Friday, December 23, 2005

Like a Feather on the Breath of God

Woke up last night around 4 am and, unable to get back to sleep, stumbled into living room and hit play on the cd player. I'd qued up, earlier in the day, Hildegard of Bingen's 'Like a Feather on the Breath of God" (recorded on Hyperion in1983 or so). But at 4 am I'd basically forgotten what I had in the player so when I sat down to just stare blankly out the window and will myself back to sleep, the music didn't hit me as familiar even though this is one of the first cd's I ever bought -- at least 15 years ago -- and one that I've listened to probably hundreds of times over the years.
In my half-conscious state I just let my thoughts and impressions of the music lead me where they might. What was really interesting was how the female voices created a sense of both etheriality and earthiness.

While I was listening I was watching these clouds of smoke drifting out of the Detroit Public Library whose rooftop I can see clearly from my 6th floor apt. The smokecloud would waft, at times, horizontally across the nighttime cityscape, and then it would wisp up vertically into the stars. I've spent a lot of time contemplating this smoky drifting, it looks very beautiful especially against the very gray backdrop of the city in winter. (At least I think so).

This particular night the billowing clouds were strikingly similar to how the the choral voices on the cd seemed to work and move in and across sonic space. The architecture of the voices, singly and in combination at times seemed to blend horizontally (this is literally what I was thinking, examining) and when the solo parts came in they seemed to lift up out of that horizon, but never entirely away from it. One could really hear how this was about musical embodiment -- spirit made flesh.

When I finally got up to check what the heck I was listening to I first felt sheepish that I hadn't recognized it, so I switched on the lamp to read the liner notes. I have a biography of Hildegard of Bingen that I've read a few times over the years and which I totally love, but I don't recall ever reading these notes. It seems that most of the pieces were written as homages to varios founders of abbeys and churches in medieval Germany (men and women who Hildegard honored as forefathers and mothers of her own important role as a founding abbess). One of the main metaphors is that of the cornerstone, rock or edifice upon which the sounds are built. That is, the lyrics often refer to the architecture and spatial significance of belief. In some way this changes (or at least contributes to) my sense of what belief might mean.

Or perhaps the medieval notion of it is far more "grounded" than later metaphysical developments.

Music as a physical, material, spatial, reality shouldn't be news to anyone, it's just that the delight of its history was a palpable epiphany at 4 am .

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

this is for shashi (and all youother crazy grad students me included)

From The Onion:

Grad Student Deconstructs Take-Out Menu

July 24, 2002 | Issue 38•26

CAMBRIDGE, MA—Jon Rosenblatt, 27, a Harvard University English graduate student specializing in modern and postmodern critical theory, deconstructed the take-out menu of a local Mexican restaurant "out of sheer force of habit" Monday.

Enlarge ImageGrad Student

Jon Rosenblatt with the menu in question.

"What's wrong with me?" Rosenblatt asked fellow graduate student Amanda Kiefer following the incident. "Am I completely losing my mind? I just wanted to order some food from Burrito Bandito. Next thing I know, I'm analyzing the menu's content as a text, or 'text,' subjecting it to a rigorous critical reevaluation informed by Derrida, De Man, etc., as a construct, or 'construct,' made up of multi-varied and, in fact, often self-contradictory messages, or 'meanings,' derived from the cultural signifiers evoked by the menu, or 'menu,' and the resultant assumptions within not only the mind of the menu's 'authors' and 'readers,' but also within the larger context of our current postmodern media environment. Man, I've got to finish my dissertation before I end up in a rubber room."

At approximately 2 a.m., Rosenblatt was finishing a particularly difficult course-pack reading on the impact of feminism, post-feminism, and current 'queer' theory on received notions of gender and sexual preference/identity. Realizing he hadn't eaten since lunch, the Ph.D candidate picked up the Burrito Bandito menu. Before he could decide on an order, he instinctively reduced the flyer to a set of shifting, mutable interpretations informed by the set of ideological biases—cultural, racial, economic, and political—that infect all ethnographic and commercial "histories."

"Seeing this long list of traditional Mexican foods—burritos, tacos, tamales—with a price attached to each caused me to reflect on the means by which capitalist society consumes and subsumes ethnicity, turning tradition into mass-marketable 'product' bleached of its original 'authentic' identity," Rosenblatt said. "And yet, it is still marketed and sold by the dominant power structure in society as 'authentic' experience, informed by racist myths and projections of 'otherness' onto the blank canvas of the alien culture."

Added Rosenblatt: "Then, of course, I realized that this statement was problematically narrow, since I was assigning an inherent 'actual' meaning to the Ethnicity Content of the take-out menu. Which was, in itself, contradictory to one of the primary theses of deconstruction, i.e., that it's impossible for an 'impartially' observing arbiter to establish any ultimate or secure meaning in a text. I'd just begun to make a mental note of the cartoon anthropomorphic burrito on the front of the menu as a signifier of such arbitrary 'otherness' when I yelled, 'What the hell am I doing?'"

Rosenblatt's inadvertent outburst nearly led to an altercation.

Enlarge ImageGrad Student Jump

Rosenblatt's analysis of the Burrito Bandito menu.

"I totally woke up my neighbor in the room across the hall," Rosenblatt said. "He looked like he might hit me, so I tried reasoning with him, but it came out all wrong. Instead, I found myself saying that the multiplicities and contingencies of human experience necessarily pose a threat to the tendency of any arbitrary power or 'authority' to dictate oppressive hierarchical social structures or centralize power. Ergo, any attempt to establish hierarchies and centralized power according to arbitrary dichotomies of 'right' and 'wrong' behaviors was therefore not only morally and philosophically, but also politically problematic, and, in fact, oppressive. Man, did that ever not work."

