Saturday, December 31, 2011

Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral: What is Graffiti?

I'll be at the University of Chicago next Thursday talking about graffiti in their Semiotics Workshop (details here). The presentation will be informal and is based on a number of slightly revised blog posts. I've written the following introductory remarks to the posts.

* * * * *

Graffiti: Some Parameters

What is graffiti? That’s the question. Well, actually, it’s two questions. One is relatively easy to answer, though the answer is, inevitably, a fuzzy one. The other is difficult to answer, perhaps even, at this time, impossible. Impossible because we may not have the terms in which to state an answer. But perhaps impossible as well because graffiti is still in a state of becoming and, as such, has not yet settled into being some one thing or several delimited things. It’s the second question that interests me, but I can’t get to it until I’ve provided an answer to the first.

Names: Tags, Throwies, Pieces

On the first question, by graffiti I mean an expressive tradition that seems to have started in North Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s and which spread out from there. It’s now all over the world, with visible stylistic links back to the 1970s graffiti in the Northeastern USofA.

Graffiti’s about the name, the name a person takes when they decide to write graffiti: Taki183, Snake, Dondi, Blade, Seen, to name a few names. The word “graffiti” has been externally imposed, though it’s long been accepted within graffiti culture. Since the form is about the name, the people who do it think of it as writing, and of themselves as writers. They write graffiti. A writer may write under two or more different names, nor is it uncommon for a writer to get up (that is do graffiti on a wall) under the name of another writer in his crew.

The tag is the most basic form of graffiti, but it can, in some hands, take on the grace of a master calligrapher. Tags can be done quickly. Throw-ups or throwies are more elaborate, generally taking the form of block of balloon letters with outline and fill in contrasting colors. They cover more space that tags and take more time to do. Tags can be done in, say, a minute or less; throwies take several minutes. [When you’re avoiding the police, time to execute is important.]

Pieces, aka masterpieces, are the most elaborate of the basic graffiti forms. A piece is likely five or six feet high, maybe eight or ten, and can be 15 to 20 feet wide. The design of a piece may be worked out beforehand in a black book. Pieces may be multi-colored and may feature various kinds of representational art. If executed in so-called wild style the name may be so distorted and elaborated as to be unreadable.

But What IS it?

When Norman Mailer wrote his 1974 essay, “The Faith of Graffiti,” he declared it to be art, perhaps the first to do so. But many New Yorkers – most? – thought it was vandalism. After all, it was illegally done. So, is it art or vandalism?

They aren’t exclusive categories. Remember, however, that those original graffiti writers did not come up in the world of art schools, galleries, and museums. They operated outside of it. And getting away with vandalism was important to them. It still is. That is, the illegal nature of the work is not an incidental fact of its production. Even those among the very small number of writers who make a living working with design firms will still keep up their street cred by doing illegals.

A tag sprayed on a moveable board is just a tag. But it earns the writer no street cred. A tag on the back of a stop sign, or on the side of a water tower, that tag is illegal and earns points. It doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as it’s identifiably the tag of a named writer: Ceaze, Tdee, KH1, Sol, Werds, to a name a few that have gotten up in my neck of the woods. Aesthetics counts, but just where and why and how much, that’s tricky.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Peregrinations of Agency vis-à-vis the Text

Back in the ancient days of the 1950s the intentional fallacy was invoked to separate the text from the author, indeed, it was invoked to separate any work of art from its creator. Agency was thus invested solely in the text itself, the autonomous text. It was the critic’s job to interrogate the text and thus discern its meaning.

As a practical matter, it turned out that texts spoke differently to different critics. For some this was evidence of the richness of texts, that they should support so many meanings. For others it was a problem.

The problem tried out various solutions. One line of thinking restored authorial intention, subordinating textual meaning to that intention, thus locating agency in the author. Another line of thinking killed the author and located meaning in codes variously linked to social structure or to the unconscious. Agency was thus denied to author, reader, and text and invested in those codes and the nebulous structures placing them on offer. Yet another line of thinking located agency in the reader.

So: text, author, codes, reader. What else could there be?

Now the speculative realists and object-oriented ontologists are investing the text with agency—see, for example, this Twitter lecture by Eileen Joy and this commentary by Levi Bryant. Is this but a return to an old position albeit encased in new terminology? Or will something new emerge?

Who knows? I note that Bryant ends by suggesting that we “allow the work of art to transform how we sense”—a old idea, tried and true: make it new.

I further note that Joy begins by asking: “First, what happens when we consider that literary characters are not human beings, but more like mathematical compressions of the human?” Indeed, literary characters ARE NOT human beings. Could we perhaps arrive at some understanding of just how they are “mathematical compressions” and of how we understand such compressions?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

OOO is Very Abstract, but so is KR

Over the past several months I’ve been reading around in object-oriented ontology (OOO)—I’m currently reading an interview with Levi Bryant—and I note that it’s a very abstract way of dealing with the world. Here, for example, is a passage from that Bryant interview:
Is use the term “withdrawal” in a somewhat different sense than Harman. For Harman, withdrawal means that objects are independent of all their relations such that they never touch or relate to one another. For me, by contrast, objects are capable of relating, but are also external to the relations in the sense that they can break with current relations and enter into new relations. With Harman I thus hold that objects are independent in the sense that they are not constituted by their relations, while contrary to Harman I hold that objects can enter into relations with other objects. For me, withdrawal thus means two things. On the one hand, withdrawal refers to the virtual dimension of objects. The virtual dimension of objects or their powers is forever withdrawn from other objects. Not only do objects have all sorts of powers that may or may not ever lead to manifestations or actualizations (a person might never get a tan because they live their entire life locked in a dungeon), but also powers as such are never themselves manifested. That is, the qualities an object manifests never resemble the powers that it possesses.
It’s all about JUST objects and relations, and powers, and qualities too. Very abstract.

There’s nothing surprising about that. That’s how philosophy tends to be. And I knew that going in.

