Monday, June 30, 2008


Not long ago I finally read my first full book by Jacques Rancière (The Ignorant Schoolmaster). I admit I was a bit wary, not for what I'd already read by the philosopher himself, but from the way he's frequently discussed, his role as the sort of radical French thinker taken up by bobos and artists and impressed humanities grad students: post-Marxist and still "viable" now that we are post the peak of postmodern theory's power. (Or is that a grand narrative? Help!) I think the unfortunate thing about people like Rancière, Žižek, even the late great headscratcher Deleuze is that they don't really piss anyone off. Not really, and not the right people one should want to piss off. I don't use this to paint all of these contemporary philosophers with otherwise the same brush: Žižek is only very intermittently worth reading, whereas Rancière seems to be very worthwhile. (Deleuze has fantastic stuff too, but he's got his limits, as Luc Moullet's sly deflation shows with respect to the Cinema books.) It's more a matter of staying realistic about the alleged radical potential of these figures' works. People sometimes talk about continental theorists like they're talking about indie rock bands. (I admit I've done it myself.) It's a pointless game; it's a form of philosophizing taken from its unsexy envelopment in actual society.

Marx still creeps under a person's skin. His words, his ideas, can rub the right people the wrong way.

The basic argument of The Ignorant Schoolmaster is an echo, refashioned, of Jacotot, a radical egalitarian who tried to demolish pedagogy as such so as to reach the fundamental (equal) intelligence open to all humans. The constantly reinforced division between the learned instructor and the ignorant pupil is stultifying; the point of an emancipated education is not to help people along the continuum of progress but to assume equality as a premise, and to help the pupil realize not the gains that signify shed ignorance but the equal potential which is inborn. The ignorant schoolmaster need not know the subject, only how to act as interlocutor to the pupil who guides herself (more or less). It's an interesting polemic, and as translator Kristin Ross points out, the majority of the text is Rancière subtly mimicking, overlapping Jacotot. Who's ventriloquizing who here? It's a fairly well-written book, a breezy read but also a substantive one.

One of the most important lessons I took away from college about teaching, as a student, was for the instructor to regard the class with forthright, uncomplicated respect for its intelligence. In the context of the system, which is set up with hierarchies and thus hardly amenable to Jacotot's emancipation itself, there is no use downplaying or disguising one's own superior knowledge or even more sharply manifested intelligence. But to tacitly require that student use his intelligence to meet you in the same arena (by wordlessly acknowledging this very intelligence), the instructor takes a vital step in keeping the classroom alive.

(Still to read: Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That's been sitting on my shelf, beckoning, for slightly too long.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


The character at the center of A Summer at Grandpa's, it seems to me, is not the boy but his younger sister, Ting-Ting. At least, she is the one who seems to manifest the intelligence of Hou Hsiao-hsien himself: observant, focused, not always predictable, compassionate but not particularly sentimental, intermittently happy, always subtly searching (and watching). The film doesn't have the "masterpiece tone" of later Hou but there are numerous impressive shots and sequences that exhibit a deep intelligence. Many images, as is by now quite typical of Hou, require elucidation after we're first exposed to them. The highway truck robbery, for instance, takes several long moments of roving camera to insinuate with perfect grace and clarity.

(Taiwanese auteur connection: coincidental and meaningless, I'm sure, but I couldn't help but link the highway robbers' rock-to-the-head attack, not shown in the film, to the brick-to-the-head Edward Yang has one of his neighborhood gang boys suffer at the hands of a rival gang in A Brighter Summer Day. Growing up summers one witnesses painful things.)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Tough to See Him Go

George Carlin (1937-2008) - he'll be missed.

