Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The origins of the term "graphic novel"--a thread rescued from the old Comics Journal Message Board

I just found this among my files.  It dates from November, 2003. I don't think I saved the entire thread, but there's quite a lot here, and it's probably still the best source of information for the origins of the term.  I'm posting it because I think it's an important part of the history of comics scholarship, and the old TCJ Message Board no longer exist.  If any participant, however, prefers not to have their comments re-posted here, please contact me and I will delete them.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Viewer in the Painting, lecture 1, part 1, raw (more or less) transcript. Mainly about four minutes in "Mary Poppins"

[Note:  what follows is a pretty raw transcript of my first lecture for my class, "The Viewer in the Painting."  I edited it occasionally as I was transcribing it, skipping mutterings about malfunctioning equipment, occasionally finding a more felicitous term than the one I had used in class, or fixing my syntax.  But I did all this just as I was typing, and I have not gone back over the text to revise it.]

Here are four images, by Edward Burne-Jones, telling the story of Pygmalion.  As you know, Pygmalion is a classical story best known from the Latin poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a long poem about, well, things turning into other things.  In this case, a statue turns into a real woman, it comes to life.  Pygmalion, the sculptor who makes beautiful statues but is otherwise unhappy with the women in his city, is enthralled by his own statue and invokes Venus, the goddess of love, to bring his own statue to life.  Venus shows up, brings the statue to life, he falls in love with the woman she now is, and so on.

What is interesting is that the story of the statue coming to life is pervasive through popular culture, in fantastic stories, myths, films,  opera.  It has become one of the ways in which not only our culture, but cultures for millennia have encoded our relationship to a kind of work of art, sculptures, and specifically statues of people.  We can all think of other examples:  if you have ever seen a stage performance of Don Juan, or a staging of Don Giovanni, the opera by Mozart, you have seen another statue coming to life.  Don Giovanni, the infamous seducer, is punished for his evil deeds by  a statue—a statue come to life-- of the father of one of the women he has seduced.

Other examples can be found in the pages of fantasy books, episodes of the Twilight Zone, and so on.
This fantasy seems to have a connection to the atavistic notion of art as being something beyond, or before, the aesthetic—where the aesthetic sees art as just something to be appreciated formally, or intellectually, etc.  It has something to do more with cult statues, inhabited by gods, or with the icon in Greek Orthodox or Catholic worship, which is prayed to—and even when short of idolatry, seems to have a kind of power, it looks back at you, it’s more than a simple representation of a saint or a divinity.  

This is one of the myths that encodes one kind of relationship we have with statues, with works of art.  Another such myth is the notion of the portrait whose eyes follow you around the room.  You may all have heard that.  If you go for example to a house museum, the tour guide or the docent may point you to a painting of an ancestor and direct you to walk around the room, to notice how, wherever you are, the figure in the painting is looking at you.  

Thinking of this myth, I wondered what, according to the wisdom of the internet, are the paintings that most do that, so I googled it.  The most popular example seems to be the Mona Lisa.  If we imagine her looking around the room, at us, we begin treating her as a person, we are somehow endowing her with subjectivity, yet at the same time we know it’s just a plain old painting, though perhaps the most famous and most expensive painting in the world.  But it’s not a real person.  Nevertheless.  

Looking at these myths, the statue coming to life, the figure in the portrait whose eyes follow you around the room, you realize we begin to develop a different kind of relationship with the work than simply that of viewing subject versus viewed object.  

I looked further in the google results—and I want to emphasize, that these relationships in no way need apply only to elite or famous works of high art, or even things we might objectively think of as good—and here was the next popular result.  On deviant art, art, a digital painting by May Fang Robinson, who seems to do digital paintings of very traditional Chinese women, rendered in a kind of academic/pin-up aesthetic.  And their eyes, supposedly, follow you around the room.  Now, believe it or not, this is not just a myth—there is a specific scientific reason as to why that might seem to be the case, and we’ll discuss it when we get to geometric perspective—but because of that, we begin granting the painting something much more than simple objectness.  And the fact of it being a human face, one to which we can relate, which brings to mind eye-to-eye encounters with real human beings, helps too.

Having said that, I wanted to say that this class is modeled after two models.  On one hand, a professor of English at the University of Rochester, Kenneth Gross, wrote a book in the 1990’s called “The Dream of the Moving Statue.”  It is specifically about this notion of statues coming to life, studied from many varied angles, and gives many more examples than I can give here.  It’s a beautiful, very poetic book, and I found it inspiring me to take a similar look at other myths about the reception of art, specifically those centered around the fantasy of the viewer in the painting.
Secondly, when I was in college, I took a class, primarily to satisfy a requirement, the distribution of which was called “Moral Reasoning” and included philosophy, ethics, and so on.  Taught by a philosophy professor named Stanley Cavell.  Now, I was a film major at the time—film and studio—and this class promised to have a lot of film showings, which is why I took it.  Turned out to be an extraordinary class (which Cavell later turned into a book, called “City of Words”), primarily because it attempted to teach philosophy through popular culture.  For example, Cavell claimed that some of the philosophical ethics of Kant or Emerson could be found in Hollywood comedies or melodramas of the 1930s or 1940s.  He made quite a powerful argument that this was the case and that, indeed, the viewers of those movies somehow absorbed, along with their entertainment, such moral lessons.  

I realized that even in a class on philosophy or theory, the texts studied did not necessarily have to be philosophical expository text, but could be works of fiction, of popular culture within which such philosophy inheres, and from which it could be derived and re-applied.  Those works would not necessarily be studied as aesthetic work in themselves, but as repositories of philosophical thought.  In our case, there is a philosophical component—a  theory of criticism, of viewer reception,  of how we interact with works of art—in the various seemingly fantastic scenarios I have described. 
The other myth, and the main myth that this class is about, is that of being able to enter a painting.  Again, many examples can be found in fiction, in popular culture, some that I will show you today in class, others in Twilight Zone episodes, again, or even more clearly in episodes of Rod Serling’s next show, “The Night Gallery.”  This scenario again encodes, becomes an allegory for a profound relationship we have to the works of art themselves.  I was just looking online last night for a book by a professor of art history, currently at Berkeley, named T.J. Clark; I was looking for something else entirely, when I found this line by him:  “When I am in front of a picture the thing I most want is to enter the picture's world: it is the possibility of doing so that makes pictures worth looking at for me. (p.222)”  So I thought, oh, there is another person who has this dream of entering a painting. 
What we will do in this class is take this notion—begin from popular culture, from these myths—and from there build up a more complex theory of how we respond to images; but it will still remain what we might call a “vernacular” theory of viewer response:  how do we respond to works of art?  How do they affect us emotionally?  And so on.  