What strikes me, however, is that this level of abstraction feels akin to knowledge representation (KR), the discipline in cognitive science and artificial intelligence about representing human knowledge in computational form. KR has many specific formalisms, but one can think of them as being about objects and relations, powers and qualities. If you’re building an expert system for medical diagnosis, well, what objects, relations, powers, and qualities do you need to have in your system in order to represent some body of medical diagnostics? If you want to be able to recognize stories about going into food establishments and ordering a meal, what objects, relations, powers, and qualities do you need to have in your system in order to do that? So, the study of KR is the study of how to deploy objects, relations, powers, and qualities in representing bodies of knowledge.

Russell Hoban: Disappearances

Was the late Russell Hoban an object-oriented ontologist? How's this sound?
More and more I find life is a series of disappearances followed usually but not always by reappearances; you disappear from your morning self and reappear as your afternoon self; you disappear from feeling good and reappear feeling bad. And people, even face to face and clasped in each other's arms, disappear from each other.
H/t Michael Sporn.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Alenka Pinterič

Nina Paley’s started background research for her Exodus project (aka Seder-Masochism). One aspect of her research has been to immerse herself in recordings of the theme song from Exodus, a hit movie from 1960 about a shipload of Holocaust survivors after World War II. The theme song became a hit in an instrumental version by duo-pianists Ferrante and Teicher and was covered in many other instrumental versions. Pop star Pat Boone wrote lyrics and vocal versions multiplied like rabbits, many of which are available on YouTube.

Paley singled out one version for special mention on her Facebook page, a version by one Alenka Pinterič, which she introduced with this sentence: “But I just came across this one, which is...special. Like, Trolololo special. It has viral potential.” That reads like Paley had her tongue in her cheek. And when you hear it, well . . . . The thing is, a day later she reposted that same version, remarking that it “is the only version of "Exodus" that gets BETTER every time you play it.” No tongue in cheek. In comments she says: “What makes it great is her palpable joy and confidence.” She’s right. I’m not sure that “great” is the word, but “palpable joy and confidence,” yes. Here it is:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Community Bands in America

In 19th century America, the community band was at the center of community life. Here's a documentary about them:
Meet The Band, a Hindsight Media production, is a one-hour documentary tracing the history of community bands n the United States. We profile four very different bands from around the country and takes us through the American Revolution, the Civil War and the 20th century.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New coinage: "Assholocracy"

Over at Language Log Geoffrey Pullum is arguing for "assholocracy" as a new addition to the English language. Donald Trump is his favored instance of the assholocrat, but examples are legion:
The whole Arab Spring has been a process of bringing down assholocracies. Italy suffered under one until recently. Russia and Syria are now protesting against their own crooked assholocracies, and the only reason North Korea and Zimbabwe don't do the same is that they daren't, they could be killed. We in the West are going to need a term for being ruled by assholocrats, because they continue to threaten to exercise power over huge parts of the earth's population even if not (yet) over us.




Monday, December 12, 2011

Tank Tankoro, by Gajo Sakamoto

Gaja Sakamoto. Tank Tankuro: Prewar Works, 1934-45. Presspop, Inc. 2011.
I was browsing in Jim Hanley’s Universe* a few weeks ago and saw a handsomely slipcased volume by someone I’d never heard of, Gajo Sakamoto, about a character I’d never heard of, Tank Tankoro. That I’d never heard of either means nothing, of course. The fine print on the label pasted to the cellophane wrapper indicated that this Tankoro character was “the preeminent robot superhero manga from pre-WWII Japan” and that it had somehow gotten lost even in Japan and wasn’t rediscovered there until the 1970s, at which point it was republished to much joy and acclaim.

A very convincing sales pitch and, as I said, the slipcasing was very handsome. But I didn’t buy that first time. But two weeks later . . . then I bought. I ripped off the cellophane wrapper, took the book out of its case and started leafing though. Good paper, high quality printing, I thought, and funny.

I leafed through to page 73 and noticed a bunch of guys and a canon, but no ammunition. I turned the page and saw a nice two-page spread (74-75), in four color printing (the earlier pages had been only black and red). On the right-hand page some guy had a basket stacked high with octopi while on the left-hand the guys with the canon were wondering “What’ll we do with them?”

Of course, I new exactly what they were going to do with them, and started chuckling at the notion of using octopi as canon balls (while also thinking that that wasn’t too kind to the octopi). And, yep! that’s what happened on pages 76 and 77. And then 78 and 79 formed another two page spread, which you can see on the web, here (page 78) and here (page 79). The octopi formed a chain stretching from Tankuro up there in the air down to the guys on the ground, who were trying to reel him in: “It’s like beach net fishing.”

What an utterly absurd and wonderful conception. Of course, it didn’t work. Tankuro freed himself, because he’s the hero. I was hooked.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Another one of those shots where the sun burns a whole in the fabric of reality


David Graeber: Anarchism, Debt, and Militarism

The White Review has a far-ranging interview with David Graeber, economic anthropologist and OWS theorist. Here he talks about how US overseas military arrangements and foreign debt amount to empire under a different set of names (paragraphing mine):
Since 1972 when Nixon went off the gold standard, the world reserve currency has been the US dollar, but what ultimately backs the US dollar? People say nothing, it’s ‘fiat money’ but I don’t think this is true. It’s a credit system based on the circulation of debt.

Of course the US has the enormous advantage of being able to write checks that are never actually cashed: US treasury bonds have become the basic reserve currency for the central banks and as Michael Hudson originally pointed out, most of these American treasury bonds are never really cashed in. They’re rolled over year after year to buy new ones, and these holders are taking a loss on them as they pay interest lower than inflation. So why are they doing that?

Well, if you look at the size of US deficit it corresponds almost exactly to the real saw [sic] military budget. If you look at graphs showing the growth of the US deficit, and the percentage of it held overseas, and the US military spending—basically, you see almost exactly the same curve. So basically, foreign governments and institutional lenders are buying US treasury bonds and paying for this enormous military spending.

So, who are the guys doing it? Well during the cold war it was especially West Germany, now, apart from China, the most important are places like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Gulf states. What do these states have in common? They’re all covered in US military bases, or under US military protection. The US is borrowing the money to create these military bases from the very countries that the US military is sitting on top of.

