Wednesday, November 30, 2005
It kills me to write this because I love the Museum of Modern Art. Aesthetically speaking it's where we all come from, where we go to commune with our ancestors and become new again. Yet the more I go to the new MOMA--and I've been there over 50 times since it reopened a year ago this week--the more I think this crown jewel is becoming a beautiful tomb. At MOMA the unruly juice of art history, the chaos, contradiction, radicality, and rebellion, are being bleached out. Instead, we're getting the taming of modernism--modernism as elevator music.
An observation by Jacques Lacan might describe the dire straits MOMA is in: "A madman who believes he is king is no more mad than a king who believes he is king." Of course, this statement means a king who believes he possesses an inherent "king gene" is implicitly mad. Second, and more pressing, it means that to be king the people must believe you are king. Being king is a relationship.
MOMA is becoming a madman who thinks it is king.
more from Jerry Salz at the Village Voice here.
Kelley, whose most recent show opened recently at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, was the last artist—and by last, I mean both "most recent" and "last ever"—to pull off the great gambit of 20th-century art: He made things that, upon first inspection, you would think had no artistic qualities whatsoever, things that were not and could not possibly be art, let alone significant art. And yet there they were, in a gallery or museum, and after you spent some time with them, you began to think, Yes, of course this is art; and after a little more time, you began to realize that it was very significant art indeed. It now falls to me, and art writers like me, to exercise, for the last time, the great gambit of 20th-century criticism, and explain why. . . .
more from Slate here.
In all the chatter about a "new formalism" going on, folks who should know better tend to overlook that any so-called new formalism is still formalism—a crucial aspect summoned too often just as formula or a way of putting thought on crutches when confronting abstraction and nonrepresentation, instead of allowing it to stumble into the unknown. Artists create and de-create new forms, which mostly aren't categorizable until they've already moved elsewhere. Like any other artist who actually wishes to accomplish something meaningful, Hill's trying to sort through many things at once. I doubt he'd start with his "interest" in form, point blank, as what gets him out of bed, but neither would he prioritize grooving to the sometimes contradictory currents of Sturtevant, Billy Al Bengston (color as space, vernacular as history), and Fecteau (poetic rigor) over possibly testing the aesthetic potential of Spencer's Gifts (the "adult" novelty shop specializing in the black-lit paraphernalia of stoner eroticism), fabric and glass arts, or the low-key cool of surf culture (coral, pastel beach stones, killer airbrushing) and its mum, soulful atmospherics.
more from Artforum here.
The real inflection point of this presidency was not Iraq; rather, it was Hurricane Katrina. Rightly or wrongly, Bush was perceived not just as unprepared for a major hurricane strike, but also as oblivious to the seriousness of the humanitarian disaster in New Orleans. This perception solidified the opposition of the U.S. left, denied the president any help from the American center and cracked the heretofore unified American right. The result was a president in danger of losing his core supporters, without whom no president can effectively rule. Similar circumstances condemned past statesmen such as Wilson, Truman, Johnson and Nixon into the unenviable company of failed presidents. (GW Bush picture here).
Since Katrina, the Bush administration's fortunes have only slid further, with three critical defeats standing out most glaringly. First, its primary congressional ally, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, has been indicted for fundraising improprieties. Second, the administration's efforts to shuttle Harriet Miers into the Supreme Court resulted in a break within the Republican Party. Third, the vice president's chief of staff -- Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- has been indicted for disclosing the status of undercover intelligence officers to the press, a charge that may well be pressed against political mastermind Karl Rove, and perhaps even the vice president himself.
Ganging Up on the Girls
It seems that 9-year-old boys aren't the only male creatures who will join together to torment their female counterparts. When male lizards largely outnumber females, they direct their aggressiveness toward mating partners, population biologists report. Such belligerence, they say, could put lizard populations at risk of extinction.
Lizards were separated into two populations, each with about 70 members. In one population the adults were three-quarter males, and in the other they were three-quarter females. Lizards were allowed to emigrate to another population of the same bias in sex ratio. The mortality and emigration rates of male lizards were unaffected by sex ratio imbalances, the team reports online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But females were 2 to 3 times more likely to die or be wounded by males when their environment was male-dominated than when it was female-dominated. The team concluded that rather than fighting off male competitors, the too-numerous male lizards forced the females into mating.
