05/6/15

De Selby Evolution

It was the first handshake that told me we were in De Selby territory. The dentist held out his wrist to me, as we do in bike repair shops. Only a bike repairman extends the wrist because his hand is covered in black grease, and Dr. Bellaiche’s were in green gloves.

The purpose of our little get-together was to extract a cracked eyetooth and replace it with an implant. I expected drilling, discomfort, time spent staring up at a bright light. I hadn’t anticipated such great strides forward on the path outlined for us by De Selby so many years ago.

I was aware I would leave with new substances filling new hollows in my body: metal, resin, fiberglass, even gutta-percha. But the fully realized De Selby moment came when the stalk for the implant was rooted, and the dentist screwed the crown on it: twist, twist, twist, and a last hard half-twist.

We mammals, unlike our friends the snails and shellfish, don’t have a lot of body parts with a spiral structure. Hard ones, at least (the labyrinth of the ear forming a semi-counterexample). This must have to do with the medium we spend most of our time in, the air, which is more easily parted than wet sand. The combatant creatures with twisted horns, like the gazelles and narwhals, are the other counterexample, and I don’t know whether the torsade is there for piercing effectively or for reinforcement.

So the tapping of a screw course into my upper jaw and the movement of a bolt-shaped object up it confirmed that I am conclusively on the way to a merger of man and bicycle. What sort of part could it be, the torsaded stem, if it had to serve as unit of human and cycle biomechanics simultaneously? I thought that as we have 32 teeth, and 32 spokes is a good number for a wheel (though less stout than a 36-spoke cross-laced), then today’s centaurification must have begun with a spoke, as good a place as any.

The repair was over. I rose to my feet, said thank you and staggered home. If you see me falling to the ground after abruptly jerking my head to the left or right, you’ll know that the transmutation is advancing.

04/20/15

My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.

Dr. Elizabeth Bennett
Registrar
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92697

Dear Dr. Bennett:

In the course of job applications, I have recently requested transcripts from my undergraduate institution, Yale, and my graduate school, UCI. Both were obtained through the National Student Clearinghouse. The Yale transcript cost $7, without a convenience fee. UCI’s cost $17, with an additional convenience fee of $2.65.

I realize that it may be a point of Anteater pride, but surely you do not believe that UCI’s transcript is worth two-and-a-half times the price of Yale’s! Insofar as I can tell, the quality of the data, paper, and ink is the same. Given that I may require a dozen of these documents in the next six months, the added expense is both real and onerous. Please consider this when setting your fees.

Respectfully, Jonathan Cohen, MA ’91

 

[I have received no response to this message.]

04/6/15

Dicta

1. The things that make life most worth living are “cost centers.”

2. One is human exactly insofar as one does not fit into someone else’s “business model.”

04/5/15

Massacre Relativity

Some of my friends are outraged by the fact that one media story after another comes along analyzing to the nth degree the known facts in the case of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot who committed suicide and took 150 strangers along with him, while at the same time the cold-blooded, deliberate murder of 148 university students in Kenya merits only a passing mention. Depending on your media feed, your results may differ: I’m not in the US and only rarely pick up the NYT, so I’ve seen less Lubitz and more Garissa– but not enough to make me feel that a just equality of attention has been applied to these two stories, analogous by number and by horror but different in so many other regards.

The hasty conclusion is that the Kenyans’ deaths matter less than the Europeans’ because they were black. And relatively less well-off (though as university students they were part of a lucky minority in their home country). To better gauge the proportion of sheer racism, however, read “The Structure of Foreign News” (1965) by the great peace scholar Johan Galtung, where it’s reported that the importance given to a news story will be a factor of geography (is it close to us?), of identification (did it happen to people like us?), legibility, confirmation bias, and other features– go read the article, it’s better than my ability to summarize today. So obviously for European media, the Germanwings crash ranks higher than a Kenyan massacre on many of these scores. But Galling wasn’t just observing that this is the way of the world: he was convinced that if this is the way of the world, it is wrong, and we should counterbalance our egocentric news media in order to give reality to the sufferings of people distant from us on this or that axis.

