Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Amtraking to Chicago

I just took an Amtrak train called the Lake-shore Limited from Penn Station, NYC to Union Station, Chicago. There are two main things I care to write home about, so to speak.

One is the industrial ruins lining our rural northern countryside. Have you ever noticed that we still retain some kind of romantic ideal about the New England or southern hinterlands, but as to the Midwest or upstate New York, there really is nothing other than the depressing picture of failed industry and a smattering of agriculture. Anyhow, I sort of like this emptiness of reputation. It means people there can be whatever they feel like being.

Two is this woman I sat next to on the train and had a few hours' conversation with. She is a 64 year old massage therapist from St. Cloud, Minnesota. She told me about her children and her life. She had children early while studying and working as a nurse. At some point early on her husband left her after fathering a few children and she was lost. She said her goals were to support her children and make sure that they could graduate college debt free. She succeeded. Now she works at a halfway house dealing with addicts.

The interesting part of our conversation was not our histories, though they are interesting in a way, but I found most interest in our exchange about religious and spiritual ideas and attitudes. She apparently feels very spiritual and believes the existence of souls and an afterlife of some kind. She lost her son when he was in his twenties (and his girlfriend killed herself shortly afterward) and she said his spirit was with her for a year afterward. She said right when he died she forgave him everything and when he left, she said she understood he had other responsibilities. She told me of an instance where a boy in the neighborhood who died at 19 came to her because she could see him. she told him he could stay as long as he needed her. At one point she says she saw a kids' plastic tunnel heading towards the heavens and the spirit of the boy climbed up towards a person calling him who she realized later was the boy's long gone grandmother.

Now she was not some crazy person. She only told me this after a long time and after I gained her confidence. She told it as a response to my bearing all about my fear of death and instinctual atheism. She told me she has no fear of death and she tried for a few months as a teenager to not believe in God, but it didn't work.

Now, she admitted herself that her experiences and and beliefs don't really address my problems, but nevertheless her sharing was fun and touching. So I guess this stranger is out there with all my secrets, and now the internet is with hers.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's the Law.

It’s the Law.
That’s why.
That’s why you can’t.
You can’t do anything.
But what I tell you.
And then you will be good.
A good citizen.
A compliant citizen.
And you can live
Your little nice life
With a house
And a wife
Who is like you.
A good citizen.
Doesn’t do anything.
Anything wrong.
Or anything.
It’s a nice life.
Unto yourselves.
Your cats
Your magazines
Your movies
Your restaurants.
You can have peace.
From your neighbors
From your parents
From your worries
From your ethics
From your morals
From conscience
From society
From your true selves.
But you have peace
From care
From responsibility.
You can be content
With that.
You do have me.
I take care
Of your worries
Of your responsibilities.


New York-Chicago Angst

A 65 degree day in February.
All I can think about is wide open spaces.
But I open my eyes and I’m still in the subway,
My back against the train door.
My mind races back to the steps
Of a gray neo-gothic monolith of the Midwest.
I embrace the emptiness
The living nothingness enhanced by the lack of living
The green and gray are my melancholy friends.
Walking the half mossed sidewalks
The grass and gravel, the stems swinging as I walk into them.
My mind flies elsewhere with the railroad tracks
Iron spikes invade my memories and hold them up
As racing window scenes passing faster and faster
Giving me brief recognition before I move on, despite myself.
I think of how the others on the train would see me
Hoping I am as intriguing as I imagine.
A sullen secret passenger, a potential charmer.
Desperate to be fulfilled but only by a select few.
The train passes from my field of vision
Into an imagined horizon split in two by my opening eyes.
Suddenly conscious of the strangers around me
On that dark secluded ghost of a train-like entity.
The subway car lurched and my hand
Clenched on that now warm metal.
Leaning to one side to take a nontraditional stance
Let me taste a bit of myself.
Hating the city for robbing me of profundity.
A dubious thought that could come from no where else.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Law School

The following is perhaps the best justification for my interest in law I have yet written:

I have my usual obsessions with history and our modern perception of it, especially with early modern life and thought (1450-1789). I was always very interested in how the eighteenth century particularly seemed to me to reflect at times a much more fluid approach to life, government, and morality than that of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seems strange to me then that we are at the same time so much more distant in terms of sympathy and understanding with people and ideas from that time. This was some of the focus of my history thesis where I sought to explore the ideology of the French military nobility on the eve of the Revolution. I tried to show how their image of a specialized column of society dedicated to defense seemed to them perfectly consistent with modern rational thought, because even if that specialization were dictated by birth it was still better than having no specialization whatsoever.

In my art during college, I either tried to address my goals above or went towards evoking my personal relationship with history and tradition. One project of mine was a triptych made of drawing and collage of contemporaneous images, some from my research in Paris, that evoked the literal interior/mental interior/ideological space of three different characters: a military nobleman in front of his mantle surrounded by military images and the Sun King, a noblewoman in her private chapel reading an 18th century pornographic novel and surrounded by the actual image plates from that book, and a peasant hunter in a stone room (kitchen or prison) surrounded by cruel scenes, weapons, and hides. In a more personal way and more relating to art history, one project of mine was a Vanitas-style still life of modern forms of media, all of which I own: records, books, VHS tapes, CD's, etc. I tried to use the symbols and meaning of tradition towards my own purposes.