And I thought I would begin with a very simple example, that all of you have seen previously.  “Mary Poppins.”  

Here is the question.  How do you enter a painting?  What does Mary Poppins say?  “Bert, why do you always have to complicate things that are really quite simple?”  And, even without Bert’s spell (or, rather, because she didn’t use it) she managed to get them all inside the painting.  Because, you know, she’s magic, a witch or a fairy.  (What is Mary Poppins anyway?)

If we study the entire sequence again, though, we can derive a few provisional notions of HOW to enter a painting—or, if you think of that as an allegory, how to relate to it, to respond to it powerfully.  Provisional notions which of course we will rephrase in more scholarly terms, and revise and transform, during the course of this class.  

Notice that, to begin with, the children are going to go with Mary Poppins for a walk in the park.  But of course, Mary being magic, a walk in the park with her cannot be just a walk in the park, as Bert points out.  They will still end up in a park, though, just one that is much, much better.  And notice—this is very obvious, but still needs to be noted—that the painting they will enter is a landscape.  Landscapes are the genre that has most provoked this “viewer in the painting” fantasy.  Why is that?  You could also imagine it happening with other genres—for example, genre paintings, paintings of everyday life, you can imagine a scene of people in a room and you entering, past the frame, to be in their company—but this almost never happens.  It’s always landscapes.  That may be because an important function of landscapes, from the beginning, was to take you somewhere else.  Diderot, an eighteenth-century writer whom we’ll discuss again later on, wrote specifically about how we collect landscape because, caught in the dreary city, we want to be transported to somewhere else, a more beautiful countryside.  The fact that he himself had moved from the country to the city, and still felt nostalgia for the place of his birth, probably had something to do with his view too.  But nostalgia plays an important role here, as we shall see.  

Now, one more thing.  Our very notion of parks, as open to the public—in America it’s a much more modern notion, primarily nineteenth century, but even in England, Hyde Park, which opened in the seventeenth century being one of the earliest there—was a matter of bringing something of the countryside into the city itself.  Artificial countryside, it functioned like landscapes, the way Diderot saw them.  It helped people escaped to a more natural, more beautiful green world than their depressing urban surroundings.  And public parks were based on private parks, in the countryside, around mansions—and the landscaping for that kind of park was based, more often than not, on landscape paintings, especially like those of—and I will now introduce for the first time a name that you will be hearing a lot during this entire course—Claude Lorrain. 

Claude is very important for this class because it is in the commentaries to his work—commentaries that span the period from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, and beyond—that perhaps this desire, this dream to enter the painting is most often articulated.  

Claude’s work is most often associated with the genre of pastoral painting—the depiction of a countryside world imbued with the pleasures of shepherds and shepherdesses who have no worries, no anxieties (gods too may come to visit), they can spend their time singing, playing music, or in amorous dalliance.  This becomes a dream of a more perfect world for much of Western culture. Again, we’ll discuss it at much more length, but keep in mind that it’s the dream behind the creation of parks—and also, even, of the American suburbs.

OK.  Back to Mary Poppins.  So they’re going into the park.   But it has to be a special park.  They’re going on a “Jolly Holiday,” as Bert sings.  An easier life.  The life of the pastoral—where they, too, can sing.  

Bert begins by making-believe.  The magical entering into the painting begins by enacting the poses of the characters in the paintings.  You make believe, even if you don’t really believe, until the magic actually happens.  But, by playing the tightrope walker, the boatsman, in a way he already is in the painting. 

Then the girl, Jane, wants to enter the painting, and Bert draws, with chalk, a way for her into the painting.  Literally, a road, a bridge.  Two things here:  notice that the thing you need, to enter a painting, is imagination.  You have to see in your mind’s eye the fair that you can’t actually see in the painting itself, that is before your eyes.  That is how you build up that world, and give it life.  Then you have to have the road:  the painting has, so to speak, to give you an inroad into itself. 
As I said, this course is about viewer-response theories, and we already see here two kinds.  There are three kinds, really, and perhaps some further subdivisions, but I will only mention two here today.  We’ll build on this schema later.  When you have viewer response, what do you need?  A viewer and a work of art.  Viewer response theories can address each one of these poles.  Focusing on the viewer, you can see what he or she brings to the encounter, to make the image come alive:  what has been called “the beholder’s share.”  The imagination, in this case.  Now you can study this psychologically (though that shades into the third category, that I don’t want to discuss yet), or you can study it empirically, sociologically.  For example, if you want to know how people respond to images, you can do a survey of museum patrons, and see what their backgrounds are, economic, educational, and compare that to which works of art they prefer.  This kind of sociological study has been done by a number of German response theorists (perhaps more when studying literature than art), and by a French sociologist named Pierre Bourdieu.  I will mention this here, because we won’t be doing much of this kind of analysis in this class.

But, anyway, you have the pole of the viewer, and on the other side of the axis of vision, you have the pole of the artwork itself.  And here we talk about formal theories of response; instead of looking at the viewer, we look at how the painting addresses the viewer.  How does it invite his or her participation?  The painting needs to make itself inviting:  to have that road, that meets the bottom side of the frame and therefore seems to continue into the space of the viewer; to have that bridge that crosses the river.  (And, notice, that once they magically enter the painting, the kids will go into the depths of the painting across that very bridge, along that road.  The drawn bridge becomes an actual bridge in the world of the image.  Imagination has to do something with this, too.)  So you look at what in the picture itself—in its form, but also in the content—accounts for that address, that invitation.  A good example is one-point perspective, through which the painting opens itself up, in depth, and continues the space of the viewer, and also by clearly establishing the axis from the viewer’s eye to the vanishing point, draws him or her into the image, to its very depths—since the vanishing point is at infinity, after all.   
So there are formal structures, in the painting, that address the viewer.  But also, there are structures of content (though, in most cases here, content and form are not so easy to separate), for example the construction of a pastoral paradise—of a more perfect world—that does the inviting.  Because life seems easier there, because everything looks more beautiful there.

