Sunday, October 31, 2010
Once home, I started flipping through it, for hours on end, remembering the fascination its strange, tiny line illustrations held for my eight- or ten-year old self, on rainy afternoons when I'd been dropped off by my parents and when I could find nothing better to read in the house. (I should add that my parents owned a larger, more up-to-date, mid-seventies edition of the same book, one in which all of the line illustrations had been replaced by photographs and which consequently felt significantly less magical to me).
A dictionary, if you think about it, is a perfectly closed system, words referring to other words, definitions only made up of terms that need to be defined in their turn--until images are involved. The images function as an escape hatch from that seamless tissue of verbiage, and turn the dictionary into a machine for dreaming--dreaming of faraway places, long-dead creatures, obsolete modes of transportation, and natural phenomena one will never experience at first hand. I could go on about these illustrations forever--many of them seem to have survived from earlier, even much earlier, editions of the dictionary, maybe from the 1930's or even the 1890's, and some remind me of nothing so much as the book plates I had in my complete works of Jules Verne, another one of my childhood treasures--but I'd rather just show some of them to you. I've liberated them from their labels, the better to encourage reverie; and also because, the moment you don't know what they're supposed to be illustrating, each of them can open up a whole new world. Here then are my favorites, in alphabetical order, from B to M (and do keep in mind that, in the original, each one of these is less--some significantly less--than an inch high):
In their own way, they tell a kind of story, don't they?
Saturday, October 30, 2010
In October of last year I went to see Ulrike Ottinger’s film Prater (2007) at the Harvard Film Archive. The film got me in the places that thoughts of the old Coney Island and its slow destruction get me in NYC every summer. (My mother’s Brooklyn childhood; my grandfather’s photographs of Coney and Canarsie; my own memories of maybe three visits to Luna Park grafted onto what I imagine to have been their attachment to the place.) Greasy, noisy, exciting, slightly dangerous machines, freakshows and old carney skank, chromolithography, family entrepreneurial sagas, the eternal impassable watershed of the war… When I asked, Ottinger insisted that she never meant the film to be nostalgic. That may be so, but it certainly shows and elicits a certain nostalgia, for what Ottinger called (something like) the supersession of mechanical by electronic entertainment. Nostalgia for the machine: again, for the technology before last, which, at least, could be smelled, touched, tasted, heard – not only seen. – They still have freakshows at Coney Island. I’ve been to one of them twice – “Sideshows By the Seahore.” Good stuff, but even if those nails are really going into his nose and those swords down her throat, it’s a simulacrum, a museum of itself: as at Colonial Williamsburg, the performers, in period costume, talk of what “they” used to do. Perhaps this is not unlike the dealer at the 2005 Armory photography show I saw showing recent Daguerrotypes, Platinotypes, Cyanotypes, Calotypes, gum bichromate prints… the whole alt-process thing a clear reaction to digital.
Why, given so much work in found-footage cinema, is there, apparently, so little comparable found-audio music? I should be more precise: sampling and scratching are, certainly, found-audio music; but the only example I’ve found that revives historical, “orphan” sound, elegiac or not, is John Schott’s Shuffle Play: Elegies for the Recording Angel (2000), which frankly rather bores me. What I’d maybe like is a Beastie Boys or DJ Shadow remix of old gospel and vaudeville and Edison cylinders (Tom’s Boutique)... Are the careful new Dust-To-Digital and Revenant compilations really found-audio compositions, or are they the mixtapes preceding found-audio mash-ups yet to come? The odd thing is that in the early days of montage, sound montage was not far behind image montage, and even the latter was thought of musically: Walther Ruttmann made his visual “symphony” of Berlin in 1927, then the “sound montage” film Melodie der Welt in 1929; Dziga Vertov began with experiments in sound montage as early as 1916, moved from there to visual montage, then returned to sound with Entuziazm, in 1931. I can’t imagine that the difference is due simply to the fact that this was not found-footage cinema, nor elegaic.
