Friday, May 14, 2021

An updating slightly rewritten from my Facebook post, a companion note to a 2015 review of "The Age of Earthquakes"

Nothing like starting out the day with news from Hans Ulrich Obrist of the imminent publication of "The Extreme Self: Age of You," the pandemic-delayed book on which an exhibition was based that premiered in Toronto just before the pandemic and is now on display in its co-sponsoring venue in Dubai. I am sure that if I searched further I would find the art magazine coverage that more au courant friends read back around Christmas 2019, when I was otherwise distracted. I like the irony that an exhibition and book premised on the problem of extreme change (the followup to "The Age of Earthquakes," about which I wrote on this blog when it was published in 2015) should have had its schedule delayed by the extreme change of a planet-wide pandemic, such as was prophesied, at more or less the same moment, by William Gibson's novel "Agency," the second novel in the Jackpot trilogy. And as I have pointed out repeatedly over the past twenty-five years in other contexts (and less often in the half-dozen years since the first Obrist/Coupland/Basar collaboration), Hans Ulrich Obrist and Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar are excellent diagnosticians (slickly hip, but that is the root of their excellence) for a widely distributed global socioeconomic class. The extreme self is not the same experience for former members of that class for whom even basic Skype connections are intermittent in between bombing raids. But it has close relatives among less prosperous populations in countries where almost all banking is conducted on mobile phones because the economy does not support readily accessible bricks-and-mortar bank branches. Anyway, I'm embarrassed that I didn't know about all this back when it first became news a year and a half ago, but for those of my Facebook friends who also didn't get the memo, here is a review: I also recommend the website of the institution in the United Arab Emirates that will be hosting the exhibition through August 2021; it is most instructive to peruse the perspectives of the world as seen from a country that a few of my friends know well, but that I know only through the blurry lens of my frequently bad internet connection.

On the Fantastic, and Other Endless Enigmas; another post written years ago, but never made public until today

I am amused by the fact that now that nobody sends me review copies of anything, I find myself promoting more books at my own expense than I was ever able to when I had access to venues that published book reviews regularly.

I promise, not without cautionary footnotes to my promise, that I’ll pass along my opinion of this book once I read it. (It comes from David Zwirner Books, the catalogue for an exhibition that the gallery staged in the autumn of 2018.) One of the authors is Dawn Ades, whose Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and Documents [“Documents” being the name of Bataille’s Surrealist magazine] is another one of those books gathering dust as it awaits a proper reading ten years after I bought it. The parts I have read have validated some of the things I was already doing.

One of my perennially postponed projects is a re-investigation of “the fantastic,” and its function across societies. Rationalists of the functionalist school have no difficulty with the fantastic as entertainment—people need impossible fantasies as an escape from the restricted world in which they really live, whether those impossible fantasies be tales told around a campfire in past or present times or CGI-assisted multiseason series suitable for eventual binge watching by people with access to the appropriate viewing media.

What these folk tales or tall tales gone wild have in common is that nobody takes them seriously, even if they choose to dress up like characters in the series. Such tales fulfill a different need from, say, romcoms or their print-media relatives, in which the stories of improbable romances include conventional tricks such as “meeting cute” that sometimes, once in several blue moons, happen in real life. Americans were charmed when a princess from Hollywood married the ruling prince of a real-life principality sixty or so years ago, back in the days when “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you” were song lyrics on prime time television. More recently they were delighted when another Hollywood personality found her charming prince, albeit one that is a bit more distant from assuming a throne. (This led to a couple of sick Game of Thrones jokes.)

Ernst Bloch wrote three thick and sometimes ponderous volumes (The Principle of Hope) trying to puzzle out the relationships between pure escape from reality and the possible futures that lay behind imaginary Lands of Cockaigne and, later, behind political revolution that made possible some ways of everyday living that previously had existed only in fairy tales. Given Bloch’s commitment to styles of politics that his fellow Marxists decided were beyond the pale, it would take considerable re-visioning to make The Principle of Hope worth taking up again, just as, in a completely different register, Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God is no longer a viable guide to the meanings and functions of world mythology, even though Campbell did his best to incorporate everything that the human sciences and the so-called hard sciences had discovered about the human condition at the time he was writing.

