Unreal Nature

August 31, 2008

Last Days of August

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:54 am









The Muleta: or the Last Interpretation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:48 am

This post is meant to  be thought of reference photography, which is always tied to history (if only microhistory). [ whistling innocently ]

If you cannot point to any historical silver bullet to explain a discreet event in the past (let alone all of American history), why not simply find satisfaction in the evocative story well told? If the past is an infinitely complex web of conflicting causes and effects, why bother with the pretense that we can actually explain something? Instead, let us rest comfortably in the realm of craft where value comes from formal properties rather than superior argument. Instead of trying to be more right than the last interpreter of, say, the election of 1800, let’s simply tell a better story, more alive with engaging prose and rich anecdote.

— (emphasis added by me) from The Little Picture: Or, who’s afraid of the big question?  by Edward Gray in vol. 6, no.4 of Common-Place; July 2006

He begins his essay thus:

I have a friend who’s always ranting about the fact that historians can no longer handle a good scholarly fight. Mea culpa. Wimp. Coward. That’s me. I have never written anything that put a shot across another historian’s bow. My first book was about a subject historians don’t much care about: language. Insofar as it got any play, it was among the lit crit crowd. And my subsequent work has been tame to the point of cowardly solicitude. I would place most of it in a genre who’s origins lay with the very curse my friend believes to have been visited upon historians. That genre—usually referred to as microhistory—has little ambition at all when it comes to disproving another scholar’s thesis. It is, abashedly, about telling stories that, much like short stories, somehow move the reader by evoking distant experience and place. It also inclines toward the blatantly antiquarian in its relish for the small particulars of the past. Old things, long-vanished turns of phrase, antiquated behaviors, small cul-de-sacs of culture—these tend to be the stuff from which microhistorians forge their stories.

I have, of late, been greatly taken with this approach to the past. It has seemed the perfect home for the sheepish among us who’d rather putz around in an archive and toy with their prose than dethrone some betweeded historical titan.

But he goes on to doubt this approach. He ends it with the following:

… Compared to the patriotic-mantra approach to the meaning of America, the free-market, material-abundance, Economist interpretation  (via Potter) feels at least a bit more substantive. Perhaps we should be happy about its very existence; perhaps it is a symptom that foreigners—as they struggle to reconcile our militarism with our professed high-minded, democratic values—are once again trying to figure us out. And perhaps, too, a few American historians who don’t quite feel at home in their own country will be inspired to follow suit. Perhaps, once again, you won’t be laughed out of the seminar room or lecture hall if you stand up and claim to know what America means. On the other hand, maybe we’re just too much the grave liberals, too much the nuanced antitheses to the Fox News/AM radio approach to the world, to ever lay claim to such grandiose territory. How can my world be reduced to one defining trait—the West, material abundance, ethnic diversity, etc.? And yet, there is no denying the appeal of this kind of thinking, even if understood as pure intellectual exercise. What America needs are critical faculties, and critical faculties need a thesis to knock around. Maybe that great nervous scholar and monumental equivocator Moses Herzog put it best when he declared, “What this country needs is a good five-cent synthesis.”

I wish he hadn’t used the phrase, “…even if understood as pure intellectual exercise.” If “intellectual exercise” equates to “interpretation, then it can never be “purely” an intellectual exercise. That would be like saying it is “purely” interpretation which is nonsense. Interpretation must be of  something.

For example, a single photograph, after the fact, is a record, not an intellectual exercise. Discussion about all of photography — which encompasses all individual photographs — is an intellectual exercise, but is never purely an intellectual exercise — because it is rooted in those individual photographs.

Read the whole piece if you have time. [ link ]



August 30, 2008

The Lexicon of a Mature Imagination

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:04 am

Sitting beside Ms. Bauer in the dressing room before the concert, I was struck by the contained power in her small hands, cigar-thick fingers perched like the hammers inside a piano. They told the story of thousands of hours of dull drills, each muscle reluctantly trained into submission, carving out a memory for itself so that in the shotgun of performance they could fire like a string of perfectly calibrated bullets. These are the building blocks of the Russian school of playing, where the dreamy ad libitum of childhood is transfigured into the lexicon of a mature imagination.

