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.