Monday, March 6, 2017

Mamet's Conversion [Part II]






Theatre (and by extension, cinema) is perhaps the best example of a cooperative, collaborative artistic medium. Writers may collaborate, artists may collaborate with writers (or vice versa), musicians may (as with jazz) improvise (becoming, in effect, the composers of new extemporaneous works), architects may share billing with builder/craftspersons, landscape designers and interior designers. But in the theatre, the playwright is separated by at least two removes from the actual realization of his vision. There's the text, the director, the producers, and the actors, each of whom has a say in how it turns out; and each can alter, to a greater or lesser extent, the outcome of the playwright's original work. In this sense, any playwright might be said to be dependent upon the skills and abilities of those who actually realize a dramatic work. 

Mamet's many successes in the legitimate theatre and in cinema entitle him to speak with some authority as a critic of dramatic art. Great writers of fiction or poetry or drama may or may not qualify as useful or valid critics of their own metier. We usually need to qualify any artist's opinions about their art, by remembering that powerful imagination and creativity may not necessarily be accompanied by a clear rational objective sense. Most artists tend to value what they themselves do best. Occasionally, an artist or writer will admit to admiration for another's work, even to envy. Mamet praises Anton Chekhov, though with the caveat that Chekhov's work is politically tame, blandly "universal" in its meaning(s).

So if Mamet denigrates the "interference" of producers, directors and actors in the artistic process of theatre or cinema, it's understandable that this could be seen as the overblown vanity of pride, of a belief in the sufficient perfection of his own work or vision. Any artist may "earn" the right to make their own case, but we are under no obligation to accept such partisan verdicts, especially when applied to widely different kinds of products. As a screenwriter whose credits include The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Untouchables, House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hoffa, The Edge, and Hannibal--we'd grant him the authority to make sweeping statements about such tropes as violence and venality in dramatic works. 

But would we be willing to accept Mamet as an authority on comedy, or affairs of the heart, or historical dramas, or science fiction, or epics? What is the connection between Mamet's personal proclivities as a writer, and his political points of view? 

Some playwrights to have a certain view of humanity, and to be a laborer on two fronts, the way George Bernard Shaw was, as an active socialist part of the time, and a very good playwright the rest of the time. Portraying human beings interacting on a stage, or on a screen, is a perfect vehicle to demonstrate certain principles in action. 

And indeed, Mamet has come more and more to believe in a certain view of human life and value, one which he calls "the Tragic View." The tragic view holds that humanity is--in Mamet's words--"greedy, lustful, envious, slothful, duplicitous, corrupt and inspired" and that "this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama." 

Mamet sees liberal politicians, and those on the Left as suffering from the delusion that human imperfectability can be corrected, and the imbalance between right and wrong made even, through government intervention. He sees the highest good American democracy has achieved as the balance of powers, set against one another, thus self-restraining.  

An argument could be made--and it is a classic (some might say tired) one--that having achieved personal artistic success, accompanied by personal wealth, Mamet now can "afford" to assume the usual privilege of economic success, and glory in his own good fortune by believing that his prosperity is a kind of credential in an imperfect world; that his success is not only proof of his own moral superiority, but that his dramatic actions have been successful precisely because they present life in the terms he sets up. 

Mamet himself might suggest that his own "greed, lust, envy, corrupt and inspired" are no more admirable, or exceptional, than any other artist or citizen. And he'd be right, with the possible caveat that he's just a bit more corrupt and inspired than most people. 

If the point of drama, as Mamet defines it, is to portray human error in conflict with itself, then we might respond that the early work of Clifford Odets, such as Waiting For Lefty [1935], or Awake and Sing! [1935] is as apt a vehicle, in this sense, as any of Mamet's works. Odets came of age in the Depression years, when the reaction to the excesses of unbridled capitalist speculation and exploitation was at its height. The "tragic view" of human life would be no less pertinent then, than it would be for Mamet, growing up in the post-war years of relative prosperity. The tragic view of life does not imply that people should not have flaws, but that their struggle may not result in a preferred outcome. Since Odets was, in his day, as successful and admired as Mamet is in our time, would it be disingenuous to argue that Odets' politics was somehow as irrelevant or extraneous to the fact of aesthetic achievement, as Mamet's politics is?

