Trump, the Democrats and the Khans / Bush and Sheehan

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The exploitation of grief in the age of celebrity

There is a paradoxical tendency wired into the American ethos to venerate sacrifice, loss, and grief and yet, in the end, to exploit it, often to dubious ends.

The myriad victims of war too often provide a catalyst for the cultural and political phenonomena that distract us. And it’s not a great insight to note that these currents in the national continuum are now cojoined, almost indistinguishably: in our ordinary lives, we are, in fact, hardly touched by the touchstones and personalities of our culture and its actors and enactors, no more than we are in any direct way by our politicians; yet our discourse and preoccupations are pervaded by them.

The latest, and unexpectedly long-lived, focal point has been the appearance of the Khans at the DNC convention last week. Their comments, offered civilly and yet forcefully, made emphatic by the silent mournful presence of Mrs. Khan, were made to protest and highlight the insensitivity of the Republican nominee and its inherent defilement of the death of the Khans heroic son in the Iraq War ten years ago. Their point was about Trump’s vile degradation of a whole people, believers in a religion, but the issue has become utterly something else because of the typically maladroit narcissistic reaction of the offensive mogul. We cannot ignore either the contributory efforts of the media, the established political apparatus, and the chattering masses to amplify the increasingly garbled points of conflict and to feed the flames that have now engulfed a full week’s worth of daily news cycles.

It hasn’t been lost on the reporting machine, or those jaundiced observers of the sordid machinations of the entire political apparatus the similarities, though there are vast differences as well, between the current unfolding situation, and the efforts of Cindy Sheehan, also a Gold Star parent, who lost a son in Iraq, and used her status as an enabling tactic to attract more attention to her efforts as a full-time anti-war activist, camped on the Bush ranch in Texas, where the President at the time, would repair as a retreat and a respite from the increasingly restive public and media as the war dragged on long past his “Mission Accomplished” aria as alleged coda to that conflict.

One difference is, of course, that President Bush had already successfully run for re-election a year before, and Cindy Sheehan, collaborating with the Democratic establishment, is alleged to have been promised an end to the war if she agreed to work on behalf of the party in its pursuit of regaining the House in 2006.

There is obscurity of motives and duplicity going all around in both stories, and doubtless others, though none spring to mind as prominently as these most recent events centering on the status of ordinary American citizens who have made what many consider the ultimate sacrifice of life in terms of the loss of a loved one.

I suggested that this is an endemic feature of our culture, and indeed it seems to be, but I would guess as well that it has its roots in other cultures, other contries, other civilizations in history, if it is not, in fact, an intrinsic and unresolved potential tragedy in every family. The very first story in the Bible, after that of the expulsion from Eden, is of Cain and Abel, and the murder of Abel by his brother in his wrath. We can only infer the immensity of the impact on the original mythic parents of all of mankind, as it is not described, and the ensuing chapter in the Bible, an account of the “line” of Adam, begins with his son Seth—whose birth was a divine grant clearly in compensation for the loss of Abel.

There is no such silent solemnity as a mute regard for the grief of parents losing a child in our culture.

We, at our worst, tend to spotlight such mourning, no doubt, in some perverse way to show our reverence, but as well, and inevitably, to exploit it one way or another.

The novelist Philip Roth, with a sensitivity and a sensibiity at once grim and mocking—how else can we react sometimes to such monstrous behavior as we see regularly, but with humor to penetrate and dispel our dumb horror?—alluded to the phenomenon. He did so first, in an extended satiric introduction to a speech he gave in 1960 he called “Writing American Fiction,” in which he mainly spoke of the challenge to the imagination of any fiction writer by reality itself, as evidenced in the kind of story that graced every tabloid newspaper, even as it still does today, and the way it is treated by sordid attentions paid by that press and its readers.

He did so again, en passant, with a passage in his infamous novel that showcased and lampooned the psychopathology of American life, Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969. Here is a passage. The stakes have gotten higher, clearly, than the award of kitchen appliances to this most shameful category of exploited victims—their possible willing and mindful participation notwithstanding.

“A Gold Star Mom,” says Ralph Edwards, solemnly introducing a contestant on “Truth or Consequences,” who in just two minutes is going to get a bottle of seltzer squirted at her snatch, followed by a brand-new refrigerator for her kitchen … A Gold Star Mom is what my Aunt Clara upstairs is too, except here is the difference—she has no gold star in her window, for a dead son doesn’t leave her feeling proud or noble, or feeling anything, for that matter. It seems instead to have turned her, in my father’s words, into “a nervous case” for life. Not a day has passed since Heshie was killed in the Normandy invasion that Aunt Clara has not spent most of it in bed, and sobbing so badly that Doctor Izzie has sometimes to come and give her a shot to calm her hysteria down…
—Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969

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Why not Who is the Question for voting

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Let’s face it. Those of us concerned about the prospect of a Trump presidency are making him the target of our worry, fear, and anger (that combination of feelings may have a familiar ring to it). Heedless of what feelings we may have, attention is first of all what Trump wants. He’ll talk about himself endlessly whatever the reason: defensive and bullying if he’s offended, bragging and strutting if he thinks he’s heard praise. And let’s not forget he often mistakes astonishment and disbelief for admiration.