In the past, such arrangements were called ‘empires’ and the money sent over was referred to as ‘tribute.’ Now apparently your not allowed to use that language, so it’s called a ‘loan.’ Nonetheless, that link between the military and the core of the financial system remains, it’s the thing we’re not supposed to think about.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

When I first got interested in object-oriented ontology (OOO) I wondered just what qualified as an object, metaphysically speaking. I suppose the question was particularly acute because, at that time, I was reading Tim Morton’s early thinking on hyperobjects, which presupposed ordinary metaphysical objects and seemed to extend it in some (possibly strange) way to some special class of objects, objects, Tim, said, that were massively distributed in space and time. Such as global climate change. What’s to be gained, I wondered, by saying that climate change is an object, as opposed, say, to a process?

And that question—what IS an object?—was still very much on my mind at the OOO meetings in New York City in mid-September. A brief exchange between Graham Harman and Levi Bryant clarified that at bit. I forget just what they were talking about, but they decided tnat, no, it wasn’t an object, it was a set, an arbitrary collection of objects. So, (metaphysical) objects are one thing, sets another. We’re getting somewhere.

Then I discovered, perhaps in reading The Quadruple Object (which I’m still studying, it’s a dense little book) that imaginary objects are as much under consideration as, well, real objects. Except, you see, that imaginary objects are real objects, don’t you see? but not real in the way that real objects are. Now, of course, that’s not what Harman says, nor is it quite what I was thinking or am now thinking, but it’s a useful index of potential confusion.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Look Around a Tree


Underbelly Links

Jasper Rees was the journalist tasked with breaking The Underbelly Project in The New York Times and The Times of London. Now he tells the tale of going down there to get the story, The Underbelly Project: New York:
My pulse starts to race. This kind of excitement is not normally available to arts journalists (the PRs see to that). The surface underfoot suddenly turns rough and damp. My hand-torch – we’ve got two between four – picks out puddles among the loose cement. We clamber over various obstacles – details of what and how withheld – until we are in an empty space. In the dark, lit by our torches, it’s more like a concrete cave. I get the impression that pretty much nobody has been down here in decades.
Juxtapose Magazine goes to The Underbelly Project @ Art Basel Miami 2011.

Jeff Stark set a table for two in the Underbelly project in November 2011, and left the table behind. Now he sets a table in an abandoned marine park in Miami as part of the Underbelly festivities at Art Basel.

Conference on Psycho-Ontology

There’s a conference on that topic at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem on 11-15 December of this year, with David Chalmers, Steven Pinker, Lera Bofoditsky and Jesse Prinz headlining. Here’s how the conference bills itself:
Do the operations of the human mind have something to teach us about the fundamental structure of reality? Philosophers such as Hume, Kant, James, Bergson, Husserl, Kuhn, and Goodman have, in different ways, seemed to believe this question should be answered in the affirmative. Yet as disciplines, cognitive science and metaphysics are usually conducted without reference to one another.

“Psycho-ontology” can be defined as the investigation of the relationship between human cognition and features of reality: We do psycho-ontology when we study the way perception, thought, and emotion play a role in helping constitute the world we inhabit. But psycho-ontology can also move in the opposite direction: It can involve studying the fundamental features of reality in order to gain insight into how human cognitive processes work.
It’s a subject of some interest to me, what with my long-standing interest in psychology of ontological cognition.

However, in looking over the program a bit, I suspect it may miss the point as far as object-oriented ontology (OOO) is concerned. The blurb for Chalmers gives it away: “What is the minimal vocabulary that Laplace's demon would need in order to know all truths about the world?” That’s not what OOO is about nor is it quite what I’m about. For my part, I fear that the notion of a fixed vocabulary is somehow adequate to all truths is somewhere between deeply problematic and hopeless one. But the broader point is simply that Chalmers seems concerned about enumerating the kinds of things in the world, which is what ontology seems to mean for this conference.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How Many Tables?

Graham Harman has a recent post in which he wonders about tables:
Because of something I had to write I was going over A.S. Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World (or over the Introduction, anyway, which was the relevant part for my purposes). This Introduction is famous for its discussion of the “two tables”: the scientific table that is mostly empty space and made up of rushing subatomic particles, and the table of everyday life (which Eddington confusingly names the “substantial” table, but never mind that).

I find that I have no sympathy for either of those two tables. The real table is the third table that is neither scientific nor everyday.

Under Eddington’s schema, both tables are dissolved into nearby sets of relations– either into their tiny little components detectable by the sciences, or into their effects on humans.
I’ve not read Eddington’s introduction, but only the single page that shows up in the Google Books preview. But that leads me to suspect that the situation is worse the Harman’s suggested.

The scientific table seems to be the quantum-mechanical table of sub-atomic charged particles, where those particle are not little itty bitty grains of sand, but even smaller; they’re something else. I suspect that Eddington’s “substantial” table is a conflation of all those various appearances (sensual objects in Harman’s terminology) the table presents to human perception and action with the classical table as defined in various respects by Descartes, Gallileo and Newton. It's the table of classical mechanics. If we count all those appearances as one table, that gives us three tables, two scientific tables (quantum and classical) and one everyday table (appearances). Harman’s real table is a fourth. It, presumably, is what holds those other tables together or, if you will, it is what spawns them.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Introduction: Fantasia and Me

You can download a PDF of my Fantasia commentary here. For all my posts on the Pastoral episode, go here.
I grew up watching Fantasia episodes on Disney’s TV program and I saw it in theatrical release in 1969. It fascinated me as a child but as a young adult, eh, it’s not all that. Then I picked up a DVD in August 2003 in connection with a now-abandoned book project: WHAM! I was stunned.

I saw the film itself, yes, but though it I also saw the cumulated techniques of 3000 years of art history, Western and Eastern, and a large swath of the cosmos and of life on Earth. So I wrote a longish email about it, and more generally about cartoons and animation, to my colleague, Tim Perper. Tim had become interested in manga and anime so I figured he’d have some observations even if Disney and Fantasia didn’t particularly interest him.