And another reason for paying more attention to Kenya and less to Germanwings. What happened in the Alps was a one-off thing, extremely unlikely to happen to you (though of course it could, despite whatever new security measures are installed). What happened at Garissa is a lamentably frequent thing these days, and could indeed happen to you, maybe not this week or this year, but sooner or later, if something is not done to rein in the free romp of heavily-armed religious madmen. I don’t specifically mean the madmen in the Villains of the Week Club; there’s a lot of madness to go around. Let us stop funding one bunch of madmen in the hopes that they will do something more agreeable to our interests than whatever the last bunch of madmen (possibly funded by us, or by people in competition with us) did. And (a far more subordinate issue) let us stop whingeing about whether the diagnosis of depression in the co-pilot’s case is stigmatizing for other depressed people, and blabbering about it with such frequency that this seems to be the major problem facing humanity at this moment. (People do tend to talk about what concerns them, and they like to fill the air with whatever they have expertise in, but enough is enough.) Let the ancient formula of damnatio memoriae be applied to Andreas what’s-his-name, and let the students of Garissa, the women of Nigeria, and all such victims of armed bigotry occupy our attention most urgently.

04/3/15

Good Friday

I was just flicking through Tolstoy’s writings on Christianity. Not very interesting reading, because I couldn’t find much to disagree with. The anarchist Count thought, as I do, that if your religion tells you to kill, torture, starve and maim people, it must not be a very good religion–it must rather be a tool of the devil. Whereas there is apparently a significant fraction of opinion today that conceives that killing people, the more the better, in the name of your religion glorifies that religion.

I do find it hard to turn the other cheek to that kind of diabolism.

(Some unintentional humor about Tolstoy’s break with religion here.)

04/2/15

A Long Fuse

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), last chapter:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now built on the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.

And then what?

03/30/15

Sunny Flat

Perhaps you’ve been tempted by an announcement for a “Sunny Flat in Paris” (airbnb). Or perhaps you’ve clicked on item #57214 (sabbaticalhomes.com). I would recommend looking further, for example on a site directed to French consumers like seloger.com; or even biting the bullet of a finder’s fee and dealing with a real estate agency (agence immobilière, they call it in the local parlance). The difference is that with a non-localized site like airbnb, you are outside of any jurisdiction, and recourse will be difficult in case it turns out that the apartment you’ve rented is small, dirty, ill-equipped, and does not have the nice view you were counting on. Say you were attracted by a charming urban vista like this:

front-balcony

and arrived with baggage and children after many hours of flight to look out the window at this:

rear balcony

You would, I think, wish you had taken another apartment. It’s been known to happen.

George Akerlof (co-laureate of the 2000 Nobel Prize) analyzed this situation in his classic paper “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism” (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 84 [1970]: 488-500).

There may be potential buyers of good quality products and there may be potential sellers of such products in the appropriate price range; however, the presence of people who wish to pawn bad wares as good wares tends to drive out the legitimate business. The cost of dishonesty, therefore, lies not only in the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost must also include the cost incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence. (495)

Akerlof continues: “Dishonesty in business is a serious problem in underdeveloped countries.” Well, perhaps the judicial void in which many Internet businesses operate is, for all its technological smoothness and the quality of its air-conditioning, in these terms still an “underdeveloped country.” Akerlof sees in traditional “underdeveloped” societies, with their wide disparities in quality among instances of a like commodity (one grain dealer will put pebbles in the rice to add to its weight, another won’t), a function to be filled by the entrepreneur or merchant, the person who makes a living from assessing good quality and bringing it to the end user. But as everyone knows, the great value of Internet commerce has always been to put you in direct contact with the primary seller– who may have as his or her rule of practice “Let the buyer beware.”

