frozen movement. The only perceptible traces of motion in the water are an overlapping series of ripples toward the top right of the work, balancing, echoing, the ovals of the lily pads. It is here that the picture, the artist, works its most marvelous magic, for it is as though a few of the curvilinear leaves had not escaped incineration but had been consumed in the burning moment and, miraculously, in the process of passing had spawned the small shoal of coal-hot fish which, for all we can tell, might swim for but a moment before being themselves dissolved or sublimed. The illusion that these fish have neither depth nor any effect of breaking the meniscus of the water adds to this thaumaturgical quality, for even after looking for hours it still seems that these piscine flickerings hang both under and above the surface. One even appears to be taking flight over the backs of the others, as if caught in the moment of escaping the pull of the liquefied luminosity, to swim to safety into the ‘ur-Licht,’ from which the liquid and the sunlight have both condensed.

It is true that the submerged world is not entirely featureless: a pattern of vague shapes can just be discerned, a palimpsest of shadow, of variance in luminance, a holographic image, memories perhaps, of the imbrication of scales expected on the skins of the fire-fish yet absent when looked for there. And it is also true that the meniscus of the pond, though it seems as strong as steel, is indented in eight places, two rectilinear sets of four, the throw of two dice, hazarded, the footprints of two insects calmly standing on the stretched surface, immune to the fire. Are they about to mate? Are they preparing for flight? Are they to be food for the fire-fish? Or are they the spinners of the whole, the lace-winged weavers from whose flight all, even the light, is fashioned? (And if they are such preternatural beings, are they there to repair or to unweave?) All these seem possible in the strange, charmed, violently still world of ‘One.’

Turn now to the Monet Triptych, keeping the fires of ‘One’ in the eyes’ memory. The first thing you notice is not detail, not content, not even impression or imagination. The first thing to register is scale, not the scale of fish or leaf-vein, but sheer size. The painting is big! It is impossible to take this image in as one painting, one representation, or one moment. (For those who have not seen the painting in its present location, in the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, its dimensions are approximately six feet high by forty two feet wide.) This is not a painting, it is a scroll, and it is as a scroll that it should be read, though it is unclear whether Monet consciously intended such a reading as reflective of his, by then deep-rooted, concern with Chinese aesthetics, and hence unclear whether he intended his ‘scroll’ to be ‘unrolled’ in any particular direction.

Still, it is impossible to apprehend this painting in any other manner, unless one happens to be gifted with extraordinary long-sightedness and an extremely unusual visual cortex. It is, for anyone not so gifted, a fact of the process of seeing that one is forced to attend to only a small section of this huge work at any one time and, as with the Greek friezes and later narrative tapestries which are the most obviously comparable works in the Western canon, and as with the Chinese scroll-paintings with which this work shares more in common than with Western counterparts, this necessity leads to a different understanding of the artist’s representation of the temporal; a representation which is quite different to Ghita’s temporality as exemplified in ‘One.’ In Monet’s Triptych, time is lateral, while it can be cogently and consistently argued that Ghita’s representation of the ‘axis of time’ consists in a movement from ‘sub-surface’ through ‘meniscus’ to ‘air.’ This is an important difference in the approach of these two artists and should not be neglected, and it is a difference which is central to any fruitful interpretation of or comparison between the two works.

It is, of course, possible to view the Triptych in a more conventional, Western, manner, as the painting has what appears to be a ‘vanishing-point’ to which the depictions of the lily pads can be construed as conforming toward. To read the picture entirely in this way, though, entails a subsuming of the peripheral segments to the central panel, as the fovea cannot point in any but one direction at any one time. This may have been how Monet himself envisaged the painting as being viewed: at the time he was working on this painting his own eyesight was deteriorating rapidly, and this deterioration is capable of explaining certain curious properties of the work’s strange chiaroscuro and the seemingly greater detailing in the outer panels than the center panel, especially when taken with a substantial pinch of Purkinje salt.

Perhaps a reading making use of both the Western and Chinese paradigms is the best one, though the emphasis of this paper shall prioritize the scroll-like reading over the perspectival interpretation, as such a ‘visual triage’ better serves the purpose of a comparative study of this massive work with that of Ghita, as well as seeming more true to the spirit of the work. (It is important to note here that neither of these art-objects are the product of a vision steeped in a Chinese way of seeing as would be found in the output of a Chinese or Japanese artist, but that both stem from the minds of individuals immersed in – or inured to? – a ‘European’ tradition, albeit minds that, in their different ways, have been exposed to and fascinated by the East Asian traditions. The degree of this fascination and exposure is arguably greater in the case of Ghita, though this may – or may not – be balanced by the widely different ages of the two artists at the time the works in question were produced.)

