12/16/14

Monet and Ghita: In Memory of Michael Stowers

Today would be Michael Stowers’ fifty-second Birthday! To celebrate his memory I’m posting his Note on Monet and Roxana Ghita’s photography. He wrote it two years ago but I discovered it only today!

Bridges of Light and of Time
Michael T Stowers
August 28, 2012

In 1917, an aging and soon to be deceased Claude Monet was photographed by Etienne Clémentel standing before a background of his treasured Japanese Bridge at Givernyi. The Bridge would not pass into popular imagination for another fifty years, but to Monet it had already acquired an almost sacerdotal importance. Though this photograph of the white-bearded artistic innovator is iconic, what is less commonly known is that it is one of a pair of almost-identical photographs, differing only in the spatial position from which they were taken, each being taken from a point roughly three inches, horizontally, from the other.

Of course, any such pairing of photographs, when viewed using appropriate equipment, encodes one view of a three-dimensional scene. Monet then, in allowing himself to be photographed in such a novel manner during the twilight of his painterly career, when his own focus had shifted, from his early preoccupation with the capturing in paint of the light which constitutes the immediacy of perception, of removing the filtering processes which with rare exceptions artists had previously and perhaps perforce been used to employing, of trying to make of painting what would later be attempted by photography, toward an increasing obsession with the slow manipulation and control of his subject matter, by then constrained, as he himself was, to the confines of his beloved gardens.

Monet’s later work is best known to us now through his series of paintings of the lily pond at Giverny, and its distinctive Japanese Bridge. At the time, though, these paintings were less favorably regarded by critics, that is, if they were regarded at all. It is clear, from the old man’s choice of these same views for his new “portrait-in-light-and-space,” that he saw the gardens as expressions of himself in and of themselves, and he painted them as such. The stereograph is a re-placement of the artist in the forefront of the avant-garde, in the place he had once been used to occupying, captured in a few instants of light, and captured in such a way as to re-astound the viewer with the novel quality of the process of capturing.

Turning now to another Japanese Bridge, to other renditions of the immediate using the medium of light and to another lily pond, light might be shed on the light that was shed for both Monet and the builder of the other Bridge, the Romanian photographer, poet and film-maker Roxana Ghita, and on the processes which both artists use, in their distinctive ways, to “make life of the eternally-passing moment.” Specifically, on their use of color, composition, abstraction, depth, scale and, particularly, time: terms which will acquire unorthodox yet more precise meanings as their nature is explored.

More than a century and a half separate the two artists, yet even a cursory examination of their work reveals that they are, in a meta-temporal way, near contemporaries who, though unknown one to the other, share an aesthetic and an aim which are almost identical. The media they use are worlds, and years, apart, yet what they achieve with these radically different methods are almost superpositions of one’s way of looking upon the other’s, the other’s ways of knowing upon the one’s. Both seek to elucidate the same subjectivities, both – in a very real yet also absurd sense – use the same brush and the same palette, the same lens and the same recording medium: the lens of their eye, the brush of their seeing, the palette of light itself, the film of the retina. For both, the subjective and the objective coalesce, for both comprise the moment, the evanescence which constitutes the percept, the ineffability of the experience of the particular moment of time.

And both, consciously, deliberately bring to bear, upon their representations, ways of seeing common for centuries in the Sino-Japanese artistic tradition, yet which even now are relatively new in the European West; so too both utilize a combination of the old and the new to reveal representational and meta-representational truths which might still challenge the Western eye, jaded as it is with perspective, tradition, and the expectation of a conformity to a Graeco-Roman notion of ‘classicism’ which, compared with its East Asian counterpart, is itself – though seemingly ancient – very much the newcomer.

Taking Ghita’s series “The Golden Beyond” and Monet’s Triptych of the Lily Pond at Givernyii as starting points, let us examine these works comparatively, contextually and counter-textually. For this comparison, the metaphor of the ‘bridge’ serves well as both linkage and decoupling, as a figurative means to bring together and to emphasize separateness, in much the same way as the presence of a material bridge serves both to link two spaces separated by an impasse and also to emphasize the very difficulty of crossing which necessitates bridging.

Ghita’s “Golden Beyond” series comprises seven photographs, four of which are interpretations of the Chinese Garden in the “Gardens of the World,” Berlin. (The remaining three, figuring Magnolia blooms against a background of the same golden hues as those which figure in the pond photographs, are outside the scope of the present paper, though much suggested herein applies also, though in subtly different ways, to these). These photographs are not given names, only numbers, and for the purpose of this analysis the principal subject shall be the photograph ‘One.’iii

The concentration on ‘One’ is not arbitrary, rather it is due to the conviction that this photograph is, in many senses, a ‘summation’ of the others or, put another way, that the other images operate through the isolation or extraction of aspects to be found in ‘One.’ The ‘numbered anonymity’ of these images is serendipitously useful in any comparison with Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ paintings, as few of the latter are identifiable by name, only by number (in this case the number comprises the date of completion). In the case of Monet, this number grows far larger than four: the total number of Lily Pond paintings is unknown, but it lies in the region of two hundred and fifty, made over a period of forty years. The Triptych dates from 1920, post-dating the Clémentel stereograph by three years, although this is a completion date and it is likely that the artist had worked and reworked the piece over a period of several years and had been, most probably, working on it at the time Clémentel made his image of the artist.