According to friends, Rosenblatt has been under a great deal of stress in recent months due to the financial strain of student-loan debts, his part-time tutoring job, and a heavy academic courseload.

"Lacking proper sleep and struggling to keep up in the intensely competitive crucible that is Harvard grad school, Jon is starting to lose it," said roommate Rob Carroll, 26. "He has become so steeped in the complex jargon of critical theory that he's unable to resist the urge to deconstruct even the most mundane things."

This is not his first time Rosenblatt has deconstructed a random item out of habit.

"The other day, we passed a bus stop with a poster for Disney's The Country Bears," said friend Karen Pilson, 26. "I heard him mumble something about the incorporation of previously received notions concerning wildlife and our ecological environment into a reassuring, behavior-validating consumer commodity in the form of aggressively infantilized computer-animated pseudohumans that talk and play country music. Before I even had a chance to react, he went off the deep end and started throwing out terms like 'prenotional,' 'prolegomena,' 'gynocritical,' and 'logocentrism.' I was just stunned."

Added Pilson: "I told him he was worrying me and recommended a good psychiatrist. Bad move, because that prompted him to launch into a whole discussion of Foucault's 'Male Gaze' as it applies to mother/child pair-bonding in Lacanian psychoanalysis."

In spite of his friends' concern, Rosenblatt seems unable to restrain his reflexive impulse to deconstruct.

"I can't help it," Rosenblatt said. "Even when I close my eyes at night, I feel myself deconstructing things in my dreams—random stuff like that two-hour Dukes Of Hazzard reunion special or the Andy Warhol postage stamp or commercials for that new squeezable gel deodorant. I'd say I'm going crazy, but that presupposes an artificial barrier between societally preexisting concepts of 'sanity' and 'insanity' which themselves represent another false dichotomy maintained for the preservation of certain entrenched elements of the status quo and... Oh, God. I'm doing it again."

Rosenblatt is considering taking a leave of absence from his graduate studies to spend several months living in his mother's basement in Elmira, NY.

Asked for comment, Professor Derek Nystrom of Skidmore College, an expert on deconstructivist thought, said that the Burrito Bandito take-out menu is open to many interpretations.

"The menu can be viewed an infinite number of ways, depending on viewer perspective," Nystrom said. "None of these differing views would be any more or less 'correct.' However, the menu's Pancho Villa-style burrito caricature, complete with bandoliers, six-guns, gaucho moustache, and sombrero, would be considered problematic by most scholars."

Added Nystrom: "To paraphrase: 'What is a take-out menu not, anyway? Everything, of course. What is a take-out menu? Nothing, of course.'"

Monday, December 12, 2005

Her Muse

Beginnings of my argument on women and noise/music:

Her Noise: "why are there so few female activists in the electronic music scene?" - each one of us has heard this question a thousand times... here is the answer: it's not our number, it's about how and if we are recognized!

From female composers like Delia Derbyshire, Wendy Carlos, "deep listening" pioneer Pauline Oliveros, to sound sculptor Maryann Amacher, to Sonic Youth co-founder Kim Gordon, and noise artists like Lindsay Karty and Jessica Rylan, the influence of women on experimental and popular forms of music, while serious and profound, continues to skate on the margins of sonic cultural awareness. This paper will attempt to describe and locate the multifarious genres and musical developments that have been pioneered by women in contemporary times. If Jacques Attali’s premise that music is an important auger for change at the economic, political and culturally representative levels is true then one may fairly ask how gender plays a part in its development and force. One might also productively explore ways in which the relation between gender and music might change the narrative Attali writes. This paper will explore how the eliding of gender from discussions about music as a force for cultural change needs to be addressed. The hope is that by exploring the impact and importance of innovative music by women one might disrupt and/or contribute to the narrative of musics culturally dynamic role as a whole.

What becomes immediately obvious once one brushes past the cultural obscurity of women’s roles in the production and experimentation of musical forms is that women have been instrumental (excuse the pun) not just in performing music (the role they have typically been assigned), but in developing and expanding its sonic perameters. Of crucial significance is the technological adeptness of many pioneering women composers and instrumentalists. I want to focus in particular on the development of complex and sophisticated (as well as beautiful and challenging) electronic and acoustic assemblages and instruments invented by women over the past 50 or so years. By working with electronic tape, making their own synthesizers, adapting acoustic instruments or delving into the range of hearing/listening possibilities inherent in everyday objects, women have been capably manipulating what has often been deemed a "man's world."

I use the term "man's world in a doubly exclusive sense. What I mean by doubly is that, first of all, music itself has traditionally been deemed as excusively within the purview of men. Music, particularly at the level of composition, production, and distribution (as is the case with most levels of culture no doubt) has circulated through patriarchalized systems of power. In addition, at the level of understanding music as a purely aesthetic form, as an intellectualized, disembodied, and trascendant entity, music takes on a further significance. In Laocoon Lessing emphasized the separation of artistic practices into the simultaneous and the successive. The plastic arts were described as simultaneous in that they could be perceived spatially or all at once i.e., a painting is a bounded, framed object of perception. Music, on the other hand is seen as succcessive in that it unfolds over time. The division between the spatial and temporal arts and the privileging of the temporal/musical can then be attributed to the baseness or materiality of visual forms of art. Music was deemed the highest form of aesthetic practice and registered as the "upper limit" of asthetic form since, in effect, it was invisible/nonmaterial. The plastic arts and even poetry could only attempt to reach this limit, their materiality prevented them from ascending to the immaterial level. This hierarchizing of aesthetic forms was, according to WJT Mitchell, gendered at its core. Femaleness was ascribed to the base level of material, embodied form, maleness to the realm of disembodied transcendant thought. This supposedly natural division between the arts served as "proof" of the inherent division between the sexes. Music as such, as both a thing in itself and as a cultural practice, has thus been deemed to be produced and to exist outside the inherent nature and capabilities of women; its hierarchized placement within aesthetic discourse has further served to ideologically reinforce their subordinate role.