 

03/21/15

Indiscriminate Discrimination

A friend wrote to ask me to sign on to a petition demanding that the Modern Language Association, a scholarly society with “over 26,000 members in 100 countries,” apply the policies of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement toward Israeli universities and academics. I wrote back as follows:

I’ve been meaning to write you back but haven’t found the time or the words to do it right. I’m more than a little ambivalent about BDS. I share in the signers’ horror and anger about the occupation, continued settlement-building, harassment, denial of basic rights and necessities, etc., that have been the daily lot of most Palestinians for decades now. And Netanyahu’s promise to kill the two-state solution, which resulted in his reelection, just slams the door on the reasonable aspirations of all Palestinians. In all of this I’m with the proponents of BDS. But I can’t see myself as a co-signer because I don’t believe in boycotts based on nationality. In denying a platform to Israeli academics generally, a boycott would deny a platform to the “good Israelis” (the ones who are for peace, diplomacy, and neighborly relations with a Palestinian state) no less than to the “bad Israelis”; and since the “good Israelis” are in the disadvantaged position just now (the “bad Israelis” won’t give a damn about our boycott and will continue to appear in such fora as joint sessions of the US Congress), BDS would have the perverse effect of strengthening the dominance of the “bad Israelis” over political discourse concerning the future of Israel-Palestine. Although the statement says that it is directed at the Israeli state and not at individual Israeli academics, how is one to tell an Israeli colleague who has, let’s say, applied to give a paper at the MLA annual meeting that “it’s nothing personal” but s/he is not going to be accepted because of his/her nationality? I don’t think this is a good path for the MLA or any scholarly organization to go down. Free and open discourse, that’s what we should be about. I know that Palestinian intellectuals are routinely denied a platform for their views, and I am ready to protest and agitate for their freedom to travel, speak and have normal relations with their colleagues across the world.
You’ve probably heard all this before.
Anyway, that’s how I feel about it– it’s a little more complicated than “yes” or “no.”

We are living in horrible times. I don’t have a solution. But I can recognize a counterproductive measure.

03/11/15

Loyalty Oath

A little over two decades ago, I signed a loyalty oath. In exchange for employment by the University of California, I pledged to “protect and defend the Constitutions of the United States of America and the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The loyalty oath was a relic of the McCarthy era, and there is an entirely unpleasant episode in University of California history, from 1949-1951, in which non-signers were dismissed. It was entirely clear to me that to HR, the oath was a formality I was supposed to sign in an instant and hand over. But I thought for a long time about whether I could sign it in good faith, “without mental reservation.” In the end, I signed. Allegiance to a Constitution is allegiance to a principle, although I did not foresee the possibility of future amendments with which I might disagree. Allegiance to a flag is trickier — we are taught to pledge it every morning of our elementary school life, although I suspect for many children it is just a succession of syllables that one has gotten right if one has mastered the intonation. (I think Messaien, who notated birdsong, could have gotten a creditable piece out of the raw pitches of the Pledge of Allegiance.)

Loyalty to a flag is the subject of a kerfuffle at my alma mater. Some students in UCI student government patched together and passed a very poorly written piece of legislation removing all flags, but pointedly that of the United States, from a display area. What seemed like an enunciation of principle to them was anathema to others; I think that high in the minds of administrators was the awful prospect of being a Fox News headline for weeks or months. The Chancellor wrote the only letter he could have written, castigating the students and promising more and better flags at UCI “before too long.” Fox News approved. Unfortunately, its viewers did not get the message, and are now threatening the students with death.

Obviously, the students had their principles, enunciated them, and could do so freely — although their bill, once passed, was vetoed by another committee. But the question I have is counterintuitive: by choosing to go to a public university, did the students incur any obligation, however small, of loyalty to the institution, the State, or its symbols? If that obligation existed, was it large enough to be given any place in their thinking? Or was their attending UC a consumer choice, like selecting Levis jeans over Wranglers, and where one doesn’t give the jeans a second thought unless one has an unusually positive experience? Is attending a state school — the only Federal colleges and universities are military — any different in its requirements on the conscience than attending a private school?

The University of California has done its best to make the relationship between it and its students purely commercial. Its financial exactions on students are so great that there can be no reservoir of good will out of which loyalty might spring. Instead, students hand over their money (whether their own or the banks’), wash their hands, and move on. In exchange, say the Governor and the President, they will get a meal ticket to capitalist society. It is a quid pro quo transaction all the way; I can foresee a time when you can buy that meal ticket directly without the hindering formalities of professors and classes. As for the human emotion of loyalty, if it should still exist, the University has subcontracted its handling to its athletic department and its alumni association, both of which are here to extract still more money from students.