— from String Theory   by Deborah Kirshner in the March 2005 issue of The Walrus

Perhaps because photography does not necessarily demand any kind of strict or explicit training, I am, in some strange way, jealous of vocations that do. This probably contributes to my preference for, and pleasure in, compositing — which does require a great deal of training and technique (though not on the scale of the musicians described in this essay).

Kirshner’s piece is absolutely wonderful. I know; I say that about most of the articles I link to, but this one is extra wonderful. Please read it if you have the time. Here is how it begins:

When I was sixteen, I had the honour of being invited to turn pages at a recital in Montreal for the great Soviet violinist David Oistrakh, one of the last of a generation of Russian virtuosi that included Heifetz and Elman, and his musical partner, the formidable pianist Frida Bauer. Given the august occasion, it probably wasn’t the shrewdest decision to test out my father’s claim that after years of non-surgical experiments he had successfully corrected my “wandering eye syndrome” (the right eye cruised its socket like a lazy pinball), and I could now “see without glasses!” This despite the fact that since the age of four I had spent my life in a pair of bifocals framed like the fenders on a Mustang and as thick as a middle-aged waistline.

Nor was it my most incandescent moment to turn up for the concert at Place des Arts that evening dressed in the latest in seventies discount-mall fashion: a shiny black dress made from some of the first attempts with “unknown fibres” that draped from my waist, briefly, to reveal an entire set of teenage legs which were punctuated at my feet by a pair of really ugly black platform pumps. This outfit, a metaphor, apparently, for “Hey Mista, fifty rubles to heaven,” was entirely unsuitable, a message made clear by the now hysterical Russian impresario who threatened to dismiss me, Soviet style. I managed to keep my job largely through the efforts of Oistrakh himself, who probably welcomed the contrast I brought to the otherwise staid landscape on stage; next to the Russians, I looked like some kind of strange sapling loosely planted behind two sturdy boxwood hedges.

For a young violinist, the opportunity to get this close to one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century, to witness first-hand his pre-concert warm-up (Oistrakh repeated the opening bars of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in G major, op. 30, the first piece on the program, over and over and over again), to shake the hand that shook the hand of Prokofiev that shook the hand of Rimsky-Korsakov that shook the hand of Tchaikovsky that shook the hand of Liszt that shook the hand of Salieri who brushed the silver-sweet palms of Mozart was to touch the flesh of a world I had only imagined.

And, one last little bit from near the end of the article:

… The Auer tradition, though limited to the gifted, produced artists whose performances sizzled like sparklers, their interpretations expressions of the dynamic relationship between themselves and the music. In the semantic translation from the musical idea to the instrument, these players created their own inimitable sound, the repertoire of their technique formed around the context and demands of the music. This is very different from the “new school” approach, where the emphasis is on how to produce a sound, not on what sound to produce. Each domain requires accessing a distinct cognitive faculty. I know that when I am faced with a particularly difficult passage and focus my attention entirely on the mechanics of it, I can accomplish it, but the continuity of the music suffers. What I lose in my playing, and what the listener loses, is the musical logic of that phrase, and the large sweeps of the formal outline of the piece are lost in a web of notes. So I force myself to hear something different, to think about the sound I need to produce, and to forget about the many details, the subtle shifts in pressure of my right and left hand that I have spent hours practicing. I force myself to turn my language into the ether of an image and to transform my thinking from the linear to the non-linear so I can take the risk, like Oistrakh and his contemporaries, of navigating the geography of beauty.

This essay is a delight. I’ve only given you a very small taste of it. Most highly recommended. [ link ]



August 29, 2008

Derrida is a Moron

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 pm

You’ve heard the phrase, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”.

Years ago I embraced the “people” orthodoxy. Who didn’t? People kill people. It makes such simple sense. But in 1992, I was part of the bullet heterodoxy. I wasn’t with papp—People Against “People” People—I was part of Schtumpfhauer’s group. We did a lot of valuable work, a lot of published work.