Returning to a reading of Monet’s ‘scroll’ as such, whichever point one begins with, the passage is one from dark water upon which floats – again devoid of shadow – the elliptical foliage of the submerged plants, then moves right, (or left,) through a transitional process in which the differences in hue lessen and the surface of the image becomes more uniform, and into the central region, characterized as it is in the Ghita work, by light and lightness of hue and of subject, then through the same sequence reversed, until one returns to the suggestion of some submerged and shadowed nexus. The chief variation to this symmetry is that the darkness at the left of the triptych is that of water, that of the right is that of distant, perhaps forested, land, and that in the right-hand panel the lily-pads are more conspicuous by absence than by presence.

In the Monet, as in the Ghita, there is a feeling of flight, of lifting-off into the light, though the feel of this flight is different – in Monet it is more a ‘narrative of flight’ than a ‘sense of flying.’ If one reads the Monet left-to-right, the oval leaves start out level with the water surface, which at this point seems not to contain any trace of reflection or of shadow, only the darkness of depth. As the gaze moves to the right, this non-reflective water begins to lighten dramatically and, with this lightening, patches of nephelomorphic brilliance begin to appear – presumably the reflections of clouds puffing in an early-afternoon sky, though a less overtly representational interpretation is preferable – until the cloudburst white becomes the dominant ‘color.’ Just before this luminous moment, it seems as though two clusters of lilies, flotillas of foliage, begin – quite literally – taking flight, metamorphosing into a skein of green wings leaping from the water, as Ghita’s fish leap, into, again, that ‘ur-Licht’ from which all other light condenses. This is the only moment when the leaves are darker than that surface – or whatever it is – on which, or from which, they float, though even here, as with the strange uplifting of Ghita’s fish, they seem to cast no shadow. Or is it that this inchoate light is incapable of being obscured, of being impeded?

Moving further rightward into the final panel some manner of ‘horizon’ begins to be apparent, spiking into view darkly, almost ominously, together with an attendant reflection. Only here, after this intrusion, is a horizon-like line discernible, retrospectively, in the center panel. (Perhaps this would indicate that a right-to-left viewing was intended.) Hitherto, the clouds have no vertical symmetry, no clear reflection delineating where the two fluids, water and air, separate.

And hitherto, Monet’s water has had no meniscus, except that which we make for ourselves out of expectation. Ghita also speaks, pictorially, of fluid melting into fluid, but in her gilded world, the moment, the tense surface of the moment, is discernible, though hard to delineate and more ambiguous because of that. In Ghita’s masterpiece of time and light the moment is bent, distorted, yet real enough to support those two frail, thin-legged personages who walk or stand thereon. In Monet’s monumental, though lesser, masterpiece, the fluidities are fractured, split one from the other, by the intrusion of the solid: this may be his only mistake, yet it is no less a mistake for being a unique one.

And amidst all these comparisons, hiding among all the similarities or lurking beneath the differences, what of the bridge? It is there, present in both images, as it is present in Clémentel’s reconstructed tri-dimensionality, spanning the sky behind the old man; as it is present between each of these wonderful interpretations of the physical interacting with the numinous, the luminous, and the mind of the artist, spanning the discontinuities between their minds and eyes and our eyes and our minds.

It cannot be seen though, with enough trying, it can be felt, just as these great artificers felt it, not with the eyes but with feet and with the small bones of the inner ear. For it is upon the bridge, in a sense heavy with salience, that each was, is, and ever will be standing.

Claude-Monet-Monets-Garden-Étienne-Clémentel-04

i: Claude Monet stereograph by Etienne Clémentel, 1920. Courtesy musée d’Orsay, France.

MonetWaterLiliesMOMA

ii: Claude Monet, Triptych, “The Lily Pond at Giverny,” Oil-on-Canvas, 1920. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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iii: Roxana Ghita, “The Golden Beyond, One.” Digital Photographic Image, 2012. Courtesy Roxana Ghita (copyright reserved).

11/11/14

Le Buzz

An article in Le Monde supplies background to the latest French best-seller, a work of cultural polemics that whines about the eclipse of “la vieille France,” bemoans the rise of feminism and makes excuses for Vichy. The purpose of this sad amalgam, which apparently pleases enough people that it is close to outselling Modiano, the recent Nobel laureate, is to make respectable the positions of the far-right Front National. And why are we even hearing about it? Because of such cultural entrepreneurs as this:

Catherine Barma, a formidable business-woman… daughter of the star producer of the French Radio-Television Network, ex-party girl, no great student, cultivates the big names of the time and picks the participants of her TV panels like the counter of a bar. She knows how clashes that make for “le buzz”  on YouTube and those who sigh that ‘you can’t say anything today’ are beloved by the 21st century.