In that latter effort, I wanted to address media theory in general, though it was only my beginnings in the area. I meant to highlight their obsolescence. Through your guidance, I discovered Kittler and some other ideas about media theory. I now have a lot of opinions on the subject, mostly about how the visual is still dominant, but has a long way to go to reach its potential in terms of omnipresence and its power to be a democratic and populist form of communication now that it is accessible to YouTubers or serious graphic novelists with an actual serious audience (which Youtube lacks, for now).

Currently, I am working on some graphic novel stories: one relating to Durkheim entitled Duckheim and another on daydreaming about time travel. I am also painting a little and may have started a novel. Mostly, though, I am reading a lot and filling in the holes in my Chicago education, i.e. Durkheim.

While considering my likely next stop in life, the law, I had an idea for an art concept. I could take note as I learn the law of certain loopholes relating to allowing for any artistic expression. I could then fill those holes literally with my own work or even others' (a sort of public curator at law). In that way I can fill in the "negative space" of the law and reveal how omnipresent it is, but also expose it's real limits. By pointing out those limits, I can bring attention to them and get others to push the boundaries as well, both metaphorically and literally. Most important of all perhaps is my desire to de-legislate and free up the law so that it makes intuitive sense in its jurisdiction and leaves room for public discourse and approval/disapproval of actions and ideas without recourse to legality.

My mention of the democratizing potentialities of visual media may have clued towards this, but my real obsession is with the creation of a legitimate and powerful public sphere that can exist between what you could call the government and the masses. Like Habermas, I don't believe that the government represents society nor wholly acts in its interest. Therefore, I want to limit the power of government and allow for society to create more fluid institutions that could in turn breed generations of responsible individuals rather than the opposed masses we have had for quite some time. To further this would be my dream. And somehow my interests in the law and art/creativity/expression seem to complement that goal. I guess I have lofty ideas still and therefore can perhaps be confident that I haven't succumbed to despair or careerism, though I am applying to law school.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Visual Manifesto

Long live the visual!

We have entered an age where the visual has become seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent. We have begun to think and argue primarily visually.*

Those with cinema and television believed that they had entered the era of common degeneracy with the victory of the image over the word in the fight for the masses. But they could not imagine the power image may hold now. For them it was a one-way communication. The visual communiqué was barred by wealth and privilege to the studios and corporations. The one-way transfer and the profit-driven motives of the creators bred distrust and the fatalist prediction of a “simplified” public. The television-walls of Harrison Bergeron keeping their viewers enthralled at the whim of the authorities was the ultimate doom for mankind. So too was the opposite and slightly more prescient prediction of the surveillance of mankind by the authorities à la 1984, which, though theoretically two-way in communication—the surveillance mirrors complemented by the propaganda films—but still monopolized by a precious few.

Today however, we have two novelties: one, two-way visual communication—the camera and the screen; and two, the readily available and newly populist nature of these technologies—the webcam and YouTube via PC. These technologies of recording and transmitting are after all quite old: what Friedrich Kittler calls the paradigm of 1900. However, real access has not come about until now and in that it is only beginning. Only now can the visual truly become a language. No real language can come about when it can only be artificially imposed from above. The cinema and the studios were in their own way like priests and Latin throughout the centuries. Or perhaps more apt, but more historically specific, is the analogy to high literature and high language in relation to the masses. There was no literature without correct grammar, vocabulary, and usage. Commoners digested said literature, but through their lack of education could not reproduce it.

Visual language is similarly governed by the influence of literacy and education, not only technology. People must be taught how to properly understand and communicate visually. For the most part people are still limited by these obstacles. YouTube has spawned a few new genres and methods of communication like Vlogging and candid true-to-life videos, as well as neo-dada curiosities, but for the most part people have not had the courage to treat the medium seriously. Obsession with production values and standards established by over sixty years of popular television and to a lesser extent the century of cinema has retarded the progress of visual language. Nevertheless, progress is evident.

Observe, for instance, the relationship we now have towards the comic medium. It is entirely visual in terms of language and has been hampered by technology in only a limited way over the past century. In fact, one can say a great deal as to why it took so long for the technology of printing to engender the creation of the medium of comics. Nevertheless, it was a popular and accepted form by the turn of the twentieth century. In contrast to film, the creative end of creation can be limited to one person. Publication provides some complication, but those efforts are nothing compared to film production and distribution. Furthermore, comics offer much greater creative freedom than the photographic limits of film. Animation, which is the truly analogous medium, is even more expensive and requires an even greater collaborative and hence compromised and artificial process of communication.