… By 1995, the bullet theory had pretty much taken over. At the ‘96 Summit in Lubbock, there was something approaching consensus (two shootings, neither of them fatal). But that fragile accord was shattered by the time of the Bogotá Conference in 2001. Part of it, of course, was the groundbreaking work that Jacques Derrida had been doing with triggers. With his widely quoted article, “Velocity and the Itch: The Hermeneutics of the Hair Trigger” (Guns & Ammo, vol. 72, pp. 1–91), he demonstrated conclusively that the trigger was both signified and signifier.

… After that it was two years of vicious papers being published in journals that should re-examine their peer review process if you want my opinion. The nadir was probably Bubba Lunt’s article, “Derrida is a Moron” (American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 91, p. 3). Derrida’s response “Am Not: The Solipsism of Others” (Soldier of Fortune, vol. xxi, pp. 4–86) did little to heal the wounds. Still, no one foresaw what came next.

I mean we all knew that inside the “people” camp there was a religious minority. They had been there for years. It was basically three guys in short-sleeved shirts and Poindexter haircuts from Salt Lake City. Frankly, we never thought they even owned any guns. For years, they had been quietly arguing that God made us in His image, therefore it was God who killed people. Even Bubba Lunt could have driven a Dodge Durango through a theological hole that big. No one even bothered to refute them. We just nodded, took their leaflets, and threw them away.

But while the gun, bullet, trigger, and “people” people were all duking it out, they came up the middle in a surprise move. Suddenly, they had a catchy acronym, gapp (God Against “People” People), a new spokesman (Ted Nugent), and long-sleeved shirts. …

— from A Very Palpable Hit: Deconstructionists get down on gun deaths  by Don Gillmor in the May 2005 issue of The Walrus

Please read the whole piece. It’s very fine. [ link ]




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:43 am

This first version is usually thirty to forty minutes longer than the final film. At this point in the process I begin to pay more attention to the rhythm of the film, the internal rhythm within a sequence and the external rhythm between the sequences.

That’s from On Editing  by Frederick Wiseman in The Threepenny Review: Spring 2008. He’s talking about the last stages of making a documentary film.

Rhythm is a key component of art, but is it documentary? Isn’t the sequential rhythm added value put there by the artist via creative editing?

To back up, he begins:

… I have no idea before the shooting begins what the events, themes, ideas, or point of view of the film will be.

…. The purpose of the filming is to accumulate scenes, material from which a film can be edited. During the shooting I simply try to gather sequences that interest me for whatever reason—i.e., they are funny, sad, tragic; they reveal an aspect of character, illustrate an aspect of the division and exercise of power, point out the gap between ideology and practice, or show the work of the various professions, clients, or publics represented. The decision about what to shoot is always based on a shifting combination of judgment, instinct, and luck. After six to twelve weeks, I typically have eighty to a hundred and twenty hours of film from which a film has to be edited.

Then, at the end, this is the full paragraph from which I took the lead quote:

This first version is usually thirty to forty minutes longer than the final film. At this point in the process I begin to pay more attention to the rhythm of the film, the internal rhythm within a sequence and the external rhythm between the sequences. For example, a sequence as originally edited may have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When it is placed in relation to other sequences, the beginning may no longer be necessary because the same information (about character, physical location, or time) may have been suggested in a more appropriate form in another scene. The external rhythm is related to the shots that link the major sequences: that is, it may be necessary to have a minute of relative quiet after a very emotional scene, or several shots will need to be linked to suggest the passage of time or a change in location. The choice of shot, the direction of the movement within the shot, the time of day, the information conveyed by the people or objects—all these have to be evaluated both in relation to each other and to the sequences that come before and after. This, of course, is true for the internal as well as external editing of a sequence. Each sequence or group of related sequences has to be assessed in this way and it is also necessary to know the overall structural connection between all the sequences in the film (for example, the relationship between the first ten minutes of the film and the end). I have learned over the years to pay as much attention to the thoughts at the edge of my head—my associations to the material I am watching and hearing—as I do to the more overtly logical and deductive aspects of making editorial choices. Following these seemingly peripheral intuitive thoughts can lead to more startling and original combination of sequences with unanticipated benefits for the content, form, and structure of the film.