Image of the Day

Plan, La Saline Royal d'Arc-et-Senans (Claude-Nicolas Ledoux)

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I desire and I feel the need to live in a society other than the one surrounding me. Like most people, I can live in this one and adapt to it, at any rate, I do live in it. However critically I may try to look at myself, neither my capacity for adaptation, nor my assimilation of reality seems to me to be inferior to the sociological average. I am not asking for immortality, ubiquity or omniscience. I am not asking society to ‘give me happiness’ I know this is not a ration that can be handed out by City Hall or my neighborhood Workers‘ Council and that, if this thing exists, I have to make it for myself, tailored to my own needs, as this has happened to me already and as this will probably happen to me again. In life, however, as it comes to me and to others, I run up against a lot of unacceptable things, I say they are not inevitable and that they stem from the organization of society. I desire, and I ask, first that my work be meaningful, that I may approve what it is used for and the way in which it is done, that it allow me genuinely to expend myself, to make use of my faculties and at the same time to enrich and develop myself. And I say that this is possible, with a different organization of society, possible for me and for everyone. I say that it would already be a basic change in this direction if I were allowed to decide, together with everyone else, what I had to do, and, with my fellow workers, how to do it

I should like, together with everyone else, to know what is going on in society, to control the extent and the quality of the information I receive. I ask to be able to participate directly in all the social decisions that may affect my existence, or the general course of the world in which I live. I do not accept the fact that my lot is decided, day after day, by people whose projects are hostile to me or simply unknown to me, and for whom we, that is I and everyone else, are only numbers in a general plan or pawns on a chessboard, and that, ultimately, my life and death are in the hands of people whom I know to be, necessarily, blind.

I know perfectly well that realizing another social organization, and the life it would imply, would by no means be simple, that difficult problems would arise at every step. But I prefer contending with real problems rather than with the consequences of de Gaulle’s delirium, Johnson’s schemes or Krushchev’s intrigues. Even if I and the others should fail along this path, I prefer failure in a meaningful attempt to a state that falls short of either failure or non-failure, and which is merely

I wish to be able to meet the other person as a being like myself and yet absolutely different, not like a number or a frog perched on another level (higher or lower, it matters little) of the hierarchy of revenues and powers. I wish to see the other, and for the other to see me, as another human being. I want our relationships to be something other than a field for the expression of aggressivity, our competition to remain within the limits of play, our conflicts—to the extent that they cannot be resolved or overcome—to concern real problems and real stakes, carrying with them the least amount of unconsciousness possible, and that they be as lightly loaded as possible with the imaginary. I want the other to be free, for my freedom begins where the other’s freedom begins, and, all alone, I can at best be merely ‘virtuous in misfortune’. I do not count on people changing into angels, nor on their souls becoming as pure as mountain lakes—which, moreover, I have always found deeply boring. But I know how much present culture aggravates and exasperates their difficulty to be and to be with others, and I see that it multiplies to infinity the obstacles placed in the way of their freedom.

I know, of course, that this desire cannot be realized today, nor even were the revolution to take place tomorrow, could it be fully realized in my lifetime. I know that one day people will live, for whom the problems that cause us the most anguish today will no longer even exist. This is my fate, which I have to assume and which I do assume. But this cannot reduce me to despair or to catatonic ruminations. Possessing this desire, which indeed is mine, I can only work to realize it. And already in the choice of my main interest in life, in the work I devote to it, which for me is meaningful (even when I encounter, and accept, partial failure, delays, detours and tasks that have no sense in themselves), in the participation in a group of revolutionaries which is attempting to go beyond the reified and alienated relations of current society—I am in a position partially to realize this desire. If I had been born in a communist society, would happiness have been easier to attain—I really do not know, and at any rate can do nothing about it. I am not, under this pretext, going to spend my free time watching television or reading detective novels.

-- Cornelius Castoriadis (all credit for the excerpt goes here).

I have been skirting a bit in and around Castoriadis this weekend and it's been refreshing. The above excerpt (I have not read Imaginary... so I can't comment on its source) hardly "comes off" in a critical sense. It moves me, though, in a way not unlike that of great religious writers and mystics. When I was younger, a practicing Catholic, my favorite prayer was Thomas Merton's. Castoriadis strikes something of the same rhetorical tone—as though this normative speech instills meaning, via performance utterance, in one's own life, this moment. The acknowledgment of potential failure (Even if I and the others should fail along this path, I prefer failure...) is simply clearheadedness, but it is also a trope, a gesture, whose predetermined rejection makes the enunciating sing. (Castoriadis is doing what I think art often does, as I've said before: he is testifying to our promised lives, our stolen lives.) This all relies on sentiment, of course, emotion. On one hand emotionalism is not a substitute for rationality, it will not replace any other tools for social change we have at our disposal. At the same time, what people would seek to change society in a way that excludes emotion (in both the struggle and the end result) as an afterthought, as mere biochemical pap determined by other instances. (Because if emotions are mere biochemical pap, so is everything else, in which case what is the point?) This can be tricky: can anyone recommend good writings on the emotional content and character of revolutionary social change? There's been a lot of writing on utopianism and the utility of 'the utopic impulse,' but beyond this not much has been springing to mind.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Overheard at Mondo Kim's