For Mamet, the best outcome is measured by the success of the performance. The struggle in the hard knocks arena of public entertainment is no less frustrating, or tragic, than the struggles that occur in politics, or life in general. 

As an American Jew, Mamet sees the struggle for Israel's continued existence as a dialectic between those who support the Jewish State, and those who oppose it--or who may hold a contrarian view that includes the Palestinian opposition's interest. Because for Mamet, the predominant contemporary liberal view of the Mideast Crisis--that Israel must in the end learn to compromise with its neighboring Arab States--is consistent with a false promise of the perfectibility of humankind, that people with legendary differences can learn to get along with one another. 

But the tragic view of Israel is built on generations, nay millennia of experience, that Jews cannot trust those whose interests oppose theirs, and that if history teaches anything, it's that they will be betrayed and persecuted just because they exist. If Israel's identity is indeed existential, then any Jew may come to believe its best chance for survival is through domination. Further, that any attempt to temper that dominance with compromise or concession is bound to lead to the ultimate capitulation. And that any betrayal of that domination may be identified with weakness, self-destruction, and threat. 

As an American Jew, Mamet's politics is heavily influenced by the "tragic view" of Israel's continued existence. Though Jewish American political sentiment has traditionally been liberal, the issue of Israel's existence, and of America's continued support of it, is the key dividing point between liberal and conservative Jewry. Mamet's "Hollywood" politics follows a recognizable pattern for those of his biographical profile. But Mamet's conjoining his aesthetic focus with the politics of personal, financial success may signal a wrong turn. 

In America, any man may declare his political beliefs without fear of reprisal or repression. But we're under no obligation to accept those beliefs. Why should we think that portraying the human condition in the make-believe world of theatre or cinema entitles any artist to speak about real problems in the difficult real world? Ultimately, a playwright's work must speak for him. 

As I enter old age, I come more and more to understand the impatience of intelligent people who deal with the frustration of seeing history repeat itself, over and over again. If you believe that human life is essentially tragic, then it would seem a futile gesture to take sides in a Shakespearean dialectic in which right seldom, if ever, triumphs. 


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mamet's Conversion [Part I]


David Mamet [1947-] is a renowned playwright and screen writer living in Santa Monica. He grew up in a middle class Jewish family in Chicago. He made his name early in his career as the author of a number of plays--Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, Edmond, etc., and then he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Glengarry Glen Ross (which he later adapted to the cinema). Coincident with his career in the theatre, he began doing screenplays in the early '80's, beginning with a re-adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and including a new version of The Untouchables,The VerdictHouse of Games, The Winslow Boy, The Edge, as well as doing television script work.   



In 2008, Mamet openly declared in an article titled Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal his conversion of conservative political partisanship. 

"I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind . . . As a child of the '60's, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart . . . These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life." 

Further --

" . . . I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama." 

These sweeping, and in many ways astounding assertions, by one of America's greatest playwrights and dramatists, needs to be understood in the context of Mamet's Jewishness, and in the context of Hollywood (as opposed to Broadway), since both conditions influence how he has come to regard his place in the scheme of American culture and its entertainment industry. 

Many American Jews support the existence and future prospects for the State of Israel. Though there continues to be widespread support across the political spectrum here for military support and diplomatic unity with Israel, there are those who feel the Arab-Israeli stand-off can only improve if both sides are willing to compromise. The hard-line position is that Israel should show a belligerent face to its enemies, that it is isolated geographically, and by history, and can only survive through strength and determination. This "realist" position isn't only "existential"--it's an attitude towards life, a fatalistic attitude about the consequences of a naive faith in human nature. The "liberal" position in America does not embrace this pessimistic point of view. Many American Jews find inspiration in the existential defensiveness of Israeli conservatism. 

As an American Jewish writer/artist, Mamet feels pulled in both directions. As a child of the American middle class, his sentiments would ordinarily be towards justice, freedom, and a positive view of life. But his loyalty to his ethnic background, and his identification with Israel as the symbolic bastion of the resistance to tyranny and intolerance towards Jews, has influenced him towards reactionary politics in America.

Mamet has said he now agrees with free market theorists such as Friedrich Hayek, the historian Paul Johnson, and economist Thomas Sowell. The idea of a totally free market accepts that human nature is not inherently good, that only through competition can human potential and progress be released. In Mamet's mind, the commitment towards a strong, resistant Israel has been joined to a cynicism about life in general. As his own artistic and personal success has progressed, Mamet's become increasingly rigid in his beliefs--a pattern familiar in American business and entertainment careers. 

