Friday, April 27, 2007

A view of East Rock

from the banks of the Mill River, a birding hotspot of southern Connecticut


Hilary Irons, Northern Lights, 2007, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 40 x 44 inches


A detail featuring the American Woodcock, falsely identified by me as the Common Snipe, doing its characteristic up-and-down bobbing move

The experience begins as a fascination with unexpected detail, the aptness of accident, real-time exploration of the unknown

Romanticism can be distinguished from idealism by a peculiarity in its attitude toward the unity of mind and world in knowledge. When romanticism asserts that the world exists in acts of mind, it intends not to deflate more robustly realistic pictures of knowing about the world, but to insist on a form of experience that is superior to them. It does not defend idealism as a philosophical truth but rather exalts it as the highest and most divine genus of knowledge, which knowledge may grow from acquaintance with the most fine-grainedly empirical. This sense of idealist knowledge as a sort of achievement is clear in the following passage from Schneetüben:
I have recently embraced a theory of knowledge on which what is known is a rare and complex particular that exists only in its being known, and that it is available only in an unforced alignment of inner and outer circumstances. (Chemnitzer Tagebücher, 34)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What you can know about a thing only when the thing is there

is generally less well understood than what you can extract from the thing and translate and interpret and know even when the thing is gone, like what it says, means, is about, is like, is influenced by, colludes with, or refers to.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, the author of Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey, wants to help us understand being there with the thing:
We know that, shortly after eight o’clock in the evening, the orchestra will begin to play an overture that we have heard many times. And yet the discontinuity that marks the moment in which the first sounds are produced will “hit” us—producing an effect of eventness that implies neither surprise nor innovation. (84)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I am outside in the city in a walled garden alone

Again the garden goes back further than I expected

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The last mall

Yesterday evening I set out to find images of a department store I went to as a child, thinking that its logo, a yellow, orange, and brown rainbow pitched to the side, might fit some ancient neural lock and open mnemonic pathways of forgotten consumer desire, of the misplaced and perverse and basically theological awe with which I regarded the store, under whose sepia arc were gathered the objects that summarized and held prisoner my wishes. This interest, however shabby and debased, is apparently not idiosyncratic, for I discovered a sizeable Internet community devoted to the resurrection in word and image of defunct chain stores and abandoned malls. It is common for retail enthusiasts to visit the defaced concrete shells of the stores that held them in thrall and examine them as they might the body of some fallen Titan. Some have quasi-academic aims, while others are driven by an Asperger’s-like fixation that, under different subjective circumstances, might have attached itself to amusement park rides, trains, bridges, or weaponry, but as it happens has shown up as, say, the need to visit every former Caldor in New Jersey. Accounts of what crumbled ceiling tiles, brackish pools, or flourishing trees of mold were visible through the plate glass are posted to message boards and illustrated with photos of cracked plaza signage, still-extant pebbled trashcans, and parking lot weed-life. You can find photos of store aisles and displays from the 1980s, the walls striped with combinations of colors flushed from aesthetic imagination over dozens of cycles of rebranding, sketches of remembered floorplans and logos, scans of price tags, receipts, and circulars from the newspaper. The basic impulse behind these efforts of memory, which I share to some degree, is perhaps one level more advanced than the impulse to collect the actual items that dominated one’s consumer imagination as a child, for it locates the desire for a commodity not in the thing but in the place that enshrined it, the dimly glowing mallscape of illuminated fountain jets and globe lights and neon in the dark, in the glowing proper name in the night that marked a site of wish-fulfillment. A further advance, from the active, coursing locus of illusion to its empty frame, its bleached and logoless façade and liquidated, aisleless interior, offers simultaneously the ultimate object of consumer fetish—the most direct and spectacular presentation of an object of desire that can never be made present, a permanently absent referent—and the hope of its extinction.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The best picture of the human soul