Back to the movie.  

Bert:  “All right, I’ll do it myself.”
Mary:  “Do what?”
Bert:  “A bit of magic.”
Michael:  “A bit of magic?”
Bert:  “It’s easy.  Let’s see.  You think; you wink; you do a double blink; you close your eyes, and jump.”
[They jump onto the painting drawn on the sidewalk.]
Jane:  “Is something supposed to happen?”
Mary:  “Bert, what utter nonsense.  [sighs] Why did you always complicate things that are really quite simple?  Give me your hand, please, Michael.  Don’t slouch. One, two…”
They fly up in the air, and get smaller at the same time, to be absorbed into the painting.

Maybe this is stretching it.  But is the exchange between Mary and Bert, when she says “Why did you always complicate things that are really quite simple?” (and notice that it’s “did,” not “do.”  Mary and Bert clearly have more of a history than the movie tells us)—is this exchange about not overthinking, not over-intellectualizing one’s response to the image, so as to be able to be open emotionally to it (which is quite simple, if you don’t think about it too much), to be able to respond to it, make it come to life?  Is it an allegory of those times when—because of a depression, bad mood, etc.—we cannot relate to artworks that, in other, less involved mental states, we respond quite readily?

OK, maybe that’s reading too much.  We’ll see.  

Now they’re in the world of the painting.  Notice that, in the painting itself, the colors are brighter, everything is more beautiful, and even they themselves have changed:  they are more beautifully dressed, in their Sunday best—they’re more ideal versions of themselves, the best versions of the people they can be.   When they’re inside the image.

So, we can build a whole theory out of this.  Out of this four-minute scene, on the sidewalk, from a Disney musical. 

You have all seen “Mary Poppins,” right?  You know what happens next—or, not immediately next, but in the world of the painting, what famous song they sing?  “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” of course.  It’s part of the magic of that world.  

Let’s move on.

What’s interesting is that, if Claude is the painter who most invited these fantasies, of entering his world, from the seventeenth through the ninetenth century, the one who seems to have most done so since the twentieth century has been Van Gogh. 

[to be continued...]

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Marivaux on Beauty and the Je Ne Sais Quoi

Pierre Carlet de Marivaux, "The Abodes of Beauty and of the Je Ne Sais Quoi," from Le Cabinet du philosophe, IIe feuille, 1734. Translated by yours truly.

Only rarely can beauty and the je ne sais quoi be found together.

By the
Je ne sais quoi I mean: that charm spread across someone’s face and figure, and which makes a person lovable, without our being able to tell what it owes its effects to [á quoi il tient].

I have read somewhere on this subject a quite interesting tale; it was written by a man who pretended to have found the abodes of Beauty and of the
Je ne sais quoi.

Here is more or less what he said. It’s short, as I will only offer a summary of his tale.

One day—he said—as I was walking in the country, I was lost in thoughts about one of the most beautiful women in the world, whom I had visited for each of the last eight days out there in the countryside where I was staying. The first time I had seen her I had looked on her admiringly; I’d been less touched by her the second time; and I had finally ended up looking at her with indifference, no matter how beautiful I still found her to be, no matter how beautiful she truly was. I wondered why such beauty so worthy of admiration had grown so uninteresting to me, why Beauty in general, even, didn’t inspire longer-lasting feelings.

I was seeking out the reasons for such things when I noticed I was standing between two gardens, of which one seemed superb, and the other pleasant

The gates to these two gardens were right across from one another.

On that of the superb garden, these words could be read in golden letters: THE ABODE OF BEAUTY.

On that of the pleasant garden was written, in characters in which all sorts of colors were melded together, making a single one that could not be defined: THE ABODE OF THE

The abode of Beauty! I first said to myself; oh, I must see it; for whoever says “Beauty” says something much more impressive than the “
Je ne sais quoi,” something much worthier of being seen.

And so, carried along by the strength of the word, I didn’t hesitate to choose the garden of Beauty, and to leave behind that of the
Je ne sais quoi, which I would return to enjoy later.
As determined as I was in preferring the former, I nevertheless threw another glance at the latter which seemed to me so pleasant, and wished it were possible to see them both at the same time. But apparently no side-by-side comparison could be drawn between the two; so one had to start with the most intriguing
[curieux] one, which is what I did.

As I entered the garden of Beauty, I noticed the footsteps of several people who had walked in, but I also noticed as many belonging to people who’d walked out.

I walk on, and the more I observe, the more I admire.

I will not retell all the beautiful things I saw; the description of those sites is beyond my abilities; but I was astonished, I was struck. Imagine everything grand, superb and magnificent that can be placed in a garden; everything extraordinary that the most exact symmetry and the best thought-out arrangement can create; and you’ll barely picture what I saw.

But how can I describe to you what the palace that I found after walking for a while looked like? I couldn’t even try.

If I had to say something about it, I would tell you about the person I saw there seated on some kind of throne, around which stood several men who, according to what they told me, had only preceded me there by an hour, and who all seemed to be frozen in place, as if in ecstasy upon seeing the woman on the throne.

You be the judge of whether they were wrong: that was Beauty herself, in person, who, every once in a while and as if by chance [négligemment] cast on each of them, as well as on me, glances that made us all cry out: Oh! such beautiful eyes!, then, a moment later, oh! such a beautiful mouth! oh! such a beautiful face! oh! such a beautiful waist!

Upon hearing these exclamations, Beauty smiled and lowered her eyes somewhat, more out of modesty than out of embarrassment; and, without answering, started looking at us again, as if to reinforce
[nous confirmer dans] the feelings of admiration we held for her. Now and then she also raised her head with a certain haughty air, which seemed to tell us: your admiration must be accompanied by respect. That was all she had to say for herself.

For the first quarter of an hour, the pleasure of contemplating her made us forget her silence; by the end of it, however, I began to notice it, and so did the others.