Because of this economic relation, which stunts the emotional relation, where can one find loyalty? In a world where the Presidentially lauded STEM disciplines do not, in fact, lead to jobs as a certainty — think of engineers after the “peace dividend,” or computer programmers deracinated and displaced by hungry H1-B visa-holders — is there really even an economic contract between student and university?

So, I think that there is a generational gap between me and the drafters of the anti-flag bill. Even before I signed the loyalty oath, I had a sense that the University had given more to me than I could possibly give it in return. If the United States and the State of California made it possible, I owed something to them. Despite the idealism of the drafters of the flag bill, I don’t think they felt they owed anything to the University, the State, or the United States. Thanks to institutional greed and governmental defunding, the drafters felt themselves to be free agents. That is a heady jumping off point from which to mount a critique — one from which it is too easy to fall.

 

02/14/15

The American Academy

I am at the 2015 AAAS conference in San Jose with my wife, Natasha, to see for myself the decadent state of American biological science. Now that Putin has rehabilitated Lysenko — the traitor Sakharov would spin in his grave to hear it — there is no limit to our future. We attended the plenary lecture of one Daphne Koller, who is supposedly a “big cheese,” but I have not heard of her, as she has never received the Order of the Badge of Honor. Next to us was a young, American, red-haired scribbler with a laptop — doubtless some kind of junior graduate student — and despite the enormous screens with Koller’s image on them, I found myself looking over his shoulder to see what he was writing. To my horror, at the end of the lecture, I found that I had remembered every word he had written, but none of Koller’s lecture. To get it out of my mind, I am reproducing what he wrote in its entirety:

I’m at the plenary session with Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera, one of the two major MOOC companies. It’s a straight-on paean to the things, rosy beyond all belief, and even more rosy in 2015 than in 2012.

There are a few slight problems with MOOCs, which is one of the reasons there’s been almost no time allotted for questions.

MOOCs make it possible for only a few professors to teach hundreds of thousands of students; grading is taken care of either by computer (for most structured question types) or peer grading (for everything else.) Crowdsourcing, usually acquired for free, is used to accomplish most other tasks, such as translation of course material into multiple languages. Coursera’s investment is mainly in its computer infrastructure, including mobile apps and sophisticated analytics, and secondarily in the acquisition and filming of “talent” to teach its courses.

If indeed Coursera continues to grow, a few things will happen to its supporting ecosystem; like most colonialist enterprises, it pays little attention to the ecosystem that has made it possible. The academic enterprise, in my conception, consists of three things: preserving knowledge, transmitting knowledge, and extending knowledge. The only thing anyone understands needs to be paid for is transmitting knowledge: teaching and grading. In a world where only a few professors are teaching and where no one, adjunct or otherwise, is grading, the ecosystem will fail. There will be no more “star” professors to teach the MOOCs (or to do other research), there will be no graduate students or postdocs to follow along after them, and there will be few undergraduates, distance or otherwise, who will care to enter into such a tenuous enterprise as post-secondary education. We would need something like a “Farm Bill,” where, just as farmers are paid not to plant corn, professors, adjuncts, and graduate students are paid not to teach or to grade. Try getting that through a Tea Party Senate. Coursera parasitizes off the top of the existing academic system; its instructors have appointments at their own institutions, the names of the institutions are used to add prestige to Coursera’s courses’ certificates of completion, and the lure of the classes is that they are taught by conventionally, prestigiously educated people. When Coursera starts to “eat its own dog food” and feature premium classes taught by people possessing no credentials other than their own certificates, perhaps then they will begin to be in earnest.