It is, perhaps, of interest to note that Monet’s triptych was largely painted during and immediately after the First World War, in the nation arguably most traumatized by that conflict, while Ghita’s ‘One’ was produced twenty years after the end of the ‘Cold War,’ by an artist who had spent her formative years in the shadow of that more recent, ideological, conflict, and in a country which was a member of the Warsaw Pact and one which had been ruled by one of the most notoriously totalitarian (and hypocritically self-obsessed) dictators of that bloc. To what extent these factors did or did not impact the work of these artists is, as is always the case, a matter for debate and speculation, although it is hard to believe that the seemingly pointless slaughter taking place in the land of the old man had had no effect on his work, or that the abuse and violence of Ceausescu – toward the end, directed most conspicuously against the young – had had no effect on the work that Ghita was later to produce.

When one first views Ghita’s ‘One’ the immediate impression is one of ‘elemental shift.’ This is closely en-raveled with a sense of temporal shift, with the two spatial axes of the two-dimensional image implying a third axis, a spindle of time, running perpendicularly to the two-dimensional image’s surface. The water appears as though it were liquid metal, not mercurial silver but more fluid bronze or gold, as though the tints of the surface of the Sun had been dissolved in some magical amalgam of weighted light in which fish, fired as though with flame, had been able to make a home and through which they had found a way of swimming.

It is on the surface of this liquid light, in the top-left corner, that the lily leaves float, also sheened with metallic luster, as though they had been cast of some strangely-reflective metal, perhaps Iridium, from the molds of the original leaves’ evanescent lives as they burned to carbon on contact with the liquefied Sun. Adding to this impression of the leaves being, themselves, impressions of what was once but is no more, is the suggestion of ash scattered upon the floating rafts; a fine black dust, reminiscent of leaf-ash with its flakes and stick-like shapes, or of some dreadful ash fresh-fallen from the skies above Hiroshima or condensed from the chimneys of Belsen, or from any arbitrary genocidal pyre. Such a cinereous deposit is not to be discerned on the liquid surface itself, as though that which might have fallen there had been utterly consumed, an absence suggestive of past presence which is threaded through the image, totally in keeping with its Chinese aesthetic and its perpendicular temporality. The water itself, arguably, along with time, the ‘subject’ of the work, is almost mirror-smooth, as though stillness had been captured by the camera shutter rather than it being artefactual of frozen movement. The only perceptible traces of motion in the water are an overlapping series of ripples toward the top right of the work, balancing, echoing, the ovals of the lily pads. It is here that the picture, the artist, works its most marvelous magic, for it is as though a few of the curvilinear leaves had not escaped incineration but had been consumed in the burning moment and, miraculously, in the process of passing had spawned the small shoal of coal-hot fish which, for all we can tell, might swim for but a moment before being themselves dissolved or sublimed. The illusion that these fish have neither depth nor any effect of breaking the meniscus of the water adds to this thaumaturgical quality, for even after looking for hours it still seems that these piscine flickerings hang both under and above the surface. One even appears to be taking flight over the backs of the others, as if caught in the moment of escaping the pull of the liquefied luminosity, to swim to safety into the ‘ur-Licht,’ from which the liquid and the sunlight have both condensed.

It is true that the submerged world is not entirely featureless: a pattern of vague shapes can just be discerned, a palimpsest of shadow, of variance in luminance, a holographic image, memories perhaps, of the imbrication of scales expected on the skins of the fire-fish yet absent when looked for there. And it is also true that the meniscus of the pond, though it seems as strong as steel, is indented in eight places, two rectilinear sets of four, the throw of two dice, hazarded, the footprints of two insects calmly standing on the stretched surface, immune to the fire. Are they about to mate? Are they preparing for flight? Are they to be food for the fire-fish? Or are they the spinners of the whole, the lace-winged weavers from whose flight all, even the light, is fashioned? (And if they are such preternatural beings, are they there to repair or to unweave?) All these seem possible in the strange, charmed, violently still world of ‘One.’

Turn now to the Monet Triptych, keeping the fires of ‘One’ in the eyes’ memory. The first thing you notice is not detail, not content, not even impression or imagination. The first thing to register is scale, not the scale of fish or leaf-vein, but sheer size. The painting is big! It is impossible to take this image in as one painting, one representation, or one moment. (For those who have not seen the painting in its present location, in the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, its dimensions are approximately six feet high by forty two feet wide.) This is not a painting, it is a scroll, and it is as a scroll that it should be read, though it is unclear whether Monet consciously intended such a reading as reflective of his, by then deep-rooted, concern with Chinese aesthetics, and hence unclear whether he intended his ‘scroll’ to be ‘unrolled’ in any particular direction.

