Sunday, November 28, 2010

Are We There Yet?

What are those ants doing?  I never get tired of looking at them.

When I was making art, I was fascinated by metonymy, a figure of speech that substitutes one word for another word that it's closely associated with.  Over time, the crown comes to stand for the king.

It is metonymy that gives documentary film and other forms of sympathetic magic their power over us.  And it is metonymy that connects the unseen and unseeable theoretical concepts of science to their manifestations in the realm of the senses.

In the physical world, films and photographs are instantly metonymic.  The weaver ants in the header stand for actual ants in a completely realistic and convincing way.  The ants in the header may be suspended in time and space, immutable, undying, but, to our minds, they are real.  And they are doing a real ant thing, a thing they were caught in the act of doing by the biologist who snapped their picture and generously gave us permission to use it here.  They will continue to do that one ant thing and nothing else as long as the photograph lasts.  They will not sting us to move us off their trail, they will not turn around and head in the opposite direction, and the major worker will not put the minor worker down.  They will move forward together, always tending toward some place outside the frame of the photograph, but never getting there. 

Now the scientist who took the picture of these weaver ants, Bert Hölldobler, knows as much about ants as anyone alive, and he tells us that what is literally going on in that picture is an example of the division of labor.  What Professor Hölldobler's photograph shows is a major worker carrying a minor worker "to a place where the minor worker is needed for special work, such as attending honeydew-secreting homoopterans or nursing small larvae."

That's the observable fact of the picture.  The denotative meaning of it.  But we do not live by metonymy alone.

Beyond metonymy, there is metaphor, a figure of speech in which a word that literally denotes one thing or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness.  As metaphor, the picture of our ants points to something beyond itself.  It refers to other things that it is like.  And, as a picture that is a metaphor for something else, the more things it refers to, the better it is.

As metaphor, Professor Hölldobler's weaver ants are amazingly polyreferential.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Outside The Echo Chamber

Thanksgiving is a good time to reflect on who we are, where we came from and where we're going.

Adam Goodheart has a Homer Winslow cartoon up in the New York Times opinion pages today, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The cartoon was published in Harper's Weekly in 1860.

Winslow Homer, Thanksgiving Day, 1860, The Two Great Classes of Society, from Harper’s Weekly, December 1, 1860

I was struck by Goodheart's observation that "there is precious little celebration in Homer’s tribute to the national holiday, let alone flattery of well-heeled Harper’s readers."

Contrast that with Ted Koppel's Olbermann, O'Reilly and the death of real news at the Washington Post.  Koppel, commenting on the echo chamber phenomenon so familiar to anyone who spends time in the blogosphere, notices that "we live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly - individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable."

This analysis and commentary drowns television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases.  Commentators like Olbermann and O'Reilly "show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone."

Ironically, the Koppel piece at the Post is so cluttered with and buried by on-line ads and scripts, including an ad aimed at investors with at least a $500,000 portfolio, that it's practically unreadable.  If it didn't confirm my own biases, I wouldn't mention it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

5 Movies

I think it's more about me than about the films. The same films get to me in the same way year after year.


Whatever "moral ascendency" the West may have held over the East was lost at the Dharasana Salt Works in India. It's the image of the two men, holding hands as they walk into the clubs, that moves me.

England wasn't as tough as America was in the Sixties. Dr. King had to put women and children in front of the dogs and clubs of the Southern cops before we decided we'd had enough.


In the name of your sacred dead. Strike.

Douglas MacArthur's return to the Philippines is the climactic scene of the MacArthur bio-pic. I don't know if I find the moment when he rallies the Philippine resistance so moving because my own dead are sacred to me, or because I wish they were. My father was among the American troops who liberated the Philippines. He went on to occupy Japan. MacArthur would have known better than to try to move Vietnamese villagers away from the graves of their sacred dead.

The Miracle Worker

She knows!

All of us have been liberated, more or less, from the darkness of mute ignorance by someone. Without communication, we're not human. Life is not worth living.

Tunes of Glory

We do terrible things that can't be undone. Without comrades, we'd be lost.

The Big Chill

I saw The Big Chill when I started dating after the break-up of my first marriage. I was middle-aged and stoned a lot of the time. This scene didn't hit me until I was in the car, getting ready to pull out of the parking lot. I cried for about 10 minutes while my future wife watched me and didn't say anything. We've been together for almost 30 years, and she still hasn't asked me what I was crying about.

Jasmine March 14, 2005

My Night Blooming Jasmine has started to bloom already. I have two big plants in pots in my sun room. I bring them inside in the Fall and put them back out on the porch in the Summer. They've never bloomed this early before. It's amazing to sit in my sun room in the evening, look out at the moonlit snow and smell Jasmine. I just have one little cluster of about 10 flowers on one plant, which is lucky, since my wife hates the smell. But I grew up with it. One whiff transports me back to hot summer nights in Galveston, Texas, reminds me of the warm waters of the Gulf Of Mexico, brings back the heavy scent of the perfume on the necks of the Mexican girls I held in the back seat of my old man's Pontiac. I worry about what kinds of smells my young daughter is going to remember from her childhood, growing up in Wisconsin. Wood fires maybe. Other Winter smells. But Jasmine, too, come to think of it. She loves it. She tears off one flower every night and takes it to her room.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

I'm Not A Real Writer Either

A friend of mine told me recently that he's not a real writer. That's the kind of thing when people say it you figure you know what they mean, then, later, you start wondering. Did he mean he's never had a book published? Or maybe that he's not serious about writing, that there's something about the craft and art he doesn't understand or isn't capable of, in the sense that I'm not a real runner because I can't run a four-minute mile? Or, I guess, he could have meant nobody thinks of him as a writer when they see him walking down the street or hanging out at his favorite bar or cafe. Nobody says: There's so and so, the writer.