But perhaps they are already doing this, in a sense. All non-objective grading in Coursera is done by groups of five peers. None of these students may know the right answer. It is entirely likely that a few of them will know the wrong answer, which they will transmit to their less-certain peers. This is why, in more conventional institutions, feedback is provided by people more knowledgable and experienced than the students themselves. Here, though, Coursera risks transmitting ignorance; what it gains, however, is that grading is not a cost center — at all. Ms. Koller, who, by the way, seems to have obtained every achievement and credential one could possibly have short of a Nobel Prize, was a little shy about admitting that Coursera hasn’t made any money yet. That day will come, and some very important part of the educational chain will very quickly become very expensive — likely after conventional instutions have fallen by the wayside.

But, in the audience, I could see people nodding. “Science has grant money for professors and postdocs. Teaching and grading are inconveniences. As long as we get grants, they’ll leave us alone, and perhaps we can make some extra money on the side by teaching one of these courses.” But an ecosystem is an ecosystem. The failure of one of its parts means the inevitable, wrenching alteration of the rest of its parts. They just don’t see it yet.

01/17/15

And Now the Conspiracy Theorists

Komsomolskaya Pravda opened its columns yesterday to the head honcho of the French far-right, anti-immigrant party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has theorized that the murder of the Charlie Hebdo editorial board was permitted, if not actually orchestrated, by the French government as a means of discrediting the Front National. (Charlie was relentless in satirizing that bunch of neo-fascists.) This is likely to be received as a rational analysis in a country where not only are conspiracies stranger than fiction a matter of course, but the government itself weaves elaborate counter-scenarios to deny its involvement in things it almost certainly has been involved in.

And in the suburbs of Paris, a teacher is heard (and recorded) telling her students that “nobody ever saw the bodies of the journalists” and the “so-called dead policeman” was just a puppet in a soap opera dreamt up by the French government to incriminate the Muslim religion–which religion, by the way, “authorizes killing if it’s necessary to defend religion.” She was immediately fired. I’m sure people will leap to her defense, as to Dieudonné’s.

Meanwhile, in a Marseilles high school, some students elaborate. The whole thing was a manipulation by the French secret services, to destroy Islam. And simultaneously, it was a trick of the Mossad, to punish France for its recognition of the Palestinian proto-state. “A Muslim who dies in the course of the story, that makes it more believable, doesn’t it? And the dead policemen, one French, one black, one Arab. How symbolic!”

No one has a completely open mind. Our prior beliefs act as filters on new information. When a piece of information comes at too high a cost– when accepting it would mean sacrificing some long-held beliefs or elements of identity– people will confabulate until the (sacred) cows come home. This observation also suggests a test for the kinds of beliefs that compel an exorbitant expenditure in ad-hoc theories in order to defuse new information; and for me, perhaps an economic rationalist for today, that would be the sign that maintaining such beliefs would be a losing proposition. But the literature on “cognitive dissonance” shows that people’s behavior is otherwise: a challenge actually reinforces the unlikely belief. I suppose there are people who would be more comfortable living their lives in a village of fifty people, where little information trickles in from outside. But here they are, carrying their village explanations onto the world stage.

01/17/15

Feasibility Study

How can you have anti-blasphemy laws in a country with more than one major religion? What is permissible for one group will be forbidden to another, what is obligatory for you is optional or absurd or immoral to me. You can’t be a good pluralist and mandate inoffensiveness.

A story comes to mind, told me by a Maronite friend from Lebanon. As children, he and his friends used to gather on the corner and play marbles. There were Christian kids, Muslim kids, maybe a Druze or two. And as they played, they shouted at each other in Arabic, learning each other’s favorite swear words and oaths. The little Muslims said: “Mother of God, I will knock your marble out of the circle!” The little Christians said, “By the beard of the Prophet, that was a good shot!” The parents heard this and had a little meeting: henceforth, when they played, the children would have to speak French or English.

But what if there’s not another language to take refuge in?

01/11/15

Plus c’est la même chose.

Since the Printculture archive isn’t easily searchable from the front page, I take the liberty of putting up a direct link to one of our oldies, about caricature and the sacred, contending that the prohibition of images and the freedom of expression are at root the same thing. Thou Shalt Not, Or Thou Hadst Better Not, from 2005. (Incidentally, many of the ideas there were sparked by conversations with O Solovieva.)