Still, it is impossible to apprehend this painting in any other manner, unless one happens to be gifted with extraordinary long-sightedness and an extremely unusual visual cortex. It is, for anyone not so gifted, a fact of the process of seeing that one is forced to attend to only a small section of this huge work at any one time and, as with the Greek friezes and later narrative tapestries which are the most obviously comparable works in the Western canon, and as with the Chinese scroll-paintings with which this work shares more in common than with Western counterparts, this necessity leads to a different understanding of the artist’s representation of the temporal; a representation which is quite different to Ghita’s temporality as exemplified in ‘One.’ In Monet’s Triptych, time is lateral, while it can be cogently and consistently argued that Ghita’s representation of the ‘axis of time’ consists in a movement from ‘sub-surface’ through ‘meniscus’ to ‘air.’ This is an important difference in the approach of these two artists and should not be neglected, and it is a difference which is central to any fruitful interpretation of or comparison between the two works.

It is, of course, possible to view the Triptych in a more conventional, Western, manner, as the painting has what appears to be a ‘vanishing-point’ to which the depictions of the lily pads can be construed as conforming toward. To read the picture entirely in this way, though, entails a subsuming of the peripheral segments to the central panel, as the fovea cannot point in any but one direction at any one time. This may have been how Monet himself envisaged the painting as being viewed: at the time he was working on this painting his own eyesight was deteriorating rapidly, and this deterioration is capable of explaining certain curious properties of the work’s strange chiaroscuro and the seemingly greater detailing in the outer panels than the center panel, especially when taken with a substantial pinch of Purkinje salt.

Perhaps a reading making use of both the Western and Chinese paradigms is the best one, though the emphasis of this paper shall prioritize the scroll-like reading over the perspectival interpretation, as such a ‘visual triage’ better serves the purpose of a comparative study of this massive work with that of Ghita, as well as seeming more true to the spirit of the work. (It is important to note here that neither of these art-objects are the product of a vision steeped in a Chinese way of seeing as would be found in the output of a Chinese or Japanese artist, but that both stem from the minds of individuals immersed in – or inured to? – a ‘European’ tradition, albeit minds that, in their different ways, have been exposed to and fascinated by the East Asian traditions. The degree of this fascination and exposure is arguably greater in the case of Ghita, though this may – or may not – be balanced by the widely different ages of the two artists at the time the works in question were produced.)

Returning to a reading of Monet’s ‘scroll’ as such, whichever point one begins with, the passage is one from dark water upon which floats – again devoid of shadow – the elliptical foliage of the submerged plants, then moves right, (or left,) through a transitional process in which the differences in hue lessen and the surface of the image becomes more uniform, and into the central region, characterized as it is in the Ghita work, by light and lightness of hue and of subject, then through the same sequence reversed, until one returns to the suggestion of some submerged and shadowed nexus. The chief variation to this symmetry is that the darkness at the left of the triptych is that of water, that of the right is that of distant, perhaps forested, land, and that in the right-hand panel the lily-pads are more conspicuous by absence than by presence.

In the Monet, as in the Ghita, there is a feeling of flight, of lifting-off into the light, though the feel of this flight is different – in Monet it is more a ‘narrative of flight’ than a ‘sense of flying.’ If one reads the Monet left-to-right, the oval leaves start out level with the water surface, which at this point seems not to contain any trace of reflection or of shadow, only the darkness of depth. As the gaze moves to the right, this non-reflective water begins to lighten dramatically and, with this lightening, patches of nephelomorphic brilliance begin to appear – presumably the reflections of clouds puffing in an early-afternoon sky, though a less overtly representational interpretation is preferable – until the cloudburst white becomes the dominant ‘color.’ Just before this luminous moment, it seems as though two clusters of lilies, flotillas of foliage, begin – quite literally – taking flight, metamorphosing into a skein of green wings leaping from the water, as Ghita’s fish leap, into, again, that ‘ur-Licht’ from which all other light condenses. This is the only moment when the leaves are darker than that surface – or whatever it is – on which, or from which, they float, though even here, as with the strange uplifting of Ghita’s fish, they seem to cast no shadow. Or is it that this inchoate light is incapable of being obscured, of being impeded?

Moving further rightward into the final panel some manner of ‘horizon’ begins to be apparent, spiking into view darkly, almost ominously, together with an attendant reflection. Only here, after this intrusion, is a horizon-like line discernible, retrospectively, in the center panel. (Perhaps this would indicate that a right-to-left viewing was intended.) Hitherto, the clouds have no vertical symmetry, no clear reflection delineating where the two fluids, water and air, separate.

And hitherto, Monet’s water has had no meniscus, except that which we make for ourselves out of expectation. Ghita also speaks, pictorially, of fluid melting into fluid, but in her gilded world, the moment, the tense surface of the moment, is discernible, though hard to delineate and more ambiguous because of that. In Ghita’s masterpiece of time and light the moment is bent, distorted, yet real enough to support those two frail, thin-legged personages who walk or stand thereon. In Monet’s monumental, though lesser, masterpiece, the fluidities are fractured, split one from the other, by the intrusion of the solid: this may be his only mistake, yet it is no less a mistake for being a unique one.