Mamet's world view sees the plight of the Jew against the backdrop of the larger struggle for the hearts and minds of people between the Democratic and Totalitarian forms of power. Persecution of Jews throughout Europe, and especially in Russia, is associated with Communism, and the enemies of Israel. Authoritarian powers, and especially politically liberal tendencies, are seen as emanating from the same place. 

This cynical view of human existence is plain in Glengarry Glen Ross, in which greed and competition and the exercise of power dominate the characters' lives. It is Mamet's triumphant message about life in general, that life is a Darwinian bargain, that the outcome of our struggles is a chess-game, where selfishness and guile overcome good intentions and weak capitulation. 

For Mamet, successful art means good art, because putting butts in paying seats is the final measure of entitlement in the cruel world of economic transactions. For Mamet, art itself is an economic bargain in which value derives only from economic success. The idea that artistic endeavor should be driven by direct appeal to greed is an old one.  



The history of theatre in the 20th Century is to a large extent the history of the theatrical ideas of Revolutionary Russia. Its great figure, Konstantin Stanislavsky, is the progenitor of styles of production and acting that tended to dominate theatrical practice and theories throughout the world. While Stanislavsky thrived during the first great Soviet period in the arts in Russia, he eventually came under pressure during the Stalinist period. Though the history of Stanislavsky's ideas and participation in Russian theatre is long and complex, Mamet sees his theories associated with the artistic oppression and censorship of the early Soviet period. The politicization of art under the Soviet dictatorship resulted in a suppressed form of theatrical art, in which political and social realities could not be freely explored or expressed. 

Mamet sees the Russian theatre in the early Soviet period as victim of political correctness. Stanislavsky's notion of a mystical approach to acting, and the central importance of the director in play production, are seen as perversions of the purpose and function of theatrical entertainment. As a writer, Mamet places himself in the forefront of the theatrical system, and he denigrates attempts to emphasize the personality of the actor, or the genius of the director, to "interpret" a play's content. Stagecraft, for Mamet, is merely the means to an end, which is the narrative the playwright supplies. Actors should say their lines, directors should see that the playwright's intentions are followed to the letter.

This reminds me a little of what Stravinsky said, late in life. "All I want is that the orchestra play the notes I've written. No 'interpretation' is necessary, no emotional exaggerations, no pregnant pauses, no selective emphases" [I'm paraphrasing here]. This was during Stravinsky's "neoclassical" period when his works were dry and clean and intellectually clipped. The complaint by authors or composers that their work may be "over-interpreted" by ambitious or misguided directors, producers, actors--in effect maimed or corrupted by interference and tinkering adaptation--is also a common cry. Is it jealousy that drives this carping? That powerful actors or shrewd directors may actually claim the high ground of artistic expression, and become the focus of appreciation? 

It's been remarked more than once that in English theatre tradition, the actor "becomes the character" whilst in American tradition, the character becomes the man. Clark Gable is always Clark Gable, no matter what part he's playing, while Laurence Olivier is many men, each different according to the demands of the specific character. In Woody Allen's films, Woody himself is invariably the "subject" while the plot and the supporting actors are like planets that revolve around the central character (himself).  

Mamet's work--particularly his screenwriting--hearkens back to the hard-boiled "noir" period in American cinema. In the 1930's, social realism (Clifford Odets and the Actors' Theatre etc.) predominated. But after the war, Hollywood turned shadowy and grim, turning out black and white crime dramas. Dialogue was blunt, tough, edgy. It was raw, and sullen. Every man for himself. Violence, betrayal, double-cross, corruption, heavy-handed justice. These are the qualities that draw out Mamet's talent. 

***** 

End Part I  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Two on the Aisle




I'm not sure how much longer I'll be able to keep up my regimen of cocktail recipes. My endocrine system is sending me distant messages about my longevity, and we all know that isn't an argument any of us is going to win, ultimately. 

In the meantime, here are two more lovely variations from the stainless steel counter, concocted by yours truly, for no other reason than the delight of invention. 

Bartenders who are interested may experiment with different combinations, which may in time become famous, or signature recipes. At some point, I'd like to be able to publish a collection of my own original cocktail mixes. 