STRANGE FITS OF PASSION: Wordsworth’s revolution
Adam Kirsch in The New Yorker:
Has there ever been a great poet as tempting to laugh at as William Wordsworth? The tradition of mocking him is as old as the tradition of revering him. In 1807, when Wordsworth published “Poems, in Two Volumes,” the fashionable reviewers competed in the ingenuity of their scorn. Francis Jeffrey, the critical dictator of the Edinburgh Review, declared that “if the printing of such trash as this be not felt as an insult on the public taste, we are afraid it cannot be insulted.” Jeffrey remained the chief bane of Wordsworth’s career—in 1814, his review of “The Excursion,” a nine-thousand-line epic, began with an airy “This will never do”—but he was just one of many who felt the need to cut the poet down to size. “For nearly twenty years,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge complained in “Biographia Literaria,” Wordsworth’s poems “have well-nigh engrossed criticism, as the main, if not the only, butt of review, magazine, pamphlet, poem, and paragraph.”
C.P. Snow: Bridging the Two-Cultures Divide
David P. Barash in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Rather than defending their discipline, many among the literati have mourned its imminent demise. Thus, in his book The Literary Mind: Its Place in an Age of Science, Max Eastman concluded that science was on the verge of answering "every problem that arises," and that literature, therefore, "has no place in such a world." And in 1970 the playwright Eugene Ionesco wondered "if art hasn't reached a dead-end, if indeed in its present form, it hasn't already reached its end. ... For some time now, science has been making enormous progress, whereas the empirical revelations of writers have been making very little. ... Can literature still be considered a means to knowledge?"
Balancing Eastman and Ionesco — humanists pessimistic about the humanities — Noam Chomsky is a scientist radically distrustful of science: "It is quite possible — overwhelmingly probable, one might guess — that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology." Should we see the two cultures, instead, the way Stephen Jay Gould used to describe science and religion: as "nonoverlapping magisteria"? But in fact, they do overlap, most obviously when practitioners of either seek to enlarge their domain into the other. And when this happens, there have inevitably been cries of outrage, reminiscent of the Snow-Leavis squabble. Thus Edward O. Wilson's effort at "consilience" evoked strenuous opposition, mostly from humanists. Reciprocally, more than a few scientists — Alan Sokal most prominently — have been outraged by postmodernist efforts to "transgress the boundaries" by "privileging" a kind of poly-syllabic verbal hijinks over scientific theory building, empirical validation, and careful thought.
Scientific American 50
From the magazine:
New technologies appear all the time. Right at this moment scientists are laboring away on the Herculean task of making an artificial cell, a challenge that for the first nine tenths of the 20th century many biologists would have dismissed as an impossibility. Just as important as new invention, though, is the translation of ingenuity into practice. This year's SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 50 represents a testament to pragmatism. Many of the reports that have wowed the public on advances in nanotechnology or stems cells, to name just two, have taken a big step from graduate-level research toward becoming items for purchase at Wal-Mart or routine therapies at your local hospital.
A Korean researcher gained worldwide attention by achieving a 10-fold improvement in the number of stem cell lines derived from cloned human embryos. Japanese investigators created a solar cell that both generates and stores electricity. For the fourth year, the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 50 recognizes people, teams and organizations whose recent accomplishments, whether in research, business or policymaking, demonstrate leadership in shaping both established and emerging technologies.
Sinister Paradise: Does the Road to the Future End at Dubai?
Mike Davis at the Common Dreams News Center:
Dozens of outlandish mega-projects -- including "The World" (an artificial archipelago), Burj Dubai (the Earth's tallest building), the Hydropolis (that underwater luxury hotel, the Restless Planet theme park, a domed ski resort perpetually maintained in 40C heat, and The Mall of Arabia, a hyper-mall -- are actually under construction or will soon leave the drawing boards.