However, accurate renditions of who he is and what he is aside — and he’s a shape-shifter deliberately; those who don’t want to be pinned down are never wholly committed to a point of view; his entire view is himself regardless of all others — Trump himself is not the thing to be worried about. It’s natural to ask, “who would vote for such a man?” As if supporting him were an aberration in the voter. There is even a concession of sorts to the inadequacies of rational judgment for voting for someone so clearly unqualified for the office when supporters of his are asked calmly what it is that makes them think he deserves their vote with regard to specific substantive matters. To a person, they can’t do it.

Rather, I suggest that we are closer to the relevant issues in this election by asking the question no one likes, “why?” Why vote for him? Account for your reasons. Even if indirection must be employed to elicit an honest answer, it’s evident clearly enough.

We have to face the fact, for one, that whatever their reasons or what they think those are, and whatever the absence of sense in doing so, a significantly large number of people will vote for Donald Trump in November. However, even if an even larger number vote for Hillary Clinton and she wins the electoral college vote, even if Trump thereupon goes away — or at worst lingers, like Ann Coulter, as a lunatic fringe icon (and don’t kid yourself, the very day after Election Day, some reptilian impresario will already have a way to cash in on exploiting Trump’s continued presence on “reality” media) — the people who voted for him, our fellow citizens, will not have gone away. Rather, in addition to continuing to simmer with the entirely legitimate corrosive feelings they have about their lives, they will feel betrayed and further disenfranchised as well.

What we should be thinking beforehand, that is, before the election, is the most productive way of getting out a vote in favor of Hillary Clinton. Notice I said, “in favor of.” A vote for anyone else, or not to vote, will not get her elected. Flawed or not, and of course she’s flawed, as was every other president who has served, some more so, some less — and many of them more so, without one-tenth the venomous mendacious opposition she suffers, purely against her person, not her qualifications — she is the only hope of having someone in the White House who will not be an existential threat, not only to abstractions like democracy, order, lawfulness, justice, and equality (in as bad a condition as some of those may be at the moment, we have them) but to real people. To you and to me.

We can begin immediately with the next thing we must do well before election day. However, there are barely more than three months before that day, and it will be a big enough task getting out the sane vote for a sane president and sane productive members of Congress. We can begin now to do the even harder job of learning to understand that as wayward as their choice of savior might be, that there is legitimacy to the complaints of Trump supporters. Assuming he does go away, not only the grievances, but the legitimacy of those grievances will not go away.

The only candidate who spoke consistently and even possibly monotonously, though surely single-mindedly, about those grievances, or a large bloc of them, and their legitimacy was Bernie Sanders. He wasn’t making a strict political appeal. He wanted the support of everyone disenfranchised, despite affiliation, despite any demographic variable, despite gender, color, religion. People in one segment or another, because of the prejudices of other sub-groups and because of the stubborn persistence of fear and subjugation of the other, may suffer more from injustice in society than others. However, it’s clear that save for a very very tiny sliver of our population, we all suffer in some way from the severe imbalance of societal and cultural factors and the administration of justice and the enforcement of the law.

It’s beyond me exactly how we reach the people that otherwise seem so unreachable. Reasoned debate and discussion, however much patience is required on both sides, seems impossible. Even further out of at least my reach is, having reasoned together, how we get the vast majority of all citizens to understand what the best course is to erect a vessel of true equality for all. I was tempted to say “restore,” but I’d have to be partly delusional to think that such a vessel had ever sailed. If I thought I knew how, I wouldn’t be shy in telling, and hoping people would listen.

However, if I did know, or were capable of knowing, likely I would have been in a different line of work for most of my life. Most likely I would still be in it.

I think, in fact, any true success in such a quest lies not with a single individual. Bernie Sanders can tell you. Or Barack Obama. Or, yes, even Hillary Clinton can tell you, there is no single person, or even a handful with that competence or capacity. The almost insurmountable task is going to require most of us. And we will have to participate in some way in excess of our efforts until now.

We start by accepting there are a lot of injured people out there. They are people who will, in other superficial regards, never be like you or me. You don’t have to live like them. You don’t have to accept their taste in the quotidian aspects of life. But you and I, just as they, must accept that there is some common ground that must determine how we regard each other. We must respect each other’s common rights. We must conduct ourselves in a fair and equitable way with respect to those simple, if profound, rights that defined our establishment as a nation. In some ways, some large, some small, those rights have been impeached and stepped on, and they must be resurrected and restored and preserved.

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What is is—Annals of Rhetoric

Reading Time: 3 minutes

[The original dateline of this post is August 15, 2007; I would have been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lived at the time and had been for 22 years at that point. I have changed only one word, the penultimate one, to bring this up to date.]

It used to be schoolboys, well, my schoolmates—boys and girls—knew. Back in the 50s and 60s, they knew how to understand diplomatic language, as far as the news brought it to our ears. Somehow we had absorbed a lesson in rhetoric for our time.