I applaud Wiseman for injecting his interpretation into his work — as I do for still photographers — and I can’t imagine any good photograph or film that doesn’t make an effort to be harmonious. But it is necessarily transformative of the work.

I wonder how this sits with the purists who expect a documentary work to be, as nearly as possible, simply a conduit or window to what happened.



August 28, 2008

New Outlet for an Old Need

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:29 am

Historically, when an abundance of public information is conjoined with democratized ideas about the flow of information, something like blogging usually results.

That’s from Blogging in the Early Republic  by W. Caleb McDaniel in Common-Place vol. 5, no. 4; July 2005

 In Human Life: Illustrated in My Individual Experience as a Child, a Youth, and a Man(1845), one of his published writings in which diary entries were frequently excerpted, Wright confessed that “writing a journal does me good. I can let off my indignation at the wrongs I see and hear. I am far happier when I write a little every day. I take more note too, of passing events, and see more of what is going on around me. I live less in the past and future, and more in the present, when I journalize . . . It saves me from many dark hours to write down what I see and hear and feel daily. My soul would turn in upon and consume itself, if I did not thus let it out into my journal.”

Wright died in 1870, already a relatively forgotten reformer. Yet—and I speak from my own experience in 2005—his reflections on writing are eerily evocative of what it is like to blog. Wright shared several traits with the prototypical blogger—his eccentric range of interests, his resolution “to write down what I see and hear and feel daily,” his use of journals to “let off” rants of “indignation,” his utopian conviction that writing might change the world, and (not least) his practice of spending the “greater part of the day writing in his room.” Was Wright a blogger? Are not his journals the fossilized originals of a species?

… Are blogs really just another turn of history’s wheel? Yes and no. Bloggers do have some historical antecedents in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. But the usual suspects in the examples above—Paine, Luther, Orwell—are in various ways misleading. Treating these highly influential writers as analogues for bloggers serves a particular understanding of blogging as primarily political. Moreover, it perpetuates a picture of the blogosphere that is skewed toward elite and highly visible blogs. The better analogues for bloggers may not be towering literary figures like Paine, but more forgotten writers like Wright. The arrow for blogging should be left pointing backwards, as Rosen suggests, but where it points is another question.

… Indeed, blogging demonstrates the persistence of a key truth in the history of reading, an insight as obvious to Tocqueville as it should be to most bloggers today. The insight is that readers, in a culture of abundant reading material, regularly seek out other readers, either by becoming writers themselves or by sharing their records of reading with others. That process, of course, requires cultural conditions that value democratic rather than deferential ideals of authority. But to explain how new habits of reading and writing develop, those cultural conditions matter as much—perhaps more—than economic or technological innovations. As Tocqueville knew, the explosion of newspapers in America was not just a result of their cheapness or their means of production, any more than the explosion of blogging is just a result of the fact that free and user-friendly software like Blogger is available. Perhaps, instead, blogging is the literate person’s new outlet for an old need. In Wright’s words, it is the need “to see more of what is going on around me.” And in print cultures where there is more to see, it takes reading, writing, and association in order to see more.

More on the same subject from Lurking in the Blogosphere of the 1840s  by Meredith L McGill in Common-Place vol. 7, no. 2; January 2007

The furious growth of the blogosphere, despite the difficulty of making a living from the practice, should also remind us of the rich range of motivations for writing that go beyond immediate financial reward. Following William Charvat, historians and critics have generally taken the professionalization of authorship to be the inevitable outcome of the nineteenth-century development of a mass-market for print. They have assumed that economic self-sufficiency was the engine that drove both authors and their publishers. But what if, in a time of media expansion, the certainty of economic reward is a minor consideration next to the thrill of participation in a new medium? What if writers (then and now) are motivated by the possibility of constituting an audience by virtue of addressing one or by the power of a more democratically distributed medium to confer new value on ordinary lives?… Perhaps writers and readers are drawn to blogs—and were drawn to the popular print forms of the 1840s—because they offer a sense of belonging to a public, a self-organizing group of strangers without discernable boundaries, which can loosen the bonds of race, gender, status, class, age, or geographic locale.