What! we all said, nothing but smiles, nothing but turns of the head, not a single word; that’s hardly enough. Will only our eyes be gratified? Are there no pleasures but the pleasure of sight?

Thereupon, one of us stepped forward to present her with a piece of fruit he’d picked in the garden. She accepted it while smiling all the while, and with the most beautiful hand in the world, but without opening her mouth; and her gesture was the only thanks she offered; we had to content ourselves with watching her.

Apprarently each one of us got tired of this, for, little by little, our group got smaller; I could see my companions walk away; and soon, of all the admirers amongst whom I had found myself, I was the only one left, and I took my leave as well.

As I crossed an alleyway heading back, I met a woman who seemed exceedingly proud, and before whom, as I passed her, I took a deep bow.

Where are you going? she asked me with with an air both disdainful and displeased. I have just admired BEAUTY, I answered, and now I am leaving. Now, now, why leave? she replied. Shouldn’t you be frozen in place before Beauty? What is there left for you to see, after having seen her?

You are doubtlessly right, I told her; but I have seen her long enough; I know her features by heart: they are always the same. It is always the same beautiful visage, over and over again, saying nothing to the spirit, speaking only to the eyes, and always telling them the same thing; thus, I had nothing left to learn from it. If only Beauty engaged her admirers in conversation a little, if only her soul played about her face somewhat, that would render that face less uniform, and more touching; it would please the heart as much as the eyes; but we only see it as beautiful, and don’t feel it to be so. Beauty should take the trouble to speak for herself, and to display her spirit [esprit]; for I don’t think she’s lacking in it.

Now, now! What does it matter to you whether she has or hasn’t any? asked me that woman then; does she need any, looking as she does? Go on, you don’t understand a thing; were you dealing with an ordinary visage, I would agree with you; it would be to its advantage that spirit animate it; that would enhance it, and make up for the graces that it lacked. But to wish that spirit play across a beautiful face is to wish for the alteration of that face’s charms; spirit may add something to unformed features, but it could only hurt features that are perfectly shaped; it could do nothing but disturb them. A beautiful face is as complete as it can be; it can do no better than to stay just as it is; whatever the movements of the spirit were to add to it would throw it off balance
[en troublerait l’économie], for it is precisely in the state it is supposed to be in, and could not come out of it but to its own detriment. Thus, you criticize without thinking; it is I who tell you so, I who am the unmoved Pride of beautiful people, and the helpmate of Beauty. I never leave her side, and take great care to keep her spirit cold and tranquil, so that her face may stay at rest, and that her noble propriety be not lessened. It is fortunately true that it is not hard for me to temper Beauty’s spirit, which is generally quite peaceful of its own accord, or at least it’s perfectly aware how important it is for it to maintain gravity, and that it cause no disorder in that beautiful visage, whose interests it respects too much to think of its own.

Thus spoke to me the woman; and her words seemed to me so peculiar, that I only answered with a bow and took my leave, then quickly made for the abode of the
Je ne sais quoi, where I caught up with all those who had left me behind in Beauty's dwelling.

There was nothing astonishing in this place, and, what is more, nothing that was purposefully arranged; everything looked as if it had been thrown down haphazardly; disorder, even, reigned there, and yet a disorder in the very best taste, creating a charming effect, and whose cause one could neither have understood
[démêler] nor shown.

In short, nothing was left to be desired, there; and yet it must have been that nothing had been finished, or that not everything that one would have wanted to place there had indeed been placed, for at every moment we could see something new being added.

And, despite the tale that counts only three Graces, there were an infinity of them there, which, as they crossed the grounds, reworked them, retouching them everywhere. I say, "as they crossed," for they did nothing but come and go, but pass before us in quick succession, without allowing us the time to know them well; they were there, but barely could one see them that they disappeared, and that others took their place then passed by in their turn, making space for others yet. In one word, they were all over, and yet settled nowhere; and it was never just one, but a thousand of them, that could be seen.

Well then, gentlemen, said I to those who were with me, this place is charming; I'd willingly spend here my entire life; but he who inhabits it, the
JE NE SAIS QUOI, where is he? Lead me to him, I pray you; for you must have seen him?

Not yet, they answered; and ever since we have been here, we have been seeking him without yet being able to find him; it is true that we seek him at our leisure; for, though we have the greatest desire in the world to lay our eyes on him, we are not in the least impatient to find his whereabouts; and even were we never to find him, we are resolved to seek him out forever.
And yet he must be here, I answered; and barely had I uttered these words, that we heard a voice telling us: Here I am.

We all turned around then, for we perceived nothing before us; and, as much as we kept turning, we still saw nothing.

Where are you then, kindly
JE NE SAIS QUOI? we all asked as one.

Here I am, I tell you, answered the voice again.

And we kept looking around, expecting to see him, and seeing nothing still.

You tell us: here I am, I continued, but you shun our sight.

And yet you see nothing but me, he answered. In this infinite number of graces that pass ceaselessly before your eyes, coming and going, all different and yet all equally lovable, of which some are more virile and some more tender, watch them well, there I am; it's me you see there, always me. In these sights you love so much, in these objects of all kinds that hold for you so many pleasing touches, in the entire extent of the grounds, in all that you perceive here that is simple, fancy-free, unruly even, ornate or not ornate: there I am, I show myself in them, I constitute all their charm, I surround you. In the guise of these graces, I am the Je ne sais quoi that moves you in both sexes; there, the Je ne sais quoi that pleases in architecture, in furnishings, in gardens, in all that can be an object of taste. And yet don't seek me in one form, I have thousands, and yet not one of them that stays ever fixed; that is why one sees me without knowing me, without being able to either grasp me or define me; in seeing me, one loses me from sight, one can sense me and yet not understand
[démêle] me; in short, you see me, and you seek me, and you'll never find me in any other way; therefore you'll never tire of seeing me.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Nostalgia for Texture, 5

Eighth example.