For the most part then, women have engaged at the margins of musical composition. It is not that they have been entirely excluded from exploring music's formal boundaries -- boundaries that lie within the harmonic scales and modes that reinforce its immateriality and transcendence -- rather, they have been excluded from inheriting the mantleship of musical authority and creative authorship both within traditional compositional fields and from outside its boundaries. The history of musical innovation, particularly though not exculsively within dominant forms of musical authorship, has thus excluded women from being known as and considering themselves as musical innovators or pioneers in a practical creative sense, and it has excluded them from the realm of music in an inherent, essentializing sense. [It is interesting to note the history of myths about music originating within ancient cultures and the role of the female muse. Briefly, I would argue that mythic female figures --the Pleaides for example-- were never equated with the actual social and intellectual abilities of women as they actually existed in those socieites in there everyday habits and practices. (Go here for background.) Womanhood or femininity has served as a guide for artistic impulses while remaining a subordinating attribute in historical, lived experiences. In fact, the whole notion of the muse as servant to the artist functions as an inherently subordinating procedure. See Rachel Blau du Plessis's essay "Marble Paper: Toward a Feminist 'History of Poetry'" for a compelling examination of the ideological role of the muse in the development of lyric poetry.]

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Eugene McCarthy died yesterday. RIP.

Isn't this a terrific pic?

I'm too young to recall the '68 campaign, but I do remember my parents speaking very respectfully of McCarthy. In the same tones, Adlai Stevenson's name was often mentioned. I distinctly remember (I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8) wacthing my mom take a bath while she told me about hearing Stevenson deliver a speech on the radio that changed her life. She not only admired what he said, she admired his intelligence, sophistication, his calmness. An uneducated little housewife from Detroit... My whole family (aunts uncles cousins) campaigned vigorously for McGovern in '72. What ever happened to the working class liberal? Do they still exist?

[If you ever want to get a fresh and hilarious perspective of the impact of that campaign year and its aftermath in '72 I highly recommend Hunter S Thomson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail of '72.]

This morning Meet the Press aired a segment in which McCarthy addressed the youth vote-- thier coming into political consciousness and the impact it was having on mainstream structures of power. I was struck by the _lack_ of an equivalent consciousness in our own times. I'm sure the absence of the draft has a lot to do with this, and the intervening cyncism of the last 25 years or so, but it is still disheartening to note. I don't want a "return" to the 60's, I want a debate or a coherent and persuasive (extended) discussion that could influence the average American mindset. That doesn't seem to be happening anywhere. Trying to discuss the war in my classroom was like trying to move a hibernating bear. Students are (for the most part) ignorant and anesthetized. That denial of the present is striking when one compares it to the level of awareness during Vietnam, I think. Interestingly, in the MTP segment, McCarthy comments on 1968 as a turning point in terms of the politicization of the young. It was a year with global dimensions of awareness that doesn't just come down to retrospective wishful thinking. I find that extremely interesting.

I have to go read about affect now.

Friday, December 09, 2005

I feel sick

Perhaps I'll write 6 posts today, all of them disjunctive and inane. That'll be great! Just can't seem to "get to" paper ideas. Spent early morning reading Massumi, especially the chapters on Vision, which are extremely interesting. I just have nothing specific to say about it... yet.

I truly do feel, physically, pretty awful. Something keeps "coming on" but it just won't fully arrive. I'm going home after this and cuddle with sweet Kelvin.(all the while trying not to succumb to urge to re-read Ulysses, which has been on my mind lately). Kelvin missed me so much that the first night I was home he slept for a long while with his little face pressed against my cheek. People who think cats are heartless creatures are insane. (I realize I sound like a crazypathetic Cat Lady, but.... he slept with his face pressed against my cheek!!!).

Before heading home to lounge around in PJ's and drink tea (white tea, my latest comfort drink) I am going to the store to buy a vanilla scented something or other-- candle probably. Don't know why, just in the mood for the scent of vanilla. All of which makes me think of my old house on Hancock. I don't miss it all that much, but the winter weather really makes me feel strange to not be there. It was a very cozy house in winter and partly for that reason all my best times/memories of living there were winter ones.

New dark canvas of my blog perfectly suits my mood. Not depressed, cozy.

To be *from* somewhere

I've always found it difficult to grasp that being from Detroit had such a determinate (determining?) influence on my life-- its habits, choices, modes of perception, values etc. In some important ways where one is from and who one is never quite match up I think. The imaginative spaces one occcupies, particularly if one is an avid bookreader, productively warp lived space. Some deep-rooted form of self-alienation has contributed to feeling of being *in* Detroit but not *of* it. Well, actually, it's more complicated than that. And anyway, what I really wanted to mention was my excitement at meeting Lytle Shaw in Germany and getting to know his work a bit better. His talk at Tubingen was the most exciting for me in that it seemed to crystallize or at least point in a productive direction my own vague notions and the possibilities I might be circling around. I'll try to flesh this out more fully once I've read more of his stuff. For now this is a link to an interview with him in Jacket magazine.

kindly forwarded

I didn't take any of these pics (which may be obvious since I am in one of them). Who knew "dark and blurry" was so flattering? Ms Ruddy is responsible for all our Paris memories. The images on her blog are really lovely too; the purple lips one I especially like -- that was the view outside our hotel window.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Does anyone else here (wherever *here* is) miss James? Took a too-long nap today and awoke with sensation of lingering dream with James as central figure. Wayne State needs cowboy Jenner.

