Category Archives: Zeitgeist

fingers on the pulse of the Zeitgeist

I seem to be running into more and more instances of eloquent now-just-hold-on criticism of technological triumphalism, indeed seeing them wherever I turn: the finishing a few days ago of Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life [really cheap ($2.51) as a Kindle ebook…], an article in The Guardian recently on the decline of retail jobs (End of the checkout line: the looming crisis for American cashiers), and then via my RSS feed from O’Reilly, Fredrik deBoer’s post Study of the Week: Of Course Virtual K-12 Schools Don’t Work. All of these have the same basic caveats about the smoke and mirrors of the digital world, and similar warnings about trafficking with the ogres who lurk behind the curtain.

Another instance, via long-form journalism in the [unfortunately paywalled] London Review of Books 17 August issue, is John Lanchester’s You Are The Product, which reviews three books (Wu’s The Attention Merchants, Garcia Martinez’ Chaos Monkeys, and Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things), and is mostly concerned with the evolution of Facebook. An especially trenchant bit:

…even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens… its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.

My years as a librarian and early adopter of emergent technologies more or less ended when I retired in 2005, and I’ve been pretty choosy about entanglement with the subsequent social media silos—no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. Flickr yes, because it offered an easy means to store and distribute photographic images (but one dreads what Verizon might do with the product). And I’ve been blogging since before instantiation of the term ‘blog’ (I called them ‘logfiles’ and used them to keep track of and distribute my various projects). I like to control and manage my own digital real estate, and pretty much everything I’ve done in the last 20+ years is tucked away somewhere at http://oook.info/, including the self-hosted WordPress blog in which I’ve been tracking my doings [somewhat fitfully] for 13+ years.

For me, the epiphanic enabling technology was hypertext, and I’m still back somewhere in the 90s in terms of my sophistication with html. Basic html has served me well as a means to construct and distribute documents, to who-knows-what audiences. And, fact is, I don’t really care much about the scale and scope of Audience; the stuff is out there to be discovered via Google and Internet Archive, and linkable by me whenever I want to pass something along to one of those like-minded others. I’m content to be little-known.

Which is a long way of saying that I want nothing to do with thefacebook, with its fatuous likes and insidious back-end data mining. I won’t claim consistency in re: the latter, since I’m happy for Amazon to send me stuff I want via Prime, and to bewilder Google with off-the-wall searches that they can’t possibly monetize. But for Facebook, it’s the Nancy Reagan option: Just Say No.

so why keep blogging?

I’ve been rethinking what blogging is for, and recognizing that my 2004-ish notions of its utility and purpose are, well, anachronistic. In the days before The Facebook and Twitter, back when hypertext seemed like the New Jerusalem of the conveyance of ideas via personal writing for the Web, my own blog felt like a channel to communicate discoveries and thoughts to an audience of … ah. People who added my blog to their RSS feeds, and thus would be notified whenever I posted something new. Those would mostly be friends to whom I’d sent the blog’s URL, plus maybe a few people who happened to stumble on the blog in other ways and added it to their RSS feeds. A pretty select, not to say limited, group. And now, in 2016, tending an RSS feed is just not something that people do.

So my blog postings, when I get around to making them, wander out into the aether and just keep wandering. Very occasionally a real person makes a comment on one of my posts, but most of the incoming traffic is basically spam (though why anybody would bother baffles me), and I’m mostly communicating with myself. I’ve decided that’s a good thing, not a limitation or still less a reason to stop using the medium. So the primary purpose is to record for myself things that I might want to find again, and/or be able to trace back to when I first encountered. Any communication with others that results is just gravy, though certainly very welcome gravy.

Today’s case in point of something I might wish to find later comes from the just-arrived New York Review of Books, from an article by Mark Danner on “The Magic of Donald Trump” in which he cites Richard Rorty, writing in 1997. That’s 19 years ago, right? Rorty died in 2007, but ‘prescient’ is perhaps an understatement:

members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet. (in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in TwentiethCentury, pp 89-90)

(a Google search for richard rorty “nonsuburban electorate” gets 420 hits, so it’s not like Mark Danner is the first to note the passage in connection with the present).