Walked down to Times Square with Ari B. last weekend. We stood on the red lighted steps that give you a theatregoer’s view on the light show Times Square’s always been, though it’s “friendlier” now, and far brighter – supersized. One ad, repeating on one of the biggest boards, caught our attention; I’d been going on about my hobby horse, and Ari’s been following this blog, and we agreed, I think, that the ad proved my point, or at least substantiated it. It's the new Microsoft Windows Phone 7 ad:

The first third of the spot shows us typical modern consumer-type folks missing out on physically and aesthetically pleasurable and meaningful life-experiences (urban life, travel, the beach, shower, jogging, massage, coffee, family, sex, exercise, snorkeling) because we’re (too) absorbed in our hand-held devices. After each situation, the snarky refrain: “Really?” (The unspoken answer: “Not! Your (over)use of this medium is blocking your access to reality.") The ad’s second third turns the mode to slapstick when this absorption absurdly interrupts what may be greatest pleasure of all: taking a leak. (It also interrupts the buildup of the Peer Gynt suite, which, if this is an allusion to M, is pretty darn crafty: This is a compulsion, you can’t help yourself.) From here on it’s a loss not directly of pleasure, but of (social) dignity, somewhat in the old “BO” ad mode: we make fools of ourselves at the opera, at our wedding, in bed, at work (as a surgeon: high stakes, high pathos, big laffs), at the dinner table, as a Dad at the Little League game… and the dénouement? – A sweet blonde girl toddler in PJs, facing the camera in some perplexity, her oblivious well-heeled professional mom texting out of focus on the sofa behind, and the baby – get this – the poor mom-deprived past-bedtime baby is holding a sippy cup! Way to get at every working mom’s ambivalent anxiety about not being able to breastfeed/spend time with her children because she’s working! Way, also, to reiterate J.H. Campe’s equation of media with the pacifier, immediacy (“Be Here Now”) with The Breast… So QED. But that’s not all. Here comes my paradox again (that nostalgia seeks fulfillment in simulacra of experience produced by the very media perceived to be blocking access to it), except a bit in reverse: here, a variant of the media-object blamed for effecting distance is touted with the special ability to close it.

Over the sippy-cup sequence (moment of greatest pathos) is where the voice-over comes in: “It’s time for a phone… to save us from our phones.” Ooh, a paradox… So what’s the argument? “New Windows phone: designed to get you in… and out... and back to life.” Cut to romantic dinner for two. OK, first off, is this “in and out” thing a double entendre? Probably, but that can’t be the whole story. “In and out” of what, then? – One’s email, the internet, texting, and so on, is what I imagine is meant; in other words, all those things all those people were losing life to in the rest of the ad. So is the argument that (and am I expected to believe that) the special virtue of this new product is that it will allow me to execute all those personal-device activities that I am obsessively compelled to perform in say, half the time, leaving 50% more time for non-mediated activities such as sleeping with my wife or nursing my baby? Not only is this obviously bunk, it’s a self-contradiction: if our engagement with these devices is as irrational (obsessive-compulsive) as the ad suggests (and as it so clearly is), then the rational time-management argument is beside the point: we don’t text all the time because objectively we need to, we do it because there’s something about the medium that makes us want to. (Ask your average high-school student if she’d spend less time texting if texting went faster.) The interaction is itself a pleasure (though an ambivalent one); what we have in this ad is an array of conventional luxury pleasures set up rhetorically against one that the spot is attempting to sell. The interesting added factor is guilt. (You are ignoring your baby! Your wife! Your family! Your life!) A whole book could be written on guilt as a factor in marketing – maybe one has. But what’s more interesting than the simple presence of guilt as a factor is how the ad employs guilt so to speak dialectically: by letting us laugh at our own captivity to our devices (and also laugh socially: we’re all doing this, and we all can laugh at it, so really it’s not so embarrassing), it grants us permission to continue essentially as before; or as Siegfried Kracauer put it regarding certain cinematic “products of directorial artistry produced for the intellectual bourgeoisie”: “In the end, the audiences for such works read a radical magazine and pursue their bourgeois profession with a bad conscience, in order to have a good conscience” (“Kino 1928”). How then does the sell work? The product the ad allows us to identify with the feeling of catharsis and moral relief produced by its aesthetic solution of the problem is thus affectively tagged as a solution to a problem identified with “other” phones. – Really?

The whole strategy reminds me of the one used in the “Dove Evolution” ad:

about which I wrote about a year ago on one of Dove’s Facebook discussion pages, “What do you think of Dove advertising,”

on which the suckered cluelessness of people’s enthusiasm for the ad

really bothered me:

The Evolution video is a good video, and it makes a good point, and I'd certainly (maybe) recommend showing it to young girls and boys, but the "fan" comments all show that Dove is succeeding perfectly in its sales pitch: WE are the Ben & Jerry's of cosmetics; OUR brand is not appealing to the insecurities & vulnerabilities that others are. But as a matter of fact: it is – and then some; in fact, there's a special danger, I think, in the way Dove masks its self-interest in the form of a public-service announcement with which it's difficult to disagree. Not to mention that a) everyone knows this already, which adds the pleasant thrill of feeling confirmed in one's morally superior knowledge and b) "our" perception of beauty has ALWAYS been "distorted": perceptions of beauty have always been constructs, and "natural" is as much a construction as any (it dates in this form to the mid-18th century, thank you Rousseau).

Not to mention that the ad allows you to enjoy BOTH varieties of beauty, while also permitting you to assume the additionally titillating position of moral censor.

& not to mention also that in this case Dove's implicit promise is STILL that their products will make women more beautiful than they are naturally (i.e. without cosmetics). Which means that in fact they're STILL appealing to the same fears and insecurities that they would like to appear to be declaring obsolete.


Same tactic, no?

Friday, January 7, 2011

On Nakedness at Abu-Ghraib

I'm about to start teaching a class on "The Modern Nude" (i.e., beginning with the Olympia, of course) and in preparing for it, and looking through all my notes on the subject, I found a proposed op-ed piece I sent to the New York Times in 2004, shortly after the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced. (I almost wrote "a rejected op-ed piece," though of course no such rejection ever comes, one's submission is just ignored and that's it.) It may seem years out of date--and it is, of course--but upon reading it I realized that the ethical turn toward which it builds has since been my main interest in the study of the nude; indeed the reading list for this semester includes Levinas as well as other ethically-oriented philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, and maybe even Stanley Cavell, though I may end up just having to summarize Cavell's arguments. (At the same time, I'm trying to downplay Marxist/ideology-critique/Lacanian readings, not that they're wrong as far as they go, but that they don't quite go far enough--but I'll elaborate that argument another time.)