Between the Cold War—largely pitting the U.S. against the Soviet Union—and the war of words that was its chief manifestation, the air (and the newspapers and the broadcast media—no ‘net back then, no Web, no blogosphere) was filled with reports about meetings between diplomats from both camps. Walter Cronkite did not have to catch his breath to explain what “full and frank” discussions meant, as the most high ranking of the government representatives present engaged the press after sessions had ended. It meant long boring talk fests between white men in suits that boiled down in plain language to, “We mainly told each other, ‘You’re basically full of shit.'” After the United States (France, Great Britain, Portugal, and a few other sovereign camp followers) “opened” Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century, these discussions could and did increasingly involve men, also in suits, whose complexions were various shades of what Caucasians took to calling “yellow,” until this became politically untenable.

There were hot components of that odd encompassing state of armed conflict, “Cold War,” an Orwellian oxymoron universally applied wherein men (few women then) actually shot weapons at and bombed and gassed and napalmed each other. In fact, we were at perpetual war—we of course still are, or why would I even mention this? in which we found ourselves with unseen enemies, save for low resolution monochromatic moving images on our primitive tv screens. These episodes, prolonged or sporadic, famously occurred between principals of one side and surrogates of the other, or, at a lower order of implementation of world policy, between surrogates of each side, with no principal involvement. Unless the latter was covert, of course, which meant that the public could not learn of it, by law of the land, until 40 or 50 years had passed after the termination of the specific unpleasantness, or the present presidential regime had ended. Unlike the meaning of “full and frank,” however, we were in the dark on this one. In those days we still believed in rules of engagement—another tortuous linguistic formulation, generally applied when humans were engaged, in fact, in the simple objective of making the other guy dead. And the rules said, we civilized nations would not do nasty things covertly to any other nation, and we trusted in God that such was the case.

We didn’t stop to think about the basic absurdity of agreeing to the limits of the methods we would use when engaged hand-to-hand, sometimes literally, in a fight to the death, assuming one of us captured one of you. There was no Emily Post of the Rules of Engagement, but there were such rules, and in those days, we didn’t think about it either (about the absurdity), and we carried our disgraceful detachment further by putting faith in our government that, when it spoke to us, it told the truth. Sometimes couched in the language of diplomacy, but, as I started to say, we understood what that meant.

Every word was studied, for as much as the English language is capable of nuance, the spare vocabulary of diplomacy, spare because specialized, a language that nations could agree was the appropriate way for all—even enemies—to muffle the truth, without abandoning it altogether. As long as we were talking, we were less likely to bomb the bejesus out of each other wholesale. Sometimes we went retail, but there were always trends, never sustained styles that created a legacy. Somehow, World War II early on became the last good war. Which leaves a lot of bad wars, before and since.

And what Americans came to realize, yet again, is that they don’t like war. It doesn’t matter to which specific realization I may be referring, we came to that conclusion repeatedly for as long as I’ve been alive, which is three-score and ten. Years.

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Counternarrative—Modes of Facebook Hypocrisy

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So far, it isn’t my friends. My friends, you lot there on Facebook, seem to be mainly a pretty rational group most of the time. No, it’s friends of friends and others my friends follow that they might “like” a post of. The result of that, as we all know, is that in the strange code of conduct of Facebook, I am privileged to see not only that you liked something that someone or some entity elected to post in their dimly lit little corner of the chativerse, but I can see what was said, and I can see what their friends and admirers said in response.

When a tragedy occurs of the like of the still unfolding horrible terrorist attack in Paris on Friday evening, some resonance, some harmonic, vibrates, it seems, across the Facebook Community (that’s in caps, because Facebook consider that we all, all one-and-a-half billion of us all told, constitute a community, and that we have “Standards,” which they define and uphold). What I have seen in response to the attacks, in addition to the outpouring of concern and horror is the response to the response. The immediate result of seeing the apparently prevalent wave of sympathetic and empathetic expressions we elect to share with one another—out of whatever humane urge that motivates us to do so, if only to relieve our own nascent feelings of revulsion or fear or plain garden variety sadness by sharing them—is a seemingly instantaneous counternarrative.

There are, apparently, in every crowd certain individuals who, demonstrably shallow and not troubled either by a need, or possibly not impeded by the ability to act on such a need, to think at all about what comes off the ends of their fingertips, or their thumbs before they commit their sentiments to cyberspace.

According to this counternarrative, every utterance and act of sympathy—it’s become popular, in an adoption of a graphic meme of solidarity, to cover our profile photos with a wash of colored stripes (it was rainbow hued when the Supreme Court upheld gay marriage as a right according to the law of the land; it’s currently tri-color in keeping with the national flag and colors of France)—is an act of hypocrisy. Why? Because we privileged inhabitants of Facebook-land clearly, on no greater probative evidence than the size of the response from all over the FB network immediately in reaction to receiving news of the tragedy, are only concerned when the victims are white—an argument amply reinforced if the suspected (and now declared) perpetrators are, in the squirm-worthy taxonomy of current geopolitics and religion-based vilification, not white, purely by way of being, allegedly and ostensibly, followers of the Prophet.