And amidst all these comparisons, hiding among all the similarities or lurking beneath the differences, what of the bridge? It is there, present in both images, as it is present in Clémentel’s reconstructed tri-dimensionality, spanning the sky behind the old man; as it is present between each of these wonderful interpretations of the physical interacting with the numinous, the luminous, and the mind of the artist, spanning the discontinuities between their minds and eyes and our eyes and our minds.

It cannot be seen though, with enough trying, it can be felt, just as these great artificers felt it, not with the eyes but with feet and with the small bones of the inner ear. For it is upon the bridge, in a sense heavy with salience, that each was, is, and ever will be standing.

Claude-Monet-Monets-Garden-Étienne-Clémentel-04

i: Claude Monet stereograph by Etienne Clémentel, 1920. Courtesy musée d’Orsay, France.

MonetWaterLiliesMOMA

ii: Claude Monet, Triptych, “The Lily Pond at Giverny,” Oil-on-Canvas, 1920. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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iii: Roxana Ghita, “The Golden Beyond, One.” Digital Photographic Image, 2012. Courtesy Roxana Ghita (copyright reserved).

12/8/14

Old Trunks and Papers

The French National Archives have mounted a show about collaboration, 1940-1945, and it couldn’t be more timely. The far-right parties, apparently on the way to general normalization and acceptance, are back at their old themes of “Vichy wasn’t so bad” and “cosmopolitanism is the death of France.” This exhibit, stuffed with artifacts and papers as you’d expect from an archive, displays all the pettiness, resentment, willed ignorance, infighting, cowardice and opportunism of those years. Lessons for the present are there for the taking.

A few reflections.

The authorities of occupied France and the “free zone” of Vichy put the Nazis in an unduly favorable negotiating position out of fear, because they had persuaded themselves that it lay in the Germans’ power to annihilate France, and it was a special mercy, for which the French should be duly grateful, that they had not done so. From this starting position, anything becomes acceptable. You want our foodstuffs? Well, at least it’s not our lives. You want our young men to work in your factories while yours are fighting the Russians? Well, at least you’re not drafting them directly. You want our Jews? How many? Would you take a few more? With their attitude of fear they made themselves absolute straw men.

The legal framework of Vichy stank (it has this in common with many contemporary governments). On the wall in one of the rooms of the exhibition is a two-page proclamation outlining the prerogatives of the head of the French State (chef de l’Etat Français). He commands the army and navy, names and retires ministers, receives the ambassadors’ letters of accreditation, decides the budget, and so forth. Signed: Philippe Pétain, head of state. (And he uses the royal “we”!) This is wonderfully nonsensical, because authority doesn’t generate itself: it can only be transferred from one source to another. Now a majority of the Assembly had voted to give Pétain full powers, which I suppose they had the right to do, but to see the consequence of having done so in this brief document is to watch tautology in action. One thinks of Emperor Norton. (If only all autocrats were as harmless as he.)

The Germans very cleverly kept not one, but multiple nationalistic parties going in occupied France, each with its charismatic leader, its panoply of badges, buttons, sashes, armbands, flags, etc.. All of these parties huffed and puffed about recovering the greatness of France, and doing it on their own (sc. without the help of “the Anglo-Saxons”); none of them had any chance of accomplishing this, and they all cancelled each other out. When one or another of these chauvinistic parties got too popular, the Germans would think of a way to decapitate it. They dealt with Jacques Doriot by getting him to go fight on the Eastern Front with a French volunteer battalion, making quite clear to any patriot that he was not his own man. (Doriot’s trunk and German army overcoat occupy an interesting place in the exhibit, staged in a plexiglass case from which they are visible from both the “micro-parties” subsection and the “fight against Bolshevism” section. Doriot, like so many fascist sympathizers, started out on the far left; he was elected as a communist in the 20s.) The “spoiler” technique is still relevant, as parties that decent people would not admit voting for nonetheless garner a big enough fraction of the vote to compel the two major parties to make concessions to them, not to mention the general strategy of frustrating all initiatives of the European Union.

Bad economic times drive people into fascistic patterns of thought. People are impoverished, unemployed, afraid, and they appreciate a good scapegoat. One room is full of appalling propaganda against Jews, appalling because it plays on the actual discomforts of the population and transforms them into anger. For example, a cartoon showing a fine, tall, slender young man who has just been demobilized after the armistice. He presents himself in an office populated by thick-lipped, hirsute, overweight Jews sitting on sacks of money; they tell him, “You’re looking for a job! You must be joking!” Now there were certainly a lot of idle demobilized young men in 1940-45, as there had been for much of the previous decade, but I doubt that obesity was much of a problem among the Jewish population of Paris at the time. Imagine walking down streets lined with such imagery, and having the kind of mind that would be persuaded by it: horrible. But of course today the anger of populations is still easily decanted into simple solutions. Those who think austerity programs are a necessary evil ought to have a good long look at this room.

