Friday, August 11, 2017

stray thoughts: the rhyming spiral of history (pt 2)

Ary Scheffer & Charpentier, Portrait of John Calvin Meditating

Elsewhere in The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to Hegel (1962), authors Bronowksi and Mazlish relate the brutal methods of theocratic dictator John Calvin in settling a dispute with Michael Servetus:
Calvin enforced his regimen with great vigor and, frequently, with outright ferocity. One of his "citizens" was beheaded for writing a set of what Calvin called obscene verses. A card player was pilloried, and an adulterer whipped through the streets and then banished.

Among these, the persecution of Servetus was the gravest incident of Calvin's rule in Geneva. Servetus, who was a doctor and scientist living in France, wrote a book attacking the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Thereupon, he and Calvin became engaged, by letter, in a violent theological polemic. Calvin's anger mounted to the point where, himself a heretic from the Catholic Church, he secretly accused Servetus of heresy to the Catholic Inquisition in France. Servetus was forced to flee; and, as bad luck would have it, his escape route took him through Geneva. Although his book had been neither written nor printed at Geneva, Calvin had Servetus seized and burned at the stake.
I'm not saying that John Calvin invented or even prefigured the au courant practice of "swatting," but you've got to admit that going through back channels to anonymously rat out a despised ideological adversary to the Inquisition is similar in spirit, if not substance, to sending a SWAT team to someone's door on a bogus report of a hostage situation because they offended your sacrosanct beliefs regarding ethics in gaming journalism (or whatever).

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

stray thoughts: the rhyming spiral of history (pt 1)

Walter Raleigh (artist unknown) and Donald Trump (via Vasco Gargalo).
Note the politicians' shared affinity for ruffs.
Given all the signs and wonders promulgated daily in the sci&tech news, it can be tempting to believe the hype, to conclude that our present epoch isn't merely brighter, more diffuse, and faster than earlier ages, but that it signals a social mutation no less explosive than the genesis of agriculture. Maybe so. But as long as one can turn to the literature of earlier ages and still relate to it, and find consonance between accounts of historical moments and today's current events narratives, one must admit that all our extracutaneous prosthetics haven't entirely reinvented humanity and its social institutions (not yet?), but rejiggered them, accelerated them. This isn't to say that our age isn't unexceptional, but it's often difficult to tell where the quantitative changes end and the qualitative transformations begin.

Case in point: I've been reading Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish's The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to Hegel (1962)—I grabbed a used copy ten years ago from a "take these or we're throwing them out" table at my alma mater and finally dug it up and cracked it open—and am routinely writing "cf. virilio" or "we use twitter for that now" in the margins. For example, the chapter on the Elizabethan Age contains a few paragraphs about Walter Raleigh:
[Raleigh's] progress at court was made simpler by the fact that he was a handsome man. He was also helped by his intellectual accomplishments. For example, he read not only the learned tongues but French and Spanish fluently; and none of this was lost on Elizabeth, who was also proficient in languages (it is said that she knew five or six fluently, and read Machiavelli in the original).

Monday, July 31, 2017

Poland slide show

Earlier this year I went to Poland to visit my father. That was...gosh, it was almost two months ago. I do believe another slide show is in order.

A memorial in Pruszków's Park Potulickich. Monuments like this are everywhere around the Warsaw area, and from what I've been told they all tell pretty much the same story: "X Poles murdered in this spot by the Nazis in 1940–45." Even a cursory glance at Polish history makes Americans' histrionics about "border security" look like an infantile hissy fit. We have no concept, no inkling of what it's really like to have "bad hombres" coming onto our turf.

This was my fourth trip to Poland. The first was in the summer of 2009 when I visited for my father's wedding. The subsequent two visits were for Christmas. So I've seen Poland during the winter, and it's as cold and grey and grim as popular lore has it. Pruszków in December is fucking dreary. Pruszków in May, however, regards the mild green joy of the mid-Atlantic United States' effort at springtime with bemusement and says hold my beer. You want verdure? You want perfect temperatures? You want gentle breezes and blue skies? How about eighteen hours of daylight and green like you've never seen green? Central Europe, motherfucker. Get here (it says).

Anyway yeah, these are the steeples of the Catholic church (Katedra?) in the middle of Pruszków. I just remember snapping this while walking to my father's place and just feeling intoxicated with the springtime on a quiet Saturday morning. I sometimes envy my old man for ending up here.

Narcissus. Pruszków. 1 of 1. (My father's wedding was near this plaza, actually.)