First attempt at theory.
(From something I’m having trouble writing about several versions of the Faust story:)
In his Abeze- und Lesebuch [ABC and Reader] of 1807, the German pedagogue Joachim Heinrich Campe warned against teaching children to read before the age of six, arguing that it was better to allow them first to exercise their senses with direct perceptions of nature than to start by conveying knowledge about nature through printed or written signs. Campe worried especially that reading too early could harm a child’s ability to perceive things directly: “Die Erlernung und die oft wiederholte Vorstellung der Zeichen schwächen und lähmen in jungen Seelen den Trieb zur klaren und lebendigen Vorstellung der Sachen; sind wenigstens ein langweiliger und ermüdender Umweg zu diesen; verhalten sich zu ihnen gerade so, wie das nahrungslose, bloß hinhaltende, bloß beschwichtigende Lutschbeutelchen zu der vollen Mutterbrust [The learning and the often repeated imagination of signs weaken and lame in the young soul the drive to the clear and lively imagination of things; are at least a boring and tiring detour on the way to the latter; are in precisely the same relation to them, as the non-nutritive, simply delaying, simply appeasing pacifier is to the full mother’s breast].” Campe’s concern with the matter of reading here coincides metaphorically with his promotion of breast-feeding in the Allgemeine Revision des gesammten Schul- und Erziehungswesens (General Revision of Schools and Education, 1785), where in a contribution entitled “Diätetik der Säugenden” [Dietetics of Nursing Babies] one Konrad Friedrich Uden develops Rousseau’s construction (in Émile) of breast-feeding as the cornerstone of bourgeois morality into a 200-page antecedent of a La Leche League manifesto attacking wet-nursing in favor of nursing by mothers themselves. The metaphor is, so to speak, pregnant: representing one kind of distancing with another – the gap between child and reality by the gap between infant and breast – it addresses, in two different registers, what seems to me a form of anxiety characteristic of the second half of the eighteenth century. We might trace its origins, or at least its first canonical literary formulations, to Rousseau’s preoccupation with what Jean Starobinski has called “transparency,” and its obstruction. “Qu’il serait doux de vivre parmi nous,” Rousseau writes in the Discourse on Arts and Sciences (1750), “si la contenance extérieure était toujours l’image des dispositions de coeur” [How sweet it would be to live among us, if the outward countenance were always the image of the dispositions of the heart]. Starobinski notes that this sense of a rupture between appearance and being – of opacity or an obstruction where there should be transparency or access – “engenders other conflicts, like a series of amplified echoes: rupture between good and evil (between good and bad people), rupture between nature and society, between man and his gods, between man and himself.” This preoccupation seems certainly to have extended, for Rousseau, both to the alienation from nature effected by language and to the general social alienation that he construed as a consequence of women’s refusing to nurse their own babies.