When asked to explain her support for this Eric Zemmour who minimizes the issue of extermination camps and champions Pétain and Le Pen, Catherine Barma reads from prepared cards her excuse that “I haven’t read Robert Paxton [the historian who made it impossible to keep sweeping pétainism under the rug]. In general, when there is a conflict, I’m always on the side of the oppressed.”

And in the magical world of French TV, the “oppressed,” we are to infer, are the reactionaries. So this man who owes his existence to the egalitarian institutions of the Fifth Republic inasmuch as he would have been cheerfully exterminated by Vichy now exploits his good fortune to complain about the fact that Pétain’s “nationalist revolution” is no longer in favor. I really have no polite words to designate such trash, so will simply roll my eyes and make the international gesture for vomiting.

And a PS for Ms. Barma: if you don’t have the time or energy to read Robert Paxton, perhaps you or one of your assistants could read his Wikipedia page. Or here, I’ll make it even easier for you by pulling out a few high points:

Paxton bouleverse la lecture de l’histoire du régime de Vichy en affirmant que le gouvernement de Vichy a non seulement collaboré en devançant les ordres allemands : il a aussi voulu s’associer à l’« ordre nouveau » des nazis avec son projet de Révolution nationale…. Pétain et Laval ont toujours recherché la collaboration avec l’Allemagne nazie, et multiplié jusqu’au bout les signes et les gages de leur bonne volonté à s’entendre avec le vainqueur, allant souvent spontanément au-devant des exigences allemandes.

Loin d’avoir protégé les Français, le concours de Vichy a permis aux Allemands de réaliser plus facilement tous leurs projets — pillage économique et alimentaire, déportation des Juifs, exil forcé de la main-d’œuvre en Allemagne.

This is what you “haven’t read,” and a fair outline of what, by your choice of protagonists, you’ve chosen to support. Ignorance is no argument. Even if, as people say, “nobody reads any more.”

10/13/14

Philosophy Begins in Wonder

The University of Otago’s Department of Philosophy gives the curious visitor a roisterous picture of the life of the mind in Dunedin.

[The first hire in 1871,] Duncan McGregor, a graduate of the University of Aberdeen… was an electrifying lecturer with a well-developed ‘will to truth’ and pungent opinions on a variety of topics. … When it came to social policy, he thought that the ‘hopelessly lazy, the diseased, and [the] vicious’ should be incarcerated for life as a humane alternative to the process of Darwinian selection which would otherwise have weeded them out. McGregor resigned in 1886… and, fortified by his fifteen years as a philosopher, went on to become the Inspector–General of Lunatic Asylums.

[J. N.] Findlay … devoted a Sabbatical to sitting at the feet of Wittgenstein in Cambridge and acting as his official ‘stooge’. (His job was to feed Wittgenstein tough questions when the painfully long silences became too excruciating.) But before he could take up his position as stooge he had to own up to his philosophical sins. Sitting in a Cambridge milk-bar, Findlay had to confess to the frightful crime of having visited Rudolf Carnap in Chicago. Wittgenstein was magnanimous. ‘[He] said that he did not mind except that he would lose his milk-shake if Carnap [were] mentioned again.’

At a conference in Florence, [Alan] Musgrave read a typically forceful paper ‘Conceptual Idealism and Stove’s Gem’ which concluded with the ringing words: ‘Conceptual Idealism is a ludicrous and anti-scientific view of the world. … We should take science seriously, reject the Gem for the invalid argument that it is, and abandon the idealism to which it leads.’ There was a burst of applause followed by dead silence. The chairman, to get things going, asked if there any conceptual idealists present who would like to comment on Professor Musgrave’s paper. ‘Not any more’, came a voice from the back.

Every academic department should write a history in this mode. For the whole (delightful) thing, go to http://www.otago.ac.nz/philosophy/history.html.

For the philologically minded: the department’s Maori name is Te Tari Whakaaroaro. The dictionary tells me that “whakaaroaro” means “reflection or “meditation” but the elements, “whaka” plus “aroaro,” seem to add up to “making present that which is present.” Anyone with better insight into the history and connotations of the term is invited to straighten us out in the comments box.