Yup, something I may want to locate again.

mid-March, surrounded by snow

Every five years my Harvard class publishes a volume of Class Reports, and this year is the 50th. I sent a brief submission for the book and included a link to an expansion, a pretty elaborate hypertext document that I’ve been working on for the last couple of months. I have no idea if others will explore its labyrinthine wanderings, but somehow that matters less than that I’ve managed to piece together into quasicoherence all sorts of elements of what I’ve been doing and thinking about since 1965. Such things are never finished, and I keep going back to tuck in further links and add bits of text, so the document will continue to evolve. The Reunion itself in in late May, and [quite uncharacteristically] I’ve signed up to attend. I hope for something more than paunchy bonhomie with people I never knew back in the day, but many of those I did know are either dead or constitutionally averse to Reunions. We shall see…

Meanwhile, we’re about to depart for two weeks in France, one of them in Brittany. Many photos will doubtless ensue.

before August escapes completely

August has been a very busy month of visitors and travels and activities and reading and writing and music. I worked on and more or less stabilized an augmentation of 50th college reunion reflections and just yesterday I did the Blueberry Cove Half Marathon (mostly walking, as intended). The next month will be at least as complicated, with more 50th wedding anniversary celebrations in California and at home in Maine. My Flickr photostream captures some of what’s been going on, including scans of images from archives I’ve been excavating.

O Tempora

A couple of days ago I walked the course of the Blueberry Cove Half Marathon (13.1 miles on our lovely peninsula) and spent yesterday recovering. A measure of my malaise is in the reading: I took up Dorothy Sayers’ Clouds of Witness (vintage 1927) and was transported to a place and time where this sort of dialog was a possibility:

“You’d better toddle back to bed,” said Lord Peter. “You’re gettin’ all cold. Why do girls wear such mimsy little pyjimjams in this damn cold climate? There, don’t you worry. I’ll drop in on you later and we’ll have a jolly old pow-wow, what?” (pg 72)

Such Eternal Verities are Therapeutic.

time, space and The Americans

98 cent words are always a pleasure: one can hug oneself over the fine distinctions and definitional nuances they facilitate, or revel in arcana accessible only to the cognoscenti… but sometimes they may serve a constructive purpose by staking out underexplored semantic territory. Chronotope is one such term, handy in helping me clarify an ongoing struggle with images in time. Its origins are more or less in literature:

The concept of chronotope, from Mikhail Bakhtin, provides a useful tool … Chronotope is the coordination of a system of time and space, a form-giving ideology. Bakhtin uses the term to name the set of distinctive temporal and spatial features within a work, the phenomenal « feel » of the world produced by the work, which is, it should be emphasized, quite different from the world in which the work is produced. In the chronotope, “time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot, and history. The intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.” The chronotope determines, if it does not displace, the more familiar notion of genre… (K.Michael Hays)

‘Chronotope’ has found its way into film discourse, but is rarely used in writing about photography. One exception is a remarkable book of photographs of Afghanistan by Simon Norfolk, Chronotopia: Landscapes of the Destruction of Afghanistan.

I owe my awareness of the term ‘chronotope’ to my friend Ron Nigh, with whom I taught a couple of courses a decade ago (see here and here). About 30 years before that, we had limned related territory in a reading course with G. William Skinner in the general realm of anthropologies of time-and-space (we called it ‘4-space’ at the time), but Bakhtin was unknown to us then.

I want to appropriate (in a Dumptean sense) ‘chronotope’ to talk about the subjective experience of multifaceted time-and-space, a territory I seem to inhabit more and more with each passing year, a continuing tumble through the chronosynclastic infundibulum of now-and-then, here-and-there that passes for Reality.

And I’m caught in time myself, in multiple ways. I belong to a cohort that’s been marching toward oblivion since 1943, sharing experiences and outlooks (more or less) and seeing the Zeitgeist differently from adjacent cohorts (George WS Trow was one of the ablest chroniclers of the cohort). I pick and choose among incoming innovations (Facebook no, iPhone yes), and betimes must deal with the perceptions/capabilities of much younger individuals and cohorts. Occasionally I’ve been blindsided, most recently by the 9-second gif (Mike Johnston offers an interesting take on photographic aspects of the technological present …and don’t miss his followup post on the changing culture of photography).

