Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Joys of Close Reading

Most of what passes for cultural criticism in the American press is nothing other than an antiquarian's run down of famous coffee-press designers who went to school with each other.  The impulse seems to come from the worst kind of competitive drive, collecting for collecting's sake, in which even names and mini-histories become a sort of fetishized commodity traded on the free market of in-the-know-ism.

 For those of us with advanced degrees in the humanities who take these things very seriously, this is all a little depressing.  I can think of at least two reasons why my heart is currently sinking:
  1. do people really have so little to talk about?  prime time television successions can't possibly be that interesting.
  2. do people really have so little curiosity about their fellow human beings?  people, haircuts and dress and posture really *do* tell you an absurd amount about your friends' pasts and fantasies of the future, even if you sound like a snob for discussing it in public.  there's so much to be psychoanalyzed.  think, people!
Which is why it's such a charming, refreshing thing to come across a bit of solid cultural criticism in the press, as this morning's marvelous article by Jaime Wolf (three cheers for Jaime Wolf as America's next Susan Sontag!)
On his desk sit copies of Playboy from the 1980's, their pages carefully annotated and tabbed with colored stickers denoting their depiction of socks, pants, T-shirts, electronics, car designs and other markers of style from the period.

Next to these is a stack of come-on letters from television and film casting directors hoping to get Charney to supply them with the kind of fresh and unusual faces on display in American Apparel's provocative print ads.

Further over you'll find some books that Charney has been consulting, including a
collection of Andy Warhol's early hand-painted works; "The Concise 48 Laws of Power," by Robert Greene; and "The Medium Is the Massage," by Charney's fellow Canadian
Marshall McLuhan.
- Jaime Wolf, "And you thought Abercrombie & Fitch Was Pushing It?", The New York Times, April 23, 2006

Close reading, that cherished skill we learned in Comp Lit seminars, is out of fashion in History Departments, relegated to an old-world skill.  In English and Literature departments it's been a downgraded by the importance of identity studies. 

Close Reading seems to be most prized by advertising and fashion industry superstars who have caught onto the fact that people follow patterns and are manipulable. 

One assumes that politicians are interested in such patterns for their own reasons, as, historically, have been Departments of War and Propagana.  People trained in close reading have, historically speaking, been quite important. 

Dov Charney of American Apparel, discussed in the NY Times article above, seems to mostly have caught onto the fact that Americans of a certain racial profile are currently nostalgic for the world they grew up in and paranoid about its imminent demise (following the media-belabored threats of immigration, terrorism, etc.; nothing makes the heart grow fonder...) 

Closely reading current fashion for the savor of nostalgia, Charney then distills that nostalgia into an essence and tries to replicate it, in mass quantities, featuring facial types and twenty-year-out-of-date language.  Fascinating.  What else would one learn if one had one's pulse on American culture?

I find that my heart pines for this kind of Close Reading.  Oh, for a journal or a blog that strictly featured Close Reading.  Oh, for a seminar.  Oh for a decent book of essays!  For the moment, by way of deep analysis we must settle for David Brooks' opinions of the American suburb; Slavoj Zizek's labyrinthine tangents on foreign policy, and the weekly provincial complaints of the New Yorker .  But a scholar can dream.  

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Mass Observation

Last night, my advisor ran into me, all the other British grad students, and a documentarian friend at the PFA screening of How Little We Know of Our Neighbors (Rebecca Baron 2005).

The film handles the first hand-held cameras of the 1870s, the anthropological and voyeuristic use to which hidden cameras were soon put by late Victorians; the Mass Observation movement’s use of cameras for surrealist or phenomenological documentation of every-day Britain; the co-opting of Mass Observation by British wartime propaganda; the transformation of Mass Observation into a marketing research firm; the coming of CCTV and the state’s use of the hidden camera in the 1980s; all interspliced with Baron’s own experiments with filming (often uncomfortable or irreverent) strangers in public places with an undisguised camera.

James Vernon, interpreting the film, drew attention to an underlying tension between phenomenological observation from the individual – assumed to be liberatory – and the state’s harnessing of technology for disciplinary reasons.

Things it made me want to write about:

* The history of Western privacy. We often treat a privacy revolution as occurring between 1870 and 1830, the period of the film, because of the advent of replicable images and the law to deal with them.

Instead, recent British research (including my own) indicates a privacy revolution in architecture, space, and the law of city streets, occurring between 1790 and 1830. how do the two privacy revolutions put each other in perspective?

A spatial privacy revolution at the end of the eighteenth century; a revolution in the privacy of body and face per se at the end of the nineteenth century; a revolution in the privacy of information at the end of the twentieth…

* The hat pin. Frankly, the voyeuristic 1890s photos of sleeping household maids and schoolgirls struck me as not so erotic. Even in the 1930s, Mass Observation photos captured hatpins and hatless women – not so titillating at all, and suprising against Mass Observation’s self explained purpose of unveiling the deep, repressed essence of the Victorian psyche.

Hatpins in Henry James can be deeply symbolic. Early photographers following literary clues might have done no better than to follow Henry James.

And yet the modern equivalents of these voyeuristic photos – from the people Rebecca filmed on public British streets to the humans on the hit show Big Brother – have no hatpins as clues; they model themselves in deeply sexualized, Freudian body language.

Did we need Freud to interpret what to look at once the reign of photography had started?

Or were Freudian, Lacanian, Reichian, and Jungian analyses of the body merely a response to the startling realization that we didn’t know where to look?