Propaganda always treats the viewer as an idiot. But sometimes the visual style is especially brutal. After a while spent with these posters and leaflets, one can pretty well gauge the ideological direction of the cause by mere exposure to its visual rhetoric. (I have not yet been able to digest this sensation into a formula.)

Opportunism and compromise are fraught, mixed, messy currents. One reaches for the firm boundaries of evil and virtue. Look at Pierre Laval on the one hand, Jean Moulin on the other. But what is really instructive, not in the sense of providing dogmatic guidance but in the sense of reviving the perplexities of such times, is a case like that of Colonel de la Rocque, the leader of the Croix de Feu, another of the many nationalistic parties. It is true that the Croix de Feu marched around in an intimidating way, talked about banishing Jews (though they were willing to make an exception for those who had been in France for generations), and their leader stayed on good terms with Pétain until quite late in the war. So far, so fascistic-looking. But La Rocque tore into Pétain for his collaboration and in June 1940, at about the same time as De Gaulle’s London broadcast, came out with a speech urging French people to resist at any cost. It is also reported that La Rocque never lost his commitment to legality and parliamentary government, and when he had an opportunity to overrun the National Assembly, he told his troops to stand pat. Arrested and deported by the Germans, he came back home the day after V-E day, only to be put in “administrative detention” for another six months while the Resistance organized the new government. It does give the impression that La Rocque’s major crime, seen from the postwar perspective, was to have been an anti-Gaullist nationalist resister. If you want to understand what people were thinking, and how they were being swayed this way and that in that dark period, a case like La Rocque’s opens many cans of worms.

12/6/14

Victim Mentality

I don’t have anything useful to add to the outrage generally felt (in the nearer nodes of my social network anyway) about the string of recent deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers. I think Jon Stewart absolutely nailed it when he threw Fox News’s accusation back at them: the “victim mentality” is a fixture of conservative politics. Not only conservative politics, of course: playing the victim is a perpetual strategy used to turn the tables or motivate violence, and it’s particularly dangerous when the self-styled victim is in fact the more powerful party in an interaction. But do we have a good language for describing the parts of this role-play? It seems to me that the advantages of self-victimization depend on there being an audience, a third party deemed to hold the power of legitimation. (In the most frequent dramas of victimization and retaliation which it is my privilege to witness, the “third party” is the parents to whom small children appeal for recognition or swift justice: “He pulled my hair first!”) And that third party, ladies and gentlemen, is us: Public Opinion. We can’t do much directly, as drops in the sea of Public Opinion, but we can try to push the drops around us and form a current, so to speak, that would flow away from the themes and obsessions that make it seem OK for a white man with a gun to kill a black man on the slenderest pretext of feeling “threatened.” We are the grander grand jury, but thus far a disorganized and slow-moving one.

12/2/14

The King of Copycats

This article by Michel Charles tells of his pursuit, with wide eye and raised brow, of Professor R.-L. Etienne Barnett, a shadowy individual most of whose contributions to major humanities journals turn out to be lightly rewritten reprintings of articles by other scholars, or sometimes re-reprintings of articles he’d already appropriated from others. (English summary here.) I read manuscripts for several editorial boards, and while I can pick out a bad argument or a sloppy paragraph, I’m not always alert to the possibility of plagiarism; for that, I would have had to read and remember a monstrous amount of writing in an ever-expanding world of publications. Will editors start google-checking every manuscript, or feeding them through Turnitin as if authors were undergraduates? Michel Charles fingers the ultimate culprit: the pursuit, by individuals and institutions, of the highest possible “impact factor,” calculated automatically.

And speaking of impact factors, I wonder if you will get negative points by contributing to the following:

 

Call for Papers for a Special Issue of Neohelicon: Discourse of Madness
(Special volume of Neohelicon [43, 2016]. Guest-Editor: R.-L. Etienne Barnett)

PROSPECTUS

Contributions on any aspect of madness in (of, and) textuality are welcome for consideration. Possible areas of focus, among a plethora of other options: literary representations of the alienated mind; mad protagonists or mad writers; madness as a vehicle of exile, as a form of marginalization, of dissipation, of disintegration, of revelation or self-revelation; interpretations of madness as a manifestation of structure, style, rhetoric, narrative; madness as a reflection of cultural assumptions, values, prohibitions; madness, as prophetic or dionysiac, poetic, or other; the esthetics of madness; philosophical, ethical, ontological, epistemological, hermeneutic and esthetic implications of the discourse/narrative of madness..

From an alternative vantage point, one might question: how does the deviant mind-set of authorial figures and/or fictional characters determine the organization of time, space and plot in the narrative? How does the representation of delusional worlds differ from the representation of other “non-mad” mental acts (dreams, fantasies, aspirations) and from other fictional worlds (magic, imaginings, phantoms) — if it does? Contributors are welcome to address these and other questions in a specific work, in a group of works, or in a more general/theoretical reflection, in and across any national tradition(s), literary movement(s) or œuvre(s).