Nevertheless, the problems remain that Bloch laid out in one language and Campbell laid out in another, diametrically opposed one. How and why people in all cultures expand the counterfactual into the openly impossible is worth contemplating, with slightly less highfalutin terminological obfuscation. “Wouldn’t it be nice” has been transmuted again and again into “Once upon a time,” but “they lived happily ever after” has not always been part of the equation. Stories that begin with “What if” are frequently another genre altogether.

One of the areas that interests me in particular is the point at which the acknowledged impossible blurs or shades into the only way to approach possible reality. Bloch can only cope with the political and social side of this, but the side that Jeff Kripal, Michael Pollan, and a host of others have been dealing with in recent decades is of equal interest. If narwhal horns were considered material proof of unicorns in past centuries (which leaves the origins and functions of the remainder of unicorn lore unexplained) and dinosaur fossils in time-weathered rock gave rise to tales of monsters of all sorts (which leaves the gory details of those tales likewise unaccounted for, beyond the love of humans for the pleasurable shudder of considering dreadful topics), are hallucinations likewise an adequate debunking explanation for all sorts of stories that lay claim to truth, or do our “explanations” exclude by arbitrary definition all sorts of so-called paranormal phenomena that seem—sometimes—to have some amount of cognitive value? (We might consider the unpleasant fact that even our most self-assured perceptions have only “some amount of cognitive value”—the difference being that we very rarely misinterpret sets of perceptions that we describe as, for example, “the glass broke because I knocked it off the counter,” even though every once in a while the glass fell to the floor for some other mundane reason that we didn’t notice.) Should the paranormal be redefined, not without deliberate jokery, as “the new normal,” or the normal that most of humankind has acknowledged all along, even if it was always interpreted wrongly? Should we be redrawing the boundaries of human existence differently, even though the prospect creates deep discomfort in skeptics and believers and genuinely puzzled inquirers alike?

But like I say, that’s one of those awful topics I’ll probably never get around to unpacking properly, or even evaluating how other people have been unpacking it. As my friends can testify, I tend to leave lots of stuff firmly packed.

A less consequential subtopic I’d like to explore but probably won’t is almost the opposite, why there are so many Facebook groups that can simply post images under the topic “Bizarre, Peculiar, Odd, and Strange,” or “Weird and Wonderful,” or “Spooky, Weird, and Cool,” and sure enough, despite some missteps and stupid mistakes of aesthetic taste, most of the images evoke a small shudder or surge of delight or charge of emotional energy of some more difficult description, in spite of their lack of anything resembling an accompanying story. I suspect it has something to do with the same triggering mechanisms that allow many people to respond with a surge of positive emotion when they see particularly adorable pictures of cats online, even when in real life they regard cats as destructive predators causing the extinction of endangered species.

Campbell has some, but only some, useful things to say about this in the early pages of The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, in which just the outdated wording of the title serves as a warning of problems to come.

written long ago, but never posted, for reasons I no longer remember.

And now for something completely different....

From book three of John Crowley’s four-book Ægypt Cycle of novels:

When the world ends, it ends somewhat differently for each soul then alive to see it; the end doesn’t come all at once but passes and repasses over the world like the shivers that pass over a horse’s skin. … But though the world ends sooner for some than for others, each one who passes through it—or through whom it passes—will look back and know that he has moved from the old world to the new, where willy-nilly he will die: will know it even though all around him his neighbors are still living in the old world, amid its old comforts and fears. And that will be the proof, that in his fellows’ faces he can see that they have been left behind, can see in the way they look at him that he has crossed over alive. [John Crowley, Dæmonomania, Book Three of the Ægypt Cycle, © 2000]