In general (Starobinski notes further), Rousseau’s theory of Man’s corruption by social life – in which, from the First Discourse on, such rupture so centrally figures – rewrites the Biblical drama of the Fall. In the Discourse on Arts and Sciences, Rousseau “rewrites a philosophical Genesis where neither the Garden of Eden nor sin nor the confusion of languages is lacking. A laicized, ‘demythologized’ version of the history of origins, but which, supplanting Scripture, repeats it on another language. […] Man, in his first condition, hardly emerges from animality; he is happy: this primitive condition is a paradise; he will never emerge from animality until he will have had an opportunity to exercise his reason, but with the increasing capacity for reflection there comes the knowledge of good and evil, the uneasy conscience discovers the misfortune of separated existence: it is therefore a fall.” In the Confessions, Rousseau dates an original loss of immediacy of experience to the age at which he began to read, aligning this loss with the Fall by construing the outcome as alienation in a self-consciousness from which he cannot return: “J’ignore ce que je fis jusqu’à cinq ou six ans: je ne sais comment j’appris à lire; je ne me souviens que de mes premières lectures et de leur effet sur moi: c’est le tems d’où je date sans interruption la conscience de moi-même [I have no idea what I did before the age of five or six: I do not know how I learned to read; all I remember is what I first read and its effect on me; this is the moment from which I date my first uninterrupted consciousness of myself].” Calling early learning from reading a “dangerous method,” he observes a similar problem to Campe with signs as ersatz experience: “Je n’avois aucune idée des choses, que tous les sentimens m’étoient déjà connus. Je n’avois rien conçu; j’avois tout senti. Ces émotions confuses que j’éprouvois coup sur coup n’alteroient point la raison que je n’avois pas encore: mais elles m’en formérent une d’une autre trempe, et me donnerent de la vie humaine des notions bizarres et romanesques, dont l’experience et la réflexion n’ont jamais bien pu me guérir [I had as yet no ideas about things, but already I knew every feeling. I had conceived nothing; I felt everything. This rapid succession of confused emotions did not damage my reason, since as yet I had none; but it provided me with one of a different temper; and left me with some bizarre and romantic notions about human life, of which experience and reflection have never quite managed to cure me]. The lesson recurs in Émile: “Que sert d’inscrire dans [la] tête [des enfants] un catalogue de signes qui ne représentent rien pour eux?” [What use is it to inscribe in the heads of infants a catalogue of signs that represent nothing for them?]
One of the highlights, for me, of the Orphans 7 film conference at NYU this past April (http://www.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/orphans7/program.php) was a series of short films by Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin, entitled Lossless. Using software that they had designed, Baron and Goodwin had managed to extract and project the difference between how we see films on screen and how we see them on DVD; to let us see, in other words, what we lose to the new digital technology. Here, in Lossless 1, you can see “the result of analog to digital conversion” in a well-chosen scene from The Wizard of Oz: http://c-cyte.blogspot.com/2009/08/no-place-like-home-rebecca-barons-doug.html. The artists explain in voiceover: “We’ve seen The Wizard of Oz more times than any other movie. We imagine it playing in a movie palace, on a big screen, in full Technicolor. But the truth is that we’ve only seen it on the family TV. Now we can watch the digitally enhanced ultra-resolution DVD on our computer screen. What has changed? This shows exactly what has changed.” What we have lost visually is a lot of the sparkle in those ruby slippers; symbolically, some of the force of this classic emblem of the losses entailed in the process of growing up. In growing up – so we feel – we lose our childhood. It’s odd, then, that nostalgia so often expresses itself as a sense that we’ve lost our parents’ childhood: those movie palaces (where my father, aged seven, first saw The Wizard of Oz, and never forgot it, as I remember); or the advertising, not of the '70s, but of the '50s (when did the '50s get refashioned into an age of innocence?). – While watching Lossless 3, which does something similar to Lossless 1 with extended segments of John Ford’s The Searchers, I felt an almost physical need in myself to put my hand through the screen and grab what was eluding me: to reach into that shimmering pixellated desert and recover what was being lost. I was pleased and surprised when Rebecca, discussing this film, made a grasping motion with her hands to describe a similar feeling. What we lose is visual information, but we express that loss in terms of tactility: one sense is being deprived, but we feel that two, or all, are.
Second attempt at theory.