“The human body is the best picture of the human soul,” wrote Wittgenstein. I do not know what he meant, but it is easy to imagine a home for this remark, maybe a gallery of sculptures of ancient Olympians poised to throw a javelin or discus; a patch on the rucksack of a Wandervogel identifying wildflowers along the Spree; the cries of a coxswain on the Cam; a post-game interview with Shaq, who praised Aristotle for his belief that “excellence is a habit”; a block-lettered banner strung across the glass front of the Planet Fitness you see into from the highway on your drive home. Maybe Carl Sagan said something like this to the NASA people when he proposed his and his wife’s design for the plaque on the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, the naked man and woman standing side by side, waving, perhaps the first picture of the human soul to make it out of the solar system, a message to extraterrestrial life that our bodies are shaped like this, a fundamental and informative fact, to be sure, though perhaps less expressive of our soul than the fact of our having sent Pioneer far beyond our world.


Say we accept Wittgenstein’s dictum; what might the best picture of the human body be? The gingerbread man gets something right, but the head-to-toe humanoid form is usually someone else’s, not your own. The most basic body might not be one you see walking around, but the one you are. Following this suggestion, Ernst Mach took a wild stab at first-personal bodily representation by attempting to draw in the most literal way what met his left eye, but the result suggests a terrible misunderstanding.


Some recent work by Matt Capezzuto, an MFA painting student at Yale, is more promising. Maybe the best picture of the human body—the body that is lived, unspeakable, coextensive with the soul, and always already yours—is a surface with a hole in it.




Sunday, April 08, 2007

Beatles notes

My mom gave me a tape of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band for Christmas when I was ten. I didn’t listen to the whole thing right away. First I couldn’t make it past “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” which made me scared to leave my room at night, and then I got stuck on “Within You Without You,” which gave me the unpleasant sensation of seeing into some interior chamber of the universe where the gears that powered cosmic movements churned away and had always churned, indifferent to the scope of human time. Each song posed a different aesthetic challenge, and a general spookiness reigned throughout, a sense that the music was addressed personally to me, that some disembodied, demonic personality was communicating through a sequence of warbling tones that it knew not just deep shapes of my mind that I could glimpse only fleetingly or not at all, but also how my bedroom was arranged. Maybe an account of the permanent strangeness of the album could begin with a review of children’s experiences of it, the way the buzz of the tamboura in “Getting Better” seemed to cut transversally across normal planes of space, making a clearing in the middle of the density of stuff where self-consciousness could emerge for the first time, the way the doubled notes of the harp on “She’s Leaving Home” seemed to cause designs on the wallpaper to ripple, the way the echoing breaths and moans at the end of “Lovely Rita” seemed to prove that Paul was dead, that Lennon was dead but still speaking to you directly, that sex and death were the same, the way the wordless vocal leading McCartney’s part of “A Day in the Life” back into Lennon’s seemed to suspend you in a column of colored light projected from the triple corner of walls and ceiling. Sgt. Pepper’s is kids’ music, after all, starting with the album’s first guiding concept: a collection of songs about their childhood. Julian Lennon’s drawing of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” that song’s Lewis Carroll park-world, opaque syllable sequences like “Blackburn, Lancashire” that drift into your mind out of the vocabulary of some adult who knows and worries about things whose names refract and echo for you in irrelevant patterns of other meanings, all the scenes of mundane, lower middle-class life in post-war England that are blasted out of into soaring aerial views of radical, ecstatic alterity, the universal rainbow palette of the colors on the cover, the Old Curiosity Shop of pump organs and whistles and pipes and resonating chambers of every antique timbre, the global reach of the animal sounds and sound effects, the absence of regular rock music, the rolling sidewalk streetscape in the stride of the quarter notes, and just the virtuosic musicality of the melodies, the carelessly good Mozart way they seem to just flow out of a heaven of always-existing music, plus the fact that the idea of a pop album as an aesthetic unit was only about one year old—all of this suggests that Sgt. Pepper’s sounds permanently new because it is itself a sort of child, an emerging awareness of mind and world, the construction of a transcendent self out of the accidental, uncool junk of one’s provincial surroundings, a collection of shifting and wondrous effects gathered around an absent core, the central, self-possessed non-knowledge that gives a child space to imagine anything.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Some kind of ventilator