— I have been struggling with how to define the end of a world ever since RIBOCA 1, the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art presented under the title “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More.” I quote the John Crowley passage above (and post as accompanying illustration “The End of a World” book title in a film still from Wings of Desire) because I have been pondering the subtitle of William K. Klingaman’s 1989 book 1919: The Year Our World Began. There are those who would say that his subtitle was wrong already by the end of the year his book was published, but that’s true only of Europe; I hold for those who favor 1979 for the start of the passage time, but the end of the passage time—well, that’s open to contestation up to this very moment. Yet it feels ever more evident that the world that began in 1919 and persisted, despite great changes, in 1989 is not the world in which we now live, even if some of this year’s anniversaries seem eerily familiar. (December 21, 1919 saw the culmination of the roundup for deportation of anarchist immigrants, when they were put on a chartered ship and sent off to Russia via a Nordic seaport with forcible transport across the border.)

One of the things that keep defeating me in my efforts at definition is the difference between fundamental transformations and transformations that have enormous, seemingly permanent effects that nonetheless turn out to be transitory. Cambodia has been put back together as a different but recognizably Cambodian society even though it has gone through several near-total upheavals in the past half-century, just as Western Europe was put back together after World War II as a set of sometimes dramatically different societies that were nevertheless related in some major ways to their prewar modes of being. In some ways, Europe and the United States are undergoing more fundamental, possibly lasting transformations at the moment than in any time in the previous century, and the world as a whole is undergoing more fundamental transformations, between the spread of the digital revolution and the consequences of climate change. More so than when Marshall McLuhan first proclaimed it, it seems that a change in media often creates a genuine change in consciousness and self-definition. Granted, a sufficiently drastic change in material circumstances would seem to do the same, although the other way round is equally demonstrable, as a shift in what is considered significant, and what is perceived consciously as a result, has dramatic consequences for forests, aquifers, and air quality, to name only three material systems.

But that's quite enough of that.

Friday, May 22, 2020

"When we with Sappho"—further notes from a time of global pandemic

Watching an American poet contribute an online performance to the newly virtualized Riga Biennial of International Contemporary Art brought home to me again just how much the pandemic has accelerated a worldwide cultural process that we might once have described as already moving at warp speed, before that fossilized metaphor was ruined by recent history.

It made me realize with renewed melancholy just how much is going to be lost for no better reason than that nobody can make sense of it in terms of their own very different experience—although we can hope it will be a broadly planet-spanning experience, there are reasons to suppose it might not be. Some things will be lost without anyone noticing, no matter what happens next.

This has happened before, however, and for more reasons than I want to cite, attention spans being what they are. Most of Greek and Roman literature got dropped when the literate classes stopped buying scrolls and started buying the newly developed codices that connected separate pages between covers so you could jump right to the part of the book you wanted without having to roll that one big long sheet of papyrus from one rod to the other rod.

That, plus changing tastes in literature, probably had more to do with how Sappho’s poems got lost than the burning of the library of Alexandria or deliberate censorship. But that’s why we have a wonderfully evocative set of little quotations pulled from later grammarians’ commentaries on how weirdly the ancestors contorted their poems. Will large parts of several thousand years of global literature survive similarly because they were transformed into internet memes and ascribed to the wrong writers in the process? Or will they be captured as bits of online performance arbitrarily preserved in future media, and extracted by later generations who will spend years finding out who actually wrote what? It is pointless to speculate.

Kenneth Rexroth wrote an amazing erotic poem called “When We With Sappho” that starts from an epigraph of one of those evocative little ancient fragments, but I’m going to make you look it up instead of providing a link to the surprisingly numerous sites on which you can read his poem.

Monday, April 13, 2020

What one does while waiting out a pandemic: a note meant to be more provocative than it appears

I wrote this as a friends-only post for Facebook, the method I typically use to address a large but quite specific audience. Circumstances make me believe there is no way to post this there in the midst of immediate personal tragedies without seeming monumentally insensitive, so I am semi-concealing this meditation on Counterforces.