… What does it feel like to live in a time of media expansion and media shift? In proclaiming that “the whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward,” Edgar Allan Poe took aim at the “ponderosity” of the quarterly reviews, arguing that in both tone and content they were:

“quite out of keeping with the rush  of the age. We now demand the light artillery of the intellect; we need the curt, the condensed, the pointed, the readily diffused—in place of the verbose, the detailed, the voluminous, the inaccessible.”

Poe understood that new media require and promote different kinds of writing and can shift the balance of power among existing modes of publication.

There’s something slightly perverse about blogging about an article about what blogging is about.




August 27, 2008

The Corpus of History

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 11:09 am

History matters. Perhaps more to the point, how we craft history matters, whether we are historians or not. The Supreme Court proved this on June 12 when it issued its decision in Boumediene v. Bush. The case concerns habeas corpus, latin for “have the body” (as in a command by a judge to a jailor to “have the body in my courtroom and explain why you are restraining him or her”). In Boumediene, the question at issue was whether the government could strip federal courts of jurisdiction to entertain prisoners’ applications for habeas corpus. The Court broke five to four against the government, ruling that Congress had exceeded its authority. The case is sure to be a landmark. Many books will be written about it, and generations of law students will debate its merits. It will also prove the old dictum that hard cases make bad law. The issues in Boumediene are legion and the technical complexity formidable. Reasonable people can violently disagree on the correct legal outcomes warranted by the facts of the case.

Which is why history matters so. Both Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion and Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent turn to the past to justify their interpretations of habeas corpus. In doing so, they demonstrate just how immediate the past can be—but also just how divisive it remains. Choosing between the five justices in the majority and the four in the minority is, in essence, choosing between two very different histories.

… It should be said that the founders’ views on these matters have not survived strict historical scrutiny. Historians have since demonstrated that Magna Carta was hardly a victory for abstract liberty. Its famous protections are better understood as checks on royal power in favor of the baronage. Moreover, habeas corpus’s early history was less about protection of individual liberty and more about the assertion of royal authority. By prohibiting imprisonment without just cause, it empowered medieval and early-modern monarchs to intervene in the affairs of local courts. The early history of habeas is thus more connected with the development of sovereignty and power than with civil liberties.

Remarkably, Kennedy’s own history is sensitive to these facts. He fully recognizes that the Great Writ cannot be traced back definitively to Magna Carta and that the writ’s early history was in the service of the king rather than against him. Nonetheless, Kennedy concludes that by the seventeenth century habeas corpus had come to represent a check on the very authority that had issued it. For if the king’s law extended to all corners of the realm, so too did it bind the king, and this principle eventually transformed habeas corpus into a writ that could test the legality of any detention, even one ordered by the king. What could cause such a profound change in the law? Kennedy rather impatiently concludes that “the development was painstaking, even by the centuries-long measures of English constitutional history.”

… Oddly, given Scalia’s penchant for originalism (or the idea that the Courts’ interpretations should be consistent with the framers’ original  intent), his interpretation of the history of the Suspension Clause is rather weak. It amounts to the dual claim that when the framers did their work, the common law writ of habeas corpus did not run outside the king’s sovereign territory and was never intended to be extended to aliens abroad. He likens Guantanamo Bay to eighteenth-century Scotland. There, English courts had no jurisdiction in matters of habeus corpus. And the British government used this loophole, much like the Bush administration uses the “enemy combatant” designation, to arbitrarily imprison its Scottish enemies. Scalia also points to the absence of any case in English history where a prisoner of war requested a writ of habeas corpus, let alone had one granted. “The text and history of the Suspension Clause,” he concludes, “provides no basis for [U.S. court’s] jurisdiction” in Guantanamo.

