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.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mar Saba & Melville's memory

For the last month or so I've been taking my time wending through Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), Herman Melville's last major work and the single longest poem in American literature. (Longer than the Iliad, longer than Paradise Lost.) I'm still thirty-one cantos from reaching the end, and maybe I'll have more to say about the book as a whole at a later date. For now I'd just like to share something that surprised and touched me.

Likening Clarel to Canterbury Tales would be a mostly facile exercise, but areas of overlap can be found in the bare outlines of the cast. The cavalcade we follow on a tour through the environs of Jerusalem to the Dead Sea to Bethlehem is composed of archetypal figures with differing perceptions of the nineteenth century's accelerating social transformations and the state of Christianity under the siege of science. We have the benignant but ineffective liberal clergyman, the biblical literalist millennarian, the disillusioned European revolutionary, the atheistic man of science, and so on.

The titular Clarel plays the part of the sheltered, privileged theological student who takes the trip to bolster his flagging faith and ease his doubts. But it is not Clarel into whom Melville breathes the most of himself: that would be Rolfe, a middle-aged dilettante who speaks with volubility and exuberant frankness, and who paradoxically combines a penchant for austere theology with a distrust of religious and moral absolutism. And, like Melville, Rolfe was a mariner in his youth.

During a visit to the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery Mar Saba, we have a sequence in which five of the pilgrims, positioned at different heights upon the cliffs and terraces, regard a lone palm tree on a ledge, reputed to have been planted by Saint Sabbas himself over 1300 years before. The soliloquy Rolfe delivers here is by far the most interesting, and it's eye-popping for a Melville fan.

Before we go any further with Rolfe and the palm, we'll need to revisit Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Melville's first (and most contemporaneously successful) novel.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Animation April: [scene missing]

Well, this is embarrassing.

I'd planned to conclude the month with a large writeup on Young Justice, Greg Weisman's animated celebration of everything fun, bizarre, and dramatically convoluted in the DC comic book universe. It...didn't work out. The piece I'd almost finished wasn't much fun to write or interesting to read, and a second version I started from scratch earlier this week was practically erased when a Windows update caused my computer to restart while I was asleep. (Thanks again, Microsoft.) I tried rewriting version 2.0, but it wouldn't have been finished before May. I spent a few hours these last few nights retooling the old draft, but it still wasn't anything I could be happy with.

So I'm throwing in the towel. Please accept my apologies along with three truly excellent Betty Boop shorts from the early 1930s.

Monday, April 24, 2017

NPM: The rape joke

I make a point of buying the newest volume of the Best American Poetry series whenever I see it on a bookstore shelf. There's never been a bad one, but the overall quality does vary with the tastes of its annually rotating guest editor. At least once in the best volumes, and several times in the iffier ones, I'll read a poem for the second or third time and wonder how the hell it got published in Ploughshares or Tin House or one of the more esteemed Quarterlies to begin with, to say nothing of how it ended up between the front and back covers of a book claiming to represent the acme of American not-prose.

Patricia Lockwood's "Rape Joke," which I first read in The Best American Poetry 2014, is not one of those poems.

Rape Joke
Patricia Lockwood (1982 – )

The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.

The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.

The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.

Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. "Ahhhh," it thinks. "Yes. A goatee."

No offense.