Historical moments of media revolution – of massive changes either in media technology, or in the markets for distribution of already existing technologies – tend to produce cultural anxieties that express themselves as fear of a loss of perceptual immediacy. In the second half of the eighteenth century, as media markets rearrange themselves around the rising literate middle classes and their cultural ambitions, Rousseau and Campe worry that book-learning will damage man’s ability to learn through the senses, while Johann Gottfried Herder, building on Diderot, Condillac and Rousseau, makes the argument (in Plastik, 1770) that not vision but touch is the more primary sense and the one through which learning best happens in childhood. The problem has antecedents in certain sixteenth-century discussions concerning the print revolution, which I’ll try to approach in a later post, along with related debates of cinema’s “transitional period” (ca. 1907-1915). It survives, for example, in Guy Debord’s late ‘60s disapproval of the “society of the spectacle”: “Since the spectacle’s job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialized mediations, it is inevitable that it should elevate the human sense of sight to the special place once occupied by touch; the most abstract of the senses, and the most easily deceived, sight is naturally the most readily adapatable to present-day society’s generalized abstraction.” (The Society of the Spectacle, sec. 18, quoted in Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer, 19.) Point taken, but Debord’s phrase “a world that is no longer directly perceptible” gives me pause: when was the world ever directly perceptible?
To be continued.
 Johann Heinrich Campe, Abeze- und Lesebuch, in Sämmtliche Kinder- und Jugendschriften von Johann Heinrich Campe (Braunschweig: In der Schulbuchhandlung, 1830), I:1-2.
 Konrad Friedrich Uden, “Diätetik der Säugenden,” in Joachim Heinrich Campe, Allgemeine Revision des gesammten Schul- und Erziehungswesens von einer Gesellschaft praktischer Erzieher, part 3 (Hamburg: Carl Ernst Bohn, 1785), 77-290. On Rousseau, see Simon Richter, Missing the Breast: Gender, Fantasy, and the Body in the German Enlightenment (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 12; on Campe & Uden, 93 ff.
 Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La transparence et l’obstacle, suivi de Sept essais sur Rousseau (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), 13
 Starobinski 14
 “Naturel dans son origine, [le langage] constitue une anti-nature dans ses aboutissements. Le dangereux privilège de l’homme, c’est d’avoir dans sa propre nature la source des pouvoirs per lesquels il s’opposera à sa nature et à la Nature.” Starobinski 357-8.
 Émile (Gallimard ed.), 47-8
 Starobinski 339-340
 “Ces romans sont un vestige de la mère perdue.” Starobinski 18
 Rousseau, Les Confessions (Gallimard ed.), 8; Angela Scholar, trans., p. 8. Editor’s note, p. 1237: “La conscience de soi est donc ici conscience de liseur, et de liseur de romans.”
 Émile, 139
Friday, October 29, 2010
I have a thing for French postcards. The ones from the ‘20s and ‘30s. I don’t like them all equally. The “artistic” nudes – the ones posed like statues with vases or columns, done up like Salomé in veils and snakes, or in Nibelung armor – frankly bore me; the “anatomical” ones, well… What I like best is the flappers with cars or with bicycles on country roads, reading the Kama Sutra on the grass with a girlfriend, with those silly cloche hats and the Clara Bow makeup and the sloppy black stockings in mid-thigh disarray. The stockings especially. Not that I’m into that ordinarily. It took me a while to see what it was. It was that they weren’t nylon. Nylon was invented in 1940. Silk and rayon and cotton drape differently on the leg. You can’t rumple nylon.
Stopped in “Buckaroo’s Mercantile” the other day, one of those shops that sells retro stuff: Archie jam jars, Chango Macho 7-day candles, ‘50s ashtrays, Mexican floral oilcloth by the yard, spud guns, lampshades, vintage film posters. Like the tin adverts for Schlitz and Pennzoil, the posters were reproductions, but good ones – digital; the place had a good selection, but the owner said he could order others online, from a catalogue. Then, apropos ordering – oddly – he apologized for his laptop: he didn’t much like it, but it was useful for business. Why did he feel a need to apologize for his computer? What he sells is nostalgia for technologies of reproduction before digital: chromolithography, glass appliqué, letterpress – technologies with stronger tactile qualities than what we live with now (digital, offset). He can move some of the cheaper originals – fruit labels, postcards, bowling shirts – but there aren’t that many around and the good ones would be too expensive for his niche, so his business is mostly in simulacra: the posters and new tin printed to look weatherbeaten, the new clothing silkscreened with old insignia, the published anthologies of ‘20s and ‘30s matchbook cover art, Tijuana bibles, Topps wacky packs, Mexican film posters…done by four-color offset in Singapore on smooth matte stock, the matchbooks enlarged to show every fiber of the cheap stock they were printed on… but what they’re now printed on has no fibers, it’s perfectly smooth, and the indentations of the matchbooks' and Tijuana bibles’ letterpress type are now purely optical, a high-tech trompe-l’oeil.