Under the enlightened despotism of its Crown Prince and CEO, 56-year-old Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Rhode-Island-sized Emirate of Dubai has become the new global icon of imagineered urbanism. Although often compared to Las Vegas, Orlando, Hong Kong or Singapore, the sheikhdom is more like their collective summation: a pastiche of the big, the bad, and the ugly. It is not just a hybrid but a chimera: the offspring of the lascivious coupling of the cyclopean fantasies of Barnum, Eiffel, Disney, Spielberg, Jerde, Wynn, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
More here. [Thanks to Fernando.]
Knowing Our Minds: Why some philosophers say we can’t
Alex Byrne in the Boston Review:
How do I know that you have a pain in your leg? Perhaps you tell me or I see you hopping around or grimacing while holding your leg. In short, I know that you have a pain in your leg by observing your behavior (including your verbal behavior). Of course, sometimes this method doesn’t work because you’re faking—but usually it does. How do I know that I have a pain in my leg? In the typical case, not by asking my doctor or seeing myself in the mirror hopping around. It is not immediately clear how best to characterize the method I normally use to find out whether I am in pain, but it is clear that whatever that method is, it is quite unlike the way I have of knowing that you are in pain. And similarly for other mental states. I know that you believe that the pub is open because I see you striding purposefully toward it; I don’t know that I believe that the pub is open by catching a glimpse of myself in a store window, heading for the pub. Usually I do not need to observe myself to find out what I believe. A person, then, has a special way of finding out about her mental states that is quite different from the way she finds out about others’ mental states. Let us mark this fact by saying that we have peculiar access to our mental states. Contrast this with finding out one’s own weight or underwear color: here all the methods of discovery—using scales, undressing, and so on—can also be employed to find out these facts about other people.
Phylotaxis: An Amazingly Beautiful Thing
The Seed Media Group has launched a new version of Seed Magazine, whose motto is "Science is Culture." They have also developed a beautiful way of presenting science-related items from around the web, and they call it Phylotaxis. From their website:
Phylotaxis is an exploration of the space where science meets culture.
Its structure, derived from the Fibonacci Sequence and closely related to the Golden Ratio, is one of nature's most elegant. The Fibonacci Sequence is the set of numbers where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers. This simple sequence governs phenomena as diverse as the petal arrangement of roses, the breeding patterns of rabbits, and the shape of our galaxy. It is also evident in the design of the Great Pyramids, the composition of the Mona Lisa, and the construction of Stradivarius violins.
Related to the Fibonacci Sequence, Phylotaxis (Phyllos - leaf, Taxis - order) is the study of the ordered position of leaves on a plant stem, and also applies to the shape of pinecones, and the dispersion of seeds on the flat head of a sunflower. Seed has chosen this shape to represent the perfect synthesis of science and culture.
Without the randomness of culture, science becomes dry and predictable, imprisoned in a strict square grid. Without the rational thinking of science, culture quickly teeters towards chaos. Only when science and culture act as peers can harmony be achieved, expressed through the astonishing Phylotaxis shape.
The individual beads of the Phylotaxis represent an ever-changing zeitgeist of science news in our world, populated automatically every few hours by a computer program that scours a slew of online news sources and blogs that focus on science. The Phylotaxis is therefore beyond human control, autonomously composing its own new identity, based on what's happening in the world of science.
Go now to check it out here.
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
defending le corbusier
Practically all architects dream of changing the world through their work, achieving fame not merely of the celebrity sort but the world-historical variety. They aspire to be not merely the next Frank Gehry, but the next Frank Lloyd Wright or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. After the Paris riots, though, there's one world-historical architect they almost certainly don't aspire to emulate: Le Corbusier.