The majority of cocktail books seem determined either to make a claim to be the most reliable source of classic recipes, or of the sexiest new inventions. Tastes may be strong, or subtly variable. There's always room for innovation. 



A lot of new cocktail recipes depend on exotic flavors. But the way a cocktail is structured generally hasn't changed over the last century. You begin with a distillate, or perhaps a wine (or even a beer), and you add other ingredients in various proportion to augment the essential flavor of the "goods." It's perfectly possible to drink any liquor straight, which lots of drinkers do. And there's enough variation among brands and types that you could confine yourself to sampling unmixed liquors forever, if that were your choice. There are confirmed drinkers of Scotch, Bourbon, Rum, Gin and Vodka, and Vodka producers have begun to produce pre-flavored versions, so no mixing is required; in my view, this makes vodka seem like a poor sister to the other liquors, since its own flavor may be considered too weak by itself, though there are people who delight in the subtle shades of flavor of different vodkas. But life's too short to drink every version of anything. Professional tasters must find it difficult sometimes to extend their discrimination beyond a certain point. Of course, some people have a much greater sensitivity to flavor or smells than others. Animals (dogs for instance) have a smell sensitivity which is hundreds or thousands of times more sensitive than people's. Probably there are people who could distinguish between all the different kinds of liquors there are in the world, if they chose. But most of us can't, and certainly wouldn't need or want to. 

The spirit of adventure and experimentation is a very good thing. It's how discoveries are made. Discoveries may be accidents, or they may be deliberately conducted trials. Whenever I contemplate a new mix, I try to think of combinations I've never heard about. It's possible that I'm actually duplicating a recipe that someone, somewhere has already tried. And occasionally I'll accidentally "create" a recipe that, unbeknownst to me, has been labeled a classic decades ago. That's either a confirmation of your good intuition, or a proof of the "inevitability" of that happy congruence. 

Of course, I mix from published recipes all the time. The old standards are standards for a reason. The Rusty Nail has hung around because it's a wonderful flavor, not because someone thinks it's good to keep repeating old methods or favorites. 

But I'm not a professional bartender, and I would never want to be one. The idea of having to mix the same drinks, from a menu, or from customers' preferences, is abhorrent to me. Who wants to mix for others, especially when you can't really share the experience yourself. Good service is good, but the pleasure in that case has nothing to do with the goods. And bartenders who never experiment in an attempt to make new discoveries are just putting in their time, or lack imagination. 

In any case, I've never seen these recipes anywhere else, so I'll assume for the time being that they're completely new and original.         
     
2 parts Boodles gin
1 part St. Germaine liqueur
1/2 part Kirsch
1/2 part fresh lime juice

1 part manhattan rye
1 part dry vermouth
3/4 part peach liqueur
1/2 part fresh lemon

Both are mixed by proportion for single drinks served over ice. Our favorite accompaniment is freshly roasted pistachio nuts in the split shell. You break the shell with your fingers and pop the green nut in your mouth. And then another, and another . . . . They're just dry enough not to interfere with your tastebuds. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Northern Exposure - A New Cocktail



I've noted before how under-rated aquavit is as a mixing spirit. 

You hardly ever see it mentioned in books of mixology, and I guess I understand why: It has an oddly bitter initial flavor (caraway), which becomes less noticeable the more you drink it. I have the same sensation when I drink Greek retsina wines. There's an initial reaction to the unconventional undertow, then you get used to it, and actually begin to enjoy it. 


Norway - Land of my Forefathers

For "white goods" gin can get a little monotonous. It's also on the sweet side, as is white rum. Vodka seems to me to possess such a weak flavor by itself, that putting other flavors with it makes its taste disappear. For me, vodka is a spirit to drink solo, without any adulterating distractions. Its subtlety makes it a connoisseur's delight, but as a mixer, I find it almost an anonymous spirit. 

Chocolate and mint are natural cousins, as any candy fiend will testify. Put these together with the odd basis of aquavit, and a dash of lime to dry it out a little, and you have an intriguing combination.  


2 parts aquavit
2 parts white vermouth
2/3 part creme de cacao
1/2 part creme de menthe
tablespoon fresh lime juice

Makes two portions. Shaken and served up in frosted cocktail glasses. 