SUBMISSIONS

Theoretical or applied contributions focused upon “discourses of madness” in the literary “arena” are invited and will be accorded full and serious consideration.

Manuscripts in English, French German or Italian — not to exceed twenty (25) double-spaced pages, including notes, bibliography and appendices, where applicable — are welcome. Contributions written in any but one’s first (or native) language must be scrupulously reviewed, edited and proofed by a “native” specialist prior to submission.

Format and submission requirements: Papers must prepared in strict accordance with APA (not MLA) guidelines and are to be accompanied by an abstract and 6-8 key words or expressions in English. (A second abstract and set of key words in the language of the article, if not in English, is strongly recommended.)

Submit via email in the form of a WORD document (attachment) to: R.-L. Etienne Barnett (Guest-Editor) at: RL_Barnett@msn.com (primary submission address) with a second copy to RLEBarnett@editionsdegresecond.be (secondary submission address).

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: OCTOBER 1, 2015

Prof. R.-L. Etienne Barnett
RL_Barnett@msn.com (Primary Email)
RLEBarnett@editionsdegresecond.be (Secondary Email)
Email: rl_barnett@msn.com (primary email)
Visit the website at http://www.springer.com/education+%26+language/linguistics/journal/11059

 

Then again, if you like windy administrative nonsense, this one is pretty good too.

11/29/14

Unpacking My Imaginary Library

The French paperbacks that I used to buy always contained a little card from “La Maison des Bibliothèques,” rue Froidevaux, Paris. The card showed a wall covered with shelves all crammed with books, the commercial assumption being, if you were the sort of person who would acquire modern fiction in the collection “J’ai Lu,” you would sooner or later fall for the products of La Maison. I was a nomadic boy then, but used to imagine that one day I would have an apartment somewhere with walls covered with shelves, each shelf crammed with books, and me feasting my eyes on print as long as the light lasted.

Eventually, it happened. I had plenty of walls and got them covered with shelves, then packed the shelves with books, and sat reading day in and day out. That should have been the happy ending of the story– the closed circuit of desire– but no one can ever leave well enough alone. Now here I am thousands of miles away from those hard-won shelves, thinking about a book that contains a piece of information I need, complemented by a sheet of scribbled paper wedged in at exactly the page where that information resides. But thinking doesn’t make it come back; it’s a material thing, that scribbled note, and I can’t quite make myself think again the thought it contains. And from the book I surreptitiously glanced at in a bookstore today, hoping to substitute for the missing information in my all-too-physical book at home, there fell out a colorful advertisement for “La Maison des Bibliothèques.”

 

11/25/14

“A Lot of Wildness and a Lot of Construction”

As anyone who has had more than three drinks with me has already heard, I used to cut grass for Mr. Allen Tate in Nashville, Tennessee. He must have been in his middle 70s, I in my early teens. When I was done cutting the grass, we would sit on the porch with a glass of lemonade and Mr. Tate would tell me about Paris in the 20s. Not only that, but he urged me to read Baudelaire, the best literary advice I ever got.

For a number of reasons largely to do with his identification with the antebellum planter society of the South, Mr. Tate is not talked about much these days. So it was a surprise just now to run across this series of fleeting glimpses, the walk-on version of a literary life: “Talking Tate: A Fake Oral History.”

mareymotion

11/25/14

Remedying

Another article about the failures of international aid, this time from the New Republic, and I fear the overall effect of such think-pieces will be to validate the indifference of people who were looking for a reason not to help others anyway. It’s true that celebrity jaunts to Africa, etc., have little lasting effect except perhaps on the celebrity’s public image. That’s a problem with the culture of celebrity, not of aid. It’s also true that sudden infusions of money into an economy are apt to destabilize and to have perverse effects. That’s a problem of bad planning. White Land Rovers? I would recommend steering clear of any project that involves the purchase of many white Land Rovers.

The article suggests that low overhead is not in and of itself a good marker of charitable effectiveness, that spending money on fund-raising is often a precondition for having an effect: well, here I think you must use your judgment about what is the tail and what is the dog. A low tail-to-dog ratio matters when deciding where to put one’s donations, but it’s best to concentrate on questions such as these (also legible between the lines of the article): have the intended beneficiaries themselves expressed a desire for the planned interventions? Is there a concrete plan for engagement on the part of the beneficiary population, rather than a scheme in the heads of well-intentioned First Worlders to build something, feel good about it, and abandon it? “First, do no harm” is a rule worth following even if you’re not a medical worker.

Most important is to have an accurate sense of the economic flows among which a development-assistance plan will exist. How much of the money flowing in and out of a given country is dedicated to arms procurement, to food assistance, to financial whizzbangery (including corruption)? How much does the local economy rely on expatriates remitting their paychecks? What’s up for sale, in terms of natural resources or the vital interests of the residents, and what is protected (and how well) from rent-seeking investors? The perplexed, such as yours truly, appreciate a sense of proportion about all these things.