We have not shown sufficient and equal concern, in force of hand-wringing, colors unfurled, anguish expressed in the fragile coherent English of expressing grief and shock, for other downtrodden sufferers on this orb of suffering as we circle the sun. What about the Lebanese suicide bombers in Beirut two days previous? What about the now seemingly endless stream of refugees strewn across the roadways from the Middle East to the gates of Europe? What about the dead of Sudan? Or Ethiopia? The repressed hordes of Myanmar, Indonesia, Tibet…

One of the diminishing list of virtues of Facebook is that it allows you to peek at whatever information any member of the Community elects to share with the public at large. In most instances you at least get to see a sampling of what they deem worthy of sharing with their dear ones, not so dear ones, passing acquaintances, and the ether-bound flotsam who penetrate the boundary of our friendship checkpoint somehow. I’ll not even comment, save for this, about the hapless individuals who seek merit by collecting as many friends as possible. Ostensibly this is a sign of the validity of the only shred of express proof that their counternarratives about our wretched bias—we unhappy privileged whiteys who favor our own as we assert our privilege and exceptional worth—and that is, as they fervently assert, we are one world, and one race and one people.

Well, my wont is pretty much to exercise little to no interest whatsoever in most of the friends of my friends—not because of any misanthropy, or lack of sociability; I’d simply rather wait for a proper introduction, and these are thin on the ground, shall we say? Nevertheless with the latest spate, more of a dribble, to be honest, but even a few drops of acid are corrosive, of the kind of self-righteous counternarrative posts I decry here, I have been lured into a peek at the profile pages of the perpetrators.

What have I found? Though hardly a sound forensic foundation for argument, it nevertheless suffices me to be able to conclude that, within the confines of this self-selecting gated universe of fellow Facebookers, there is nary a mention on the pages of these individuals concerning the plight of their brethren in suffering and heartache, of any skin tint, white, yellow, brown, black or the myriad permutations represented by the earth’s total population. So much for one world. So much for empathy.

What possibly the world likes even less than someone who habitually wears his or heart on his sleeve, is when the same individual, so accoutered, uses the threadbare garb of shallow sentiment as the uniform of a self-appointed scold.

I know where my heart and my feelings and my empathy lies, and I am never chary of expressing my censure when there is any evidence anywhere in the world of malice, injustice, or harm perpetrated on any victim, especially the innocent ones. I beseech my friends who are so quick to approve the easy sentiments of the self-righteous to consider that by encouraging the circulation of these empty thoughts, readily donned, and just as readily cast off, as the mood changes and the parade passes, you are cheapening the value of the humanity of those who care deeply and have only so much capacity for grief.

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On Charm—Are You Charming?

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Referencing a link on “Book of Life” website…

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Teju Cole and the Burri Photo

Reading Time: 5 minutes

the following is an exchange that originally took place on Facebook on my “timeline” purely as the result of my posting a link (which appears first) to an opinion piece by teju cole, nytimes photography critic, novelist, new yorker magazine writer and columnist, and self-styled photographer. this ended up as a dialog, the latest of many that have occurred over the years, with me and my very good friend paul naecker, an architect and consultant currently based in los angeles. i thought it, the dialog, spontaneous and admittedly off-the-cuff ended up with a kind of validity and some might even find it of value. in all events, as it turned out, paul and i independently concluded it deserved better than facebook.

The shot by René Burri [in this New York Times piece] is the inevitable iconic image. I’ve long since admired it (even used it in a seminar I taught on architectural photography five years ago). It is, indeed, a memorable and evocative, if not a haunting, image. But I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would be motivated to replicate in any way a photo taken by another photographer. I never have. I never will.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/magazine/shadows-in-sao-paulo.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0


[Paul Naecker]: H thanks for sharing this. Tejo [sic] Cole’s past work strikes one as fairly rigorous (but not w/o controversy.) This seems more a journey of discovery than imitation.


Seems more a journey of ginning up something to write about for pay. I can’t argue with that.

Clearly he wasn’t pretending to replicate Burri’s vision. Nevertheless, I wish he hadn’t even printed the one lousy shot he got (with color film, the wrong lens, on an overcast day…).

What would be even more interesting is what is evinced when comparing this with another iconic shot, speaking to the ethos of the modernist sensibility and the impact on the urban milieu in the 20th century. Shot almost exactly 50 years earlier in New York, the precursor to the international city São Paolo became:

Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1914

Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1914

 


[Paul Naecker]: The shoulders of giants eh? I prefer to follow Cole’s limited but still intriguing premise. Don’t know much about him as a photographer. But since he self-identifies as one I guess your critique is fair game.

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Louis Daguerre, 1838

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Louis Daguerre, 1838

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


I still believe that Barthes was closer to it, as you would no doubt suppose I would, than this premise of the “oneiric possibilities” of street photography, which is validated by that most inarticulate of men, Garry Winogrand, with his pseudo mystical claptrap about “transformation.” Garry should mainly have kept his mouth shut.