I write this right after listening to an NPR interview with a nurse who drove from Boise, Idaho to Harlem Hospital to volunteer for the Covid-19 ward, and feel more than ever my incompetence in the face of a tragedy that demands the simplest and least reflective responses, such as sewing cloth masks for those who need them.

On the other hand, I have been remembering recently the Polish émigré poet Czeslaw Milosz’ account, in his autobiography Native Realm, of being suddenly pinned down by the machine gun fire of the unanticipated Warsaw Uprising while walking to a friend’s house to discuss the project of translating T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into Polish, and then crawling to another friend’s house where he spent two weeks, hiding whenever the SS searched the building. He used the time to read a comprehensive history of the Polish peasantry, an activity that stood him in good stead when he became a cultural attaché in the foreign service of the Communist government installed by the Red Army. But that, as usual, is not the main point of this post.

I am probably the only person in Atlanta (not the only one in America, I feel certain) who has currently felt the need to reread, if not Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, then Kenneth Rexroth’s commentary on it in More Classics Revisited, pp. 115-117, which I was able to find online. Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 recommendation of Turgenev’s novel ( withholds the salient episode to which I want to refer, and which Rexroth makes central to his argument, so consider this a spoiler alert.

Fathers and Sons was the first Russian novel that Western European writers of the 1860s took seriously. It presents the tensions between well-off, socially and politically liberal fathers on their estates in the countryside, and their socially and politically radical sons Arkady and Bazarov, back from university, sneering at their fathers’ insufficiently radical political and social views and identifying with the peasants, who regard the kids as a couple of buffoons.

The sons end up taking over from their fathers, Arkady becoming an enlightened landowner and Bazarov, more intransigently radical, becoming a country doctor who dies from accidentally infecting himself with typhus during an autopsy. Rexroth identifies this as a key episode in the greatest of Turgenev’s “ecological tragedies,” in which, according to Rexroth’s hypothesis, “Turgenev’s heroes die in the midst of their biota. In the final analysis that is why they die, not because they are political outcasts, impotent rebels, or superfluous men, but because something has gone wrong with their interconnectedness with the living world.”

Rexroth ended his analysis with this paragraph: “The years since Fathers and Sons have been years of revolutionary change and search for the meaning of life. The critics of each generation have concluded by saying, ‘Fathers and Sons is peculiarly appropriate to our time.’ Today we live at a moment in history of unparalleled incoherence, with ‘an old world dead and a new powerless to be born.’ …We are out of phase with the living world around us. We are all Bazarovs. Unlike him, few are innocent.”

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A Prolegomenon to Any Future Art Criticism, with Apologies to Readers for the Allusion to Immanuel Kant

Olafur Eliasson’s “I Grew Up in Solitude and Silence” is a simple work of art that, like so many simple works of art, reveals more about the perceiver, the person who experiences the artwork, than far more complex works ever could.

As photographed in 1991 in Copenhagen, the work consists of a white candle fixed to the center of a circular mirror. In this photograph, which I encountered as a shared image posted without commentary, the lighted candle is thus the only thing reflected in the mirror against a nearly uniform background. Other iterations, shown in other photographs on Eliasson’s website, were situated in more complicated surroundings.

Seeing the photograph, I immediately thought of “burning the candle at both ends” and wondered if the idiom exists in other languages. Many other associations flickered across my mind: the doubling of the light by the power of reflection, for one; but above all the image conveyed what Eliasson’s title (which wasn’t attached to the photograph I saw) conveys: a poetic isolation in which the only thing mirrored is the candle and its own light.