Two customers leaving the rental floor a week or two ago ...

Dude 1: "Who directed this, Lumay?"
Dude 2: "Yeah, Sidney Lumay."

I wonder if they were renting Le Network?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Image of the Day

Georges de la Tour, St. Sebastian Tended by St. Irene, 1634-1643.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Hollis & Jonas

"Item: that I do not live in New York City. Nor is it, strictly speaking, "convenient" for me to be there during the period you name. I'll be teaching in Buffalo every Thursday and Friday this coming Spring semester, so that I could hope to be at the Museum for a Saturday screening. Are you suggesting that I drive down? The distance is well over four hundred miles, and March weather upstate is uncertain. Shall I fly, at my own expense, to face an audience that I know, from personal experience, to be, at best, largely unengaging, and at worst grossly provincial and rude?"

—Hollis Frampton to Donald Richie (then of the Museum of Modern Art), January 7, 1973

The indispensible UbuWeb recently put up some fantastic Hollis Frampton material, only to seemingly have taken some of it down just as soon. I hope that in writing a few words about it I'm not violating anything. Included were a video of the Screening Room interview between Robert Gardner & Frampton (which I watched, and had long wanted a chance to watch), a PDF of his amazing writing collection Circles of Confusion (which I hear we might reasonably expect to be reprinted in the near future), and a PDF of a letter from Frampton to Richie, excerpted above & below. The question of the letter is that Richie wrote to Frampton apparently to ask for his blessing & participation in a MoMA retrospective of Frampton's film work, for which he would regrettably not be paid. The world's most erudite filmmaker (alleged) responded that absolutely anyone was free to organize a retrospective via his prints in the Filmmaker's Cooperative, and without his express consent. Frampton goes for the kill in the letter—expertly slicing into Richie more than Richie himself probably deserved (but who knows)—explaining at length the incongruity of everyone's payment but his own, and the fact that he's the one who has to travel at his own expense to reach MoMA for the retrospective should he so participate.

(A few years ago, MoMA notoriously projected Frampton's film Lemon on DV in ambient light, like it was a throwaway installation, a sign of the wince-inducing carelessness or ignorance with which a huge, prestigious museum treats some of its artwork.)

* * *

This evening I saw Jonas Mekas' Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971), which I would have counted as one of my "humiliation" films. I should have seen it years ago. (I'm not just being coy here; it screens at Anthology a few times a year and anyone living in NYC and interested in experimental cinema has no excuse to let it slip by their fingertips for seven years, as I have.) This is one of the greatest films ever—pure, unadulterated heterogeneity! Unstable images, jumpy fast editing, a dreamlike stream of steady focus upon the object. "My Mamma ... waited twenty-five years..." Or to watch footage of Peter Kubelka eating lunch, and holding out his hand at the table to let a sparrow alight on his finger—poetry! There's a difference between becoming drunk on art because the aesthete turns art into life, and using art so that its highest, noblest aesthetic goals become indistinguishable from its simplest, barest use-value: that life and art themselves become mixed, that the practice of making art is in fact a way of living well, not escaping the world by means of aesthetics but burrowing into it via same. Who could fail to be moved by the scenes of Lithuanian family meals, cooked outdoors, or Kubelka & Annette Michelson drinking water from an old stone fountain in Vienna. The images are captured with off-the-cuff straightforwardness: Reminiscences is composed in the key of everyday movements, but it generates beauty from the concordance of its images (the mostly-moving camera, the quick cuts) to its depicted activities, which themselves bear an organic grace to them: Mamma cooking potato pancakes, Kubelka taking the spine out of his fish at lunch.