Technical merits of his opinion aside, Scalia’s use of history is an utter failure. His narrative of the present war glibly subsumes Sunni and Shiite rebels, Al Qaeda and its many loose affiliates into one singular “enemy.” By including the 1983 Beiruit barracks bombing—perpetrated by a Shia militia formed in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon with no connection to Al Qaeda—with these other attacks, he not only suggests that the current war has been going on much longer than most Americans (including most in the government) realize but, more outrageously, that our’s is a war of civilizations. It is America against all who hate us—and they all happen to be Arab. But never mind all of this. Scalia’s legal history is also troubling. Consider the Scotland/Guantanamo analogy, which actually weakens Scalia’s argument. As any card-carrying originalist should know, the constitutional position of Scotland was a matter of grave concern for colonists who watched the English parliament strip Scots of, among other things, the right to bear arms. The founders—former English subjects who, much like the Scots, resided in the British provinces—would doubtless be puzzled if told that the reach of habeas corpus could extend no further than the British had allowed it in 1789.

Despite its intellectual flimsiness, Scalia’s narrative is the more viscerally powerful. Its Cassandra-like prophesizing of future violence rouses our deepest fears. Its invocation of American blood spilled on American soil stirs our rage. And its simplicity satisfies, even if deceptively so. But this speaks to the opinion’s persuasiveness, and the ultimate measure of that will be whether Scalia has touched the right nerve with Americans. Kennedy’s narrative is more nuanced and complex. But the price of complexity may well be fragmentation. How can historical complexity compete with the nineteenth-century faith in steady, indomitable progress or with the eighteenth century’s pervasive fear of conspiracy and tyranny? Habeas corpus played a heroic role in both narratives, and that gave the writ a powerful legitimacy.

No historian should, of course, return to writing such intellectually untenable histories. Nonetheless, we would do well to review the power that narratives have to ascribe meaning. Habeas corpus would not have been enshrined in our Constitution were it not for the founding generation’s conviction that it was the bedrock of civil liberty and had been so since time immemorial. Subsequent historical investigation proved their view fanciful, but this did not deter Justice Kennedy from crafting a new narrative to explain the majority’s safeguarding of habeas corpus against congressional attempts to subvert it. His narrative is not as grand, nor as simple, as those of the founding generation. But it is credible. It is a history that recognizes the complexities of the past and avoids the crass simplicities and violent elisions present in Justice Scalia’s use of history. That the Supreme Court has deployed Kennedy’s narrative to check congressional expansion of executive power in the midst of the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror” is no small matter. And a reminder of how much history matters.

— from Talk of the Past: The Supreme Court Confronts History  by H. Robert Baker in Common-Place Vol. 8, no. 4: July 2008

[ Note that this does not mean history itself is variable; rather that our interpretations of it, after the fact, can diverge.]



Relative Speed

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:52 am

The high-speed way in which we travel about in the world profoundly affects how we envision that world and the creatures upon it. In an essay, “Like standing on the edge of the world and looking away into heaven”: Picturing Chinese labor and industrial velocity in the Gilded Age in Common-Place vol. 7, no. 3: April 2007, Deidre Murphy talks about how it looked to the first American high-speed transcontinental travelers:

In late 1869, just months after the transcontinental railroad linkage was completed at Promontory Point, Utah, a young illustrator for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper  was ordered by his publisher to make a trip across the nation on a railway sketching tour.

… The scenes created during … these cross-country assignments revealed the vastness of the national landscape, the means by which industrial achievement allowed Americans to traverse the nation with great speed, and the ways representations of Chinese workers were essential to that formula.

… Text accompanying the illustration describes passengers experiencing the railroad in the Sierras as it “hangs over deep valleys, that make the brain whirl when the eye is turned into their depths; and again it passes along high embankments, and shoots suddenly into tunnels that pierce solid rock, and save a high ascent to the skies.” These lines reveal an acute awareness of the rushing landscape. Here a sense of speed is conveyed with a vertigo-inspired intensity. In this illustrated article, the velocity of the train provides for a new kind of “panoramic” vision in which elements of the landscape—such as mountains, valleys, and rivers—acquire a new connection to one another. In this context, Chinese immigrants become one feature on—but not necessarily “of”—this novel, passing scene. Mesmerized and physically “sidelined” by the train, they linger somewhere between the landscape all around them and the speeding railroad cars before them.