Barthes said the photograph is “a message without a code.” Not the same thing. And what Cole wants to take for dream imagery—the context for which exists, as it does for all of us, only in his own consciousness—really has more to do I suppose with contemplating the notion of the substance of a shadow. Stand still long enough and your image is recorded. Keep moving and you disappear. But this is explained by science, not metaphysics. Barthes said what a photograph tells us about its subject, no more no less, is that it existed. Period.


[Paul Naecker] : Period?
I think Cole’s position is less epistemological and more polemical. His insights aren’t really about the capacity of photography to record but rather
much more about some inference or field of memory. More writer than photographer kind of stuff. I like his lied now that I read some of his stuff. Surprised you are so negative about his world view. Apparently the guy is a Times photography critic?Interesting given his anti-colonialist writings. Most of these ‘street’ photographers don’t have much of a political space in their work right?


I was sure you (or someone, but then, who? I really kid myself sometimes…) would take me to task for seeking a differentiation in Cole’s characterization and Barthes’s famous definition. I mean, what is a dream, after all, but “a message without a code?” But then a photograph is not a dream, it merely seems at times to work the same way.

Cole is, in fact, I think, at least in his critical inquiries and analyses in The New Yorker, largely on an epistemological hunt. There are times, however, when I think that not all such inquiries, especially if they are declarations in and of themselves of a particular position against received wisdom, are polemical. I found myself agreeing with his words after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations. They were, if anything, anti-polemic.

As for his being a photographer, I haven’t seen much of his work. I thought in this day and age it’s safe for everyone to say he or she is a photographer. It’s inescapable. However, as more than one person (usually it’s a photographer who does it for a living, however meagerly; or possibly for the mere love of finding expression in the medium) has pointed out, because someone can honestly be called a photographer doesn’t necessarily grant that their work is any good. It’s a safe bet they’re not, but in this country at least, it’s almost as easy to get a gun, whose ownership should be licensed, as it is to get a camera. Plato didn’t want to exclude poets from his utopia because they were lousy poets, but because they lie. Merit has its rewards, but it shouldn’t be the foundation of a license. So, Cole is a photographer. Good on him.

But I wasn’t, in the original instance, responding to his picture taking capabilities, but to the impulse, however constrained, to track down the provenance (quite literally) of a famous photograph. We both responded to it, the photo, in what I am sure is an ultimately indistinguishable way. I called it an icon. Doubtless that’s how he views it. Yet (and not to make my favored bugaboo, invidious comparisons)I would never go on the search he did—maybe I’m just envious of his world-beating travel opportunities, which he seems to take mainly for the chance to write contextually about the venue for other purposes.

Cole, as a critic of photography, was particularly good about Saul Leiter, another unsung genius. I love Saul Leiter. And I think so does Cole. I suspect you, Paul, would also. So no argument there either.

No, yet again, I think you are reading heat in my words where, at best, there is merely an attempt at cold fusion—a safe sustainable source of critical energy, harming no one, and maybe providing some light. Of course it could be said that’s all Cole was trying to do. But I still think I’m free to question, that is, to be dubious, of his exertions, at least in their manifestation in this NYTimes article. Now, all I have to do is wait for Steve [Lipsey], the champion of all things Winogrand, to chime in about how he (the Wino-man) and Barthes also agree, for what, indeed, is a photograph that is successfully transformational—I think he meant transformative, but then I’m never quiet about how inarticulate the big lug couldn’t help but be; also, of course, I’m talking about the viewer fo the photo, and I’m simply not sure, though I can guess, that Garry meant the subject—he always speaks of taking photos for the mere purpose of seeing how something looks having been photographed, until in fact he had transformed himself into a picture taking machine—is a photograph that contains a message without a code. To that I can only say, and then I have to shut up, because this could be a book, that I can only speak for myself and my relationship to my own photographic process. And this will have to be taken on faith, because no one can dispute it, and that is, before even putting a camera to my eye, in most instances (and all photos are instances, in at least two senses), I do put it to my eye because I have “seen” a photograph and I want to attempt to capture it. If I were a painter, I am sure it wouldn’t be any different. Cole talks about his pleasure at discovering that Leiter was also a painter, and quite familiar with his contemporaries who were painters (of the same generation: Rothko, etc.). Cartier-Bresson famously started out as a man who simply made drawings (and returned to doing so, when he “retired” from picture-taking) who said that a camera was simply a much more efficient way of doing the same thing.

Perhaps it’s like capturing magic in a bottle, many many times. But once caught, it’s done (that’s all I meant by “period,” not that that’s the end to what can be said—obviously). And in Cole’s case, if he wanted to beat down São Paolo finding the vantage Burri had when capturing his bit of magic, more power to him. I’m not interested.