And I am writing this in lieu of trying to say something profoundclevermeaningful about trip to Paris and Tubingen, of course. Once the exhaustion lifts.... All I can say for now is that I don't think I'll ever be the same. And I wish my mom was around to share it with, in the telling.

Not wanting to end on a sad note --

I have been thinking so much about space, and vision and the localization of site/sight, it makes me dizzymisslizzy. Can't wait to re-read Lytle Shaw's paper on discursive sites, tho I'm not sure inscribing a site disvcursively is equivalent to site specificities materiality. Then again, I don't really know that that is his point.

And I think we all need to buy a poster of Marjorie Welish to hang in our bedrooms and worship. The Ruth Gordon of language poetry (that's a compliment by the way).

I'm sure it's just a matter of time until Michael and Sarah download thier pics for our further enjoyment (hint hint).

Tthe Dada exhibit at the Centre Pompidou was terrific (as was the Pompidou itself: the most amazing panoramic view of Paris imaginable, seriously breathtaking) even if it was a completely overwhelming amount of material. Standing in front of a reproduction of Duchamp's " A Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (even)" Whoa... But what I think I liked best was all the paperwork-- letters, magazines, sketches. Dada and publication aesthetics has always been very inspiring to me. The pic above is just an example. You can access other images here.

As for Tubingen-- besides all the intellectual stimluation and camaraderie what I recall right now is how the evening lights shone gracefully off the Neckar outside the Holderlinturn the first night. The night of Barrett and Carla's readings. All of a sudden there we were, in Tubingen, in the Holderlinturn, and there was the famous Neckar. ( I have a thing for German rivers since I had to memorize and draw their location for a diplomacy and military power class in undergrad... don't ask.) The "Neckar moment" was sort of contained and re-experienced on our last evening in Stuttgart, where the soft light reflecting off of a duckpond situated between the Suttgart museum and the Opera house entranced me. No wonder the Germans were (are?) such Romantics.

Monday, November 21, 2005


The pic below was taken by Michael Schmidt. It's one of my favorite images of Detroit, in part because you can't tell where it was taken! It's actually not a secret location; if you pay attention the next time you're walking around downtown, you might recognize it. I call it: "The Wedge."

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Radiophonic ladies

I found my paper topic... At last! That is, for my Sonic Cultures seminar with Shaviro. My *other* paper, for Dr. Grusin will supposedly be a reading of Massumi's _Parables of the Virtual_. Wish me luck (on both). What I want to extract from the BBC ladies is what it means that women helped-- no, strike that-- what it means that women have indeed shaped the hisotry of sound (not just *helped*) and what this focus might teach us. I want to focus on Pauline Oliveros, Cosi from Throbbing Gristle. Kim Gordon, Jessica Rylan, Lindsay Karty, and many others. Oh, and the women who recently put together the installation Her Noise. Need to start a bibliography of some sort....The quote below is a tidbit from the website linked above.

"Radiophonics’ was a term adopted by the BBC (perhaps borrowed from Schaeffer’s "Essai Radiophoniques" in the early 1950s) to identify the nature of this new dimension in sound and music for radio drama. It referred to the collective endeavours of music composers and sound engineers who worked together with dramatic artists to optimise the stimulation of the listener’s imagination. Among them were three women, Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire and Maddalena Fagandini who all worked under enormous pressure to meet deadlines, in an environment where the only rule was to satisfy the drama producer, with no guidelines as to how that was to be achieved. In the absence of digital ready-mades, they designed and built their own filters, effects units, and synchronisers including a special oscillator, the ‘Wobbulator’and the ‘Crystal Palace’ a switching device that was used to create a chorus effect, and they devised their own unique composing techniques. Delia Derbyshire holds the record for the longest tape loop which extended beyond the studio walls and down the corridor. "

I am very tempted to write some cheesy feminist slogan here in response.

BBC Radiophonic Workshop

If you get a chance (like, say, if you happen to stop by my apartment some drear November eve) you (that's right, *you*) should really watch the documentary on the BBC's radiophonic workshop. The amazing Delia Derbyshire is prominently featured in this very quirky (i.e. British) film. I watched it with my musician friend Lindsay (aka Viki), and she was very inspired and it made me very happy. Read more about Delia's significant contributions to electronic muisc. The BBC, and in particular, Delia (or rather, Ms Derbyshire) were responsible for redefining and expanding the interactive space between TV visuals and sonic meaning. We don't know how much we owe to their experimentations.

The World of Automatons

This is a picture of an automaton built in 1773 by Pierre Jaquet-Droz and fils. He constructed several, I believe, of which only three survive. According to info I've been able to garner, they could be considered the ancestor of the computer. The three are: The Musician, The Writer, and the Draughtsman.
According to the one of the sites where I found info on them, they were also, perhaps, an inspiration for Mary Shelley's _Frankenstein_. This site, authored by a woman named Julie S. Porter, has some interesting info; she looks to be some kind of clock/watchmaker, computer sofware engineer, and overall Renaissance Fair enthusiast/participant. Bless her! Anyway, she claims that the term "android" was invented in order to account for these mechanical dolls.