I spend a lot of time exploring bits of the past, trying to construct coherent narratives for myself. Lately I’ve been revisiting photographic territories of the past, looking through books I’ve had on the shelves for years and buying new ones as I encounter titles that enlarge some aspect of my interests. Each book (for that matter, each photograph) has multiple coordinates in time and space. These include the basic publication metadata (where and when), the facts of when I encountered and purchased, the contexts (spatio-temporal, intellectual, relational) in which I read and re-read them, their place in the land- and timescapes of commentary and criticism. Thus, Steichen’s Family of Man came into my ken sometime in the mid-1950s, before I had even begun to think of myself as a photographer; re-entered my life in the early 1960s when I was self-consciously developing my own visual aesthetic; dropped in and out of nowness multiple times over the years as I revisited it in various contexts; and most recently I found it juxtaposed in contrast to Robert Frank’s The Americans.

…a look at the overall plan of the book [The Americans] reveals it to be more like a perverse parody of Edward Steichen’s 1955 catalogue for the exhibition, “The Family of Man.” It covers the same range of topics but from an altered viewpoint that reverses the implicit argument that the political system proceeds from the individual. And there are clear parallels — the introduction by Jack Kerouac, for example, which mocks Carl Sandburg’s introduction to The Family of Man… (Jno Cook)

And it’s really The Americans that I’m leading up to writing about. It seems to be widely agreed that Frank’s book, first published in the late 1950s (by Grove Press), was a watershed in [modern/American/documentary] photography. I can’t remember when or even if I encountered it as a book in the early 1960s, but I should have. I certainly knew a number of its images very well, but I wasn’t aware of the controversies the book unleashed, and until quite recently I didn’t reckon with its influence on my own perceptions of photography. A couple of years ago I almost bought Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, and now it’s indefinitely backordered (gotta have it: 600 pages of analysis of the original, 50 years after its first publication –see


You can see many of the images from the book via Google images, but not of course in the carefully architected order in which Frank assembled them.

In one sense, Frank’s photographs are a record of a specific time (1955-56) and a sequence
of locations which he visited during a transit of the US, funded by a Guggenheim grant. Across half a century there has been a rainbow of responses to The Americans, beginning with plentiful umbrage at the presumption of a Swiss beatnik’s dark vision of the Beloved Land, but within a decade there was a dawning recognition that the book had in fact changed American photography, or anyway changed how American photographers saw their surroundings. Nathan Lyon’s Vision and Expression: An International Survey of Contemporary Photography (from the Eastman House show of 1969) makes no explicit reference to Robert Frank, but most of the photographs in the exhibit are almost unimaginable without Frank’s example.

Here’s John Szarkowski’s reminiscence of the initial response to The Americans:

It was something in the very bones of the photographs themselves – something about the look of the pictures that suggested that, whereas what was being described had to be described because it was there, it didn’t have to be described according to the rules and formulations that were thought of as being good photography… We all knew those things existed… but the way in which they were depicted made them seem more difficult to accept, more pessimistic. There was something approaching a sharp edge of bitterness in the look of the pictures. And of course what was eventually learned from that it was not necessarily the sensibility that gave the pictures their bitter taste, but rather the knowledge that the medium itself was much more plastic, and was open to a wider range of invention that we ever realized.

(Szarkowski, in Philip and Amy Brookman’s 1986 video Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank)

and see also Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

James May’s Robert Frank’s “The American’s”: A Dawning of Self Loathing and Political Correctness (2010) and Jno Cook’s Robert Frank:Dissecting the American Image (1986) can be read as opposite arguments, but I’m tempted to see them as two sides of the same Chronotopic Coin, and thus to see The Americans as a text that encourages (hell, maybe even provokes) multiple and even divergent readings, especially over 25 years of cultural vicissitudes. Is The Americans a parody of Family of Man or is it not? I’m happy to answer “yes” (to both questions) and to trade those two perspectives back and forth, according to the time-and-space which I occupy as I read the two documents.

Cook’s 1986 essay is a profound take on Frank, worth reading even if one initially disagrees, and one might be persuaded to look again and then again again at the book, trying to see it with Cook’s eyes. I am mightily impressed by the sheer work Jno Cook has done in producing The Robert Frank Coloring Book and his 1982 Afterimage essay. Netflix has Philippe Seclier’s documentary American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s The Americans (2009),
which has a short segment with Jno Cook, in which he shows pages from The Robert Frank Coloring Book. I quote at length from Cook 1986 because I’m still chewing on it:

…recognizable even in the 1950s as a tone of disapproving sadness which had never before been allowed in photojournalism… it took years to recognize that the book went far beyond diary and document, that in rejecting the mannered and predictable style of photojournalism of the period Frank produced a radical critique of photography itself. Radical, because it returned photography to the vernacular of vision: in The Americans the everyday is recognized as it is seen and this recognition makes the book amazingly undated even after twenty-five years. And a critique because any return to the vernacular implicates the established style of photography in a falsification of the real world. “You can photograph anything now,” Robert Frank said in 1961…

…a look at the overall plan of the book reveals it to be more like a perverse parody of Edward Steichen’s 1955 catalogue for the exhibition, “The Family of Man.” It covers the same range of topics but from an altered viewpoint that reverses the implicit argument that the political system proceeds from the individual. And there are clear parallels — the introduction by Jack Kerouac, for example, which mocks Carl Sandburg’s introduction to The Family of Man…

…The Americans became a prophetic symbol for the rethinking of America — something which would become a universal consciousness and critical awareness of a younger generation within ten years of its publication. Unified in intent — as an experience, as a disdainful gesture, as a critique of photography, and superimposed on a critique of America — the combined power of these images voiced that something was wrong, that changes had to be made. Often more felt than rationally understood, the message became a radical point of departure for the work among a generation of photographers

…What first struck me about The Americans was the refusal of any of the images to adhere to recognizable stereotypes. None of them had a look of familiarity about them. This was a genuine hindrance, for the readability of photographs is always a matter of recognition, of familiarity. What we see in each new photograph is what we recognize as having been seen before in all other photographs. But the images of The Americans were not familiar, and at the same time they were all too familiar. For most readers they presented a surrealists’s view on life: absurd, ambiguous, and inconclusive. In 1958, it was totally unexpected, and totally new. Frank, however was not pretending to art through ambiguity, as if subtlety might be suggested with vagueness, for the images of The Americans are anchored in a bedrock of specificity and careful intent. Each meant something, each was taken for a reason, and each was purposefully included in the book. Many of the reasons are as simple as the experience of things wholly American by a stranger from a foreign land; outside his ken, and overlooked by us, it was a new look at America seen through European eyes and taking Europe as the standard of judgment…

…Seen as a miniature exhibition the book presents the photographs as evidence in an argument about America, but an inconclusive argument, for nothing seems to be proven. The pervasive display of malaise, however is powerful and frightening just the same. The effect is totally different from the thematic illustrative use of photographs in Steichen’s book. Frank’s ability to build a series of single unrelated images to a crescendo of unnerving feelings is perhaps the most masterful aspect of the book…

…Spend enough time with the book and you will learn that there is nothing random about the order of the photographs — that each has been selected for a specific place in the series, that groups reiterate specific themes like carefully chosen words in a poem, and that each photograph is usually a direct response to its predecessor, at least to the point of maintaining visual links between subsequent photos, at times as many as four or five simultaneously. Look at the titles too, for as often as visual connections can be found there exist verbal relationships — in English, in French, in German. The specifics of the infrastructure of The Americans can get in the way: you get lost among the multiple cross references, the allusions to the work of others, pointed references to The Family of Man, punning irreverent art-historical allusions, and the just-plain-fun things the series of bottles, or stripes, or trees, or prints (fabric print, fine print, newsprint, photographic print — the “nothing- scape”). This Varronian monologue of the book — which mixes wit, black humour, and pathos in a series of rhymes, asides, contradictions, and seemingly irrelevant interludes — will intrigue and confound the minds of all but the most casual readers. The whole enterprise makes little sense unless you understand it as an element in an established mode of expression — established, that is, in literature and art, but unheard of in photography…

…In 1957 Frank voiced his disagreement with the proposition that photography was assumed to be understood by all, “even children.” It becomes obvious then that the hidden argument of The Americans is that photographs are in fact generally misread and misunderstood. Ample proof lies in the concordance of organized disharmony of the book, a fabric of intricate connections woven into a jubilant display of intellectualism which almost displaces the grim subject matter at the surface…

…The Americans uses a form completely different from the narrative, the illustrative, even from the diaristic and album type of photographic literature, and certainly from the “photo essay.”…

still to integrate:

George Cotkin’s The Photographer in the Beat-Hipster Idiom – Robert Frank’s The Americans (1985)

Tom Coles’s
‘Americans’: The Book That Changed Photography
(2009)

Eric Kim’s Robert Frank’s “The Americans”: Timeless Lessons Street Photographers Can Learn (2013)

and many more, via ASX Channel

definitely October

Recovering from a solid month of travels (Turkey, Nova Scotia, California) and visitors, all of it glorious. Fall is definitely upon us, leaves falling and climatic realities setting in (winter wood mostly stacked; we’ve already had a couple of fires in the stoves, mostly to warm visitors from less intemperate climates). Being past the 70 milestone gives pause for reflection on this and that, and opportunity for Resolutions for the onward path: more reading, more music, more photography, more [mindful] eating, more exercise. Not much less of anything, though, unless it be investment in political hoohah and righteous indignation.