What is happening here, in relation to the sidelined workers, is a kind of visual transference. One of the attributes of mechanical speed, as cultural historians have explained, is its ability to become a new space upon the plane of a constantly receding picturesque landscape. It was not simply the case that traveling at speed inspired new sensations. Additionally, and far more radically, mechanical velocity created a new realm of sensation—one that was experienced as wholly separate from and intrinsically different from its surroundings. Becker’s illustration reveals that this transformation of mechanical speed into a new form of space, one of the most basic experiences of industrial modernity, was also marked by considerations of the racialized, laboring immigrant presence that made such a shift possible—and particularly in relation to an ambivalent awareness of Chinese presence. In this image, then, Chinese workers are depicted less as the creators of that industrial space and more as its visualized parameters. Like sentinels of industrial change posted between the locomotive and the natural landscape, they witness and react to the mechanical velocity of the railroad, even as it leaves them behind.

If Chinese figures helped reinforce the notion of industrial speed as its own new kind of space, what sort of meaning was that space imbued with in relation to their watchful forms? How did the returned gaze of Chinese laborers function in relation to envisioned awareness of industrial speed? In another illustration, published in 1878, railroad laborers are again depicted pausing in their work (something they probably did far more within the pages of the periodical than in real life) in order to stare at a passing train (fig. 2). As the engine passes them on a tight curve, the workers are hemmed in on one side by its shiny mass. A rider near the conductor’s compartment regards them while various other figures atop the trailing cars mimic his pose. Meanwhile, on the other side of the seated workers, the approach of another figure, probably a foreman, is made ominous by the gun he carries and the dog he leads. Here again, the static and liminal pose of the observing Chinese laborers is pronounced. It is actually even more emphatic than it was in Becker’s earlier sketch because its composition is more constricted. The workers’ pose is enforced not only by the steeply angled mountain landscape but also by the imposing presence of both the train and the gun-toting figure.

And, again, the matrix of locomotive speed and natural grandeur is highlighted in juxtaposition to the stationary laborers. Establishing the contrast to the workers’ stillness, the text announces, “we have reached Cape Horn, the steep jutting promontory which frowns at the head of the Great American Canon [sic], and the train swings round it on a dizzily narrow grade, a wall of rock towering above, and the almost vertical side of the abyss sweeping down below.” “[I]t is like standing,” the reporter concluded, “on the edge of the world and looking away into heaven—a heaven where verily ‘God hath made all things new.’”

Needless to say, this separation by speed is many times more prevalent today than it was back then. To move slowly, and look at things slowly requires an act of will. And there’s no way of knowing if we can voluntarily re-envision what we already know from our high-speed life.



August 26, 2008

Shiny Cleverness

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:26 am

The following are excerpts taken from Rudolf Arnheim’s book Parables of Sun Light. It is a compendium of selections from his daily diary or notebooks. The book’s title, in turn, was taken from Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October:

a child’s

Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother

Through the parables

Of sun light

[That’s the same beginning that I used in a previous post  of excerpts taken from Arnheim’s book.]


How can we tell whether the picture of a person represents a general type or the portrait of an individual? The ten disciples of Buddha look like faithful portraits of ten particular gentlemen but probably represent ten types of behavior. Generally, when a type is intended it is more likely to determine the total expression. A Venus is all Venus, but the Mona Lisa cannot be all smile.


R.H. Blyth’s book on hiaku irritates me because he is one of the theorists who pride themselves on believing that poetry can be dealt with only by poetry and who therefore feel gulty about engaging in their undertaking. He keeps stopping short of the analysis he is pledged to offer and instead talks about poetry coyly, like an old maid talking about sex. He does not know that all things in this world, not just poems and paintings, are untouchable. Any sight, any noise, any experience has a virginity of its own. Philosophy and science do not violate it if wise thinkers are at work. Even the artist respects the gulf. The portrait of a flower leaves the flower unharmed. It is the lack of respect for nature that makes people have too much respect for poetry.