07/28/14

GAZA: Beyond Conversation

I asked a Jewish-American friend to cover the situation in Gaza. This is what she wrote in response explaining why she can’t do it. I found the text fascinating and responsive to the difficulties of a sensitive, ethical and intelligent person trying to talk about the issue– precisely the type of voice much needed in today’s discourse. I asked to publish an excerpt from her email. Here it is, with permission:

“In answer to your question, I have been considering writing on the Gaza question for weeks. But I don’t think I will. There’s a whole part of my past that I have to process, about being raised in a synagogue that was rabidly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian. The things that were said there would not pass muster thirty-odd years later, and attributing them to their speakers would probably count as defamatory. That’s really my story: the part I can add that is not the past fortnight’s worth of partisan pontification, which I believe is available in copious supply already.

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07/14/14

Ukraine/Russia and Ourselves

“The question is, where is Russia heading? This is the key problem with Putin — he is unable to deal with this issue,” said Pavel K. Baev, a Russia specialist at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “Holding power has become the goal in itself, and there is a deep underlying feeling that this cannot end well.”

(Khodorkovsky & Lebedev Communications Center, June 9, 2014)

“Братие, друзи, славяне!” (“Brothers, friends, Slavs!”), so we were greeted weekly by Anna Stepanovna Novikova, our professor of Old Slavonic (known in the West as Old-Church-Slavonic) at Moscow State University, where many years ago I started on my academic path as a major in Russian language and literature. In my memory, I still see her vividly: a somewhat overweight, stout woman with a wild hairdo reminiscent of a coonskin cap sitting askance, dressed in a too tight brown costume, with a big black leather bag over her shoulder and a stack of books and papers under her arm. She always arrived at the very last minute, bursting into the classroom suddenly at the precise moment when our hope that the class might be cancelled this time would begin to dawn.

She used to interrogate us mercilessly about Old Slavonic verb paradigms and phonetic laws. Her frowning displeasure over mistakes was terrifying. Oppressive silence and an unforgiving gaze usually accompanied her disapproval. She was adamant that whatever we aspired to be, not knowing Old Slavonic was not an option. We were scared to death of her imperious ways. And yet, her weekly greeting sent to us from the door, with a big smile on her plain face, has stayed with me until now as a declaration of good will.

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05/17/14

A Spacewalk With Joseph Frank’s “Spatial Form”

(For “The Novel as a Form of Thought,” a conference commemorating Joseph Frank, Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, May 15-16, 2014.)

Joseph Frank was fully developed before he came to the Committee on Social Thought. His essay “Spatial Form,” first published in the Sewanee Review in 1945, is an astonishing piece of synthesis when you consider the state of play at the time. Joe Frank, born in 1918, had already at age 27 the stylistic authority and the full deck of reference that we find in his older contemporary Clement Greenberg, for example; but Greenberg, who preceded Joe at Erasmus Hall High School, had a proper BA (Phi Beta Kappa) from Syracuse, whereas Joe cobbled together his few semesters of college education between bouts of paid work and was largely educated through talking with freelance or underemployed intellectuals. Later, joining the class of underemployed intellectuals as a copy writer for the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington D.C., Joe was again walking in Greenberg’s footsteps; Greenberg’s non-academic jobs were with various federal agencies until he became a full-time editor at Partisan Review and The Nation in the 1950s. And like Frank, Greenberg made a strong impression with an early essay, in his case “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), which showed him to be fully up to date with the conversation about art, ethics and politics then underway in what would later be known as the Frankfurt School.[1]

Joe’s biography is too big a subject for me today. My reason for enumerating these facts and making the parallel with Greenberg is this. For people who came of age in the 1930s and 40s, art mattered in a way that we can hardly recover, even as a theme for nostalgia. It was important to discern what made modern literature and art modern, because in the adequate description of those representational artifices lay, one thought, a diagnosis of the spirit of the age, and it was important to get that right. Part of the reason lay in the contending teleologies of the day, theories of history with vastly divergent political formations behind them, structures of intention that claimed the power to determine one’s day-to-day actions and options. How we got where we are today, in a much weakened state of mind, onlookers if not scroungers at the remote edges of a frightfully well-financed commercial culture, is a complicated story. You have heard the recurrent laments for the demise of the public intellectual, specifically the sub-species of public intellectual whose habitat was outside the universities. From a U.S. point of view, the relative but steady rise in living standards, the massification and commodification of university education, and the cultural assimilation of previously excluded groups must all have had something to do with it, as these generally good things both undermined the cause of the Left as people of the 1930s understood it and broke down the difference between high culture and mass culture. If “Spatial Form” had been published in 1965, it would have been an academic, formalist exercise, and it’s often been mistaken for one since.