Those French postcards – where did I see them? Printed by Taschen in Singapore (or maybe China).
From Dean Blackwood’s liner notes for the very remarkable compilation CD American Primitive Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939) (Revenant Records): “Particle physicist Carl H. Haber of Lawrence Berkeley (Calif.) Laboratory heard on the radio that archivists needed ways to nondestructively extract sound from old recordings. He makes arrays of sensors for tracking minute particles in powerful accelerators. To align their arrays, they scan sensor surfaces by using a micrometer with submicrometer resolution. The scientist used his microscope to make a two-dimensional map of the grooves on a 78-revolutions-per-minute shellac disc. He also wrote software that calculates the velocity with which a stylus would move in the mapped grooves. A sound clip from the virtual disc sounded better than the same section played back from the original disc with a stylus did, Haber reported in the December 2003 Journal of the Audio Engineering Society.”
A thankful thought.
Without digital technology, none of this weird old shit that I love so much would be coming out on CD. There’s more of it available now, to more people, than there ever was.
(From a proposal for an MLA talk that was not accepted and never quite got off the ground.)
Found-Footage Film as Elegy.
Elegy is a tendency in found-footage filmmaking, though not all found-footage film is elegy. My films: Decasia – The State of Decay (Bill Morrison, 2002); Welt Spiegel Kino (Gustav Deutsch, 2005); Wienfilm 1896-1976 (Ernst Schmidt Jr., 1977); Kádár’s Kiss (Péter Forgács, 1997); Lyrical Nitrate (Peter Delpeut, 1990). My non-elegiac control group, some of which include moments of elegy: Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936); The Forbidden Quest (Peter Delpeut, 1993); Diva Dolorosa (Peter Delpeut, 1999); Film ist. (Gustav Deutsch, 1998/2002/2009); The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Esfir Shub, 1927); Tribulation 99 (Craig Baldwin, 1998).
These films are elegies for what? For content, medium, form, possibilities lost, roads not taken. Content: lost worlds, people now dead, places changed utterly, eras past. Medium: particular moments in the technological history of cinema, often approached with a focus on the medium’s materiality, e.g. the chemical degradation of nitrate film, dye fading or saturation, scratches. Form: past techniques and styles of filmmaking, acting, mise-en-scène, dress. The films are sometimes, not always, nostalgic, but never simply so. They are often utopian, their mourning of possibilities lost (roads not taken: moments in the development of technologies or of cinematic codes that precede forks in the historical road through narrative & formal options) amounting usually to a critique of the present (of the roads in fact taken, especially of the normalized narrative strategies of classical Hollywood cinema and of the cultural and political hegemonies it supports). The utopianism is more often than not recuperative: the films mourn possibilities lost, but in so doing return them as possibilities to mind and attempt to reclaim them – as elegy will – for those still living.
Added reflection, 2010.
Modern found-footage filmmaking normally requires cutting-edge restoration practice & editing technology, and I’ve seen most of it on DVD.
(Noise is the new black:) That fat splintery tone that Jack White gets with the White Stripes and which seems to have carried over to the Dead Weather, that tone that just screams authenticity, the sonic correlate of his tube amps (the technology before last!), the neo-Western bone grime of Horehound, and the insistence (on Elephant) that “No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing or mastering of this record” – how does he get that tone? Big Muff and Digitech Whammy, mostly, is my guess.
More examples and, eventually, theory to follow.