In any case, without any further prefacing, here is the text of my submission, all nicely dusted off and blinking in incomprehension as it sees the light of (some kind of) print for the first time in the almost seven years since it came into existence. In op-ed-ish, NYT-ish layman's terms (clearly, I was trying to hew as close to formula as I could) it expresses, or at least suggests, pretty well the ethical concerns at which I'm aiming:


The images of abused Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison disturb not only through their simple documentation of horrific acts; they also have a visual power of their own, though one that has little to do with the designs of their makers. After all, though details of the abuse have been known since January, it has been only with the publication of the photographs that the scandal has entered public consciousness. What accounts for the power of these images? One answer lies in their depiction of nakedness; thereby, the images unintentionally take their place in the complex history of representations of the nude, history that stretches back at least to the days of archaic Greece. Of the many art-historical images with which they resonate, we can select a few that can help us better understand the meanings these photographs suggest, and the reactions they elicit in us.

The pyramid of naked bodies seen in several of the photographs offers us a convincing image of hell. Indeed, very similar imagery was used to represent the damned cast into the netherworld in depictions of the Christian Last Judgment from the Middle Ages until at least the seventeenth century. In relief sculptures such as Lorenzo Maitani’s early 14th century façade for the Cathedral of Orvieto, or in frescoes such as Giotto’s at the Arena chapel in Padua, the damned are shown piled atop each other, naked and frail. They make up a seemingly undifferentiated, wriggling mass of flesh, condemned to be devoured by the infernal fire-pits. They are always contrasted with the saved, who more often than not are depicted clothed, and whose more idealized beauty is supposed to suggest their spiritual nature, as opposed to the unredeemed corporeality of the sinful lost souls. They are also always shown being controlled by the devils, who kick them, shove them, and gleefully manhandle them in many other ways.

Another image the photographs may recall, perhaps by way of contrast, is Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleonic-era “Leonidas at Thermopylae.” The large neoclassical canvas, which shows scores of nude warriors embracing each other tenderly the morning before the battle, makes explicit and celebrates the homoerotic bonds that hold an army together. It’s hard to imagine, however, that any modern military force would acknowledge such an explicit statement of the unconscious forces that hold it together; Napoleon certainly did not approve of David’s canvas, though its overt homoeroticism was never mentioned as the cause of his dislike. The behavior of the Abu Ghraib guards looks like a case-study demonstration of the repression and projection of similar psychosexual impulses. Forcing the detainees to simulate homosexual acts, as well as simply forcing them to lie nude against one another, the guards could project homoeroticism upon their demonized enemies, disavowing it in themselves while at the same time taking a very evident pleasure in its display.

Most importantly, however, the images invite comparison with other photographic representations of the human body. Since its invention, the photographic medium has been noted for its power to record the shock value of nakedness. Most photographers, however, have recoiled from this very power. One need only think of the aestheticization of the nude in the works of Imogen Cunningham or Edward Weston, where the naked body is converted into abstract plays of light and shadow, or of the parallel objectification that can be seen every month in the pages of Playboy. In such cases, formal abstraction or the deft use of the airbrush prevent the viewer from experiencing the actual corporeality of the naked body, and, implicitly, the subjectivity of the depicted individual.

A parallel kind of objectification can be seen at Abu Ghraib, carried out for the sake of neither aesthetics nor eroticism, but to strip the prisoners of their most elementary human dignity. Ironically, however, the guards’ own grotesque choice to commemorate their acts visually has helped to reverse that objectification. The deciding factor here was that the photographers were not professionals but amateurs, and thus incapable of, as well as uninterested in, shielding us by aesthetic means from the power of human nakedness. Looking at the photographs, we not only feel ashamed that our own troops have perpetrated such horrors. A further shame arises from our simple identification with those debased bodies, and from our realization that, as human beings, we are always in danger of ending up in the very same situation as theirs.

The French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas thought that at the root of all ethics lay the simple encounter with the face of the other. In the Abu Ghraib photographs, in a further attempt to dehumanize the prisoners, all the faces are hooded. And yet, isn't there a sense that the process envisioned by Lévinas can still take place—that it is not the faces, but the humiliated, objectified, yet all too real naked bodies of the other that will force a sense of ethics upon us?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Nostalgia for Texture, 4

Third attempt at theory.

Back to the problem of nylons. – Nostalgia for texture is fundamentally erotic. It’s driven by a desire for tactility, a desire to touch something that can no longer be touched; its peculiar paradox seems to be the construction of simulacra of touching precisely via the medium felt to prevent the touching. The lost object (or the object felt to be lost) is, I think, The Breast.

If I’m going to capitalize that, I suppose I shall need a theory to take things further; but which? My best guess is Lacan, but I’ve never been able to stand him long enough to understand him. There’s Piaget’s distinction between the sucked breast and the seen breast – as far as I understand it, the point here (as with Lacan?) is that human individuation occurs concurrently with a transition from an infantile feeling of physical identity with the mother (of which the breast is, or becomes, a metonym) to a sense of non-identity confirmed by the distancing quality of sight – but although I like this distinction as a heuristic, I don’t know Piaget’s theory (or his rep) well enough to follow it through to further theoretical consequences. In a bit, I’ll see what I can do with Alois Riegl’s distinction of haptic from optic styles in art… From this much alone, though, it’s clear that nostalgia for texture is psychologically regressive, involving a fantasy of identity with (or in) an object of desire perceived as lost in a transition to exile; Eden again. Where then has technological change been conceived as an expulsion from the garden? Prometheus, probably; which brings me to Goethe’s Faust in his study.