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Destiny

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We realize our destinies clearly, and consciously, only in retrospect. As we review our behavior and our deliberative actions, especially long afterwards and truly best recollected in tranquility, we may not end up with poetry. However even the most prosaic of lives will reveal the pattern we express in a likely unconscious way, most of the time. Too often, the conscious sense that “I am destined for greatness (to be President, a jazz saxophonist, a world-famous painter…)” is really altering the pattern after the garment is cut and sewn. It also, of course, in terms of how the rest of the world must alter itself to your presumed destiny, is at the root of the Chinese adage about being careful what you wish for. Too many wishes are transmuted, after being accomplished, as instances of destiny. They aren’t. It’s actually natural to aim high. The destiny is inherent in sticking to what we choose to do. How many of us aim low, and later ascribe the inevitable success to destiny? This too isn’t destiny. It’s comedy, though of a different sort than that which finds us laughing, if only into our hands, at the king.

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Freedom of Speech is No Compulsion to Speak

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What’s on my mind:

As I continue to cogitate, though in certain respects it’s largely a sub-conscious rumination, on the events of the past week in France, plus the shit-storm of commentary that appears through all outlets in all channels of communication, certain thoughts are beginning to cohere in my little head.

Knowing me, I’ll have more than enough to say, I suppose, in due course, but, for now, I’ll say this.

It seems to me that a steadfast belief in freedom of speech (which is a far-ranging freedom, and is not excluded to politics or religion) is not an injunction or an obligation to be compelled to speak. And especially not just because you have some feelings, particularly strong ones, on any subject.

I have been known in the past not to be afraid to speak truth to power, and in the right contexts, I’ve done so, sometimes spontaneously, because it was just and ethical to have done. It is no virtue to be honest, especially if it’s gratuitous. But it is entirely justified to oppose oppression, coercion, or outright lying and to confront it with the truth. I don’t think this has ever made me a hero or courageous. I am the opposite. I am, more often than not, filled with anxiety, but fear is no excuse for not acting. I am never fearful when circumstance finds me in a place that, in the absence of any other voice for uttering the truth that applies, I open my mouth.

I also have learned that nothing is as powerful a weapon against tyranny and oppression, or even mere bullying (when an institution does it, through its agents and agencies, it’s called throwing their weight around) than the skillful application of truth to make the oppressor look ridiculous. Scorn, anger, and righteousness render them deaf. But the potentiality of being laughed at by the public almost invariably makes a tyrant, at least one with some remnant or shred of reason intact, suddenly reasonable.

This latter truth, though, has never induced or compelled me to rain down ridicule, even to the point of disrespect, on anyone or any institution simply for the effect, or the pleasure of voicing my implied superiority. Even dressing up scorn and ridicule in the respectable cloaks of art, calling them satire or parody, does not excuse gratuitous provocation. No matter how deserving the ridicule, some account must be taken of the state of mind, or more likely the mindlessness—never mind the evil beyond any form of reason—of the oppressor. Most of the time, if red cloths are waved to incite beasts to an instinctive state of preservation by aggression, it’s mainly for sport. This is called cruelty by some. With humans, the same rules apply. Cruelty, however incisively and cleverly applied, in the incitement of humans to act like beasts, when that is the predictable (and increasingly inevitable) result, renders questionable the motives of the provocateur. Universal scorn, applied equally to all manifestations of ridiculous behavior and belief, is no defense for the basic cruelty and inhumanity of the act.

Certain commentators of prominence (I’m thinking of David Brooks on the right, and Jeffrey Goldberg, ostensibly on the left; conveniently an ur-Republican, a self-described “liberal…who came to his senses,” and a Jewish liberal who wears his ethnicity on his sleeve professionally) have found reason, through very clever, but still specious, argument to declare that each “is not Charlie…” I am still sorting out what I know now only intuitively to be faulty logic (though it may be overly generous of me to call it even that) to be able to say what’s wrong with these declarations, never mind the possible underlying motives for doing so.

What I find myself thinking, instead, as, indeed, I read the now ubiquitous declaration of solidarity “Je suis Charlie..” and, plumbing my own feelings, realize that I sense no resonance with the sentiment within myself, is that if I am anyone, and it is something spiritually akin to some abstraction that I can identify with the current trials we all somehow suffer together in France, it is this: Je suis Charlot.

Charlot is, of course, the affectionate name bestowed on that comic genius, no stranger to the finer points of ridicule, satire, and the skills required to pull at the heart strings of all, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s name has come up countless times in the last five or six days, because of his iconic motion picture masterpiece of eviscerating tyranny, “The Little Dictator.” The film came out in 1940, and the plaudits it, and its maker, deserves notwithstanding, it also must be remembered that the war we now refer to as World War II (and which, in the end engulfed the entire planet) had already been raging in Europe for almost a year, and it was five years, and 50 million lives extinguished, before it ended.

Truth is powerful. It is necessary. And it must never be abandoned or denied. But, even in the face of truth, evil and tyranny are so relentless, sometimes virtually implacable, that we must constantly remind ourselves that these shifting transformative enemies are still abroad in the world, and will require more than faulty logic, or lip service and ritual to be suppressed.