I was right, Tim had things to say. He also got me interested in manga and anime, which have been a major part of my intellectual life since then. It’s been mostly the Japanese stuff, but I’ve also looked into some classic America cartoons, Winsor McCay, Warner Brothers, Walter Lantz, and classic Disney, Fantasia above all.

In August of 2006 a made a post at The Valve in which I argued that Fantasia was one of the great works of the 20th century. Back then the claim struck me as rather outrageous. Now that I’ve gotten used to it, it still seems true, sorta’, but also beside the point—to which I’ll return in a moment.

When I made that post I didn’t intend to devote posts to each episodes. As a result of an email exchange with Michael Barrier I wrote a piece on Dance of the Hours in 2007 and that, I figured, was that. It wasn’t until the Spring of 2010 that I decided I might work my way through the entire film, starting with The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I’ve now written about every episode, including the intermission. I’ve also written a concluding piece in which I examine episode order, arguing that the episodes on an increasing range of mental faculties until, say, Dance of the Hours, at which point the episodes begin asking: Just what does it mean to be human?

As for Fantasia being one of the great works of the the 20th century, you can read my argument on that, and the rest of my commentaries as well. But I do wonder what the greatness game is about. In January of 2010 Frederick Turner argued that Hayao Miyazaki is the world’s best living filmmaker, a judgment I’m not prepared to contradict. Miyazaki, of course, is working in the same medium that Disney did, animation, though his work is quite different.

But the greatness game is not simply or even primarily a game played by individual critics offering up judgments. It’s an institutional game. While Disney had his successes and his fame, including honorary degrees, and certainly his fortune, we have no institution that endorses the greatness of his animation, nor, as far as I can tell, is Miyazaki’s greatness endorsed by any institution—John Lassiter’s enthusiasm not withstanding. The institutions that underwrite greatness are not interested in animation and I’m afraid that neither my enthusiasm, nor Fred Turner’s, is going to change that.

The question, it seems to me, is this: Is Disney’s finest work, and Miyazaki’s, along with much other work—is this work destined to sink into the past without leaving a trace or, on the contrary, will it turn out to be the foundations of new institutions in new worlds that are, at best, only now hinted at? Only time will tell.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sunshots 2.0

I’d been taking sunshots before I’d seen any of Terrence Malick’s films, but seeing The Tree of Life heightened my interest in such shots. Recently been shooting the sun through dense thickets of denuded twigs and branches, giving the shots a rather different feel. Here’s an example:


The bluish tinge is an artifact of the photography process, though I’m not quite sure what “artifact” means in this case. The implication is that it isn’t really there, that you wouldn’t have seen it on site. But on site you don’t really look at such things long enough to register much of anything; the sun’s too bright. What I saw through the viewfinder—I think—was mostly light.

Here’s a rather different example:


I really like how the sun appears as a hole burned through film. I’m not sure, however, that I like the fact that the photo has no in-focus area. I didn’t intend that, but it’s not an accident either. It’s something that happens.

Episode Order in Fantasia: Revealing the Human Mind

I began my exploration of Fantasia with an essay arguing that it was a masterpiece of 20th century art. That argument was about the range of material depicted within the relatively narrow compass of two hours. Disney, in effect, said: This is human life in the universe.

I now want to return to the whole film, but with a different question in mind. I want to look at the episode order. This is an issue that doesn’t arise in a film that tells a story, or, at least, at arises in a different way. The incidents in the story have an inherent order that must be respected, though foreshadowing and flashbacks are possible.

Fantasia isn’t like that. It tells no story. There is no order linking the separate episodes. In theory Disney could have determined the order by tossing a coin. But one can’t imagine him doing that. I assume that he and his team thought about the order and chose this particular order because it was somehow ‘the best.’

What guided their choice?

I don’t know. I’ve not seen the Disney archives so I’ve not examined any relevant records. But I’m willing to hazard a guess based on an analysis of the episodes themselves.

Concert Order

This problem is hardly novel. It’s been faced hundreds of thousands of times by musicians putting on a concert or organizing a set list for club performance. One principle, for example, is that you want to open strong. If you don’t get your audience’s attention at the very beginning of the performance, you may never get it.

By that principle alone, the episode order in Fantasia is a mystery. To be sure, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor opens very dramatically. Those opening cascades DO grab your attention. But that’s about it, at least for Disney’s middlebrow audience, people for whom “the classics” were unfamiliar and perhaps even forbidding territory. The toccata grabs you, but the subsequent fugue lacks the tunefulness that was central to popular music of the time—hip hop was WAY in the future. Further, the abstract visuals were just STRANGE. No funny animals, no people, no cars, no flowers, no nothing. Just violin bows and squiggles.

The fact is that this episode was so very strange that it was dropped from a 1942 theatrical re-release, though it was restored for subsequent releases. How could Disney and his team made such a mistake?

Perhaps they’d become so absorbed in the film that they couldn’t see the problem. But perhaps they had something else in mind, perhaps not consciously and explicitly, but tacitly, intuitively.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Be It Ever so Humble, There’s no Place Like Elysium

A PDF of a complete set of posts on Disney's Pastoral Symphony may be downloaded here.
I grew up watching episodes of Fantasia on TV, and saw a theatrical version in 1969, which didn’t impress me that much. It wasn’t THAT psychedelic. Then, for over three decades, nothing. I suppose I thought about the movie every so often, and perhaps recalled an episode or two, but I didn’t see it at all.

When, a few years ago, I picked to DVD, I was stunned by it, the variety of animation styles, the variety of subjects. It fascinated me. I liked some episodes more than others. The Nutcracker Suite and Rite of Spring were immediate favorites. The Pastoral Symphony was my least favorite; I was almost embarrassed to watch it.

How come, then, that I’ve written more about it than any of the other episodes?

For one thing, by the time I got around to it, I’d learned a lot about describing and analyzing cartoons, not only from the work I’d done on the other episodes, but from work I’ve done on other cartoons as well: Miyazaki, Walter Lantz, Warner Brothers, other Disney (Dumbo), and some others here and there. I was better at my craft; I knew what to look for, and how.