I was wondering. And then I remembered something Paul Theroux wrote in Sir Vidia's Shadow, a book Tom turned me on to a while back. You know Theroux, or at least you remember him as the feature about Nurse Wolf in the New Yorker guy, whose article was accompanied by the Helmut Newton photo of Nurse Wolf's snatch, because Newton, who happens to be a real photographer, is the kind of guy who puts what's important right there at the center of focus so you know what the photo is about. That Paul Theroux. The writer who said:
Writers then were not the frequent and genial faces they are now in this age of promotion, when they are involved in the selling and distribution of their books -- reading before a small, solemn throng of people you might mistake for early Christians at your corner bookshop; chatting to the bland man with fish eyes and lacquered hair on morning television; bantering on the radio or late night with an interviewer, who is the authentic celebrity and the real reason for the vulgar and overfamiliar encounter.

Before this age of intense peddling, which is the selling of the author rather than the book, the writer was an obscure and somewhat mythical figure, inevitably a loner, the subject of whispers -- an outlaw, an enigma, an exile. Writers were the more powerful for their remoteness and their silences; the name alone was the aura. In many cases, the author had no public face and all you knew was the work. Today the face is first, the book comes last. A writer then was gnomic, priestlike, a magician, not merely writing a book but making a world and creating a new language. A writer was a hero.
So, thanks to Paul Theroux, I can say to my friend: You are a real writer. You just need to hang out with a more solemn throng.

Monday, April 19, 2010

People I'd Like To Interview

Terry Gross

For my money, Fresh Air is the best program on radio. And Terry Gross is the best interviewer in the world. Nobody follows-up the way Terry Gross does. My favorite interview? Divine, explaining how John Waters talked him into eating a dog turd and what he did after he ate it. If you can get your nerve up to interview Terry Gross, you're ready to interview anybody.


I don't know who River is, but Baghdad Burning is a brilliant blog. It's out in book form now, complete with introductions and assessments by foreworders, but I like to read it on line better, the way I read it first. When River left Iraq and stopped blogging, I felt an important voice of Iraqi nationalism had been silenced. I may never know who River is, or even whether she is a woman or a man. I may never know if her blog is one of the finest examples of citizen journalism I've read, or just clever propaganda. For all I know, River is an Iranian agent. Juan Cole seems to believe she's authentic, but, for all I know, Dr. Cole is an Iranian agent himself. This is cyberspace. It's worse than Chinatown. Nothing is as simple as it seems.

Norman Schwartzkopf

I keep this picture on my desktop to remind me that I know less than zero about what's going on most of the time.

What's happening here is Norman Schwartzkopf, the first general to double envelop an enemy army since Hannibal, and an authentic genius with an I.Q. of 168, is telling the leaders of the Iraqi army he destroyed that they can keep their helicopters so they can massacre the Shiites down around Basra when the Shiites revolt. The Shiites in the South were Iran's way into Iraq, you see.

Schwartzkopf's version of the event is that the Iraqis fooled him. I saw him say that in an interview. He said it with a wry smile. He thought they wanted those helicopters to fly to business meetings or something like that, he said. The Iraqis fooled Colin Powell, Dick Cheney and George H.W. Bush at the same time, of course.

This is Schwartzkopf's envelopment of the Iraqi army. Look where the 24th Mechanized Division is. You tell me if you believe Schwartzkopf could be gulled by a bunch of Iraqis.


When Camille Paglia started writing about Madonna back in the Sexual Personae days, I had a hard time keeping their life stories apart. It was never clear to me if Paglia was writing about Madonna or about herself. It's not hard to tell these days. Apparently, Paglia doesn't approve of the way Madonna has chosen to age.

I always figured it was a bad idea to talk about anybody's body parts, but Paglia and the British press are into the contrast between Madonna's face and her legs. Paglia says Madonna looks like a dissolute old streetwalker. Maybe Paglia has written about Madonna so much she thinks she owns her. For Paglia, writing has become a kind of sympathetic magic. She uses the written word instead of a voodoo doll.

I'm more interested in Madonna when she was starting out, when she was dancing and posing nude for Lee Friedlander.

How did Madonna become Madonna. That's what I want to hear about.

An Unknown Soldier

He was probably a Russian, though he might have been Polish. He was among the first Russian Army soldiers to enter Auschwitz, one of the first to liberate a concentration camp with living prisoners. On January 27, 1945, he found 7,000 survivors at Auschwitz. Like the prisoners at the other camps on the Eastern front, the rest of the Jews and political prisoners at Auschwitz had been killed or relocated as the line of battle moved toward Germany.

Thornton Wilder constructed his novel The Bridge At San Luis Rey around the collapse of a suspension bridge in Peru. Wilder asks why some people ended up on the bridge that day, while others escaped death.

If one of those Russian soldiers is still alive, I'd like to know how he ended up at Auschwitz that day. Exactly how did history choose him for that great honor?