Northern Exposure was a television series [1990-1995] which was set in Alaska. Hollywood has paid very little attention to Alaska and Canada over the decades, so it seemed a little goofy and unconventional to have a sit-com set up near the Arctic Circle. But the cast managed to bring it off without a hitch. It became the vehicle that propelled Barry Corbin, Janine Turner, and Rob Morrow to stardom. Turner was probably the sexiest "thinking man's" actress to appear in the 1990's. 



Janine Turner


Friday, January 27, 2017

DURATION Poems 1978-2015


I've always been interested in books, and when I took Harry Duncan's typography class at the University of Iowa in 1970, I became interested in how books were made, and especially in how the construction of a book, and the presentation of its text, was an expression of the meaning of the medium. Duncan used to say a book is "like a wine glass, with the content the wine."

As with any craft, the spectrum of taste of printers and binders ranges all the way from slavish devotion to tradition, to eccentric experimentation. Duncan's own work tended to be a mixture between the two, but his emphasis was to attend, thoughtfully, to every aspect of the process and the product, leaving as little to chance as possible. 

Harry and I didn't get along well at all. I tended to be in a hurry, while he liked to slow you down. My settings in the press bed were slipshod, because it seemed less important to me to have a perfect layout than a pleasing image. And of course he believed that taking short-cuts would lead to problems, and he was correct. Still, in a single semester course, I managed, in just a few hours in the print lab, to turn out four impressive signatures of a book on very unforgiving thick Japanese paper. 

After I left Iowa in the Fall of 1972, I pursued book publishing, but I didn't follow up on my interest in printing as such. It wasn't until some years later that I thought about letterpress printing and publishing. And by the time I did, in 2005, moveable type had been rendered somewhat obsolete by the new polymer printing process, which involves making a plastic template from a digital image off a computer file--which greatly simplifies the process of creating a matrix of letters or designs for use in a traditional mechanical press. Anything you can put on a computer screen can be translated into a print face.    




There are printers and book binders and designers who see bookmaking, and the things that can be done inside the craft, as more important than content; that is, more important than the ultimate meaning or message of the words or images they (the books) contain. A lot of "fine printing" tends to focus on secondary literature, or reprinting of established texts. Since publishing and moveable type printing split up in the 20th Century, the connection between the material text and the artist or artisan has been severed. In other words, writers nowadays seldom think carefully, or intimately, about the relation between their words or images, and their final form--which has traditionally fallen to "publishers" who control which texts are chosen, and how those texts are presented. 




The idea that an intermediary--a publisher, say--or an agent--or an editor--should interpose himself between an author and his text is certainly not a new relationship. It's so much a commonplace in our time, that people hardly comprehend another way of thinking about publication. But the new computer age has opened up vistas of communication (and "publication") that did not exist before. It's now possible to "publish" a text online. And given the new printing technologies of the digital age, it's possible to make a perfectly suitable paperback book in a matter of hours, if you have the tools and the money. This has pushed the publishing industry further into irrelevance, for while it costs much less to turn out a trade edition of any kind of text than it used to, it's also cheapened and degraded the relationship between the artist/author and his audience. 
  



The other side of this argument, of course, is that individual authors and artists aren't to be "trusted" as arbiters of their own media. And they're discouraged from thinking about that relationship. Most serious authors today are so far divorced from what they think of as the cliché of popular bookmaking, that they hardly give it a second thought. What matters is being represented by a publisher, and having their work distributed and read by more readers. Readers, after all, are who buy the books. Books are commodities, and like much of our materialist culture, have become throwaways--disposable when used once or twice, and dumped into landfills, or pulped for recycling. 



Once a book has been bought, and read, its immediate physical existence--its justification--falls into jeopardy. But can a book only be important for the attraction of its construction, the beauty of its binding and choice of typeface--if its content is not also somehow memorable or useful? Is any writer's or artist's interest in the possibilities of determining the quality and characteristics of their finished work a bonafide aspect of the writing impulse?

Is it possible to restore the artist/writer to a position of control and desire with respect to his text? Is there something wrong with a writer who wishes to make his books not just the receptacles of data, but the very realization of the meaning of his vision? In the larger sense, all print media have tended traditionally to be a collaboration, between those who express through language and image, and those who realize that content through the design of the material text. 

Fine printing is certainly a dying art, but there's no reason to think that writers in the future may not set aside the whole apparatus of "publishers" and distributors and salespeople, and simply set about making their own books, if they are given the opportunity. 