Then there is the episode itself. It’s one of the longest in the film—only Rite of Spring is longer—and one of the most complex. In particular, it portrays a wider range of human social life than any of the other episodes, dealing, as it does, with child-rearing, courtship, celebration, and security (from the storm). Simply describing what Disney’s depicted and how he’s organized it, that takes time.

Now that I’ve been through it all I have a better sense of my embarrassment, which centered on Bacchus, though not entirely so (those centaurs are rather clunky, and that cherub’s bottom, what’s up with that?). Bacchus is given a complex job, perhaps more than he could handle. In the voice-over commentary to the version packaged with Fantasia 2000, historian Brian Sibley notes that the lead animator for Bacchus, Ward Kimball, came to think that he’d laid it on rather too thickly. Perhaps it did, but he had a tough job. As I read Bacchus, not only must he be a randy old man,, but he’s also a puddle-splashing infant. And somehow he must be both of those and be believable in the context of this movie.

Well, men are randy, old, and infants, but generally not within the compass of 10 or 15 minutes. It’s one thing to be each of those in its own context, isolated from the other, but to be them all, all at once, that just rather rubs one’s nose it the absurdity, the ridiculousity, if I may, of being human. Maybe Kimball didn’t go overboard at all. Maybe he was just doing his job, and doing it well, indeed.

Perhaps embarrassment was the necessary point. Whatever. In any event, I’ve made my peace with Disney’s Pastoral Symphony. I no longer find it embarrassing. Instead, I’m filled with wonder at what Disney attempted, and what he actually managed to accomplish.

In Plato's Cave




Thursday, November 24, 2011

Fall Colors Peekaboo Here Come the Sun



What’s in a Name? “Pepper Spray”

The police use of so-called pepper spray is much in the news and on the web these days, especially as a result of its use at University of California at Davis. According to The New York Times “Megyn Kelly on Fox News dismissed pepper spray as ‘a food product, essentially.” That same story also reports:
To the American Civil Liberties Union, its use as a crowd-control device, particularly when those crowds are nonthreatening, is an excessive and unconstitutional use of force and violates the right to peaceably assemble.
A food product? Excessive and unconstitutional? One and the same product.

I understand the name’s derivation, that the active ingredient—technically, oleoresin capsicum—is the chemical that causes the 'bite' in peppers. The use of THAT name, of course, automatically associates the spray with food. Not only is food innocuous, it's necessary for life. So the name tells us that this agent is, at most, an exaggeration or amplification of something that's good for us: "Eat your spinach, it's good for you." We don't think that such an agent could put someone in the hospital or induce possibly permanent nerve damage.

How would these stories play out if the spray was known as 'liquid pain' or 'torture spray'? How would the officers using the agent think of themselves and their actions if they thought of the agent as torture spray rather than as a food derivative?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Summer and Fall



Pastoral 6: All Together Now: Nietzsche, Lorenz, Jakobson

Toward a Compositionist Aesthetics in which Nothing is Hidden, All is Revealed

In the past several decades the standard modes of literary and film criticism have sought to find hidden meanings. The work was thus conceived as a device to smuggling various meanings though lines of conscious defense. When the critic had found those hidden meanings, his or her work was done.

Under such a critical regime the psychological patterns I’ve found in earlier posts—sexual in the first and third, oral in the fourth—are such hidden meanings. In that regime everything else I’ve looked—the treatment of sound and color, ring form, cuteness—all that’s just deceptive camouflage. Now that the critic—that’s me, but you as well—has penetrated it, it can be discarded in favor of the REAL meaning, that ‘hidden’ sexual stuff.

The major problem with such readings is that they, in effect, discard the artistry, treating the text or film as an odd species of argument that makes its point almost completely by indirection. Well, if that’s what’s REALLY going on, then why not make the argument directly and dispense with all the artistic window dressing?

It’s not a very convincing style of criticism, though it’s been the norm for half a century. I was trained in such criticism, among other things, and have come to believe we need something more. Just what isn’t entirely clear. But what I’ve been doing with the Pastoral episode—indeed, with all of Fantasia—is to explore other ways of looking at, in this case, film. In this regime, the one I’m making up, that psychological material is still there, but I don’t regard it as particularly hidden nor do I think that pointing it out is the ultimate goal of criticism.

That psychological material is just stuff, raw material, out of which the artist, or artists in this case, construct a work of art. Those other things, color, sound, form, cuteness, they too are stuff. The purpose of this post is to begin thinking about how all this stuff works together to create a work of cinematic art. As for what that work means, I don’t know and I don’t care. Not here and now. What matters is how it works.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nature Walk


One takes a nature walk, I assume, to experience the natural world. It is not clear to me, however, just how deeply one’s experience of nature depends on a sharp division between nature and society, or nature and culture. To the extent that the nature walk depends on such a distinction it is, of course, problematic. For the walker is always, by definition, inextricably bound up in society and culture, no matter how long the walk nor how remote that place.


My nature walks do not take place in remote locations. I doubt that I’ve even been to a truly remote location, not when flying over the Grand Canyon in a small plane, not when walking in a deep wooded glen at summer camp near Altoona, Pa., nor when walking with a woman in a field near Laramie, Wyoming. For all of these places were within easy distance of roads, villages, and towns.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Another Latour Locus

By Latour locus I mean a place that isn't necessarily only that place, that is, a place that also implies, connects with, other places. But  I also mean photographs photographs that link disparate places together, near and far. This photograph is a Latour locus only only in the first sense:


There are no distant buildings or mountains on view. What you see is more or less there, except, of course, for the clouds and contrails in the sky.

This is a Latour locus by virtue of the implications of what you see in the photo, which depicts the Liberty State Park stop on the Hudson Light Rail commuter line running along the Hudson River in northern New Jersey. The phone booth in the middle allows you to talk with someone anywhere in the world, though I suspect it is used mostly for local calls. Someone who's doing business in Singapore is not likely to make a business call from this phone, though they might well be traveling to or from the office through this rail line.