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02/15/14

From Folk to Folk

…When and how did ‘oral literature’ become an object of discourse? To that question I have an answer—the curious history I promised you.

Presumably oral literature itself goes back as far as language. Oral literature becomes something that people write about at moments when their written culture bumps up against a non-written culture that for some reason impresses or frustrates it. You wouldn’t find a lot of attention given, in ancient Greek and Roman texts, to the fact that the villagers of Boeotia don’t spend their evenings curled up with a good book. The illiteracy of the peasantry is absolutely taken for granted. The relative literacy of urban dwellers in the ancient world does get some attention—usually when someone has a complaint about it. The following text from Julius Caesar’s narration of the Gallic Wars is exceptional and I will linger over it for a while:

The lore [disciplina] of the Druids is thought to have been transmitted to Gaul from Britain, where it originated. Those who most eagerly wish to acquire it go there for the sake of study…. There, they are said to learn by heart a great number of verses, and not a few of them spend up to twenty years in study. Nor is it considered in keeping with divine law to commit these verses to writing, though [the Gauls] use Greek letters for almost all other kinds of public or private business. It seems to me that this rule was established for two reasons: one, that they did not wish this lore to be acquired by the common people, and two, that they did not wish the learners to rely on letters and therefore apply themselves less strenuously to memorization, as generally happens to those who, through the help of writing, lose their facility of learning and their memory.

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01/10/14

Cooper Union Lives or Dies Today

CooperUnion

Cooper Union – as a unique institution of higher education; as a legacy of  visionary founder Peter Cooper; as a dream – lives or dies today. Just so you know.

Free is Not for Nothing – The Vote to Save Cooper Union by alumni trustee Kevin Slavin:

If the vote goes one way, a new, lean, careful Cooper Union will tiptoe forward, tuition-free. It will require equal parts deep sacrifice, wild ambition, and straightforward pragmatism. And it will uphold a 150+ year tradition of free undergraduate education.

If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear. Not just the free tuition, but everything that was built on it. In its place we’ll find a tragic fraud. A joke. A zombie.

Here’s some background from Felix Salmon, who has been drawing attention to the foresight of Cooper’s vision and the perfidy of recent Presidents and Boards.

The Cooper Union story recapitulates, in miniature, a shockingly large proportion of the various aspects of the  global war on public-serving higher education. Here’s to hoping the tide is turning, today.

11/11/13

Recidivism in weight loss

Nice article from NY Mag on the psychological and physiological adjustments that come with having lost large amounts of weight.

Cultural fantasies of weight loss present a tidy, attractive proposition – lose weight, gain self-acceptance – without addressing the whole truth: that body image post-weight loss is often quite complicated. Perhaps that helps explain why the rate of recidivism among people who have lost significant amounts of weight is shockingly high – by some estimates, more than 90 percent of people who lose a lot of weight will gain it back. Of course, there are lots of other reasons: genetic predisposition towards obesity, for one. For another, someone who’s lost 100 pounds to get to 140 pounds will need to work harder – including eating much less each day – to maintain that weight than someone who’s been at it her entire life. (Tara Parker-Pope’s excellent piece “The Fat Trap” explains these physiological factors in much greater detail.) But what about the psychological? Who would be surprised if a person – contending with both a new body that looks different from the one she feels she was promised, and the loneliness of feeling there’s no way to express that disappointment – returned to the familiar comfort of overeating? At least its effects are predictable.

Two thoughts: first that the last bit is of a piece toward a more general understanding of how psychologically difficult deprivation is, and how things like being fat or being poor change the wiring of our bodies and our brains. Beginning from that understanding makes compassion for the choices others make far easier (and moralizing judgment oriented around disgust more difficult).

Second is that Iwonder if anyone’s ever done a comparative analysis of the disappointment one feels after losing a great deal of weight and the post-pregnancy/childbirth body. Both are situations in which one does not return (unless one is a certain sort of celebrity, I suppose) to the status quo ante; in the case of weight loss this is exacerbated or made more weird, of course, by the fact that the new status quo may never have been ante. I was 6’1″, 215 pounds at age 16, 6’3″ 240 at 18, and 6’3″ 278 in summer 2002. Since 2007 I’ve bounced between 190 and 200 (I was at 184 at one point, but never again) and I’m still not used to it.

08/1/13

Where Were You From?