Atlas. Warsaw. 1 of 4.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

arguing with something someone saying something about warhol said

Andy Warhol, Flowers (1970)

Periodically throughout Passions for Nature: Nineteenth-Century America's Aesthetics of Alienation (2013), Rochelle Johnson shifts her aim from the intelligentsia of nineteenth-century America to the academy of twenty-first century America, whose "pursuit of reason tends to dismiss the physicality of nature altogether." She doesn't name names (these are her colleagues, after all), but it doesn't take much reading between the lines (or beyond the book) to deduce that she's talking about that species of scholar who would  announce the nature of nature as a "social construct." Poststructuralism has become a hammer, and there's pretty much nothing left on the planet that doesn't look to the catechized academic like a nail.

Most adherents of poststructuralist thought argue that nature's meaning is culturally constructed ... Proponents of this view suggest that we can not understand nature beyond our cultural and ideological blinders because all we have are those blinders ... Nature cannot have any "truth," "meaning," or "inherent value," according to this line of thought, because all truth, meaning, and value must be mediated by the human mind and, therefore, by culture. Other theorists argue, however, than an emphasis of the cultural constructedness of environmental understanding aggrandizes humanity at the expense of the physical world ... In the words of Onno Oerlemans, the risk of what has been called the "ecopoststructuralist" position is "ultimately erasing the materiality of nature through a kind of ontopomorphism in which human subjectivity and discourse become the sole reality."
I'm sure Oerlemans wouldn't need it pointed out to him that for expediency's sake he commits an ontopomorphic error in his formulation of the ecopoststructuralist folly: discourse can no more erode the materiality of our world than can changes to scientific nomenclature affect the physical status of the trans-Neptunian object we call "Pluto." What actually suffers is our ability to to apprehend the world beyond human culture and its artifacts. In a strictly utilitarian sense, it dampens our receptiveness to feedback from "wild" systems, inhibiting our ability as an aggregate to respond in a timely fashion to climactic or ecological tide shifts brought about by human activity (and overpopulation). From an intellectual, aesthetic, or even spiritual standpoint (take your pick), it amounts to the droughting of human experience, the loss of our capacity to look beyond ourselves.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Aesthetics of Alienation

Asher Brown Durand, Progress (1853). Observing its similarities to Cole's
Mount Holyoke (below) helps to clarify the paintings' shared "message."

I recently finished reading Rochelle Johnson's Passions for Nature: Nineteenth-Century America's Aesthetics of Alienation (2009). I was remiss in not tackling it in earnest months earlier: I didn't even need to read past the title to surmise its relevance to matters I've had on my mind lately. I did Professor Johnson and myself a disservice by sitting on it for so long.

Johnson's thesis is that most of the major nineteenth-century American writers, artists, and culterati who ostensibly celebrated the wild splendor of their (usurped) New World homeland actually exacerbated Americans' estrangement from "nature." She examines three figures in particular: Hudson River School prime mover Thomas Cole (whose gorgeous paintings subtly but decidedly celebrate the European-American "taming" of the continent), landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing (whom affluent suburbanites may well have to thank for the social pressures compelling them to maintain "tasteful" lawns and front-yard garden beds), and the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who called nature "the incarnation of a thought" and declared "the world is the mind precipitated," boldly epitomizing the latent doctrine of anthropocentrism). As contrarian voices, Johnson names Susan Fenimore Cooper and Henry David Thoreau, who questioned the contradictions in their contemporaries' views and practices, but were in many cases no less constrained by the dominant assumptions of the cultural moment.

I'd like to reproduce a long passage here, one that introduces the penultimate chapter—"Passion for Nature Beyond Metaphor"—which deals primarily with Thoreau, especially his unfinished and long-unpublished post-Walden work. It very cleanly encapsulates much of Passions for Nature's argument, including the proposition that nature's "truth" lies in its very physicality. The fact that this idea—that the world's nonhuman constituents have meaning and value simply by virtue of their material/temporal existence—has become so difficult to articulate and assert within the framework of Western thought testifies to how far we've allowed ourselves to drift in our insulated self-importance.

