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."