One of the leaders of the modernist movement, Le Corbusier was also the forefather of the modern high-rise, low-income apartment complex, the "machines for living" that sprouted by the dozens on the outskirts of French cities, and which were soon imported by American public housing authorities, who used them as a model for such notorious housing projects as Chicago's Cabrini-Green Housing Development and St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing Complex. The banlieues, as they are known in France, quickly became the hub of the country's pathologically poor and disenfranchised immigrant classes; their dark hallways and looming mass became synecdoches for squalor and crime.
more from TNR here.
new catullus translation
Catullus's work, with its impassioned, insistently present-tense scrutiny of love and faithlessness, reflects his generation's appalled awareness that the spoken words we depend on to reveal emotional affinities and make social contracts real are insubstantial, wayward things, "written on running water, on the wind." "Rufus, I thought you my friend. In vain, and to no purpose"; "You told me once, Lesbia, that Catullus alone understood you": Catullus's gaze, disconcertingly fixed on the unraveling of every human bond, erotic, affectionate, or political, is entirely new to classical poetry, and for all its deserved reputation for charm, his is an art sparked by social disorder. Even the semidivine legendary founder of Rome gets slapped with a crude epithet for tolerating the corruption of Caesar and his cronies: "Hey, / fag Romulus, can you put up with such a scene?"
more from Bookforum here.
Everyone’s eyes are wired differently
The first images ever made of retinas in living people reveal surprising variation from one person to the next. Yet somehow our perceptions don't vary as might be expected. As they took pictures of the thousands of cells responsible for detecting color in the deepest layer of the eye, scientists found that our eyes are wired differently. Yet we all — with the exception of the colorblind — identify colors similarly.
The results suggest that the brain plays an even more significant role than thought in deciding what we see.
Does Stress Cause Cancer?
Christina Koenig found out she had breast cancer on a Friday afternoon. She was just 39 years old. On Monday, she thought she knew why the cancer had struck. "I went in and talked to a team of medical professionals who ultimately performed a lumpectomy, and I said, 'How long has this been there?' They said, 'Five to ten years.' And immediately, my mind jumped to: 'Well, I did go through a divorce. I did have stress.' " Ms. Koenig, who lives in Chicago, was divorced four years before her cancer was diagnosed. Was it just a coincidence, she wondered? Now, four years later, she still wonders. So do many other women who get breast cancer. Ms. Koenig now works for Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization, which gets 40,000 calls a year on its hot line. Over and over, she says, women ask, Did stress cause their cancer by weakening their immune system and allowing a tumor to grow? "It's a widespread belief," Ms. Koenig said.
And it is not restricted to women with breast cancer.
There is a conflict between science and religion, and it is zero-sum
Sam Harris at the Council for Secular Humanism (via One Good Move):
There is a conflict between science and religion, and it is zero-sum. Surely it is time that scientists and other intellectuals stopped disguising this fact. Indeed, the incompatibility of reason and faith has been a self-evident feature of human cognition and public discourse for centuries. Either one has good reasons for what one strongly believes, or one does not. People of all creeds naturally recognize the primacy of reasons and resort to reasoning and evidence wherever they can. When rational inquiry supports the creed, it is always championed; when it poses a threat, it is derided. It is only when the evidence for a religious doctrine is thin or nonexistent, or there is compelling evidence against it, that its adherents invoke “faith.” Otherwise, they simply cite the reasons for their beliefs (“The New Testament confirms Old Testament prophecy,” “I saw the face of Jesus in a window,” “We prayed, and our daughter’s cancer went into remission”). Such reasons are generally inadequate, but they are better than no reasons at all. Faith is nothing more than the license religious people give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail. In a world that has been shattered—utterly—by mutually incompatible religious beliefs . . . in a nation that is growing increasingly beholden to Iron Age conceptions of God, the end of history, the return of Jesus, and the immortality of the soul . . . this lazy partitioning of our discourse into matters of reason and matters of faith is now unconscionable.
The Evolution of Charles Darwin
"A creationist when he visited the Galápagos Islands, the great naturalist grasped the full significance of the unique wildlife he found there only well after he had returned to London."
Frank J. Sulloway in Smithsonian Magazine:
Charles Darwin stepped into a treacherous world of sun-baked lava, spiny cactus and tangled brushwood in September 1835, when he reached the Galápagos Islands with fellow crew members of the HMS Beagle. The Beagle's captain, Robert FitzRoy, described the barren volcanic landscape as "a shore fit for Pandemonium." Darwin's five-week visit to these remarkable islands, when he was 26 years old, catalyzed the scientific revolution that now bears his name.