And I am sad to see that, no more than in 2005, are people (many of my friends among them) willing or able to make some essential distinctions. Not only do people take it for granted that any jerk with a gun who shouts “Allah akbar!” speaks for all Muslims, they also make the Sassen Error (named for the sociologist Saskia Sassen, who in 2001 opined that the attacks on lower Manhattan were the revenge of the poor world against the rich world, conveniently ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the victims of the Taliban et consortes are poor people in the poor world); they have even found it “ironic” that the policewoman shot by one of the self-styled jihadis was a black woman from the Caribbean, as if operating on the assumption that all people of color are on “the same side.” Come on, people. You would demand subtlety and fine distinctions if someone were analyzing your social world. Do the same unto others, at least a little bit.

01/2/15

Big Dill.

There’s a kind of writing– I’d call it Pninian– that challenges translation in its specificity. Not, as some theories of the untranslatable would have it, because it calls on utterly singular and irreplaceable qualities of the language it uses, but because it is made of the interweaving of two languages at a specific moment of their histories. In Nabokov’s Pnin, it’s the combination of 1950s American English and early-twentieth-century émigré Russian that creates the discordia concors. In Lydie Salvayre’s Pas pleurer, a new novel I unwisely bought for a friend who was seeking to raise the level of her French, it’s the overlay of Spanish and French, or the revelation of the Spanish hidden in French, that brings the savor. I particularly loved the device whereby the narrator makes this stylistic effect a sign of both character and plot (motivirovka, the O.PO.JAZ would have called it):

Depuis que ma mère souffre de troubles mnésiques, elle éprouve un réel plaisir à prononcer les mots grossiers qu’elle s’est abstenue de formuler pendant plus de soixante-dix ans, manifestation typique chez ce type de patients, a expliqué son médecin… Elle qui s’était tant évertuée, depuis son arrivée en France, à corriger son accent espagnol, à parler un langage châtié et à soigner sa mise pour être toujours plus conforme à ce qu’elle pensait être le modèle français (se signalant par là même, dans sa trop stricte conformité, comme une étrangère), elle envoie valser dans ses vieux jours les petits conventions, langagières et autres. (82-83)

This gives such sentences as:

Et moi je grite encore plus fort: Je me fous qu’on m’ouit, je veux pas être bonniche chez les Burgos, j’aime mieux faire la pute en ville!… Plutôt morir! (14)

To translate this into, say, English, one would have to either imitate the effect of Spanish-tinged French– by appropriating the characteristics of Spanglish, say; but this kind of similarity soon points up the dissimilarity of associations between the two kinds of interlanguage. French-speakers readily recall the influx of Spanish-speakers following the defeat of the Spanish Republic in 1939, but the associations of North American Spanglish have to do with different conditions of migration and resettlement. Another, braver, method would require finding an analogous situation valid for the relation of Spanish and English and then rewriting, or restating, the whole novel as a function of that. Does anyone want to reimagine Pas pleurer as a story of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans (etc…) residing in San Diego as a consequence of their difficult history?

Lydie Salvayre, Pas pleurer. Paris: Seuil, 2014. Awarded the Prix Goncourt.

01/1/15

Performatives That Look Like Constatives, And Their Consequences

The difference between performatives and constatives was articulated by John Austin fifty-odd years ago, and has kept us busy in all cultural domains, usually extending the reach of the former at the expense of the latter. As you’ll remember, there’s not always an explicit marker of performativeness. Some performatives look exactly like constatives, and it’s only the context that makes the difference. For example: “He is not guilty” (said by a newspaper reader in reference to some ongoing trial), versus “Not guilty” (said in the course of entering a plea). When entering a plea in court, “Not guilty” does not mean “It is a fact that I am not guilty of the matter I am charged with”: if it did, pleas could become subject to charges of perjury, and defendants who were later found guilty would undergo extra punishment for having attempted to assert their rights in court; which is repugnant to the idea of a fair trial. Rather, it means, “I hereby challenge you to lay out the most convincing proof you can to the effect that I am guilty.” It’s one of those speech acts that can only be answered by another speech act, one that says, “I accept your challenge and here’s my brief.” An old but good article by Carl Selinger, “Criminal Lawyers’ Truth: A Dialogue on Putting the Prosecution to Its Proof on Behalf of Admittedly Guilty Clients,” clarifies the distinction.