Living in the UK and in North America as an ethnic minority, I am often asked in different situations: “Where were you from?” And in fact, with the growing ethnic, linguistic and cultural complexity of the Hong Kong population, I was asked that question fairly frequently even there. How this question is being asked of course indicates different sociopolitical presumptions and connotations of the questioner. While some people are sincerely and genuinely curious about who I am, others often turn the conversation into a kangaroo-court-styled investigation, making me feel not only uncomfortable, but also violated.

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05/14/13

Kleos Aphthiton

From the New Yorker‘s reportage on the MOOCs that people (well, the stockholders of Coursera and the like, anyway) claim will make the brick-and-mortar university obsolete:

“I could easily see a great institution like Harvard having a dynamic archive where, even after I’m gone—not just retired but let’s say really gone, I mean dead—aspects of the course could interlock with later generations of teachers and researchers,” Nagy told me. “Achilles himself says it in [Iliad,] Rhapsody 9, Line 413: ‘I’m going to die, but this story will be like a beautiful flower that will never wilt.’ ”

The speaker is Gregory Nagy, a scholar I’ve been reading for at least thirty-five years and who’s been personally encouraging to me; and I can’t help feeling there’s something sad about the quotation. Greg Nagy has been covered with every honor the world of American learning can dream up. He was tenured and promoted to full professor at Harvard at a young age, he has been the director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, been lauded, fêted, cited, and nonetheless has time to go out for coffee with random visitors and talk about ideas for books that may never be written. Among his many students are some of the most lively minds in Classics; they have generally done pretty well on the perilous career path of that always menaced field. He doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as a dead language. For what it’s worth, I like him immensely. And yet when he thinks about the shortness of life, about the recompense that Achilles received for his early death in battle– undying fame through Homer’s songs– he envisions his own berth in the Elysian Fields as a set of computer videos, chunked into twelve-minute segments, each followed by a quiz: his MOOC on the Greek hero.

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02/4/13

Best nonfiction of 2012

Per Conor Friedersdorf, who is not my favorite political writer, but still: a list of 102 very good to excellent nonfiction pieces for the year.

I’ll be reading through them when I can (though not this week!) but for now here’s a link to Cory Doctorow’s excellent piece on the future of computing. Opening paragraphs:

General-purpose computers are astounding. They’re so astounding that our society still struggles to come to grips with them, what they’re for, how to accommodate them, and how to cope with them. This brings us back to something you might be sick of reading about: copyright.

But bear with me, because this is about something more important. The shape of the copyright wars clues us into an upcoming fight over the destiny of the general-purpose computer itself.

01/5/13

“The Russian Kurosawa” at the University of Chicago

A series of screenings and a roundtable discussion of four films by Akira Kurosawa based on Russian literary sources is scheduled to take place at the University of Chicago on May 10-12, 2013 at the brand-new Logan Center for the Arts. In anticipation of the event, the following excerpts are meant to alert readers and Kurosawa fans to the event and its purpose.

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The films to be shown are: The Idiot (1951), Ikiru (1952), The Lower Depths (1957), and Dersu Uzala (1975).

For the full program and screening times visit: https://ceeres.uchicago.edu/kurosawa.

 

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12/18/12

Duck and Cover

I grew up in a small Kansas town that seemed at the time far removed from just about everything except the Soviet Union. Most of the U.S.’s planes were put together in Wichita (still known as the “Air Capital of the World”), which meant it was a first-strike target by that other superpower. Wichita sits about 130 miles east out on highway 50, and according to predictions and all sorts of maps bloomed with damage estimates, we (give or take a few megatons) would be erased with it.  I somehow understood all of this relatively early.  We practiced ducking and covering in the middle-school hallway, ostensibly to prepare for tornadoes, but the weather contributed little to the ambient fear of the time.

Shortly after Sandy rewrote the East Coast, my son told me about his class’s hurricane drill.  They turned out the lights and were instructed to huddle away from the door and to be very quiet.  In the wake of the Newtown shooting — a town just 60 miles north of us — we received messages from the school principal and our kids’ teachers advising us to talk to our children about what happened (best to get out in front of it all) and offering suggestions about how to go about that.  The upper grades would dedicate time to questions and discussion.  At home we broached and comforted and consoled more or less as advised.

This will be the legacy of Newtown:  Mass shooting is a children’s fear now, one they practice for and live with — one that, unfortunately, can no longer surprise even them.

11/30/12

On the Phone

It was a few years back, at some big reception at the Goethe-Institut or the British Council, in Hong Kong or Taipei– forgive me, I’ve been to a lot of parties. (The fact that I can’t remember the details doesn’t mean I had an exceptionally good time.) As my friend and I were navigating the big room, looking for anyone we knew, I heard some French being spoken over to the side, and halloed: “Bonjour les francophones!” The answer came back: “Pas francophones, nous sommes français.”