But what I had in mind is the map to the right, which is a map both of the rail system and of the bus lines. Actually, it's two maps. Along the left edge of the map you see a highly stylized map depicting only the stops on the rail line and eliminating all geographical details except relative order. In the map proper, the body of water along the right is New York Harbor and the Hudson River. The Passaic River is on the left, leading into Newark Bay.

I don't know where the electrical power that runs the rail system and the lights at the station comes from.

Intuition and the Real 2: On the March

I’ve got another case to add to those in my earlier post on intuition and the sense of reality. This case arose in a long, and often interesting, discussion of the recent evictions of Occupy Wall Street encampments. The discussion has been taking place at Crooked Timber and has involved, among other things, a fairly extensive conversation between one Adrian Kelleher, about whom I know nothing, and Rich Puchalsky, whom I know from The Valve and CT.

Kelleher has been making long, detailed comments saying, more or less, “you’re doing it wrong, you can’t possibly succeed.” Puchalsky, who’s been working with the Occupy group in his neighborhood somewhere in in not-Boston Massachusetts, has been saying, “you don’t at all understand the Occupy movement.” In particular, Kelleher made two long comments, 333 and, particularly 334, which is about how OWS is swimming against “the tide of history.” Puchalsky responds in 341.

Here’s my reply to Puchalsky:
Puchalsky: It’s possible for someone to have quite conventional political views and yet act quite differently within a social situation that is different.

BB: Bingo!

Puchalsky: When that failure happens, people in OWS will have friends that they can trust, people who they’ve worked with at a very elemental level.

BB: Bingo! Bingo!

BB: Let me invoke Marley's Theorem, named after my old buddy Jason Marley: "If you want to know what it's like to drive a car, you've got to sit in the driver's set and drive the car." Sitting in the passenger's seat watching the driver won't do it, nor will sitting in the back seat, and certainly not sitting at home in your den imagining what driving a car is like. You've got to be IN the car, making decisions about traffic, the road, and pedestrians. It's that elemental.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Lady and the Swamp


Pastoral 5: Ring Form Construction

At the time when I’d finished my previous post about Disney’s Pastoral, on oral imagery, I figured that my next post would be my last. I was wrong. This, my next post, is not that one. This is something that had been brewing during the orality post and that I figured I could toss off as one section in the final post. But, as I thought about that last post, everything got larger and larger, but especially this topic.

So this has become a separate post. The topic is one I’ve already addressed, but in connection with a post in which I discussed both The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, that of ring form. I’ve now come to suspect that the Pastoral episode has a ring form as well.

Looking for a Structural Center in a Temporal Work

The idea is that this episode has a section that is structurally central and that the other sections are somehow arranged around that. Why would I think that? Well, for one thing, the episode has five sections, which means that one of them is, numerically at least, central. That’s the Bacchanal. What would it mean for that to be structurally central?

Imagine for a moment that, instead of a film, we were examining a painting on five panels, perhaps an altar piece. Let us imagine that this central panel was larger than the others and that it depicts, say, Christ on the cross, or the Madonna and Child, well-known objects of veneration in Christian art. The other four panels have figures in them as well, and those figures are all looking toward the central image. All of that indicates that the middle panel is also compositionally and iconographically central. This is not, of course, a required feature of paintings spread over five panels. I have no trouble imagining a set of Chinese or Japanese painted screens with five panels where none of the panels is compositionally more important than the others. That’s a very different kind of composition. In that case the fact the one of the five panels is numerically in the middle is structurally irrelevant. That’s not what interests me.

What’s worse, what interests me is a work of temporal art, a film. In the case of a painting one can see all five panels at a glance and one can easily run one’s eyes over the panels in whatever pattern is interesting and convenient. One can grasp and examine the entire composition. That’s not possible with a film, which unfolds in time. One can see and hear only what’s unfolding at the moment, though one can recall previous sights and sounds and anticipate future ones. This pretty much means that, if there is some section that is structurally central, one is not likely to register it as such at the time for the simple reason that one doesn’t know what’s coming up and so has no way of assessing centrality.

Ring form works unconsciously. One discovers it only through deliberate analysis.

Two Very Different Photos


One grainy,


One not.

That, of course, is not the only difference between them. But it IS one worth thinking about. Especially because no film is involved.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Intuition and the Feeling of Real

This is not about either ontology or epistemology. I don’t think. It’s about one’s intuitions, one’s sense of things.

Example 1: graffiti site

An example: the graffiti site. I’ve blogged quite a bit about graffiti and, in particular, about the graffiti site. The notion of a graffiti site is ‘real’ to me mostly because I’ve documented (that is, photographed and made notes about) a handful of sites over several years. Many of the photographs are available on the web, as are my comments. But, to use an old old metaphor, what’s in those documents is only the 10% of the iceberg that floats above the surface of the water. Most of what makes those sites real to me is beneath the water, in all those hours of experience that I have not and even cannot transform into sharable documents.

For some purposes those public documents, taken in conjunction with other such documents, whether on the web or in many of the books and articles about graffiti, are sufficient. But not necessarily for all purposes. When I argue that the site itself is the proper object for study and analysis and, in particular, when I argue that the site is an agent, NOW I’m drawing on my intuition, on the submerged 90% of the iceberg.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Big-Time Athletics and the Funding of Higher Ed

Some informal reflections on the dynamics of money and college athletics. No details here, just a general sketch.

I don't really know when college and university sports became big business, but I'd think the impetus was TV money. TV exposure, in turn, propelled traditional college sports rivalries into the national spotlight as entertainment for all. Thus a significant segment of college athletics became part of the entertainment business and operated outside or at least beside the normal institutional dynamics of colleges and universities.

I did my graduate work at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-1970s. When SUNY took over the University of Buffalo (UB) in the late 1960s it did so with the intention of turning it into "the Berkeley of the East." The English Department was, for whatever reason, one of the first to be targeted for significant upgrading, which it had achieved by the time I got there. That's why I went, following a newly established 'pipeline' between Johns Hopkins (my undergraduate school) and UB.