01/1/15

An Unlikely Solution for an Impossible Problem

Over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of rape accusations on college campuses, and some significant muddying of the waters by the colleges themselves, by journalists, and by people passionately taking one side or the other; and also a lack of will on the part of law students and faculty to spend much time considering the judicial treatment of such egregious offenses as rape. I’m fortunate not to be in an administrative role that requires me to be making decisions about such matters, but I can’t help feeling that the present means for dealing with sexual offenses on campuses aren’t working.

Continue reading

12/29/14

The Blood Will Tell

I was walking around a big European museum with my four-year-old son lately. He wanted to know what the hell was going on with all the beheadings, cauterizings, arrow-piercings, massacres of the innocent and kindred spectacles that make up such a big part of European art before 1700. Now here is a puzzling task. He deserved an answer, but which answer to give?

a) “People in those times did a lot of horrible things.” (This I know will prompt the follow-up question, why then are these scenes painted in such loving detail with gold-leaf backgrounds?)

b) “The victims are martyrs and the pictures celebrate their suffering.” (Now explain the concept of martyrdom.)

And because this was an excellent Franconian museum with a rich medieval collection, four or five unavoidable, life-size and powerfully affecting Jesuses hung on their crosses in every room, not to mention the ones being mourned by Mary in Pietà poses or laid in the tomb by the last few disciples. A lot of blood and nails, and a lot of faces howling their grief. Continue reading

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.

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

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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).

12/8/14

Old Trunks and Papers

The French National Archives have mounted a show about collaboration, 1940-1945, and it couldn’t be more timely. The far-right parties, apparently on the way to general normalization and acceptance, are back at their old themes of “Vichy wasn’t so bad” and “cosmopolitanism is the death of France.” This exhibit, stuffed with artifacts and papers as you’d expect from an archive, displays all the pettiness, resentment, willed ignorance, infighting, cowardice and opportunism of those years. Lessons for the present are there for the taking.

A few reflections.

The authorities of occupied France and the “free zone” of Vichy put the Nazis in an unduly favorable negotiating position out of fear, because they had persuaded themselves that it lay in the Germans’ power to annihilate France, and it was a special mercy, for which the French should be duly grateful, that they had not done so. From this starting position, anything becomes acceptable. You want our foodstuffs? Well, at least it’s not our lives. You want our young men to work in your factories while yours are fighting the Russians? Well, at least you’re not drafting them directly. You want our Jews? How many? Would you take a few more? With their attitude of fear they made themselves absolute straw men.

The legal framework of Vichy stank (it has this in common with many contemporary governments). On the wall in one of the rooms of the exhibition is a two-page proclamation outlining the prerogatives of the head of the French State (chef de l’Etat Français). He commands the army and navy, names and retires ministers, receives the ambassadors’ letters of accreditation, decides the budget, and so forth. Signed: Philippe Pétain, head of state. (And he uses the royal “we”!) This is wonderfully nonsensical, because authority doesn’t generate itself: it can only be transferred from one source to another. Now a majority of the Assembly had voted to give Pétain full powers, which I suppose they had the right to do, but to see the consequence of having done so in this brief document is to watch tautology in action. One thinks of Emperor Norton. (If only all autocrats were as harmless as he.)

The Germans very cleverly kept not one, but multiple nationalistic parties going in occupied France, each with its charismatic leader, its panoply of badges, buttons, sashes, armbands, flags, etc.. All of these parties huffed and puffed about recovering the greatness of France, and doing it on their own (sc. without the help of “the Anglo-Saxons”); none of them had any chance of accomplishing this, and they all cancelled each other out. When one or another of these chauvinistic parties got too popular, the Germans would think of a way to decapitate it. They dealt with Jacques Doriot by getting him to go fight on the Eastern Front with a French volunteer battalion, making quite clear to any patriot that he was not his own man. (Doriot’s trunk and German army overcoat occupy an interesting place in the exhibit, staged in a plexiglass case from which they are visible from both the “micro-parties” subsection and the “fight against Bolshevism” section. Doriot, like so many fascist sympathizers, started out on the far left; he was elected as a communist in the 20s.) The “spoiler” technique is still relevant, as parties that decent people would not admit voting for nonetheless garner a big enough fraction of the vote to compel the two major parties to make concessions to them, not to mention the general strategy of frustrating all initiatives of the European Union.