Speaking of drinking—drinks, they show up a lot, beer (at least I think it's beer) as well as fresh cow's milk, imbibed on the farm with readily apparent enthusiasm. When I got back to my neighborhood I swung by a bodega on the way home and grabbed a big bottle of Ballantine's, the ale of choice for mid-century American artists. It seemed only right.

Mekas' cinema consists largely of "diary films," maybe the world's greatest home movies. Nicole Brenez wrote of one of his more recent works (As I Was Moving Ahead...) that he simply went out and shot beauty—that today nothing is more revolutionary. Definitely to find a quotidian pocket of surpassing beauty and capture some part of it, make it a beacon or a bulwark of life against the onslaught of our destructive world ... it is in a way revolutionary. Art won't ever change the world of course. Not in the way it needs changing. It may however remind us of what we are missing, what we can afford to promise ourselves but do not. It helps us through our days (prescriptively, I prefer a "companion" model of art to an "escapist" one).

* * *

The artist at the margins, or in the sticks, of some more dominant model (geographically, institutionally...) will sometimes produce amazing things not because she is a lone romantic figure but because of the regular ties of quotidian life: community. In fifty years, if the Internet survives in some form, we may all be looking at Jen MacMillan's blog and tracing the connections formed by the New York avant-garde today, the people who are not talked about as enshrined masters, but the everyday shooters & developers of beauty.

* * *

"I'll put it to you as a problem in fairness. I have made, let us say, so and so many films. That means that so and so many thousands of feet of rawstock have been expended, for which I paid the manufacturer. The processing lab was paid, by me, to develop the stuff, after it was exposed in a camera for which I paid. The lens grinders got paid. Then I edited the footage, on rewinds and a splicer for which I paid, incorporating leader and glue for which I also paid. The printing lab and track lab were paid for their materials and services. You yourself, however meagerly, are being paid for trying to persuade me to show my work, to a paying public, for "love and honor". If it comes off, the projectionist will get paid. The guard at the door will be paid. Somebody or other paid for the paper on which your letter to me was written, and for the postage to forward it.

"That means that I, in my singular person, by making this work, have already generated wealth for scores of people. Multiply that by as many other working artists as you can think of. Ask yourself whether my lab, for instance, would print my work for "love and honor", if I asked them, and they took my question seriously, I should expect to have it explained to me, ever so gently, that human beings expect compensation for their work. The reason is simply that it enables them to continue doing what they do.

"But it seems that, while all these others are to be paid for their part in a show that could not have taken place without me, nonetheless, I, the artist, am not to be paid."

—HF to DR.


"Recently a new bank building went up in the urban wasteland of downtown Lexington. It is very tall: some thirty storeys. It is a steel skeleton with a glass skin. The top three storeys are beveled with a raking forty-five degree angle (I suppose this must not be called the roof), so that the building seems to be modeled on a plastic kitchen trashcan. That's fine. What I want to ask about is the nature of this building's being. First, I have never looked at this building, which I must see daily, when there weren't workers on a plank suspended by ropes from the top washing it. To wash the second storey they must lower themselves twenty-eight storeys by rope and pulley. I presume this building is to be washed forever, much as the Golden Gate Bridge must be painted forever.

"To comment on this astoundingly primitive idiocy (I mean the word), I must come at it from another angle. Whether from the inevitable disillusionment of middle age or from an accurate perception of reality, I began to notice a decade ago that the spirit of our times indulges in an inordinate amount of gratuitous meanness. Meanness: a withholding of generosity, a willingness to hurt, a perverse choice of the bad when the good is equally available. Journalism proceeds thus: the worst possible light is the one that sells newspapers and magazines. The blinding type we must read nowadays in books is another example: before computer generated-type the various sizes were designed individually, the proportions of smaller type being different from those of larger. Modern type designers draw one font and reduce and enlarge it photographically, not caring that the smaller reductions are anemic and an awful strain on the eyes.