11/11/14

Le Buzz

An article in Le Monde supplies background to the latest French best-seller, a work of cultural polemics that whines about the eclipse of “la vieille France,” bemoans the rise of feminism and makes excuses for Vichy. The purpose of this sad amalgam, which apparently pleases enough people that it is close to outselling Modiano, the recent Nobel laureate, is to make respectable the positions of the far-right Front National. And why are we even hearing about it? Because of such cultural entrepreneurs as this:

Catherine Barma, a formidable business-woman… daughter of the star producer of the French Radio-Television Network, ex-party girl, no great student, cultivates the big names of the time and picks the participants of her TV panels like the counter of a bar. She knows how clashes that make for “le buzz”  on YouTube and those who sigh that ‘you can’t say anything today’ are beloved by the 21st century.

When asked to explain her support for this Eric Zemmour who minimizes the issue of extermination camps and champions Pétain and Le Pen, Catherine Barma reads from prepared cards her excuse that “I haven’t read Robert Paxton [the historian who made it impossible to keep sweeping pétainism under the rug]. In general, when there is a conflict, I’m always on the side of the oppressed.”

And in the magical world of French TV, the “oppressed,” we are to infer, are the reactionaries. So this man who owes his existence to the egalitarian institutions of the Fifth Republic inasmuch as he would have been cheerfully exterminated by Vichy now exploits his good fortune to complain about the fact that Pétain’s “nationalist revolution” is no longer in favor. I really have no polite words to designate such trash, so will simply roll my eyes and make the international gesture for vomiting.

And a PS for Ms. Barma: if you don’t have the time or energy to read Robert Paxton, perhaps you or one of your assistants could read his Wikipedia page. Or here, I’ll make it even easier for you by pulling out a few high points:

Paxton bouleverse la lecture de l’histoire du régime de Vichy en affirmant que le gouvernement de Vichy a non seulement collaboré en devançant les ordres allemands : il a aussi voulu s’associer à l’« ordre nouveau » des nazis avec son projet de Révolution nationale…. Pétain et Laval ont toujours recherché la collaboration avec l’Allemagne nazie, et multiplié jusqu’au bout les signes et les gages de leur bonne volonté à s’entendre avec le vainqueur, allant souvent spontanément au-devant des exigences allemandes.

Loin d’avoir protégé les Français, le concours de Vichy a permis aux Allemands de réaliser plus facilement tous leurs projets — pillage économique et alimentaire, déportation des Juifs, exil forcé de la main-d’œuvre en Allemagne.

This is what you “haven’t read,” and a fair outline of what, by your choice of protagonists, you’ve chosen to support. Ignorance is no argument. Even if, as people say, “nobody reads any more.”

11/10/14

Preconditions for Actual Politics

Once upon a time, in a country famed for its turkeys and large automobiles, little boys and girls learned in civics class and by watching the Perry Mason show that nobody could just bust into your house without a warrant showing probable cause. You might be sure that a person had done something wrong, but you couldn’t force them to confess to it. And you might be mad at them after you’d proved they’d done it, but you couldn’t subject them to “cruel and unusual punishment.” You couldn’t even make them swear on a Bible in open court if they didn’t want to.

I’m soon going to be explaining how the world works to a few little guys who rely on me for much of their information. And I’m afraid that when it comes to these old certainties, my message about inviolable human rights will be in the more complex form of “they aren’t supposed to violate them, but they will try, so be on your lookout.” Continue reading

11/8/14

Disincentives for Disincentivizing

Larry Lessig’s organization MAYDAY PAC attempted to support candidates who would push for comprehensive campaign reform and an end to the systemic corruption described in Lessig’s recent books Republic Lost, One Way Forward, and Lesterland. I was one of the many people who sent money to this effort. Sadly, not much came of it. In an email sent yesterday to supporters, Lessig drew a few lessons, among them:

A significant chunk of actual voters rank our issue as the most important. These voters are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. And in the right context, we believe the data show that they can be rallied to the cause.

The important qualification in that sentence, however, is also the most important lesson that this cycle taught me: “in the right context.” What 2014 shows most clearly is the power of partisanship in our elections. Whatever else voters wanted, they wanted first their team to win.

Continue reading

10/18/14

Rosy-Fingered Barbara

One morning a few years ago, I was riding to the office after dropping off the kids at school. Slightly ahead of me, somebody opened the door of a parked car without looking back. I swerved, so the door didn’t hit me, but the kid trailer tangled with the edge of the door and left a scratch on it. Nobody was hurt. I stopped to size up the situation. It was obviously the driver’s fault– you’re supposed to look in the mirror before you open a door on a public street– but she wanted very much to put the matter on another footing. “You bicyclists!” she started out. “You guys just run all the stop signs and act like you own the streets. You must think having a fancy bicycle gives you the right to break the law! And I’m sick and tired of it! And now here you come along scratching my car! You’re going to pay for the damage!”

I tried to point out the irrelevance of these remarks and to get the discussion back to its main point, as I saw it, which was that we’d been lucky nobody got hurt and I hoped she would look in the mirror next time, and too bad about the scratch but it wasn’t something I was responsible for.