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The New Decorum

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I don’t get it. It’s true it’s been awhile since I was a college student, but I recall a wholly different experience… some might call it alien compared to what the norm is today. I’m reminded of the differences, and I always get astonished, though I shouldn’t, every time I come across real life accounts on the ‘net about what life is like nowadays in undergraduate education.

A Website called insidehighered.com seems designed to be a kind of teacher’s break room on the Internet, with a regular stream of messages regarding faculty-student interaction, both within and outside the classroom. The inevitable culprit in any perceived breakdown in decorum and academic protocol is traced to what are now accepted behaviors with digital mobile devices, if not more specifically social media.

It’s been three years and a bit since I was in a college classroom as a teacher (or “prof” as all students generously bestow as a title), but even cursory and only occasional glances at the chatter among working faculty today tell me it might as well have been a larger span of time.

In the current era there is a decided preference for mobile devices, as opposed to the organs for speech and hearing, to communicate. I’m talking about children, adolescents, and what I’ll call post-adolescents—mainly college and graduate school age students on the normal educational track; adults who return to school for re-education or a career makeover doubtless present a whole different set of problems to their educators.

Users will text, let’s say, with individuals in close proximity, sometimes in continuing intimate bodily contact: hip-to-hip, or shoulder-to-shoulder, never mind simply in the very same classroom, if not also contiguous desks or seats.

Without getting into the particulars of other kinds of behavior, which are covered well enough in the two blog posts I have listed as links below, the result of this constant digital traffic, combined with what I can only call a gigantic breach in what I think—I am pretty old, and the old memory, you know?…—used to be called things like etiquette, decorum, and protocol, all of the rules for which I also seem to recall we learned long before we got to college. And what we didn’t learn could be conveyed, and usually was, in a short speech, less than two minutes, by the “prof” at the very beginning of the first class meeting of a course. Rarely was there a question, except the inevitable, “does everything on the syllabus count towards our grade?”

Between the endless stream of attention diverting exercises, facilitated by all the apps, media, devices, etc. etc. and the complete breakdown of a common understanding of what is supposed to be polite behavior in any social setting, including the classroom—you know, conscientious regard for your fellow human beings, peers or elders—it’s a wonder any learning goes on at all. But wait? Does it? Well, of course it does, but I alway assume under great duress and stress at times for all participants.

Personally, I’m appalled, and I’d love to hear from anyone with a thought or two, including the current college-attendees (who might be able to explain in a plausible and rational way what could sit well with a humanist—you can look it up—what permits such carrying-on in civilized society).

The links, as I said, are below. I’ll just finish by saying that back in the day, for example, we could get through a semester of readings in the British and American Novel of the 19th century, let’s say, with the requirement that we read the individual entirety of each of about 15 novels, attend lectures, participate in class discussions, hand in an essay of at least 20 pages, take two exams: a mid-term and a final, and somehow manage not to miss more than three un-excused class meetings. The classes, incidentally, met three times a week for a semester. The syllabus usually consisted of a typewritten sheet, mimeographed, with all the book titles of required reading, dates, class meetings, and any pertinent rules printed on one side of the sheet. We already knew not to cheat, plagiarize, or lie. The rest of what we needed was in something called the Official Catalog of the University. There was no email. We knew our professor’s office hours. We didn’t know their home phone numbers, and we knew never to call them at the English Department (in this case), because we had to run the gauntlet of the department secretary, who conducted herself more or less as a combination of Gorgon and Cerberus. To be completely fair and forthcoming, I do remember when necessary exchanging actual hand-written correspondence, usually in the form of notes, with faculty. The mechanism was a pen, paper, an envelope, and the faculty member’s “mailbox” in the English Department offices. Do students still use pens?

Today, apparently, a typical class requires the distribution of a syllabus booklet, often in PDF form, but often as well printed out for the student’s convenience, and sometimes easily exceeding 20 pages. It consists of the usual rundown of the curriculum for that course, with a class by class agenda as to what will be covered each meeting for the term. The rest is administrative detail covering every conceivable protocol with regard to academic behavior, within and without the classroom, what, in precise terms and with as little ambiguity as possible, constitutes plagiarism, what defines an excusable absence from class, the penalties for late arrivals, late assignments, etc., and so forth and so on. Having taught as recently as three and a half years ago, I know it takes quite a bit to fill 20 pages with the sort of minutiae that any intelligent 18-year-old, with a reasonably civilized upbringing, and the ability to read the university (or college) catalog, where the general underpinnings for proper academic and social behavior on campus still are already spelled out, and vetted by the institution’s office of the general counsel, as well as several bodies of academic administration.