According to the well-established creationist theory of Darwin's day, the exquisite adaptations of many species—such as the hinges of the bivalve shell and the wings and plumes on seeds dispersed by air—were compelling evidence that a "designer" had created each species for its intended place in the economy of nature. Darwin had wholeheartedly accepted this theory, which was bolstered by the biblical account in Genesis, until his experiences in the Galápagos Islands began to undermine this way of thinking about the biological world.
Stiff competition for Bad Sex award
Michelle Pauli in The Guardian:
...excruciating as his entry is, [John] Updike is up against some stiff competition. Among the 11 contenders for the prize this year are some of the biggest names in literature, including Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paul Theroux. Of the three, Theroux's offering, from Blinding Light, is arguably the most deserving of the prize, with its description of a character's orgasm as
"...not juice at all but a demon eel thrashing in his loins and swimming swiftly up his cock, one whole creature of live slime fighting the stiffness as it rose and bulged at the tip and darted into her mouth."
Theroux does, at least, manage to insert some punctuation into his description. Giles Coren, however, is in the running for an extract which comprises a 138-word long sentence followed by a two-word followup ("Like Zorro", in case you were wondering) and which contains the alarming image of an excited male member "leaping around like a shower dropped in an empty bath".
Dubai: Sand and freedom
"Dubai is trying to build itself a future as a great global city. In the process, it has become the largest architectural experiment on earth."
Steve Rose in The Guardian:
Welcome to Greenland, a sun-drenched, palm-fringed island 100m across. On a clear day, or even an unclear day, you can see across to Canada. In fact you could swim to it in a couple of minutes, but at the moment, there's nothing there except sand. Greenland, meanwhile, has a luxurious air-conditioned villa with an infinity pool - not that anyone lives in it yet.
This isn't the real world, of course: it is The World, situated a couple of miles off the coast of Dubai, just next door to The Palm, a giant artificial island shaped like a stylised date palm, which gained national attention a couple of years ago when David Beckham and other England footballers bought luxury properties on its fronds. The World takes the whole concept one step further, laying some 300 new islands in a blurry Mercator projection. Both developments are run by the state-owned Nakheel company. As their sales literature puts it, "The Palm put Dubai on the map, The World is putting the map on Dubai."
The World is the latest in a string of building projects that have made Dubai, the second largest of the United Arab Emirates, the most spectacular and outlandish architectural experiment on the planet. The country is relentlessly, almost obsessively, building itself into significance. Under the auspices of the crown prince Sheikh Mohammed and the rest of the ruling Maktoum family, Dubai is being transformed from a blank canvas into an Islamic fusion of Singapore and Vegas.
Harper's Set to Name Its Next Editor
David Carr in the New York Times:
Harper's Magazine is an intellectual hothouse that tends to grow its own. The magazine will announce today that Roger D. Hodge, 38, will succeed Lewis H. Lapham as editor in April, and Mr. Hodge is no exception. After being turned down for an internship in 1996, he got a call back a few days later and has remained planted at the magazine since, holding a variety of jobs, most recently serving as deputy editor.
Then again, Mr. Hodge was born and raised in Del Rio, Tex., and as the son of a rancher knows his way around cattle, sheep and a gun. The family spread is now a hunting ground, and Mr. Hodge's gimlet eye extends beyond raw copy to the scope of a rifle.
Now or Never in Darfur
Eric Reeves in The New Republic:
What will happen after humanitarian organizations leave Darfur? The question grows more relevant daily. For much of 2004, humanitarian groups ramped up their operations in Darfur. These efforts temporarily blocked the genocidal aims of the Sudanese government from coming to full fruition. Throughout 2003 and 2004, government-backed militias terrorized Darfur's African tribal populations, evicting them from their villages and cutting them off from their livelihoods. Many ended up in refugee camps, where only the efforts of humanitarian groups have allowed them to stay alive. Sudan's leaders would like nothing more than to see these groups leave the country, so that disease and malnutrition can finish the work the militias started three years ago.