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Mien and moue

I’m always on the lookout for passages that articulate things I’ve observed more clearly than I’ve ever managed to express them. Here’s one from Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century that applies equally well to milieux I have experienced:

…to become an insider at Cambridge or Oxford does not in itself require conformity, except perhaps to intellectual fashion; it was and is a function of a certain capacity for intellectual assimilation. It entails knowing how to “be” an Oxbridge don; understanding intuitively how to conduct an English conversation that is never too aggressively political; knowing how to modulate moral seriousness, political engagement and ethical rigidity through application of irony and wit, and a precisely calculated appearance of insouciance. It would be difficult to imagine the application of such talents in, say, postwar Paris. (pg 56)

The details of mien and moue vary from place to place, and time to time (early-1960s Harvard not the same as late-1960s Stanford, in my own case, and present-day fashions are different again), but Judt really nails it with ethnographic precision and verbal elegance. I have the sense that Tony Judt spoke with semicolons…

This week’s New Yorker

Two fine not-behind-paywall items from this week’s New Yorker:

Adam Gopnik on Elaine Pagels’ new book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

As Stephen Batchelor has recently shown, the open-minded, non-authoritarian side of Buddhism, too, quickly succumbed to its theocratic side, gasping under the weight of those heavy statues. The histories of faiths are all essentially the same: a vague and ambiguous millennial doctrine preached by a charismatic founder, Marx or Jesus; mystical variants held by the first generations of followers; and a militant consensus put firmly in place by the power-achieving generation. Bakunin, like the Essenes, never really had a chance. The truth is that punitive, hysterical religions thrive, while soft, mystical ones must hide their scriptures somewhere in the hot sand.

Hendrik Hertzberg on the Satanic Reverses of the GOP:

…the Republican “base”—an excitable, overlapping assortment of Fox News friends, Limbaugh dittoheads, Tea Party animals, war whoopers, nativists, Christianist fundamentalists, à la carte Catholics (anti-abortion, yes; anti-torture, no), anti-Rooseveltians (Franklin and Theodore), global-warming denialists, post-Confederate white Southrons, creationists, birthers, market idolaters, Europe demonizers, and gun fetishists…

…Romney has had remarkable good fortune in those he has shared the stage with. His rivals in reputed reasonableness obliged him by dropping out sooner (Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty) or later (Jon Huntsman). What remained was a kick line of clowns, knaves, and zealots for the fabled base to examine, exalt, and, as soon as each surged past Romney to the top of the polls, expunge. The Donald flashed first, but Trump the Candidate smelled less sweet than Trump the Fragrance. Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin’s understudy, muffed her lines. Herman Cain fell fast when the grievances of a disgruntled ex-mistress packed him off to political Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan. Rick Perry slunk out with an “oops,” but his most damaging lapse was to blurt that only people without “a heart” would treat as criminals the blameless children of immigrants without papers.

Not exactly moderate sentiments

Jason Scott on the Facebook:

Facebook is a living computer nightmare. Just as viruses took the advantages of sharing information on floppies and modems and revealed a devastating undercarriage to the whole process, making every computer transaction suspect… and just as spyware/malware took advantage of beautiful advances in computer strength and horsepower to turn your beloved machine of expression into a gatling gun of misery and assholery… Facebook now stands as taking over a decade and a half of the dream of the World Wide Web and turning it into a miserable IT cube farm of pseudo human interaction, a bastardized form of e-mail, of mailing lists, of photo albums, of friendship. While I can’t really imply that it was going to be any other way, I can not sit by and act like this whole turn of events hasn’t resulted in an epidemic of ruin that will have consequences far-reaching from anything related to archiving…

Now me, I don’t have any truck with the Facebook, but I haven’t tried to articulate why it squinks me out. Perhaps I no longer need to try?