The category corrective meant this: although in principle all French-speakers are Francophones, because that’s what the word means (Frankos, “French,” plus “phonê,” voice*), in practice the word is restricted to “people who speak French or something like it, and aren’t French.” French people don’t refer to themselves as francophones, unless by chance they work for the ministerial office of Francophonie, which really exists. The office, that is, exists; it exists in order to make Francophonie, a virtual nation spread out through Europe, Africa, North America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia, exist. The large area of Francophonie is to the small country of France like a sail that pulls the boat ahead into future history and away from extinction. But when it comes down to it, to be a mere Francophone is, as my interlocutors showed with their instantaneous reaction, a second-best to being French.

It would be more normal for France to count itself among Francophone nations, but what would that take? A definitive overcoming of colonial relations between the ex-metropole and the former outposts? A stronger sense among French that their place in the world depends on that of their fellows in Francophonie?

Languages have wobbly borders that don’t usually coincide with states, citizenships, or ethnicities. It is useful– sometimes, even, useful to nations– to have a way of referring to speech communities apart from political jurisdictions. In the case of Francophonie, to mark the difference that follows (perhaps, too, that which preceded) political independence; in the case of Sinophonie, to mark the difference between the big nation that thinks of itself as the One True China and the other nations, areas or diasporic groups that use the Chinese language** while carrying a variety of passports.

Sinophonie? Does anyone say that? Sinophonia? In French, the suffix “-phonie” is what the linguists call productive, that is, it confers meaning on the compounds to which it is attached. I might refer to a Mexican village as “Tlotzilophone,” to distinguish it from the Hispanophone one just to its north. If you never heard of Tlotzil, you’d now know that it was a language, the language spoken throughout Tlotzilophonie. But the power of the suffix to make sense weakens when it’s carried over into English (as it has been probably only a handful of times).

When people talk about “the sinophone”– to back up my last assertion, the suffix seems almost exclusively destined to a career among adjectives– in English, it’s not to exclude Big China, or is it? I’ve heard people speak of “Sinophone literature” in such a way as to exclude what we might call “Chinese and Taiwanese literature,” in other words to reserve the sinophone label for cases where Chinese is used as a minority language. At other times I’ve heard people use “sinophone” in the inclusive sense, meaning all Chinese-speaking areas including the putative Chinas. (Chinese, however you define it, is hardly a minority language in China, though those who know a little more about the place will chip in here to remind us that there are plenty of non-Sinophone citizens of Big China, people who speak languages related to Turkic or Thai or Tibetan, for example, and have putonghua or another topolect of Chinese only as an auxiliary language.)

“Sinophone” operates as a calque on “Francophone,” as the application of the logic of Francophonie to the domain of Chinese extraterritorial speech. But that analogy is sure to hiccup, like all analogies, at certain points. Some, but not all, Francophone regions are populated by descendants of French emigrants, as virtually all of Sinophonia (I think) is populated by descendants of Chinese emigrants. Other regions, the majority in both area and population, are Francophone as a result of conquest or enslavement. That might be true of some areas of China too, but in a far more distant past. And at another level, the persistence of French had to do with the exportation of educational protocols by the Grande Nation herself, something that wasn’t obviously true of the Middle Kingdom in recent decades but now, with the Confucius Institutes, is perhaps taking form.

The relevance of “-phone” comes into view when there is a doubt about the coincidence of nationality and language– that much I’m sure of. But just what the relations of inclusion and exclusion are, and how they came about, and to what degree the different “-phonies” are usefully talked about as a set, are all up in the air for me. What do you say, Shu-mei Shih? Victor Mair? Can I get you on the phone?


* The residual purist in me shudders at the Latin-Greek kludge. In Greek “Frangoi” are Franks, i.e., Western Europeans. “Gallophone” would be the Greek-Greek suture, but no longer recognizable to any French speakers but perhaps Gaullists or Gaulois.
** More accurately, “a Chinese language.” And the mechanism whereby these languages are recognized as Chinese has little to do with speech, phonê, but mostly with the writing system. A poor workman blames his tools.

11/20/12

Clay Shirky on Higher Education and the MOOCs

Clay Shirky has a long and deeply thought-out post on Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) and the future of higher education over at his blog. As this is one of my issue-obsessions right now, it was a personal must-read and I thought I would drop a pointer to it here. His chief point is that the MOOCs, within the context of higher education, serve as the best analogue to the music industry’s MP3s, the newspapers’ Craigslist / Google, or the movie industry’s BitTorrent – the internet’s disruptive agent of choice for this particular industry.