A few paragraphs from the same as-yet-incomplete elsewhere as before:

The Faust legend has been a means of expressing anxiety about sexuality since its conflation, by 1587, with the legend of Cyprian of Antioch, whose use of the Devil’s help to win his pious beloved Justina seems to have introduced the Helena theme to the scholar’s tragedy.[1] Characterizing the Faust legend as “l’expression la plus parfaite de la Réforme,” in which we see accumulated many of its ideological traits – “la censure de l’imaginaire, la culpabilité intrinsèque de la nature et de son instrument principal: la femme,” Ioan Couliano observes, for one, the degree to which such anxiety is registered culturally, in Reformation Europe, by a trend in fashion to hide and flatten Nature’s favored metonym, the female breast; and, for another, by a surge of ambivalent interest in magic; a combination that would inform the European witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[2] Jane Brown identifies the same fashion trend in late sixteenth-century paintings of women, connecting it not with magic but with anxieties produced by the process of secularization as it affected the problem of representation.[3] But secularization and early modern thinking on magic are linked phenomena, and if the one informs what Brown calls “the persistence of allegory” in later literature, so does the other.[4]

The first study scene (“Nacht”) of Goethe’s Faust expresses related concerns, using similar tropes. “Welch Schauspiel! aber ach! ein Schauspiel nur!” Faust declaims in frustration, having sought direct contact with Nature in signs – in this case, a printed sign, in a book, of the Macrocosm. “Wo faß ich dich, unendliche Natur?/ Euch Brüste, wo? Ihr Quellen alles Lebens, /An denen Himmel und Erde hängt,/ Dahin die welke Brust sich drängt – / Ihr quellt, ihr tränkt, und schmacht ich so vergebens?” Oddly, Faust has just turned to books, directly following (indeed, as if in answer to) a violent rejection of them: “Weh! steck ich in dem Kerker noch? Verfluchtes, dumpfes Mauerloch! Wo selbst das liebe Himmelslicht/ Trüb durch gemalte Scheiben bricht” – this an image of media generally – “Beschränkt mit diesem Bücherhauf,/ Den Würme nagen, Staub bedeckt,/ […] Das ist deine Welt! Das heißt eine Welt!” Just as Goethe’s Werther, rejecting an early offer to have his books sent to him, can protest, paradoxically, that his heart “doch genug aus sich selbst [braust],” then declare: “Ich brauche Wiegengesang, und den habe ich in Fülle gefunden in meinem Homer”;[5] and just as Werther, later, can soothe a soul troubled by social rejection with a carriage ride out to a sunset accompanied by Wetstein’s Homer,[6] so also does Faust find himself looking to printed signs in the very act of seeking to escape them.


This would be another example of the paradox that has nostalgia seeking fulfillment in simulacra of (sensual) experience produced by the very technologies perceived to be blocking access to such experience.

To continue.

Marlowe’s Faustus, too, has a problem with text: “I’ll burn my books!”[7] This, his last-ditch effort to avoid hell, ends a final monologue whose central theme is not books, but what seems a problem of individuation. This Faust, to avoid damnation, would have the earth swallow him; the stars draw him up “like a foggy mist/ Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud,/ That, when you vomit forth into the air,/ My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,/ So that my soul may but ascend to heaven”; he envies the beasts, for “all beasts are happy,/ For when they die/ Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;/ But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell. […] O soul, be chang’d into little water drops,/ And fall into the ocean, n’er be found.”[8] The extended desperate metaphor of dissolution is, I believe, a response to the “feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual” – to the radical sense of aloneness with one’s own soul in the face of the problem of grace – that Max Weber saw at the heart of Calvinist Protestantism; precisely, Faustus’s loneliness.[9] “He is not well with being over-solitary,” observes one of his students. The comment applies to both Fausts, Marlowe's and Goethe's. The connection, for both, of such loneliness with the problem of books is characteristic generally of German (perhaps European) reactions to media revolutions at two (or, perhaps, four) distinct points in history. One of these – Marlowe’s context and that of the Faust legend’s origins – is the sixteenth-century print revolution, occasioned by the invention of movable type around 1450 and greatly accelerated by Humanist scholarship and the pamphlet wars of the Reformation, in the 1520s and after. Another is the last third of the eighteenth century, the moment in which the German Mittelstand – Werther’s class – began to define itself as such, above all by construing itself as a reading (and book-buying and -publishing) public. In both eras, the positive value of printed texts as a medium of social and individual self-construction trailed a shadow in anxieties about the downside, the dangers of alienation in printing and reading.

From another sketch I wrote recently.

By the end of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe no longer needs the Good and Bad Angels of the morality tradition: they have changed fully from theological exteriorizations of conscience to moments of inward psychology, voices in Faustus’s head. What these voices enunciate is a terror of selfhood, of radical individuation; and what Faustus answers them with is a fantasy of dissolution, of de-individuation. If here selfhood is coded in terms of ethical conflict with God the Father, dissolution is cast as a flight from the angry father into the womb of Nature, the primal mother. Faustus, to avoid damnation, would have the earth swallow him; the stars draw him up “like a foggy mist/ Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud,/ That, when you vomit forth into the air,/ My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,/ So that my soul may but ascend to heaven” (V.ii.86-90); he envies the beasts, for “all beasts are happy, for when they die/ Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements,/ But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell. […] O soul, be chang’d into little water drops,/ And fall into the ocean, n’er be found” (V.ii.103-105, 111-112). To repeat: the extended desperate metaphor of dissolution is, I believe, a response to the “feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual” – to the radical sense of aloneness with one’s own soul in the face of the problem of grace – that Max Weber saw at the heart of Calvinist Protestantism.[10] The phantasmatic retreat to a state of non-differentiation in nature, coded female – with which the German romantics, too, answered their sense of the “fragmentary” quality of modern culture, which they blamed partly on Protestantism – is here articulated specifically in terms of a series of bodily fluids: implicitly, blood and tears; explicitly, milk and saliva. The aporia of Calvinist predestination is phrased in terms of a choice between bloods: Faustus’s own, used to seal the pact with the Devil, and Christ’s which could redeem him. This choice between bloods cannot be resolved without aid of tears: “Break heart, drop blood, and mingle it with tears,/ Tears falling from repentant heaviness/ Of thy most vile and loathsome filthiness” (V.i.39-41). Tears, a sign of repentance at an emotional level (not just the volitional, as are both bloods) are not forthcoming; in his desperation, unaided by tears, Faustus turns first to a vaporization of blood in what is implicitly the Milky Way: “See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!/ One drop would save my soul, half a drop. Ah, my Christ!” (V.ii.74-75) and finally to images of integration into the natural water cycle: “O soul, be chang’d into little water drops,/ And fall into the ocean, n’er be found” (V.ii.111-112). Between these two fantasies of escape, we see Faustus distracted – seduced – by the saliva of a succubus, of womanhood marked as false, whorish, demonic: “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. [They kiss.]/ Her lips sucks forth my soul. See, where it flies!” (V.i.92-93) Tears and milk are the answer; blood and saliva are not. The difference seems one between a regression to primal unity – psychologically, the preverbal oneness of mother and child, so often imagined as a return to Nature (as Isis, she of the many breasts)[11] – and the problematic entrapment in the guilts of family (blood) and sexuality (saliva, etc.)[12] attendant on the development to individuated selfhood. “O, would that I had never seen Württemberg, never read book!” (V.ii.19-20). This recalls Nietzsche, quoting Silenus, companion of Dionysus: “What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is – to die soon.”[13] The problem, however, is not being born. It’s what comes after: the fall into language (“I’ll burn my books!”) and hence into selfhood and the Oedipal “law of the father” (Freud). From here (so it seems to Faustus), there is no way back to the mother, to the breast, to Nature, to Paradise.