Up until the 1950’s comics, the cheaper visual medium, held a great variety of genres and modes of expression, albeit often exaggerated. Sales was very much a driving motive, but some like Will Eisner soon got it into their head to expand the medium’s potential for communication (though he called it a call to art—the birth of the graphic novel). After the censorship of the fifties, the comic industry succumbed to the post-war temptation to top-down “popular” (vs. populist) cultural product. Soon enough genres dwindled to an almost singular attention to the superhero. This was not only the product of the large comics companies themselves, but also a lack of public imagination, which drove the original push towards censorship itself.

For the past thirty years or so, comics have regained steadily their right as a medium and their potential of language through diversity. The zine trend of the 80’s and 90’s established the ability of common people to publish and market for themselves and primarily for the sake of expression over profit. Importantly, this preceded the contemporary intensification of self-expression through webcomics, which has only further broken down obstacles for creation and access. Not unrelated, genres have expanded into autobiography, philosophy, surreal narrative, historical fiction, etc. Though still picking up steam, these advancements show us how visual language is evolving and coming into its own. Unlike film, its proliferation and diversification is independent of major technological advancement (for now). The most vibrant and interesting graphic novels or comics still debut in print.

My point here is that we can and should develop visual language to the point that it could become a common form of expression in terms of production and digestion. Whether it is for good or bad, visual communication has thoroughly transplanted the written and spoken word in terms of dominating the public sphere. We cannot and should not accept that that new public sphere can only be an authoritative, top-down discussion. Instead we have the opportunity afforded by technology and a new growing understanding for the common production and utilization of visual communication, whether through film or comics. In that way, the language itself will be fully developed. It will take off and become able to communicate as much as the written word, if not more. At least I hope so.

*I will be considering only narrative here, and hence painting and other fine visual arts are left out.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Post-Modernist Tweed

He slid his hand down the tweed jacket’s front, carefully feeling out the material, anxious about making a regrettable purchase. He needed a new jacket, he decided. His old tweed jacket was great, but had never fit him properly. Now it was just so small on him, it was impossible to wear. It carried sentimental memories, however, since it was previously his father’s.

Perhaps, though, it was that connection with his Father, his Papa, that made the jacket desirable in the first place? No, that could not be. It fit too much with his aesthetic, the image he wants to embrace and project, the desire to confront people with history and the power of historical selection.

This young man, you see, had an opinion about everything. With everything he ever considered, he formed an argument, usually the opposite of whatever argument was originally presented. If he heard something new and challenged on it, he could quickly call on an opinion he had apparently formed whilst listening. It was a wondrous skill, he thought, and tended to make him look down on those who did not take the intellectual honesty to form ones at all. This led him to be what some would call “elitist”.

Whether he is elitist is not much of a debate. He himself would admit to the charge, but sans the modern negative connotations. His world view is simple. We live in a time beyond “modern”. There was a time when the baggage and mores of the past which aided people in navigating a world on limited information had to be disowned and distanced. Inheritances of inefficiency and obsolescence had to be stripped away in order to find the essential function of things. This was the modern age, the age of the engineer. Now, however, production and information are not priorities. Though the “information revolution” is under way at the moment, it is just an enhancement on the efficiency of the said system. The system as such is already in place and this young man’s generation is in a prime position to define what comes out of it.

For this young man, the answer is clear. Information is taken for granted. Context is assumed known. History is then owned in common. All aesthetics, all previous cultural pursuits or worldviews are open to us. The imperative of man, now more than ever, is to make value judgments. There will always be surplus care and labor that will engender aesthetic and social predilections of individuals or societies. The duty now is to steer towards the correct path. That path is illuminated by the examples of the past, but seen in the lens of modernity. The values of the pre-twentieth century West must be selectively taken and reexamined under the lens of function and utility born of the modern period.

For instance, this young man finds inspiration and example in bourgeois liberalism of the mid to late nineteenth century. That culture embraced laudable mores such as negative liberty and equality, merit, and progress, but those involved could not truly exploit these values due to their social and cultural baggage that led to selectively applying these ideals at the exclusion of “inferiors” such as women or non-Westerners.

Under the technocratic character of especially the early and mid-twentieth century, the biases against certain groups and almost all previous suppositions about the world were broken down and tested scientifically to find things’ essential form and function. Only after such a process can one have the confidence to assert values upon the world and all its aspects.

And values are necessary. Without them the modernist era of experiment for instance would and did create grander, unnecessary, and ultimately destructive experiments such as the eugenics of Nazi Germany and the exclusively economic culture of the Soviet Union.

It is not that the modern era did not have values, but they were values whose purpose was to speed its own process to eliminate unnecessary bias in terms of class or race or sex or gender and to encourage a skeptical and utilitarian mode of thinking to find “truth”.

Now we can take the modern era’s developments and results as a fait accompli. We can progress and shape the now understood system of humanity positively while continuing the modernist mission since it is unfinished. This applies in politics, as in why America can be and should be ideological in a “post-ideological world” as some would say of Europe. This also applies to aesthetics where fashion can be chosen from any historical trend, not bogged down by the cult of utility and comfort dictated by the modern era. We have moved beyond that.

Thursday, October 29, 2009