Eliasson’s webpage ( contains a quotation from a catalogue essay that is in many ways the quintessence of art criticism (I assume that the description in the following paragraph is Eliasson’s, and the passage in quotation marks is by Biesenbach and Marcoci):

A candle situated at the centre of a circular mirror burns slowly, gradually reducing in size. The reflection extends the candle into virtual space with flames burning at both ends.

'Here one’s perception is split between the experiential narrative of watching the candle slowly burn and the projected narrative of anticipating different scenarios about the object. According to the philosopher Henri Bergson, the mind tackles duration as a simultaneous process merging past memory and future projection within a continually unfolding present. Looking at the flickering flame, the viewer thus experiences three overlapping temporalities: memory, actual perception, and projected narrative. The latter is essentially an amplified, fastforward version of what happens in the present, but it summarizes any number of likely scenarios (the candle gradually becomes shorter as it burns; the wax drips on the mirrored surface; the mirror gets too hot and cracks under the candle’s increasing heat; viewers approach the work to look more closely and see their reflections in the mirror). At once absorbing and analytical, the work exists only for the duration of the burning candle, yet it calls up a roster of prior experiences and corporeal states.'

(Klaus Biesenbach and Roxana Marcoci, 'Toward the Sun: Olafur Eliasson's Protocinematic Vision," in Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, 2008, p. 190)

—This passage from Biesenbach and Marcoci is valid as far as it goes, in that it describes what they experienced when they looked at the artwork. There is in fact “memory, actual perception, and projected narrative” going on when a viewer looks at this artwork (and further complexity is added when the viewer knows the title of the piece). But the assumption that the viewer experiences only “projected narrative” is too simple. My immediate response involved memory (of the commonplace saying) and a series of less than fully formed associations, any one of which could be followed in metaphoric directions. Not one of them involved the future state of the candle, although that would have come into my mind soon after the awareness (which I did have) that for the viewer to stand in a position in which they were reflected in the mirror would change the artwork and add a new layer of possible meaning. In a photograph of the work, of course, this cannot happen.

None of this has anything to do with what Henri Bergson was talking about, and reflects the fact that Biesenbach and Marcoci were perfectly capable of writing as though the first thing that popped into their profoundly educated heads was the only possible interpretation of the viewer’s experience of the artwork.

But the more likely immediate experience, which I suspect was not only mine but that of the person who posted the photograph on social media, is “Oh, wow.”

In other words, whether in a photograph or, I suspect, in situ, the immediate experience is of a simply arranged set of objects that evoke unconscious associations with emotions attached to them. Only afterwards does the experience of wordless wonder (or inarticulate expressions of amazement) give rise to thought.

I also suspect, though, that this artwork is more difficult to stage than I initially assumed; the candle would have to be a dripless one in order to remain for more than a brief moment in the condition seen in the photograph, and this would ensure that the imagined outcome of wax dripping onto the mirror is a hypothesis of a future that can exist only in Biesenbach and Marcoci’s imagination. But this is how we experience not only the imagined future but the perceived present; we make our best guesses of what it is we are experiencing, based on what we remember of what happened in the past. Our best guesses are quite often wrong. My own guess here, based on the photograph of pristine perfection I initially saw, was itself wrong; one of the work’s other iterations, in visually cluttered surroundings, features a candle that is already dripping wax down the side. But that means that the pristine moment of aesthetic amazement captured by the photograph is an artwork that belongs to the realm of photography, not to the realm of installation art in which such elegantly ordered permanence is always a fiction.

The question is, do art critics have any business explaining all this? Should they sound so smugly magisterial when they do it?

Is art criticism limited to commenting upon the gasp of admiration when we first see the image or the work itself—with, at most, the further notation that different viewers will have radically different experiences of the work once they are done with gasping admiringly? Art journalism, certainly, has column inches enough to say no more than that. But how far ought the critic to go in awakening the viewer to the potential depths of their first simple experience?