Why does all this matter? What does it have to do with anything? Well, I'm in the porcess of trying to figure that out.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Trouble with Being Born

I'm sympathetic, in many respects, with Justin's post this week on Virilio. The "plethora of conservatisms" (love that phrase!) that Justin finds disturbing often do make for diffcult reading. But I don't think that one can really dismiss some of (a lot) of Virilio's claims by arguing that his text is not an "affirmative" one or that because it "seems like a romanticized desire for a return to a past auratic state where identity and order could still be discerned" we might not still, usefully, be able to discern and weigh what Virilio is actually trying to say on his own terms. Thus, while I do agree with Justin that it does indeed seem not only like Virilio wants a "return" to a past auratic state and that the "linking of Nietzsche to fascism" may indeed be a "simple and boring theoretical move" I want to try and tease out how and why, as Michael suggests, Virilio's "most central focus for ratio-techno-militarism is Nazi Germany." I'm also sympathetic to Michael's sense of "ambivalence" when it comes to any reading relationship to Virilio's text (and I want to note that Michael so effectively summed up Virilio that writing -- and perhaps reading -- this post feels more like a side-note than anything, but we must "press on"!) . Yet, the question I want to explore here, and that propelled my reading for this week, is not necessarily "what is it that Virilio is trying to "return" to? but, rather, "what is it that Virilio is trying to catch up with?

In the early section of Ground Zero that begins with a a discussion of the "father" of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, and the exclusive relationship ("impingement" as Wiener terms it) of science and religion, Virilio states: "If, as they say, the future torments man, it is from this congenital burden that the ideology of a totalitarian Progress aspired preventively to liberate Humanity, willingly or otherwise" (15). The fact that Virilio relates a long hisotry of scientific progress to a hatred of the human flesh as well as to a terroristic iconoclasm is, I think, crucial to understanding both his relationship to and critique of "ratio-techno-militarism" and to why this very "progress" has immobilized 'real" future progress as it obtains in the imperfect world humanity is "condemned" to. If man is "congenitally burdened" by a future that "torments" him, to what can we ascribe this torment? I think Virilio is suggesting that totalitarian ideology inaugurates death in order to relieve us of our future fears of it. In other words, the Freudian death drive is being actualized by the mechanisms of images and virtual spaces in which we are instantaneously satisfied; thus we are cut off from any future, possibly unfulfilled desires. This virtual fulfillment is a break from what real images provide, which would be an iconophilic relationship to the future in that the images promise us the assurance that they do indeed stand in for something "real." What Virilio importantly valorizes, to my mind then, is the uselessness and imperfection of the flesh, and this is what techno-iconoclasm wants to eliminate. The "utopia" and "uchronia" that Virilio points to is a negative form of liberation, a false form of progress that eliminates the possiblities of and in the imperfections and contingencies of "real" events. And it is a testement, I think, to his critique that we must now place the word real in quotes in order to preserve any vestiges of it.

This notion of "catching up" and the love of images can perhaps be connected to Virilio's term "dromology." First off, it is the facts of warfare that Virilio is hyper aware of and that, in our virtual age, we no longer have the dubious benift of actually seeing (at least in the West, that is). Since we are no longer able to see our future, communicate its potentials or difficulties with each other in actual proximiate times, or think the dimensions of the world we inhabit, dromology might be seen as an attempt at a study of how a politics can be formulated around real-time and real-place demands and possibilities. That said, I do think it might be a controversially mis-approproiated term from mathematics ( I recall Virilio's name being castigated in Alan Sokal's book Fashionable Nonsense, which takes numerous theorists to task for sloppy and unduly obtuse prose, which masks its lack of real scientific knowledge). I guess the "misuse" of a scientific terms either makes Virilio's critique of scientific progress ironic or clever depending on how you look at it. It might also mean that his ostensible rejection of progress and his negative evaluations are not so simply retrograde as one might think. For, Sokal's criticisms aside, the re- or even mis- appropriations of scientific thinking always entails a future projection and thus a future politics. Virilio's dromology then, even as it thinks a future is attempting a critique to a certain extent from within science, while stepping outside the sense of progress provided by a linearized and hyper-rational (at the service of a mythic irrationalism) forward movement that leads inevitably toward the uselessness and therefore meaninglessness of human bodies. I think we need to recall that Virilio studied phenomenology with Merleau-Ponty in order to properly situate his seemingly old-fashioned humanism and Catholic conservatism, since that phenomenology is also a critique of Enlightenment progress and its attendant values . I'd like to further explore how Merleau-Ponty's notions of perception influenced Virilio's iconophilia. It might more fully connect the important relationship between how dromology is an intertwinement of ideas regarding vision and temporality, along with the importance of imperfection as inherent and necessary for any future possibilities, an intertwinement of concerns operating at the heart of Virilio's text. Perhaps another day....

Monday, October 31, 2005

Binaries anyone?

Here's the quote I read from Shaviro's Cinematic Body, which touched off our discussion of how or whether binaries are initially represented then collapsed or vice versa in Videodrome (the one that Dr. Grusin disagreed with): "New arrangements of the flesh break down traditional binary oppositions between mind and matter, image and object, self and other, inside and outside, male and female, nature and culture, human and inhuman, organic and mechanical. Indeed, the sytematic undoing of these distinctions, on every possible level, is the major structural principle of all of Cronenberg's films" (129). In response, Dr Grusin (in his email to the class) made a distinction between directors like Ford or Hitchcock who establish binaries only to collapse them and Cronenberg who, he argued, is primarily interestd "in presenting a world in which clear-cut binaries do not exist, or can only be established with some significant interpretive effort." What Grusin finds significant is that Cronenberg's starting point is the groundlessness or overlapping of experiences, the indivisibility of fantasy and reality. For Grusin, "[I]t is not insignificant that Cronenberg does not present clear-cut cinematic distinctions between Max's fantasies and "reality."