If I had the time, and any deeper curiosity, I’d delve deeper into what possibly could have happened in a little over 40 years—I mean sociologically, psychologically, and anthropologically—to determine such a sea change, and I don’t mean merely the length of the in-class syllabus. In the meantime, read these two blog posts, and ponder it for yourself.

https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/rethinking-my-cell-phonecomputer-policy

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/27/sake-student-faculty-interaction-professor-bans-student-email

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Belief and its willing suspension

Reading Time: 4 minutes

[Somewhat freely adapted from a contribution of mine of February 24, 2001 on a listserv that was called the PhotoArt forum. Among the illustrious participants was my friend, Jack Fulton, whom I was introduced to on this forum, and who, purely irrelevantly and coincidentally, had the unknowing ignominious distinction of informing me of the dire events the following late summer. On a trip to San Francisco, in part to meet Jack in the flesh, he called our hotel room at the Sir Francis Drake in Union Square, at about 8am PST, to ask if I had the television on. The precise date was September 11. I refer to previous comments of Jack’s on the listserv below. He was not the only illustrious participant, as you shall see.]

The talk was of the preparedness of the participant, the observer, or viewer of an act, or its product, of art—it was specifically photographic art and cinematic art about which the matter arose, but the comments could apply more universally I think.

The original conception of such preparedness, “suspension of disbelief,” is from S.T. Coleridge of course, and importantly, is qualified by the term “willing.” Which is to say, the easiest interpretation one may put on this is that Samuel Taylor meant that the suspension of disbelief, occasioned by viewing an image clearly not reality as ordinary humans and philosophers—those who have not shed their skin as ordinary humans, as they are wont to do when they are being Philosophers—understand reality to be, is a voluntary act, passively so, if not one of active engagement of the state and disposition of one’s mind. In the simplest sense, perhaps the one most charitably applied to that laughable euphemism of the Bush Wars on Iraq and Afghanistan: “the coalition of the willing,” is that at least the suspender of disbelief is not doing so grudgingly.

This, of course, presents a problem, whether speaking of belief or its absence. In that having belief is hardly an act of will, even the will to be passively and perhaps generously submissive to any such act, and as Coleridge was speaking of drama (and hence, pace the prevailing sentiments of our colleague Damian Peter Sutton1, closer perhaps to the apprehension of cinema than of photography per se), the problem is manifold.

Drama is of course not reality, as cinema and photographs are not. (We all do know that, don’t we? Photographs—or to use Damian’s careful gloss, images—are not reality. Not, at least, Berkeley’s booming buzzing reality). What are we then suspending when trying to grapple with the “facts” of images captured in plastic form as the artifacts of some technological process and presumably intended (even if by indirection, not to mention the possibility of unconscious intent) to elicit the need on the part of the viewer to grapple in the first place?

To cope with the quidditas, the “whatness,” of an image—whether in its content (whatever the hell that is) or in its taxonomical elements which might be categorized as aesthetic (composition, palette, tonalities, textures, etc. ad nauseam)—we must perforce use some other piece of the human cerebral function than belief, though problematically (as I said) emotional engagement would somehow require some condition of mind/spirit, that is, if not belief itself, closely akin to it.

This is all heavily philosophical, if not religious, and thereby a little scary. This latter quality may explain in part, once we filter out the blue-nosed reactions of the self-righteous and sanctimonious when confronted with art that is, on the face of it, sacrilegious, why art is so problematic when it pretends to be more than merely decorative or picturesque (in which case of course it is not art at all, but merely dressing).

I suppose if one follows this thought far enough, it leads to the inevitable and ominously self-satisfying conclusion that art had better be disturbing (disturbing to the human spirit–in the sense of rousing one from complacency–at the very least) if it wants to have any claim to being art. This leads to the incomprehension of practitioners who believe that merely to be disturbing (through provocation or interruption) is to produce art. Hence a lot of disturbing, if grotesquely picturesque decorative, work that is condemned as [fill in your favorite sanctimonious adjective] art, when it hardly deserves the unqualified designation at all.

I would suggest to Jack Fulton2, that the movie “Reindeer Games,” from an inattentive viewing by me of the trailer and from your capsule review, in fact better serves one’s understanding of the Coleridgean premise than the other film, “The Bear,” which merely sounds silly, and hence an easy challenge to the task of willfully engaging the imagination. Nothing is harder than an act of the imagination forcing an equally arduous (if not a greater) act of imagination on the part of the viewer in order to give the act (the work of “art”) any credence whatsoever. This, by the way, for me eliminates the question of triviality or any measure of unimportance, as a criterion for determining the significance of a work of art as art. Art doesn’t admit of highness or lowness in terms of subject (whatever the hell that is) or treatment.

1. Dr. Damian Sutton, who presently is Reader in Photography at Middlesex University in the UK.

2. Jack is, and was, at the time, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography at San Francisco Art Institute. He had written, back in 2001:

I rented two films last night to view over the weekend in
our rainy weekend. One is ‘The Bear’ and the other is “Reindeer Games’. The
latter was so dumbly constructed and acted one needed to suspend one’s mind
to sit through it and we didn’t. The Bear, on the other hand, was hard to
believe because the primary actors were real bears.
So, reality, schmeality, no matter what, photography from the still, movie
and digital cameras are all appearances such as a reflection in a pond or
mirror. It/they is/are faithful to what we perceive w/our visual sense as to
be “real” and I don’t think there are ifs ands or buts about it.
The ‘manipulation’ comes in from how the ‘taker’ interpreted this spectacle.

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