(Certain lines boldfaced by me for emphasis. Apologies for any typos I might have made in the transcription.)
[Thoreau] believes that natural phenomenon hold a "meaning" that humans generally fail to recognize. Thoreau's understanding of nature's "inexpressible meaning" invites us to think beyond our common uses of the term "meaning," which we typically associate with the specific significance that human beings ascribe to something. Key to our common use of the word "meaning" is the fact that we generally think of this "specific significance" as something generated by human beings; that is, we presume that human minds determine the significance of things, thereby determining their meaning. Because we humans are the meaning-makers, we can typically articulate the meanings we create. We make meaning, and then we name it in language. As Thoreau suggests here, however, his particular understanding of nature's meaning centers on its being——a being beyond human expression. As he says, this sort of meaning resists conventional representation in language but is, instead, "the language that is" (emphasis added). In spite of Thoreau's use of the word "language" here, the notion of "meaning" that he employs resists language because it presumes that existence is significance, or that being brings along with it a value——even if that value is "inexpressible."

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

ghost malls, the denudation of place, & The Process

Hmm. Been a month since my last post. Guess I fell out of the saddle and have had a hard time getting back up in it.

Since I was in Jersey a couple weeks ago and had an appetite for the ramshackle (having recently digested Sputnik Photos' Lost Territories Wordbook during a visit to Poland), I paid a visit to the The Shops at Ledgewood Commons, colloquially called the Ledgewood Mall.

If there was any mall in Morris County, New Jersey destined to become a ghost mall, it was Ledgewood. Of the three indoor shopping plazas in the immediate area (less than half an hour's drive away), it was the obvious runt. You really only took a trip there when you had last-minute Christmas shopping to do and lacked the strength for another plunge into the yuletide vortices at the Rockaway Mall, or when your budget restricted you from patronizing the upscale mall at Short Hills. Ledgewood was didn't even have a food court, and was in a one-story building. In retrospect, the surest sign of its moribundity (even before the Great Recession revealed the depths to which the irreversible rot had seeped) was that Starbucks never bothered with colonizing it. Seattle knew which way the winds were blowing in Ledgewood.

I only remember four of the shops that used to be there, and of them I only remember one by name: Hero Town, the area's premier destination for Magic: the Gathering cards, comic books, and Warhammer 40,000 miniatures. Directly across from Hero Town was an arcade, and for a while it was a pretty good one: in 1997 it had X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, Samurai Shodown 2/Metal Slug/Bust-a-Move, Gunblade NY, and Time Crisis cabinets, and the legendary Twilight Zone pinball table. When I needed a break from Magic during the Wednesday night Arena League sessions at Hero Town, I'd go see if anyone was playing X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, and then head down the corridor to a little eatery that sold hot dogs and Jolt Cola for a dollar each. Most of the other warbling 13- and 14-year-old misfits opted for the nearby pizza shop, where they'd park at a table together and peel open Alliances and Mirage booster packs.

Now that I think of it: none of the shops I patronized in Ledgewood were franchises.

Holy time warps, Batman! I just found a zombie website (last modified in 2007, but clearly much older) listing local businesses in North Jersey. Most of its images are broken, but one of the extant pics is a photo of Hero Town from when it was alive and well.

Quaint memories.

Here's what the Ledgewood mall's interior looks like as of June 2017:

Thursday, May 25, 2017

In praise of the cigarette break

Marcel Duchamp

I was out of a job for two and a half months at the beginning of the year. During that time, I nearly stopped smoking cigarettes. I'd only buy a pack of American Spirits during my weekly or fortnightly visits to Ray's Happy Birthday Bar, and afterwards I'd give away most of the cigs that hadn't disappeared in pursuit of Johnnie Walker. This isn't to say I went completely cold turkey: I did invest in a vaporizer, but it's hardly a replacement. For one thing, I only use it at home. There's really no way to suck on one of those things in public without looking like a goober, so I deposit mine in my desk drawer whenever I go out.

In March I rejoined the workforce and resumed blackening my lungs. You might guess, prima facie, that this means I'm dissatisfied with my new gig. You'd be wrong: I can't complain too much about what I'm doing for money (and where I'm doing it) these days. But it's rarely the case that a member of the working class truly savors his time on someone else's clock, and even if he finds his wage-earning activities more or less agreeable, he'll probably need a few moments of respite from time to time. Sitting in a break room and absorbing photons from a personal device seems to be the most popular method of on-the-job decompression these days. That's not for me, thanks: I'll take a good old-fashioned cigarette break.

Look. I know it's the twenty-first century. I know the mystique and glamor of the smoker has all but dissipated. I know smoking is awful for one's health, I know that nicotine is tremendously addictive, and I know that someone who's just smoked a cigarette smells awful to anyone who isn't currently smoking one. But the cigarette break is an edifying, even ennobling thing, and I'd like to say a few words on its behalf.