I tend to agree with this account, but I wonder if Shaviro and Grusin are in opposition after all. The crucial point Shaviro makes above is that "new arrangements of the flesh" cause the break down of "traditional binaries." Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between "traditional" or culturally produced binaries and binaries that one might claim are essential and/or inherent. That is, these "new arrangements," produced by the cinematic experience, *return* us to what we always already were, or to the spaces we have always already occupied -- the simultaneous space of thought and matter. Traditional binaries, which are never stable to begin with and which therefore invite and produce this *return*, are derived, for Shaviro, from the influence and dominance of "Cartesian dualism." This dualism, which attempts to effeciently divide mind from matter establishes a distinct and ordered system of perspective and is, finally, a historically derived construct. Shaviro describes the cinematic experience of a Cronenberg film as ambivalent I think precisely due to the splitting open of constructed binaries at the sight/site of the body itself, so traditional binaries are indeed collapsed as they are incorporated: "The bodies of Max Renn [James Woods in Videodrome] and Seth Brundle [Jeff Goldblum in The Fly]... are zones of intense receptivity; they capture and render visible a wide range of sinister and usually impalpable social forces, from implicit codes of social behavior to the financial transactions of multinational corporations. The word of late capitalist power is literally made flesh" (134 emphasis added).
Cronenberg's literalization of this fleshlike arrangement may be the source of the dilemma. For Grusin: "There are no clear visual cues.... In refusing to demarcate in any definitive semiotic fashion the fantasies from the realities, Cronenberg seems to me to be suggesting that (or presenting a world in which) such binaries do not exist as givens or starting points." On the other hand, rather than dividing up the cinematic experience (whether onscreen or off) between the visible and the palpable, Shaviro suggests that Cronenberg, by literalizing the visible/flesh interface re-arranges, dis-organizes, and reveals the abject ground upon which and of which capitalistic regimes maintain their hegemonic control. In other words, The capitalist system, which maintains itself through a binarizing discourse (refer to Shaviro's list of oppositions above) is itself nothing more than an abject and groundless, series of flows. So, yes, in Cronenberg binaries "do not exist" because what binaries essentially do is blind us to this fact. Because, for Cronenberg, binaries are a constructed "fantasy" that serve as cover and that work by covering over the "reality" of forces, this, as Grusin notes, "proves" that they are not givens or starting points, i.e., grounds, but serve instead as invisible obtacles.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Cinema's "Forgotten Futures"

There is a moment in Miriam Hanson's essay "Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street" where I was reminded of the wonderful Preston Sturges movie _Sullivan's Travels_. I want to hesistantly claim that this film, as it comments on the dual and seemingly opposed demand to give mass audiences both "what they need" and "what they want," addresses or "solves" some of Benjamin's hopes and pessimistic fears regarding cinema. In other words, Sturges 's self-conscious portrayal of the demands of the film maker (Benjamin's "level of inscription") and the desires of the audience ("level of reception") are self-reflexively engaged and narratively entertwined in this particular film. It would seem that Sturges allows himself and his audience to "have it both ways." In order to see how this might work I'll have to explain the plot a bit, then I'll try to relate that to Benjamin's hopes and fears about the cinema, particularly as they converge toward a construction of an openness to or memory of "forgotten futures." [As of 6:15 on the Wednesday night before class Thursday, this is sounding a lot more like a paper project than a response paper, but F*** it! I'm just going to see how far I can go!]

Time constraints in mind and on second thought... here's a link to a lengthy but worthwhile plot summary of the film. Skimmable of course; I think the beginning and end are the important parts. What I want to focus on is how the ending, in which a chain gang in the rural south is invited to the viewing of a Disney cartoon called _Playful Pluto_ at an African American church, uncannily demonstrates and, I would argue, moves through and beyond Hansen's analysis of Benjamin's concept of the optical unconscious in the cinema, which is described as a transformed mimetic capacity (through the linking of temporality and subjectivity in the two types of innervation -- inscriptive and receptive). First here's the summary of the Sturges films ending from the site:

Through the foggy mist rising off a swampy bayou and with low organ music playing Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, a rural Negro church comes into view. A black preacher (Jess Lee Brooks) instructs a helper named Charlie to pull down a white sheet tacked to a piece of wood - a makeshift projection screen. The black parishioners are told that there's going to be "a little entertainment" - a pleasure that they will share "with some neighbors less fortunate than ourselves." The first three pews are cleared for the convicts, and the black worshippers are also instructed with a Biblical lesson that "neither by word, nor by action, nor by look to make our guests feel unwelcome, nor to draw away from or act high-toned. For we's all equal in the sight of God." During a community chorus of the old Negro spiritual Go Down Moses, an unconventional musical number with an appropriate, empathic refrain of "Let my people go," the downtrodden, weary convicts shuffle (with the clanking of chains) toward and into the church in pairs. At a low angle from the front of the center aisle of the church, the camera focuses on the men's chained legs - an unusual chorus line - as they march in.
After they are seated, the lights are dimmed and a creaky old projector begins showing a 1934 Walt Disney cartoon - Playful Pluto - starring Mickey Mouse and Pluto [one of the last B/W cartoons Disney made]. The organ player accompanies the silent cartoon with a musical score. The convicts and churchgoers immediately begin laughing, guffawing, and smiling at the crazy antics of the mouse and dog - especially when Pluto gets stuck on flypaper and attempts to extricate himself but becomes even more entangled - a relevant image for Sullivan's situation. Sullivan sits glumly at first, but then looks around with amazement at the uproarious laughter from the audience. Soon, he irresistibly joins them in the infectious laughter, rhetorically asking himself: "Hey, am I laughing?" Sullivan suddenly realizes that humorous movies, like religion, are the therapeutic solution to the pain of poverty or to the enmity between races - comedies help people temporarily forget their troubles, release their suffering and escape from the hardships of the world. Even the warden's face is lit up with laughter.