They may soon get their wish. There is considerable evidence that many humanitarian organizations are on the brink of withdrawing from Darfur--or at least suspending operations. An upsurge in violence against humanitarian workers has pushed many groups to the very limit of tolerable risk. The consequences of such a withdrawal will be stark: hundreds of thousands dead. As a result, the reality facing America and its allies is simple: If we really believe that something should be done to save Darfur, then we have to do it now. Soon, it will be too late to do anything at all.
Morgan Meis's Vietnam Saga Available At Last
As regular readers of 3QD may remember, our own editor Morgan Meis was in Vietnam earlier this year to cover the 30th anniversary of the reunification of North and South Vietnam for the Virginia Quarterly Review. [See here.] He was briefly detained by security services there before being summarily deported. Now, we finally have a detailed account of what happened, by Morgan and his friend Tom Bissell in the Virginia Quarterly Review:
MORGAN—11 A.M., APRIL 28, HANOI:
...The phone rang. Nguyen went upstairs. We could hear him speak in growingly agitated Vietnamese, then he came down in a state of even greater agitation. “You’re being watched,” he told us. “Followed.”
Joe and I looked at each other. For some reason Joe was smiling, and then, even as the word followed stabbed at me with a little shiv of fear, I was smiling. There was a sense of converse accomplishment that the things we were doing here could matter enough for government tails to be dispatched, papers filed, operatives consulted. This feeling did not last long. Minutes later, eight Vietnamese men—five in drab olive uniforms that looked shipped from Leningrad in 1974, three in plainclothes, looking like anyone you might pass in the street—burst into Nguyen’s house and rushed into his living room. One man was videotaping the whole thing. They ordered Joe to stand back from his mounted camera and began questioning us. In an instant, the room was rich with the faintly stupefying air of bureaucratic wheels turning. God only knew what button of paranoia had been pushed, what man at what Party level in what city in what office had decided that some unknowable line had been crossed.
I tried to stand up and make the transition from feeling I had been caught doing something wrong to projecting a sense of outrage and indignation at a plainly absurd state of affairs, but the fact is Joe and I were terrified. These officials were the kind of officials who were good at being officials. They exuded officialness. They had a cool stance of authority, conducting themselves with an air of simultaneous annoyance and triumph. As it quickly became clear, their goal was to intimidate us into revealing our purpose, CIA- or Viet Kieu-dissident-related or otherwise. I looked over at Nguyen, an expert in affairs of stormtrooper management, and noticed a distinct glaze of concern on his face. Was Nguyen scared too?
“What are you doing here?” one of the stormtroopers asked. It was the fifth time he had asked this question. Not waiting for an answer, he asked another.
“How do you know Nguyen?”
“Through a friend in New York.”
I was utterly in the thrall of saving myself; I suddenly understood why captured revolutionaries ratted out their fellow insurrectionists, however beloved they might have once been. “Sam Henderson,” I said, and felt the disgrace in my throat.
“Where are your passports?”
My passport was in my pocket. But I had an idea. “At the hotel,” I said.
More here. [File photo of Morgan, not from Vietnam.]
Monday, November 28, 2005
Critical Digressions: Thanksgiving, Drama, or Turkey and Capote
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
We celebrated Thanksgiving with traditional fervor and gaiety in the American capital. Being an expatriate, we have coveted invitations to native Thanksgiving dinners in years past but recently have been able to manage something on our own; Turkey, drunkenness, familial tension. It really is a wonderful sort of holiday as we all thank our Gods or each other for being where we are, kind of like that song that goes, "It's not where you're from/ It's where you're at."
Thanksgiving produces great drama: there's drama in the way the turkey is pulled out from the oven, arrives on the table, and in the way the knife is held in abeyance over the large bird, typically with the largest hands of a particular clan. And the inevitably drunk patriarch may rise up after the meal, bang his belly against the edge of table, and make slurred pronouncements causing bottles to fall, faces to redden. Some run out to sniffle or smoke. Others, in attempting to steady the old man, take elbows in the jaw. You get the picture.