Eventually we exhausted our stock of pleasantries and I got back on the road. But the exchange reminded me quite specifically of something I usually try to avoid, but can’t entirely ignore. Namely, public discussion in the era of the comments page.

Continue reading

10/13/14

Philosophy Begins in Wonder

The University of Otago’s Department of Philosophy gives the curious visitor a roisterous picture of the life of the mind in Dunedin.

[The first hire in 1871,] Duncan McGregor, a graduate of the University of Aberdeen… was an electrifying lecturer with a well-developed ‘will to truth’ and pungent opinions on a variety of topics. … When it came to social policy, he thought that the ‘hopelessly lazy, the diseased, and [the] vicious’ should be incarcerated for life as a humane alternative to the process of Darwinian selection which would otherwise have weeded them out. McGregor resigned in 1886… and, fortified by his fifteen years as a philosopher, went on to become the Inspector–General of Lunatic Asylums.

[J. N.] Findlay … devoted a Sabbatical to sitting at the feet of Wittgenstein in Cambridge and acting as his official ‘stooge’. (His job was to feed Wittgenstein tough questions when the painfully long silences became too excruciating.) But before he could take up his position as stooge he had to own up to his philosophical sins. Sitting in a Cambridge milk-bar, Findlay had to confess to the frightful crime of having visited Rudolf Carnap in Chicago. Wittgenstein was magnanimous. ‘[He] said that he did not mind except that he would lose his milk-shake if Carnap [were] mentioned again.’

At a conference in Florence, [Alan] Musgrave read a typically forceful paper ‘Conceptual Idealism and Stove’s Gem’ which concluded with the ringing words: ‘Conceptual Idealism is a ludicrous and anti-scientific view of the world. … We should take science seriously, reject the Gem for the invalid argument that it is, and abandon the idealism to which it leads.’ There was a burst of applause followed by dead silence. The chairman, to get things going, asked if there any conceptual idealists present who would like to comment on Professor Musgrave’s paper. ‘Not any more’, came a voice from the back.

Every academic department should write a history in this mode. For the whole (delightful) thing, go to http://www.otago.ac.nz/philosophy/history.html.

For the philologically minded: the department’s Maori name is Te Tari Whakaaroaro. The dictionary tells me that “whakaaroaro” means “reflection or “meditation” but the elements, “whaka” plus “aroaro,” seem to add up to “making present that which is present.” Anyone with better insight into the history and connotations of the term is invited to straighten us out in the comments box.

10/7/14

Ebb and wane

The penguin trudged up the beach at the end of the day like a tired commuter returning home.

The tired commuter returned home like a penguin trudging up the beach at the end of the day.

09/30/14

Meeting the Boss

And now for a word from our sponsor. Here is the Coffea arabica tree, just starting to bud. I owe these green leafy fellows more than I can say. O Kaffeebaum, O Kaffeebaum, the forest shade thy berries!

coffea-arabica

09/18/14

Announcing “Travel Pentimento”

For a fee, we will take away the unnecessary things you’ve packed (as you realize, having arrived at your destination and sized up the weather or the social expectations), fly to your closet back home, pull out the things you should have brought, and bring them back to you, wherever you are. How much of a fee? If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be asking.

09/15/14

Hard Cheese

Tim Parks is a man who is pissed off because he had to do the footnotes for his own book. Big whoop. “It’s all available on the Internet, so why give page numbers?” Answer: Do you know how many dead sites there are on the Internet? Do you know how many “big” sites we all relied on are either gone or will be gone? Do you know how terrible the Internet Archive’s coverage really is once you start trying to use it for something useful? Do you know how often the “redundant,” “distributed” cloud services like Amazon AWS fail? Do you remember when Google just dropped its news reader service, used by countless millions? You probably don’t, Mr. Parks. Books are the original distributed database, seeded throughout the world in “austere libraries.” Wipe out one library, burn one book, the rest are still there. So put in those page numbers, and STFU.

09/14/14

Childcare in the Mode of the Gift

“We recognize that all tamariki come to us with their own mana. As such, the mana of our tamariki will be respected and kept intact at all times and in all situations. We preserve their mauri and their wairua alike.”

Sign me and my tamariki up! And if it’s not an impiety to do so, list Marcel Mauss as godfather.

09/14/14

Thrown For a Loop

The disorientation of the first days in a new country is familiar. The vowels are different; the natives have their own ways of packaging yogurt; you don’t know how to pay for the bus; people around you are helpful, amused, impatient, or all of these. But to look up into the night sky and see different stars– that’s almost the stuff of science fiction.

09/6/14

The Hoax of the Hoax

I was bracing myself for a round of Sokal-ish denunciations of “theory” and its supposed empire after it was revealed that Slavoj Zizek had lifted some paragraphs from a white-supremacist publication in an article he published a few years ago in Critical Inquiry. But maybe it was summer (the equivalent of the weekend in national news) and nobody was noticing. Or maybe nobody cares enough to shout. Continue reading