I’ve spent more years wrestling with that than I care to think, and I still don’t know the answer. The temptation is always to say “Oh, wow,” and settle for that.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Beat Generation anniversaries and autobiographical reflections


These vintage photographs of City Lights Bookshop, Grace Cathedral (both in San Francisco) and the house in which Jack Kerouac died are representative of what others have called the Ebay Aesthetic—photographs haphazardly rephotographed not quite in focus against the background of the scrapbook from which they were removed for the occasion. But the occasion in this case is not Ebay but the solution to a minor mystery.

After a Facebook friends-only post requesting reminders of which 2019 anniversary it was that people had told me I should curate a show to commemorate, I have learned that the impetus in question was the upcoming fiftieth anniversary (on October 20) of the death of Jack Kerouac as a disillusioned 47-year-old curmudgeon taking care of his invalid mother in Saint Petersburg, Florida. I now realize I would rather prefer to honor the hundredth birthday (on March 24) of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who as of this writing is anxiously hoping to be present at his own party, but either way, this is a great year for anniversaries of significant figures of the Beat Generation, of whom some are still with us and others flamed out before their fiftieth birthday.

I eventually realized that Beatness was an American version of neoromanticism ramped up to warp speed and that I probably had more in common with their precursors and near-contemporaries in England, or with Kenneth Rexroth, who was oldschool bohemian but emphatically not Beat, as he never tired of reminding us even as he celebrated the surviving Beats and brought them to UC Santa Barbara for his Poetry and Song class fifty years ago. (I vividly recall Gary Snyder discussing the transformative aural quality of Asian mantras while seated informally on the edge of a desk in a carefully de-geometricized room of standard-issue classroom furniture.)

On the other hand, Ferlinghetti has recently produced the two volumes of Americus, a highly allusive epic of our contemporary moment that is so suffused with presupposed knowledge that it probably requires extensive annotation for most readers under the age of fifty, and a good many of those over it. The Beat Generation was always a literary generation, presupposing enthusiasm for the work of extremely educated rebels who knew and subverted the standard curriculum even as they managed to be as streetwise as they were capable of managing.

Feeling frustration that I had missed out on its classic moment by virtue of having been only between five and ten years old when it was happening, I read with fascination the accounts of it in John Clellon Holmes’ Nothing More to Declare, which extracted the best lines from Kerouac and Ginsberg, the latter of whom described himself as “a great rememberer, redeeming life from darkness” and whose watchword was “Widen the area of consciousness.” I still follow the latter admonition, but went on to discover other great rememberers who have proven more lastingly compatible with my embarrassingly reticent temperament. W. G. Sebald trekking the Sussex coast and thinking about the traumas of history turned out to be more my speed, once he got round to doing such things and writing about them in his tragically truncated life.

Nevertheless, I’ve had a peculiar experience of reframing the Beat Generation, in the sense of George Lakoff’s notion of “framing” as putting ideas and events in a different surrounding context. All at once Ferlinghetti’s lifelong version of anarchist-tinged literacy seems like one valid version of Beatness, nicely complemented by Gary Snyder’s authentically Buddhist sojourns in an environmentally threatened wilderness. (The branch pursuing the barbaric-yawp side of Walt Whitman’s legacy has its own validity, but its devotees mostly proved ill-suited for surviving the long haul, as witness their variously early departures.)

I had been thinking about pursuing a series of essays on polymathic pilgrims searching for definitively final answers to life’s persistent questions (figures from Guillaume Postel to John Ruskin to Jean Toomer, fated to fail in their quests in ways ranging from tragic to pathetic, but always leaving behind lasting moments of insight attained en route)—but now I guess I have to detour through the folks who influenced my youth, without whom I probably wouldn’t have chosen to do graduate school in California to study with Mircea Eliade and thereby meet Kenneth Rexroth in the same academic year. (Joseph Campbell and Owen Barfield were lecturing regularly up the coast in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, so the theme of Dreams of a Final Theory was definitely my major topic then, as it is, whether delusionally or no, to this day.)

Counterforces and Other Little Jokes