Bad economic times drive people into fascistic patterns of thought. People are impoverished, unemployed, afraid, and they appreciate a good scapegoat. One room is full of appalling propaganda against Jews, appalling because it plays on the actual discomforts of the population and transforms them into anger. For example, a cartoon showing a fine, tall, slender young man who has just been demobilized after the armistice. He presents himself in an office populated by thick-lipped, hirsute, overweight Jews sitting on sacks of money; they tell him, “You’re looking for a job! You must be joking!” Now there were certainly a lot of idle demobilized young men in 1940-45, as there had been for much of the previous decade, but I doubt that obesity was much of a problem among the Jewish population of Paris at the time. Imagine walking down streets lined with such imagery, and having the kind of mind that would be persuaded by it: horrible. But of course today the anger of populations is still easily decanted into simple solutions. Those who think austerity programs are a necessary evil ought to have a good long look at this room.

Propaganda always treats the viewer as an idiot. But sometimes the visual style is especially brutal. After a while spent with these posters and leaflets, one can pretty well gauge the ideological direction of the cause by mere exposure to its visual rhetoric. (I have not yet been able to digest this sensation into a formula.)

Opportunism and compromise are fraught, mixed, messy currents. One reaches for the firm boundaries of evil and virtue. Look at Pierre Laval on the one hand, Jean Moulin on the other. But what is really instructive, not in the sense of providing dogmatic guidance but in the sense of reviving the perplexities of such times, is a case like that of Colonel de la Rocque, the leader of the Croix de Feu, another of the many nationalistic parties. It is true that the Croix de Feu marched around in an intimidating way, talked about banishing Jews (though they were willing to make an exception for those who had been in France for generations), and their leader stayed on good terms with Pétain until quite late in the war. So far, so fascistic-looking. But La Rocque tore into Pétain for his collaboration and in June 1940, at about the same time as De Gaulle’s London broadcast, came out with a speech urging French people to resist at any cost. It is also reported that La Rocque never lost his commitment to legality and parliamentary government, and when he had an opportunity to overrun the National Assembly, he told his troops to stand pat. Arrested and deported by the Germans, he came back home the day after V-E day, only to be put in “administrative detention” for another six months while the Resistance organized the new government. It does give the impression that La Rocque’s major crime, seen from the postwar perspective, was to have been an anti-Gaullist nationalist resister. If you want to understand what people were thinking, and how they were being swayed this way and that in that dark period, a case like La Rocque’s opens many cans of worms.

12/6/14

Victim Mentality

I don’t have anything useful to add to the outrage generally felt (in the nearer nodes of my social network anyway) about the string of recent deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers. I think Jon Stewart absolutely nailed it when he threw Fox News’s accusation back at them: the “victim mentality” is a fixture of conservative politics. Not only conservative politics, of course: playing the victim is a perpetual strategy used to turn the tables or motivate violence, and it’s particularly dangerous when the self-styled victim is in fact the more powerful party in an interaction. But do we have a good language for describing the parts of this role-play? It seems to me that the advantages of self-victimization depend on there being an audience, a third party deemed to hold the power of legitimation. (In the most frequent dramas of victimization and retaliation which it is my privilege to witness, the “third party” is the parents to whom small children appeal for recognition or swift justice: “He pulled my hair first!”) And that third party, ladies and gentlemen, is us: Public Opinion. We can’t do much directly, as drops in the sea of Public Opinion, but we can try to push the drops around us and form a current, so to speak, that would flow away from the themes and obsessions that make it seem OK for a white man with a gun to kill a black man on the slenderest pretext of feeling “threatened.” We are the grander grand jury, but thus far a disorganized and slow-moving one.