For the vast majority of writers--or illustrators--getting work published usually involves an ambitious campaign of self-promotion, knocking on the doors to the "official culture"--a process which may take years, even for those with considerable talent. Being "ignored" or rejected is the hallmark of most creative composition. Writers who crave an audience, particularly a larger audience, may be seduced into compromising their inspiration by reducing their efforts to popular or trendy formulae. 

Anyone who submits to the reigning bastions of taste and commercial publication, probably deserves to be "disciplined" by prevailing modes of form or subject. It's a capitulation that many regard as a higher ethical standard, than that implied by the confident assertion of an individual vision.    
   



It's also just as likely that the vanity of self-publication will reveal how necessary or convenient the third-party publication process can be. One of the cardinal aspects of media theory is that there is no such thing as an unbiased assertion, that all communication (as in news, particularly, though in all artistic expression as well) is in fact presented from a point of view, or from the assumption of a point of view. It's not always self-evident, but if you scratch and dig a little, even the most accommodating party will, eventually, reveal a piety or a preference that colors what they are saying or doing.  

My disdain at this point in my life for commercial publishers and editors isn't resentment or bad blood, just disinterest. I can no longer imagine someone having the audacity to tell me what I should be writing, or how I should revise or change or reconsider what I am writing, in the interests of other priorities. 

We know that it's possible to write poetry and fiction without having any kind of audience. Emily Dickinson wrote her poems in private, without having the slightest concern or interest in "publication." She didn't need an audience. Writing--for her--wasn't a collaboration or dependency that fed off of the expectation or apprehension of consequence. And there are some--like me--who believe that that independence of mind allowed her to focus on her materials and subject-matter in ways she couldn't otherwise. In other words, her "isolation" allowed her to make her poems without the interposition, or interference of others, or the big Other.




Many writers will say, when pressed, that they actually write for a single person, or group of persons, not the great mass of anonymous potential readers who represent the "public"--whatever that means. In my case, I've seldom if ever thought that writing was a form of intimate or personal address. I write as a pastime, for my own amusement, as a form of personal experiment and play. That's how I first came to dabble in writing, and that's how I still think of it, half a century later. I don't see my "development" as a writer as a process of interaction with an audience. Whenever people have told me about something they've read of mine, it's never given me much positive or negative "feed-back" because they usually understand it differently than I do, or misconstrue something of the intention. In other words, what they think is irrelevant to my own aesthetic mien. 

So nowadays, I enjoy publishing my own poems in books that I plan and design all by myself. If you've never considered "making a book" out of your own writing or artwork, it may seem odd or indulgent. Paper and glue and thread and cloth are pretty dull things to most people. But the history of "literature" is also the history of how things got recorded. In the 20th Century, it became possible to communicate electronically--via amplification, telephone, radio, video, and eventually internet. But the material fact of a book still survives, though perhaps less certainly. 

I like interactive digital communication. This blog is one aspect of that sort of media. But fixing or reposing words in physical print is still, today, as much about our interaction with the material text as it ever was. Electronic memory or "storage" is an ephemeral realm, dependent upon the custodians of data banks. For my part, I don't trust those folks to preserve anything I've written "online" longer than it suits their financial interest(s). "Technology" isn't a kind god; she's a jealous creature whose priorities aren't ours.

My latest experiment in self-publication is a collection of "poems" I've written, off and on, over the last 35 years or so. I stopped writing for about 25 years, while I labored in bureaucracy to make a living. When that ended, in retirement, I came back to writing. The book isn't in any sense an account of those lost years. It's the record of my reawakening to the pleasure of writing. 

If you don't enjoy writing, you probably shouldn't be doing it. I can still remember how difficult and unpleasant just writing a letter seemed when I was a boy of five or six. It took a while for me to discover the relationship between myself and the printed page, but once I did, I was hooked.

Each copy of Duration: Poems 1978-2015 cost me almost $200 in materials and labor, to produce (print and bind). You could call it a "labor of love" though what love has to do with it, I don't know. It's just something I enjoy doing. If someone "gets something" out of the text, that's fine with me. If they don't, that's fine too. As I've said, what people think of it is of little real importance to me. That's not why I write and publish. 