Final reflection.

I suppose that it’s no coincidence that Condillac’s ideal armature for the sensations was a (statue of a) nude woman, or that in Pygmalion Rousseau’s Galatea convinces herself of her individual selfhood by an act of touch:

Galathée se touche, et dit :


Pygmalion, transporté


Galathée se touchant encore

C'est moi.


Ravissante illusion qui passes jusqu'à mes oreilles, ah ! n'abandonne jamais mes sens.

Galathée fait quelques pas et touche un marbre

Ce n'est plus moi.

(Pygmalion, dans une agitation, dans des transports qu'il a peine à contenir, suit tous ses mouvements, l'écoute, l'observe avec une avide attention qui lui permet à peine de respirer. Galathée s'avance vers lui et le regarde ; il se lève précipitamment, lui tend les bras, et la regarde avec extase. Elle pose une main sur lui ; il tressaille, prend cette main, la porte à son coeur, et la couvre d'ardents baisers.)

Galathée, avec un soupir.

Ah ! encore moi.

Rousseau’s fantasy, typically, resolves the non-identity involved in individuation with an identity recovered in erotic love for one’s own work of art; a Narcissist’s move that, equally typically, Goethe came to deplore. Why? (This will take some explaining, but it's a key point.) In any case, such regression, although Goethe felt it (see Werther) was not for him (see Werther). It’s not for me either, though the pull is strong…

In this context, it might be worth finding out how often early filmmakers used the conceit of the living statue; there are three examples in the Austrian Film Archive’s collection of early pornography Saturn, Filme 1906-1910: Die erotischen Anfänge der österreichischen Kinematografie, but I expect there’d have been many more. I must ask Gustav Deutsch and Hanna Schimek… Hauke Lange-Fuchs counts 160 silent Faust films between 1890 (a Zoopraxinoscope series) and 1933 (Faust im Film, 28-30). Méliès alone seems to have made five or six.

[1] That is, if one doesn’t include the accusations of sodomy levelled against the historical Faust in 1507 and 1532. Bates I and VI. On Faust & Cyprian see Ioan Peter Couliano, Éros et magie à la renaissance 1484 (Paris: Flammarion, 1984), 282-291. Note Aby Warburg’s inclusion of the “Raub der Helena” theme in his Mnemosyne-Atlas, as an “Antike Vorprägung” of the ninfa fiorentina (WIA, Kasten 12; Mnemosyne-Atlas, Tafeln 24.8, 33.63, 33.9, 35.2, 35.5, 35.72, 35.81, 35.92, 37.19, 37.20, 3.23, 37.24, 38.92) and hence as a Pathosformel for anxiety about women and the dangers they signify. See also Ernst Gombrich, Roberto Calasso & Ulrich Raulff on the ninfa.

[2] Ioan Couliano, Éros et magie à la Renaissance, 282-291. On connections of anxieties about breastfeeding with accusations of witchcraft in the early modern period, see Deborah Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1995), 18, 52, 66, 72-73, 156.

[3] Jane K. Brown, The Persistence of Allegory, 9. See also Hans Blumenberg, “Weltverlust und demiurgische Selbstbestimmung,” Säkularisierung und Selbstbehauptung (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974), 158-166.

[4] Recent work on Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1926) – in parts, a reworking of the Faust theme – has made clear the extent to which anxieties about media change and the slippage of signs remain linked with gender anxieties in the cinema’s early years, while tending (in Lang) to allegory. See especially Tom Gunning’s chapter on Metropolis in The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity (London: British Film Institute, 2000), and Andreas Huyssen, “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” New German Critique 24/25 (Autumn 1981 – Winter 1982): 221-237.

[5] Werther, Erstes Buch, Brief des 13. Mai

[6] Werther, Zweites Buch, Brief des 15. März; see Hans Rudolf Vaget, Dilettantismus und Meisterschaft. Zum Problem des Dilettantismus bei Goethe: Praxis, Theorie, Zeitkritik (Munich: Winkler, 1971), 51.

[7] “Am Ende plant er, wie jeder schwarze oder weiße literarische Magier der Renaissance einschließlich Faustus, seine Bücher zu zerstören.” Jane K. Brown, Ironie und Objektivität 108.

[8] Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, A-text, act 5.

[9] Max Weber, Protestant Ethic, 104; Pauline Honderich, “John Calvin and Doctor Faustus,” The Modern Language Review 68.1 (Jan., 1973), 1-13

[10] Weber, Protestant Ethic, 104

[11] See Pierre Hadot, Le Voile d’Isis. Essai sur l’histoire de l’idée de Nature (Paris: Gallimard, 2004).

[12] Note to self: There might be more to do here with the psychoanalysis of succubi. See Ernest Jones, “Incubus and Incubation,” On the Nightmare (London: International Psycho-Analytic Society/Hogarth Press, 1951), 82-97.

[13] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 42.