I made a couple mistakes when I asked readers of Long Sunday to help me make a list of phenomena that, though not directly observable, make themselves known by the distortions they cause in some mediating element—think of, say, the Invisible Man. One was not requesting some justification for adding an item to the list—the “Explain.” part of the assignment that teachers perfunctorily require and that students neglect with impunity—for suggestions like capitalism, history, and thoughts are fatuous without further elaboration; these answers themselves are in need of some woolen cloak of narrative or image to make their contours visible. Of the responses I received, I was most impressed by wind and Henry James, though I think that the latter probably doesn’t belong under the given category; while I suspect that Henry James may have believed that Henry James was not available to direct observation, I'm not sure he would have considered language—what other medium could be intended here?—an element in which some more primary thing appears, distortedly.

More fundamentally, I failed to adequately frame the phenomena that really interested me, something more like things that are there and available, but more knowable through some modified representation that contains less information than the original. Think of Neil Young, who found that his autistic son was more responsive to his voice when he spoke through a Vocoder—an electronic device that splits your voice into what sounds like multiple parallel channels of robot frequency, a staggered, receding chorus of electric fan vocalizations— or the close-mic’ed horns on the Beatles’ “Got to Get You into My Life” or “Good Morning Good Morning,” where the distortion and compression recast the melodies in chompable pop-forms before they meet the ear, which is delivered a flow of acoustical fact so selective that the mind's eye doesn’t immediately reconstruct the shape of a saxophone and is instead allowed to synaesthetize freely. My question is this: what is the right amount of information to give the brain in order for the aesthetic imagination to do its work best? What filters and reductions—what forms of omission—what shapes of gap in the thing remove it from real-world reference and place it in the nightspace of stereo audition, the starfield of self-illuminating, self-composing image-objects, the fountain world of nameless, friendly shapes, of unspeakable but immediate micro-stories, of ancient architectures drawn in thought?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

It's such a strange strain on you

We had spelling tests in the first grade, on unerasable, columnar papers wide enough for a dotted and nested number, a word, and the teacher’s marking. In the second grade, we had vocabulary assignments where you got to know one word really well—spelling, meaning, sentence, picture. Our class had a recurring segment in which, if you brought in a new pair of homophones—I/eye—the teacher would add them to a list on the bulletin board—you/ewe, we/wee, die/dye. Special honors were conferred on whoever found the most, and while I was a serious competitor, the most shocking assertion of identity and difference I can still recall was a classmate’s discovery, the triple surface of rain/rein/reign, a revelation that expanded most those minds that saw a word’s sense in its shape. That year, the word “cursive” began to circulate in the classroom, usually paired with some adverb of future time. I knew it that it referred to some pending life-change, some special status-transforming knowledge, before I knew what it denoted or entailed. We learned the characters as units, and by the third grade we were stringing them in single lines on pulpy, horizontally oriented sheets ruled in blue. Soon our most important compositions were to be submitted in cursive, for the elaborate, rule-governed script showed our attunement to the claims of authority, and maybe even that we had infused our writing with care. Calligraphy was offered as a special after-school course which, like French and Violin, students’ parents had to pay for—a prospect that horrified me greatly—and its advanced loops and gradations seemed to perfect the aesthetic and rhetorical tendencies inherent in cursive. I never learned to write beautifully—my hand was dark, compressed, and flowless—and I abandoned cursive as soon as we were allowed to return to block letters sometime in junior high. This was a victory not just for physiological freedom but for words themselves, the recovery of their true alphabetic face from maniacal involutions of line as the cramped, undulating, doodled signatures resolved into simple parts neatly combined.