In a further diversion: Sturges's film is set w/in the present and uses its topicality to critique the film industry in an unexpected way. The "lesson" or moral of the film, seems to be the cliche that "laughter is the best medicine" a belief that dominated Hollywood cinema in the dark years of the Depression along with the sentimental "get the girl in the end"' plot. Both tropes are being ironically advocated and critiqued n Sturges's film through and at the level of cinematic cliche itself. That is, Sturges's movies draws from and assembles within its own convoluted tale a mash-up of cinematic techniques, plotlines, and genres-- the tramp or clown genre, the adventure story, the mistaken identity drama, the wrong man scenario -- a mingling of the humorous, the tragic, the noir, the absurd, the cartoon etc etc. In a way then the film works up and beyond the concept of montage by redistributing narrative devices, which would normally have been seen as cliched. We get it all but not in the way or order or unified style we have come to expect. One wonders of course what Sturges's contemporary audiences made of this mishmash. Where these plotlines already perceived as cliches by average American audiences in 194o's? What Sturges's film does is give us the "laughter is the best medicine" and the "get the girl in the end" at the exact site/sight of an awareness of a histoical moment within the film. Thus, the depression and social injustice is entwined into the cliches. the audience watching the Sturges movie would have been watching itself to a certain extent. Is this then a kind of meshing of optical/political unconscious that produces a meeting of the collective gaze, a moment of collective recognition?

But I've wandered from my attempt to link the ending to Benjamin. So let me locate the moment in my reading of Hanson where I was reminded of Sturges's movie: "Benjamin's reading of Mickey Mouse as a 'figure of the collective dream' maintains a sense of disjunctive temporality, the mnemonic/psychoanalytic slant that marks the optical unconscious at the level of filmic inscription .... The dream memory that Mickey innervates, however, is inseparable from nightmares, in particular modern nightmares induced by industrial and military technology" (340)

Looking back at the synopsis of the end of _Sullivan's Travels_ quoted above, it seems almost (dare I say it?) uncanny how it links these concerns in the director's dawning awareness of collective affect, an awareness predicated on both a nightmarish and literalized enchainment of the masses and what Hansen further calls their relation to Disney films function: [A] ''premature and therapeutic detonation' of mass psychoses, of sadistic fantasies and masochistic delusions in the audience, by allowing them to erupt in collective laughter" (342). Yet even though Benjamin claimed History to be a tale of both barbarism and civilization, it was impossible even (perhaps especially) for him to forgo the pessimism activated by his own lived historical moment. As Hansen notes:
"The heterogeneous mass public that congregated in, and was catalyzed by, the cinema of the Weimar period consisted largely of people who bore the brunt of modernization...It would have been conceivable to think of the moviegoing collective as being made up of individual viewers, with the kind of mimetic engagement Benjamin found in the surrealists, the child, the beholder of old photographs or, for that matter, Proust. But it is also historically understandable why Benjamin, unlike Kracauer, did not make that leap of faith -- why he submerged the imaginative, mnemotechnical possibilities of the medium into a presentist politics of distraction, renouncing the cinematic play with otherness in view of the increasingly threatening otherness of actual mass publics" (342).
So while Benjamin gave up on the figure of Mickey Mouse (rightly so!) do to his own historical fears of the moment, Sturges incorporates the sadism and fantasy of collective laughter into his story line and literalizes Bejamin's collective hopes and fears, thus politicizing cinematic cliches as cliche and as affirmation for his own historical present.

More tomorrow.....

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Benjamin and _Triumph of the Will_

I'd like to set off these quotes culled from my email inbox this morning (Wednesday) with thoughts around what I've taken to calling Benjamin's _Work of Art blah blah blah_

Quote from New York times article Dr. Grusin sent us: "Digital cameras have been ubiquitous in the modern combat zone, and it was digital pictures and videos that provided the first public evidence of the extreme degree to which military police soldiers had abused Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison."

From San Fransisco Chronicle: " As we all know by now, science is, to Bush, a vile and dirty word, a low-lying hunk of social detritus, something to be ignored and spat upon as much has possible unless it affects his poll numbers or upsets the base or makes him look dumb -- which is just about, you know, always. No matter that, as the (London) Guardian pointed out, it was just last year that 20 Nobel laureates from around the world warned that 'the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented.' Pshaw."

From Rolling Stone : "The administration's aim is to roll back four decades of environmental progress -- to an era before the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. "These laws were all started under President Nixon," notes Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican from Rhode Island. "The environment has always been something that Republicans have been proud of -- but this administration sees it differently." Others put it even more bluntly. "In the eyes of this administration," says Marty Hayden, legislative director of Earthjustice, the legal arm of the Sierra Club, "Ronald Reagan was an environmental extremist."

"[M]ost of Bush's efforts to gut the nation's environmental protections are so incremental, they go unnoticed by the public -- even when they have far-reaching consequences. In August, the Forest Service quietly adjusted the numbers it uses to weigh the benefits of logging vs. tourism, slashing the "recreational value" of the forests by $100 billion. The EPA went a step further: Under its old cost-benefit formula, the agency valued each human life saved from toxic pollution at $6.1 million. But thanks to a new rule, the cost of polluting people to death has plummeted: Under Bush, your life has officially been devalued by $2.4 million."

So what do all these quotes have to do with Benjamin's seminal essay? By assembling them here, in a somewhat montage-like or paratactic structure I want to highlight Benjamin's sense of cinematic assemblage in what has now become for many of us our everyday relationship to technology and the ways in which it filters our information about the world. That is, on a formal level, what Benjamin took to be the possibilities of cinema, which is seen as "progressive" and emancipatory precisely due to its perceptual change and thus potential for collective (and affective or unconscious) response, has been individualized in our own (postmodern) times. But I'm not trying to say that PC's have reintroduced the aura through the mass distribution of technology, that is through its privatization. That may well be an argument, but it's one I'm not sure that a) I can make, b) is correct and/or c) is all that newsworthy. Rather, I'm interested here in just trying to preliminarily suss out how Benjamin's essay can be profitably historicized so that we mght see how to apply its analyis to its present moments to our own reactionary political predicament. This may be stretching it a bit, but I'd like to start or approach a de-mythologization of Benjamin through this attempt.