However, things were also heading into decline when I arrived at SUNYB in Fall of 1973. The student riots a couple of years earlier had panicked the local worthies and they put the brakes on SUNYB's rise to academic greatness. Still, it took awhile for the English Deaprtment to loose its luster.

Anyhow, either at the very end of my years there or, more likely, some time later, SUNYB started discussing whether or not it should beef up its football program, which had been nothing special. In fact, it may have been on a multi-year losing streak, I forget the details. The logic of that discussion was simple:
  • a good football team generates school spirit
  • school spirit generates alumni loyalty
  • and loyal alumni shower their beloved alma mater with $$$$
But UB didn't hire a Joe Paterno. I don't really know how that plan went, though, of course, I am aware to the funding nonsense that's recently been going on in the SUNY system as a whole.



Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Scandal at Penn State: Does not compute

I don't have much to say about the mess at Penn State, perhaps because I don't understand it. But I'm not sure what understanding would get me. But I'd like to offer a simple observation andd a dumb and simple-minded comment.

One. Though Sandusky is the one accused of child molestation, we're not discussing him. We're discussing Paterno. It's as though we know Sandusky's story but . . . Whether or not we think we know Paterno's story, he's the man with the bigger than life reputation. So he's the one who gets discussed.

Two. The Paterno discussion would be much easier if we put him through a Magnetronic Being Splitter that would turn him into four different persons: 1) Paterno the winningest coach in college football, 2) Paterno the benefactor of good things at Penn State, 3) Paterno the figure-head of PSU, and 4) Paterno the guardian of children.

If we could do that, then we could execute #4, burn #3 in effigy, give #2 a plaque in the lobby of the PSU library, and erect a statue to #1. Alas, the Magnetronic Being Splitter hasn't been debugged yet, so we can't do that. We're stuck with having 1, 2, 3, and 4 in one indivisible person; and we don't really have a way of making sense of such people.

The Paterno problem does not compute. It's the sort of thing that, nonetheless, human beings somehow muddle through, but that causes super smart computers hell-bent on world destruction to explode.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Swamp Grass



Pastoral 4: Orality and Mastery

Pastoral 1 fawn playing pipes

While I emphasized sexual imagery, both explicit and implicit, in my first post on Disney’s Pastoral, the episode also has a good deal of oral imagery. That’s what I want to discuss in this post.

Oral imagery shows up well before any sexual imagery. It’s there at the beginning, albeit in a very special form, that of an on-screen character playing a musical line from Beethoven’s score. As I indicated before, this is the only episode in the whole film where that happens, and it happens several times throughout the episode. Further, the instrument is always a wind instrument, never a stringed instrument, though Beethoven’s symphony abounds in strings.

In the first case we see a faun playing pan pipes. He’s joined by other fauns, all piping and dancing away, and they’re joined by unicorns. Then one faun and one unicorn get to playing around. The faun climbs a pedestal and alternately plays a riff on the pipes and strikes poses, as though he were a statue, while unicorn attempts to make sense of it this harmless trickery. At the end of this back and forth the unicorn licks the faun on the face:

Pastoral oral1 lick the faun

Think of it as an oral link between a faun and a unicorn. We’ll see other such links.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pastoral 3: Come Dance with Me

Let’s take a close look at the dance sequence in the Disney’s realization of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. As I indicated it ends with Bacchus kissing his donkey. I want to see how they got there.

The sequence starts with Bacchus in the middle of an opening in the forest, drinking away as the centaurs and centaurettes dance figures around him. He soon joins in, dancing with one centaurette after another (3rd, 4th, and 5th frame following, the centaurette in the 6th seems to be the same as the one in the 3rd).

Pastoral dance1

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pastoral 2: Color and Sound

It seems that I’m not done with Disney’s Pastoral. I want to think about Disney’s palette in the Pastoral in this post and I’m planning another post on the dance sequence.

It’s not simply that the colors are often garishly saturated. They’re often unnatural as well, and the forms are highly stylized, as we see in the next five frame-grabs. The first two come quite early in the film, shortly after the establishing shot of Mount Olympus at dawn. The next two are near the end of the first segment while the last comes early in the courtship segment.

Pastoral color1

Pastoral color2

Friday, November 11, 2011

Those Objects'll Get You Every time

Domestic Tranquility, NOT: Disney’s Pastoral

Pastoral 29 mountain (beginning)

I’ve saved the most troublesome for last, Disney’s setting of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. It was soundly criticized upon initial release, mostly, or especially, for Disney’s use and reworking of Beethoven. THAT doesn’t bother me at all. That kind of artistic license is pretty much the price of admission for Fantasia. No, what bothers me is the cuteness, but secondarily the palette. Both are obvious enough, but it’s the cuteness I want to grapple with.

For THAT is one of the central criticisms of the Disney aesthetic, it’s too cute. This is certainly not the only episode in Fantasia where cuteness rears its ugly head. Yet it’s not bothersome in the dancing mushrooms, and it’s easily set aside in the goldfish and the baby dinosaurs. But it’s front and center in the Pastoral.

Moreover, the Pastoral is in the heart of Disney’s imaginative world, for it’s about family life. The first segment shows us a family of winged horses—inspired by Pegasus—mother, father, and children. One of the children takes its first flight before our wonderstruck eyes. Then see the little ones at play and the whole family parading majestically across the sky. That’s the heart of Disney country. And its followed by courtship, a rousing party, a storm that drives adults to protect children and males to protect females, and then the storm breaks, out comes the sun. Everyone’s happy. The sun sets. Bedtime.

Why all the treacle, in the character designs, in the actions, and in the palate?

Let’s work our way through it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

OOO: Issues, Questions, Befuddlement, Stuff

The universe consists of objects. What else?

Well objects have qualities, so they must be different from objects. How so? For example, we can say that red is a quality of a beach ball, a flame, or blood. But is there a ‘redness’ object? If not, just WHY not?

Objects can enter into relations with other objects, which may or may not yield new objects. So relations too are different from objects.