Through this weekend, we watched several movies including "Capote" - all critically feted, none dramatic. Capote, the New York Review of Books notes, "might have been about anything...a bittersweet coming-of-age story with a triumphantly happy ending...[or of the] genre of celebrity decline" but it is instead the "story of how Capote came to write and publish In Cold Blood." And strangely, we were underwhelmed (and find ourselves not only in the minority but in the company of the cantankerous octogenarian, Stanley Kauffmann). The problem is that a writer writing about something, anything, is not dramatic - even a flamboyant, voluble writer writing about a couple of grisly murders.
So how does a director, even one as able as Bennett Miller, depict a series of writerly crises on screen? Facial twitches? No. Falling bottles? Perhaps. Facial twitches and falling bottles? More likely. It is, to be fair, a tall order. Bottles do fall and knives are held in abeyance in films that feature writers including "Barfly" and "Misery" but neither is attempting to transcribe a writer's inner life. In fact, the only comparable project that comes to mind is the Coen Brothers’ "Barton Fink", another pretty, flat film. Joel may tell you that drama was not his ambition but acknowledging the lack of drama doesn't make it okay.
Dellilo, for instance, has attempted the lack of drama as an aesthetic project. The following is characteristic the prose in Cosmopolis, a pretty, flat, generally poorly reviewed novel: “He didn’t know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut.” Not only is there no drama in the narrative trajectory of the book - man gets haircut – but there’s no drama syntactically; read together, the effect of the sentences is of briskness and there is no drama in sustained briskness.
On the other hand, there is more drama in Updike’s prose (even though Updike is not known to be a great dramatist): “With an effort of spatial imagination he perceived that a mirror does not reverse our motion, though it does transpose our ears, and gives our mouth a tweak, so that the face even of a loved one looks familiar and ugly when seen in a mirror, the way she – queer thought! – always sees it. He saw that a mirror poised in its midst would not affect the motion of an army…and often half a reflected cloud matched the half of another beyond the building’s edge, moving as one, pierced by a jet trail as though by Cupid’s arrow.” You will, of course, notice that the rich, sonorous cadence of the coupled sentences is broken by the short, comma-less, next sentence: “The disaster sat light on the city’s heart.” This is drama.
So if you’ve had enough drama this weekend, lie on the couch, arms dangling, reading Cosmopolis, watching Capote. On the other hand, if your old man didn’t get up, drop things and yell at everybody, pick up Franzen’s Corrections - a dramatic book that ends with Thanksgiving dinner - and watch the Oscar nominated "Affliction" - a character study in a bleak setting that beats "Capote" hands down. For more pointers, pontification, and of course, dramatic digressions, ladies and gentlemen, remain tuned. Right here.
Other Critical Digressions:
Gangbanging and Notions of the Self
Dispatch from Cambridge (or Notes on Deconstructing Chicken)
Literary Pugilists, Underground Men
The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National
Dispatch from Karachi
The Media Generation and Nazia Hassan
Monday Musing: Sugimoto
There has long been a battle between time and history. Simply put, time likes to obliterate and history likes to stick around. In the long run, time always wins. But in the short run, history has been known to score a few points, though often by being so brutal and absurd that some have wondered whether time’s efficient destruction wouldn’t have been the better option. Such is life. Caught between our own human dumbness and the empty monotony of a mute cosmos we tinker away, bags of mostly water.
In this great, if pointless, battle, the art of photography has always been an ambivalent weapon. Does photography work in history’s camp, laboring away to freeze time, capture moments, and preserve something in memory, which is history’s greatest ally? Or is photography the killer of meaning, a cudgel in the arsenal of time, a momento mori that reminds us of the ruin eating away at the core of history.
This ambivalence goes back to the dawn of the medium. Some of the earliest photographic portraits feel like tiny triumphs of history. Not only have they preserved a moment of personhood, showing us individual human subjects, they’ve also managed to capture a small portion of the context and environment in which that person achieved whatever personhood they did. They preserve a little chunk of world, and world is meaning. But then there is the work of photographers like Atget and Marville. In these photographs, the world is just barely a world, the empty streets of Paris have been reduced to landscapes under the order of nature. They can’t last. They’re already ruins. They already betray the signs of decay, which is the fate of all things.