The people in the music industry weren’t stupid, of course. They had access to the same internet the rest of us did. They just couldn’t imagine—and I mean this in the most ordinarily descriptive way possible—could not imagine that the old way of doing things might fail.

I agree with this fundamental point and, more than that, with most of his associated arguments and corollaries. In particular, I appreciated that he does not fall prey to the “same approach to teaching today as 1000 years ago in medieval Europe” trope, and takes the time to address the components of traditional higher education that are not likely to be obsoleted by the internet. All the same, he argues that – just as with MP3s, Craigslist, Wikipedia, and BitTorrent – the new internet substitute for higher education does not have to offer better quality to be highly disruptive. Indeed!

In Shirky’s vision, the chief near-term feature of the higher education landscape will be the breathtakingly rapid expansion and improvement of MOOC offerings from Udacity, Stanford, Harvard/MIT, and others, which will suck the oxygen out of the business model at the “low end” of the market first and proceed up-market from there. As an interesting aside (which I also appreciated), he points out that the true bottom-feeders of higher education are not the lowest-priced institutions but quite the reverse: they are the for-profit conglomerates, which offer much higher cost (debt) per value delivered than any public institution. Moreover, he points out, we are not talking about a product that threatens the business model of the Ivy League or, really, the top 100 schools in a fundamental way. (However, he does see deep trouble ahead for median institutions; as he puts it, “Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. University of Arkansas at Little Rock? Maybe not fine.”)

At Penn State we are active participants in our own disintermediation these days, with a “World Campus” that happily offers online course credits for money – and good money at that. It has been hard to witness the expansion in these offerings, and the increasing contribution they make to the annual budgets of many Departments (including mine), without mixed feelings. On the one hand, this is a tremendous business success for the institution. On the other hand, we seem to be in the process of online-educating ourselves out of a job. And yet on the third hand – the point of Shirky’s piece, really – what choice do we have? We can either suffer disruption by others or disrupt ourselves.

In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true.

Finally, in a last twist of the rhetorical knife, I imagine I’ll be thinking a lot about these issues come January, when I begin teaching our Department’s World Campus version of “Life in the Universe” for the first time. We’ll see how it goes.

 

11/11/12

The disappointments of fiction

If you have time this Sunday please read Walter Kirn’s review of Samson Graham-Muñoz’s new novel, The String Theory Quartet. 

The following quotations are from the novel:

“The weather today was the weather of yesterday and tomorrow it would be the weather again: mummifyingly dry and hot and whipped by cyclones of toxic pink particulates that settled on the brown fields like vile confetti. Buddy Dean was up early, roaming about the house in a pair of patched digital overalls and a pre-diaspora Chicago Cubs cap. ‘Don’t be downhearted,’ came the leader’s voice over the old RCA tube radio. ‘The soil may be dust and the rains a memory, but courage is the crop that never fails.’ Buddy listened, too weak even to nod. Out the window a pair of skinny crows pecked for quarks and bosons in the yard.”

… and from a very different section, stylistically (Kirn compares it to Hemingway):

“He picked up his instrument. He drew the bow. He drew it across the strings. Some sounds came out. The leader was moved. His voice boomed through the envelope. An old voice, like music. But not music. A voice. ‘Keep playing, my boy,’ it commanded. And so he played. While amethyst planets burned coolly in the dusk and children who’d never seen whales or dreamed of unicorns imagined they had. Seen whales. Dreamed unicorns.”

And from an interview with the author:

“When I used to cut hair in my father’s Miami barbershop I learned something true about scissors: they have two blades. One for stretching the strand until it’s taut, the other for lopping it off. Two blades, one purpose. That’s how I write fiction. With my scissors-mind.

Good lord, I wish this guy existed. I spent 5 minutes searching for Graham-Muñoz and The String Theory Quartet on Amazon before realizing that the whole thing is a mirage. Well done, Walter Kirn!

11/11/12

The miracles of human creativity

One of the most amazing things about the digital age’s redistribution of the means of aesthetic production and distribution is that it reveals how much love and ambition remain connected to the work of making. Here you have, for free, a remaking of Star Wars entirely in ASCII. The hours it must have taken to do this are astonishing.

I dream of a world in which copyright, which has become a way for corporations to develop a stranglehold on innovation (and functions, as with Disney, in the manner of primitive accumulation), disappears in the wake of content freely produced for others out of this form of love, and the beauties that attend to it.

For that to happen we must, however, have leisure.