Can events, actions, and processes be objects? What of a race, for example? Perhaps the race where Usain Bolt first shattered the world record in the 100 meter dash. An object? Why or why not?

The hammer is an object, as is a nail and a plank of wood. But the act of hammering the nail into the plank, is that an object? If not an object, what is it? A set of relations? An action? Is an action a different kind of thing, alongside objects, properties, relations . . .

And sets, we know sets aren’t objects, as set membership can be arbitrary.

More Birches




Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Underbelly Project, Big Art or What?

It’s only been a year since The Underbelly Project sprang from the pages of the The New York Times and the Times of London. From a certain point of view what’s interesting is that it embraced both graffiti and street art. That’s but secondary to the question of whether or not tUP is a PR stunt intended to set-up a nice cash payout or whether it is, for lack of a better word, real. [My posts on tUP are here.]

As someone who feels the mystery of dark places, hidden away, even illegal, I think it was conceived and executed in the grandest style of the The Real. Until the day of the Big Reveal. Then all hell broke loose and tUP ceased to be the property of PAC and Workhorse, the founders and curators, and the many artists who participated.

Just who put what down there in the hole and why, that’s become secondary to what gets made of it in our minds. That is, what gets made of the knowledge that it’s there and of whatever tangible evidence we have of it, photos, videos, and the like. Well, it seems that we’re in for an exhibition at Art Basel in Miami, a special edition book, and a serf’s edition of the same book to be released in February.

From my point of view, what matters most, and it’s almost the only thing that matters, is whether or not the importance of the site itself somehow survives this assault by Big Art. It’s the site itself that spawned the project, as though those abandoned tunnels called Workhorse and PAC into the ground so they’d conceive and execute the project. And it’s the site itself that’s effectively beyond reach.

Parable of the Reeds 2 (No Figuring Needed)




Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Underbelly Rising

The Underbelly Project is coming up for air, and, I suppose, a spot of cash and glory too. I just got an email from the project (you can sign-up on the web, here). Here’s the scoop:
After taking time to reflect on The Underbelly Project, we felt it was important to share what it was like in the abandoned subway station. To show the work being created, to show the life that was happening on the dust lined tracks. To do this we will be holding an exhibition during Art Basel Miami. For this exhibition, time lapse videos will be shown of each artist creating their work, a video walkthrough of the station will show the entire station right after the work was completed, and photo documentation will help illuminate how the artists created their work . Unique artifacts from the abandoned station will give viewers insight into the process. It is our hope that this show will help convey what it was like in our dark corner of the world for that brief time.

In addition to the documentation of the project, we thought it was important to showcase new works created by artists from The Underbelly, outside of the physical limitations of the tunnel. To showcase work that was created in favorable conditions without the fear of being arrested or discovered. For this a sampling of the painters, sculptures and installation artists from the tunnel were chosen to represent the variety of talents that left their mark in this abandoned subway station.
That opening phrase—“after taking time to reflect . . .”—is, of course, bullshit. Which may well be OK depending on all sorts of things, including what actually happens at the installation at Art Basel in Miami this year.

Here’s more:

Parable of the Reeds (You Figure it Out)

I’m quite fascinated by reeds. And these reeds are tall, five, six, seven feet and more. I like to take closely bunched shots.

Here, notice that leaf just to the left of center:


There it is again, a bit further away:


But not really. I’m standing in the same place. Just changed focus.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Some Birch Trees for My Sister



And a grape vine.

Three Objects, All Real

Or, There’s an Aesthetic in this Photo


By three objects I mean, of course, the two trees and the lens flare. One could, I suppose, quibble with my counting. Maybe it’s three trees, counting the shorter one at the lower left corner. And perhaps the one tree should be counted as a tree enwrapped by a vine, upping the object count still further. Nor is the lens flare a single object, and maybe we should also count the sun itself as it does appear to cut the rightmost edge. But all that’s secondary.

What matters is counting the lens flare as real right along side the trees. That is, I’m discounting the obvious fact that lens flare is an artifact of the photographic process. I didn’t see it with my eyes before, during, and after I took the photo. I didn’t even guess that it might show up when I took the shot. I just took the shot and there it is. Which is fine by me.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s real. And, it REALLY is. Moreover, it’s compositionally useful. If it weren’t there I might well have cropped the right side of the photo a bit. Or not, as I don’t mind asymmetry. It’s hard to tell about these things.

Fact is, though, the lens flare did show up. And its presence does make for three STRONG objects in the photo. that, in turn, counts as a visual realization of my attitude about these things.

that is



no sweat

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Some Recent Graffiti



Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

The OWS movement recognizes that America is divided into a ruling class and a class of servants.

Yes, America DOES have a ruling class. It’s not a hereditary ruling class, like the old European aristocracies. It’s permeable. One can enter it from below, and one can be thrust out of it too.

Of course the existence of this ruling class contradicts official doctrine, which says that American is ruled by the people and for the people. Members of this ruling class, therefore, will deny its existence. Certainly, the politician members MUST deny it.

Just what these rulers say among themselves, at the Bohemian Grove, in board meetings of for-profit corporations (e.g. General Motors, Goldman Sachs) and not-for-profit (e.g. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Ford Foundation), in private clubs of various kinds, that’s a different matter. On that, I suspect, some are frank about being among The Rulers while others persist they are still of the people.

Nor do non-member Americans recognize the existence of this ruling class. Well, some of us do, some of us don’t. It’d be interesting to see whether recognition of the ruling class is stringing among non-voters than among voters. After all, if you do see that there’s a ruling class, what’s the point of voting? You vote doesn’t matter. At the same time, one might vote out of identification with and affirmation of that very same ruling class. After all, maybe you too will be tapped to enter into the sacred halls of the ruling class.

All of which is to say that, while a ruling class exists, though not a classical ruling class, class consciousness is weak, on both sides of the divide.

Outing the Class Divide

And THAT’s the biggest service that is being performed by Occupy Wall Street: identifying the class divide in America. The 1%, that’s the ruling class. The rest, no matter how many things otherwise divide us, we are the 99%.