Hiroshi Sugimoto has long thought of himself as a photographer. These days he’s branched out into making all number of things and an impressive array of them can currently be viewed at the Japan Society. There are dioramas and ‘fossils’ and sculptures and copies of masks, textiles, household objects, religious icons and various other testimonials to human civilization. They are all rendered with the smoothness, precision, and calm detachment that has characterized Sugimoto’s photographic work. But they are photographic in a much deeper way than that. He’s still working on the knife’s edge where history and time come together.
The show is called, aptly, The History of History. And it is difficult to figure out which side Sugimoto is on. His concern for history sometimes feels like a tribute to its struggle against time. But, then again, the mood of Sugimoto’s inquiry suggests that he is an observer from outside, peering at history from the vantage point of eternity. How else could he dare contend that he is producing a history of history. Such is the stuff of gods or extraterrestrials or brains in a vat. Indeed, a person could be forgiven for thinking that Sugimoto is one of Epicurus’ gods, surveying the course of history from the intermundus, the space between worlds, with a sublime indifference.
In an interview with art critic Martin Herbert, Sugimoto said:
The first portfolio of seascapes I published was entitled 'Time Exposed' because time is revealed in the sea. When I began thinking about the seascapes I was thinking, what would be the most unchanged scene on the surface of the earth? Ever since the first men and cultures appeared, they have been facing seas and scenes of nature. The landscape has changed over thousands, millions of years, man has cultivated the ground, built cultures and cities, skyscrapers. The seascapes, I thought, must be the least changed scene, the oldest vision that we can share with ancient peoples. The sea may be polluted, but it looks approximately the same. So that's a very heavy time concept. People have a lot of strange ideas about my seascapes - they think these photographs were done using very long exposures, but they are in fact very fast because I wanted to stop the motion of the waves, which are constantly moving.
And it is these same seascapes that dominate the installations in the History of History exhibit. By dominate I mean that they are the subtext for everything else. They loom. Never more so than in the tiny sculpture Time’s Arrow. A reliquary that could fit in the palm of your hand, Time’s Arrow looks like the kind of thing that might frame an old snapshot of your grandmother. Instead it is a seascape. That damn seascape. Nothing has been more ominous since the obelisk of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the obelisk and the seascape are completely different in at least one important way. The obelisk seemed to purport some unknown design, a determinate, if hidden, purpose at the horizon of the cosmos. The seascape is purposeless, plain and simple. Time’s Arrow indeed. What a cruel joke, Mr. Sugimoto. There’s no arrow in that arrow, no direction. All that time promises is simply more of itself. More time. More horizons looking infinitely forward and infinitely backward. You may, Sugimoto seems to suggest, choose to fill up that empty expanse with history, probably there’s nothing better to do, but time will always have an answer. The seascape cannot be erased.
It reminds me of the old Soviet joke:
On the occasion of an anniversary of the October Revolution, Furmanov gives a political lecture to the rank and file: "...And now we are on our glorious way to the shining horizons of Communism!" / "How did it go?", Chapayev asks Petka afterwards. "Exalting!... But unclear. What the hell is a horizon?" / "See Petka, it is a line you may see far away in the steppe when the weather is good. And it's a tricky one -- no matter how long you ride towards it, you'll never reach it, you'll only wear down your horse."
In Sugimoto’s vision, the struggle of history against time is a ridiculous one. The pathetic labors of civilization are a bemusing spectacle. Behind it all, always, the horizon, the empty expanse of the sea, the changeless obliterations of time.
And yet … there is something tender about Sugimoto’s reproductions of history and the spectacle of culture. He’s doing work on history, almost fetishizing its objects. At the same time, the limitless horizon of the seascape. The two don’t resolve themselves in Sugimoto’s work. They’re just what is.
PERCEPTIONS: Modern Miniaturists
Untitled, 2003. Goauche and mixed media on wasli.
Aisha Khalid, Hasnat Mahmood, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Talha Rathore, and Saira Wasim.
From Karkhana: A Contemporary Collaboration.