In Rousseau’s Nouvelle Heloise the narrator, after learning about the care Julie takes not to disturb the birds in their natural setting, comments caustically, “So afraid were you to make the birds your slaves that you have become theirs!” Whereupon Julie, with the shiny cleverness of an eighteenth-century heroine, retorts, “Spoken like a tyrant, who thinks he cannot enjoy his freedom unless he interferes with that of others.” What an answer to the notion, Freudian and otherwise, that one is frustrated unless there is no constraint!

I can’t decide if he’s being sarcastic with “shiny cleverness”. Cleverness always risks being too shiny, but shiny as in ‘new’ would not be a bad thing. (The pejorative ‘shiny cleverness’ fits me rather well. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to mind.)



Inter Action

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:15 am

… once you “cotton on” to the idea you realize that science, and indeed life in general, would be impossible without interactional expertise. Take a big project like LIGO or the TMT—such projects are made up of many small groups of experts with the hands-on ability to do narrowly specified things such as polish mirrors, design suspension systems, calculate waveforms or work out multi-adaptive optics. The point is that they cannot do each others’ jobs. But to make something into a project rather than a collection of isolated specialists, the different sub-groups have to be able to talk knowledgeably to each others’ jobs. Extend the idea and you can see that there could be no division of labor—no teamwork and no society—if there was no interactional expertise. Interactional expertise is everywhere. The strange thing is that no one has noticed until now.

Though maybe it is not so strange. There is a perpetual battle in life between the doers and the talkers. We are always disdaining those who can “talk the talk” but cannot “walk the walk,” and mostly we are right to do so. Interactional expertise is not simply “talking the talk,” however. It isn’t a matter of bluff or passing yourself off as something that you are not. It is really hard to acquire interactional expertise, and if it can be acquired it takes its place alongside the other practical capacities. Someone with interactional expertise does more than talk the talk, they “walk the talk.” That interactional expertise has not been given credit until now is probably because it sits “between the lines” in the old battle between the mouth and the hand.

That’s from an interview with Harry Collins in The American Scientist magazine. I’ll give you their intro to explain what it’s about:

As science and technology inform our society, we find ourselves increasingly reliant on experts. But what is an expert? How can we—professionals, policymakers, voters—assess the advice of others whose competence we don’t share? And what does this mean for the enterprise of science and for our society in general?

In Rethinking Expertise  (University of Chicago Press, 2007), Cardiff University sociologists Harry Collins and Robert Evans consider these questions and offer a framework for exploring their import in science and in society. “Only this way,” they write, “can the social sciences and philosophy contribute something positive to the resolution of the dilemmas that face us here and now.”

American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed Collins by e-mail in March 2008.

Read the full interview. [ link ]

On the subject of social interactions (trying to cleverly shoehorn it in here …), this is from the middle of an article, Going Off the Rawls: Libertarians have adopted the Left’s favorite modern philospher   by David Gordon in The American Conservative. It’s discussing political philosopher John Rawls:

… Rawls argues that people do not deserve to reap the rewards of these talents. Tiger Woods earns millions of dollars because he is superlatively good at golf. Yet his abilities do not stem from any special virtue on his part. He was just lucky that, by some combination of heredity and environment, he ended up with superior skills. He is lucky in another respect: market demand for golf enables his talent to achieve vast returns. Because market demand for checkers players is much less, the late Marion Tinsley, whose skill at checkers was comparable to that of Woods in golf, did not earn comparable returns on his talent.

One might object that luck is not the full story. However talented he may be, Woods had to practice countless hours from his early youth to get where he is today. Does he not deserve to benefit from his hard work? Rawls has an answer that I suspect readers will find surprising. He thinks that if you have the personality trait of working hard, this too is a matter of luck. Even though Woods practiced strenuously, he does not deserve to benefit from this trait.

It’s a well-written piece (which is not to say that I agree with it). Read it if you have the time. [ link ]



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