* The history of social history. We are still fiddling with identities in my field: when does a racial other become a person, when and how do women get a voice?

Social history is often documented specifically as a tension of the sort James Vernon remarked – as in the Patrick Joyce histories where a rough and interesting tension defines worker identity for most of the later nineteenth century. In part this reaction flees from the old-fashioned English Social History of Macolmson and Trevelyan, all the way down to the 1980s. But is tension enough?

I found myself so unsatisfied with marking merely the tension between private observation and public control in these films.

I wanted to know what that tension did. I wanted social and cultural history becoming political history in the style of Halévy, where Methodist enthusiasms combine long-standing English volunteerism with Welsh exhortatory enthusiasm and produce a new kind of mass culture capable of appealing to and harnessing the energies of the previously unheard working classes.

I wanted to know what the effect of being looked at was, beyond the embarrassment and wariness remarked by this film and Lynn Nead’s writing on the same subject.

After the rise of detective cameras, did people actually begin to hold themselves differently? Or did they decide that posing was futile; did cameras kill the Victorian etiquette manual? Did they give up? Was that the root of so much violent anomie in the 1930s? Is that the root of so much adolescent distress today?

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Monday, April 10, 2006

This is my hometown. This is a red state.

This is a protest against Republican immigration policies in Dallas, Texas. There are half a million people in that crowd, filling a downtown where pedestrians are never seen. The march happened yesterday, a follow-up to the millions-strong marches of students in Los Angeles, Arizona, Florida, and San Francisco.

This is not being covered in the national news. Or rather, for the first time, today, half-million man marches broke the New York Times. What does that say about the effectiveness of marches, activists? What does it say about our jadedness as a nation to matters of public concern?

(thanks to mom, who emailed me first thing...)

For an interesting slice of Texas reactions, it might be salubrious to read the comments on the narrative of a white boy who had his camera smashed by the protesters:
There was a very millitant group holding provocative signs and loaded down with very angry looking young men. Some were shouting “Gringos go back to Europe!” and waving fists. Che was all over the place and the reconquista theme was all over them.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The diplomatic map

Le Monde diplomatique is my favorite political journal. It's available in English translation online, and it monthly details world economics and politics in a piercing, deep-analysis style the Economist only aspires too.

Moreover, Le Monde diplomatique has maps. Really good maps. Maps of oil pipelines, poverty, the world as seen from Tokyo, financial misdealings, migration around the world, the imprint of Chernobyl, and the spread of AIDS.

In the eighteenth century, having good maps meant the difference between winning and losing the war. Even then, regions had technological specialties, and map-making was the most important. The French inevitably had the best cartographers around, and the British were left playing a catch-up game which alternated between training British cartographers according to French methods, using spies to steal French maps, and paying off French deserters to come work in Britain.

How interesting then that two hundred years later America may lead the world with military signals intelligence, satellite technology, and Google Earth, but the French people remain still well before us in terms of map-reading skills.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

Jesus was a Libertarian (?)

Just back from a delightful weekend with the Libertarians in Savannah. Only one impassioned defense of the War on Terror; the rest are profoundly skeptical, even earnest, anti-Neocons, anti- -- a motley crew of anarchists, Southerners, and socially-conscious Roman Catholics. Good times had by all.

I miss conversing with these people when I'm away from them for too long: the academy needs *some* group to defend the humanities, engage long traditions with the current political climate, argue for civil society and limited government, reaching one hand out to the brave new future and one hand back to the folks at home.

Buy your own shirt.

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Extraordinary Rendition

A journalist friend just asked me for comment about Extraordinary Rendition, the US government policy of sending suspected terrorists on no evidence to foreign torture camps overseas.

Amnesty International and the ACLU have just released demands for inquiry. Good luck to them. The fact that only notorious left-winger organizations can keep the theme alive is cue enough that the issue has vanished from the American imagination.

An extraordinary rendition of narrative indeed, the violence worked on the American imagination by the continuing spin of the War on Terror in defiance of any standard of justice or decency.

The Irish are still outraged, and the European press, from Britain to Turkey, still handles the question several times a week.

The most shocking part of the rendition here is how little attention span the American press has for this story.

The British press covered these stories four months ago, expressing outrage from the middle class population. Even the fact that British airports had been used in the process was too grim to countenance, among middle-class, church-going families in English villages. The rest of the world balks at the merest participation in our torture camps, so morally inexcusable, let alone contradictory of our own legal system, are they.

Governments hide facilities when the governments themselves have something to hide. Governments that dispense with justice, fair trial, and open scrutiny of their proceedings subvert the very rights and systems upon which our Constitution was written. They tread into despotism: the world of secret police, hidden cabals, and secret assassinations, to replace the legitimate punishment of criminals, the trial by jury, and the democratic elections of governments. No threat is so great that we can afford to cannibalize the very democratic principles upon which our own freedoms turn.

Many have already suspected that the War on Terror plunges the nation into an era of wasteful propaganda, corporate enrichment, and needless expenditures of military life, under a false banner of democracy. It is too much if the War on Terror has itself become a War on Democracy and Justice.

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Photos from Savannah

tourists on wheelies
Originally uploaded by joguldi.
Increasingly, the part of San Francisco I live makes visits to America feel like going to a foreign country. These tourists, on motorized wheelies, are hearing about a haunted house.

See the other pictures on my Flickr page by clicking on the picture.