"It is difficult to distinguish gratuitous meanness from greed. The thin wall that is not a boundary for noise, the rotten concrete that collapses on New Year's Eve, the plumbing inside walls that requires the destruction of a house to be repaired, the window that could so easily have been designed to swing around for inside washing rather than requiring a ladder. You can think of a hundred more examples, but whether they are the result of indifference or stupidity is a nice question."

—Guy Davenport, "A Letter to the Masterbuilder," in The Hunter Gracchus, pp. 150-151.

* * *

Davenport wrote that so many of the great American poets and writers and artists lived in the sticks—Olson, Welty, Meatyard, and so on. As is the case throughout the history of civilization, the major cities tend to draw in & product, support, the cultural capital. Benjamin warned that there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. This sentiment can be used as a snappy aphorism but I believe it is one of the richest sentences on the summation of human culture. If major metropolitan centers—the ancient capitals, the new "global cities" (cf. Sassen)—are nodal points, of course a thriving accumulative society provides a material basis in which the identities of 'artist,' 'intellectual,' 'amateur,' 'dilettante,' etc., put down roots. The thriving society may have these bustling nodes but, if indeed it thrives, the sticks themselves will produce and retain noteworthy producers of this cultural product as well. In the time period when Dickens first started writing in London, schooling for children was a massive concern—mediocre educators could make a decent enough living by overseeing a few dozen pupils in a cramped, dirty room. (Allowing for differences in pedagogical philosophy, these schools provided students with lessons in Scripture, history, geography, Romance etymologies--but J.L. & Barbara Hammond's book on the time period quotes amusing records which indicate how much this education was rote, and how easily you could spot its flaws simply by tweaking the schoolmaster's questions to the scrubbed, obedient schoolboy. "Who was David?" "Son of Jesus.") A few decades after Dickens died, Ezra Pound could actually make a living in London by contributing to avant-garde poetry magazines!

Sculptor Forrest Myers discusses his migration to New York, his settlement in SoHo:

"I consider myself a SoHo Pioneer. I came [downtown] in 1962 and they were building the world trade center where I and other artists were living and I actually got run out of there too, they were going to demolish buildings… And so I moved to SoHo and people said why are you going to SoHo there’s nothing there but a bunch of trucks. Well at that time there were a lot of spaces for rent, not only in SoHo, but other places. Artists lived downtown… there were so few artists when I came to New York it was just odd. There were about 400 artists."

Now there are tons of artists, tons of galleries. Plenty of money. Is this saturation? If so, is the saturation of metropolitan centers a sign of cultural decline? (I dislike that word but there's an inherited vocabulary when discussing civilization; I don't consider "decline" a bad thing a priori.) Are still Olsons and Weltys and Meatyards, and Davenports for that matter, making a living in Gloucester, Jackson, and Lexington? How much longer will New York remain the playground of the rich, a place where urban gardens are reclaimed by real estate owners after communities make them attractive, where almost any beautiful and humane block is too expensive for most people to inhabit? In America, places like New York, Chicago, San Francisco present people with great cultural riches. Perhaps though we should be wary when the riches become too great, too concentrated. My city may have thriving "scenes" but almost every suburban place I have visited in recent years looks exactly the same. Speaking as a bit of a nationalist here (which is against my general inclination): what Americans could fail to be outraged at this theft of our people's rights and liberties, this drab enforced homogeneity underwritten by the even greater theft of resources & labor of people elsewhere?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Quote of the Day

Nothing, nothing can keep me from my love
Standing on the other shore.

Not even old crocodile
There on the sandbank between us
Can keep us apart.

I go in spite of him,
I walk upon the waves,
Her love flows back across the water,
Turning waves to solid earth
For me to walk on.

The river is our Enchanted Sea.

-- from "Love Lyrics," in Come Swiftly to Your Love: Love Poems of Ancient Egypt, trans. Ezra Pound and Noel Stock.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Jean Rollin & Political Modernism

(La Vampire nue, 1970) / (WR--Mysteries of the Organism, 1971)

There is a 70-second lateral tracking shot of office spaces in La Vampire nue, about a minute after the shot above occurs, which recalls what Godard was doing in the same time period.

Plus, of course, Maurice Lemaître plays the evil scientist father-figure.