First, I want to question how Benjamin's reaction to fascist representational imagery works as a critique of that foorm of political representation through a redistribution and reappropriation of its ideological collective response. I think this can be localized and historicized in and through the cinematic presentation of nazi ideology that while admittedly never explicitly discussed in Benjamin's essay nevertheless, I would argue, acts something like a ghostly presence and absent set of images, namely Leni Reifenstahl's 1934 film *Triumph of the Will.* One small example of a kind of resonance will have to suffice although I think there are many.

In Benjamin's discussion of the cult of the film star and the manipulation of the masses (p 114) as a function of capitalist ideology and the resulting subversion and redirection of film's potential (as exemplified, according to Benjamin in Russian cinema) , a direct link too "fascism in general" as that " compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property owning minority" (115). Thus, when Benjamin critiques this "property owning minoiry which controls "film capital" the applied but absent metaphor is the "triumph of the will" which is then revealed or de-mythologized, made to seem collective. Benjamin goes on to state that "[f]or this reason alone, the expropriation of film capital is an urgent demand for the proletariat." (115) In other words a false collective, a mythologizing and ritualizing collective response in the service of and manipulated by a few (the aesthetization of politics) must be overturned by the demythologizing fragmentation of the image and the new modes of perception introduced by the perceptual (receptive) possibilites of montage. Whew! Ok, in plainer speak, what I think is being grappled with here is Benjamin's experience of a totalizing mythic cinema like Riefenstahls. It's highly organic seeming, static, eternal and yet pleasurable and desirable dimensions are retrograde, and this is being opposed to the fragmentation of the image in surrealist and constructivist techniques because these techniques destroy the aura and return us to or push us towards an awareness of our present historical moment, to the factual realities of ephemerality and the progressive posibilities of collectively experiencing modernity's everyday dimensions. (The influence of Buadelaire is of course what comes to mind here).

In the very beginning of the essay, which begins with Marx's concept of the exploitation of the proletariat as a necessary condition of their emancipation, it is the dialectical, i.e. historical "present conditions of production" as they are developed in art that contribute to the neutralization of the aura. The aura of the present day is the sham creation of traditional concepts "such as creativity, genius, eternal value and mystery." As a German Jew fleeing the Nazis, Benjamin's answer is interestingly both modern and traditional: the cinema's technical ability to fragment the image, an iconoclastic breaking of the representational, visual coherence, both creates and exists within a new historical moment and a secularized renewal of the Jewish aversion to the representational .

It would take more than I have to give at the moment to connect all this to the quotes I strung together above... But since they were the initial impetus to my post I'll leave them as an opening for another day... or potential discussion.

Monday, September 19, 2005

archive fever

archiving the archive.


Saturday I met up w/ friends to see fabulous new Wong Kar Wai movie, 2046, at the DFT. fabulous if for nothing more than the goddess-like Asian women in it (including the incomparable Gong Li). Each of the women (about 5 I think) act as placeholders/ narrative strands in which memory, desire, place and futurity play off and against one another exactly through their radiant presence or absence, as the case may be. Interestingly, 2046 itself works as a placeholder in two (well actually three) ways. It is a space -- a rundown hotel room -- a temporal horizon, which is interwoven within the film as an interior futuristic sci fi narrative written by the protagonist Mr. Chow -- which then is also a time/spaceship also known as 2046. This future-interior is a time/space that really acts as a repetition of the destiny of characters from the hotel episode only w/ cooler Gaultier style clothes. In the end each 2046 only makes sense, has meaning, in relation to the other, so that the links between desire/longing/unattainability and some mysterious memory move from a feminine or sexual absence to forma pivot around an historical absence that keeps everything in place. Formally, the film is absolutely saturated with beauty, or that's what I found myself most absorbed by. So saturated in fact that, paradoxically, the formal style and its affective dimension seemed barely compensatory, even claustraphobic. It certainly doesn't do any of the gorgeous women any real favors.
There's a lot that could be said about it's use of remediation and/or premediation, but I'm not yet comfortable enough with that discourse to make those claims.

Here's a link to the website, which is interesting in and of itself.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Universe revolved/foundphotos

This is totally cool. I hope to have more to say about it at some other point... I found it here -- an interesting site made by a guy I know, Rich from Grand Rapids. It's received a air amount of press attention , which is cool. But what's really cool is how the photos, which he swipes from people's photo files, taken as a whole, manage to avoid cynicism and banality. So even though there's a sense of voyeurism, and a lot of the photos are really just goofy and everyday, there's something about the de-contextualized archiving that works to...well I'm not sure yet, what or how it works, but my sense is that it somehow extnads our sense of collectivity. A big claim.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Flicker fit phenomenon?

What is the persistance of vision?

For those about to die.

Last night after class I watched the 20/20 special on the three disasters most likely to strike the US in the next few years. At the top of the list was the latest and most deadly strain of Avian flu, H5N1. Afterwards, I felt compelled to re-read Camus's The Plague, but couldn't find it in my intuitive shelving system. Not that it would make anyone (i.e. me) feel any better about the coming epidemic. But I did keep waiting for someone to mention it in the interviews they did. Perhaps the allegory doesn't quite fit; after all millions of people actually dying from a deadly strain of the flu isn't an allegory for anything, I don't think. Still, a little existentialism might put things in perspective, and TV often likes to cloak itself in literary garb whenever it addresses serious, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it issues.

Sunday, September 11, 2005