Monday, January 9, 2017

Fellow-Travelers On the Road [Part Two]


[Continued]

Watten: "Adams was an ideal photographer to represent the university's view of itself. As a world-renowned Modernist . . . he brought together in his work modern technology and sublime grandeur . . . . As anchor of this sublimity, the Campanile takes a prominent place in his iconography. The symbolic order it represents is distributed everywhere in Adams's system of representation; the archive reveals his repeated efforts to foreground and frame it as a controlling icon. This . . . in turn, offers a paradigm for Adams's construction of relations of equivalence between the elements of the discourse of the university, beginning with the literal construction of the campus . . . ." 

In the first place, Adams could not by any stretch of logic be described as a "Modernist." His work began in the tradition of, and continued to embody, throughout his career, the pictorial landscape values of the 19th Century. He never questioned the analytical or aesthetic implications of that program. Indeed, his first portfolio--Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras--includes so-called "soft focus" images which had been popular at the turn of the century. In his eyes, natural wonders--symbolic signposts of a secular pantheistic tapestry, designating parks as jewels in the crown--became the means to project the preservationist's agenda into the popular realm. Adams never questioned the basic claim of photography as the means of the presentation of actual reality. He rejected any manipulation or alteration of the image which did not enhance the original conception as seen with the naked eye. Adams is wholly pre-Modernist in his sensibility and in his work.    

Secondly, Sather Tower (aka: the Campanile), which was constructed in 1914, as a part of campus architect John Galen Howard's Beaux Arts Master Plan, was specifically and deliberately designed to occupy the central visual key to the university, visible from everywhere. Based on European models--the Venice tower comes immediately to mind--it stands as a monument to the aesthetic mode of the time of its conception, and as an image of the optimism and progressive spirit of American liberal education. To suggest that Adams sought--either consciously, or unconsciously--to emphasize it as an over-mastering iconic symbol of repression and a decadent corruption of the administration, is sheer nonsense. What fool would think that deliberately excluding images of the tower would somehow have been a more politically correct choice? And for that matter, the tower's original purpose wasn't as an icon of power. Anyone choosing to view it that way, particularly in hindsight, is engaging in an egregiously cheap form of gratuitous bias. 

But why not?

Turning his attention to the faculty portraits--"in each of these rigid and codified poses, the inventor himself (always male) is an empty, nearly anonymous cipher, while the given invention . . . offers a promise of fulfillment. . . . The transformative potential of the most sublime orders known to man is disclosed--as with the Berkeley research that participated in the development of nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory . . . as seen in Adams' images of the first diminutive cyclotron . . . This sublime potential . . . a threat of total annihilation in the name of science and rationality . . . by means of logics of equivalence . . . throughout the system." 

All this analytical presumption seems beside the point. In choosing to include the university's scientific facilities as a pertinent sphere of its research mission, Adams was certainly not attempting to portray the administration's underlying power structure, as Watten states. It would be just as false for Adams to have pretended that scientific research wasn't important, by not portraying it at all, as it would have been to show a photo, for instance, of an atomic detonation. Documentary photography can swing both ways, depending upon your point of view. In any case, it wasn't Adams' mission to present a philosophical criticism of the university on its centennial, as Watten seems to demand.

Watten goes on to include the usual suspects--" . . . not only is gender rigidly ordered . . . Other outsides of the system include minorities, as scarce as quark particles in the cloud chamber of Adams' oeuvre . . . Asian Americans . . African Americans . . . and Hispanics . . . [and] Native American[s] . . . ." Again, given the context of the historical moment, it's hard to imagine what Adams ought to have done, in retrospect, given the obvious mandate of his commission. If, for instance, he had been queued to the motions of "diversity" so prevalent in our own time, he might, instead of taking a photograph of Department of English Chairman James Hart, have chosen to photograph Josephine Miles, another professor in the same department, whose wheelchair condition could, signally killing two birds with one stone, have qualified for both gender and disability as the politically correct "coded" references of which Watten could, fifty years later, approve. But then, Adams wasn't a photographer in the mold of W. Eugene Smith (Minamata) or Paul Strand or Dorothea Lange; he wasn't hired to portray the university in a critical light, a fact which Watten seems unable to grasp. 

"As a visual endorsement of Enlightenment rationality, it is doubly remarkable that this document was created, after the Free Speech Movement . . . Adams is hard pressed to account for the historical moment . . . It occurred during the 1966 Charter Day ceremony . . . [in which] a well-organized student group provided the students with picket signs [against the war in Vietnam] . . . " which are clearly evident in Adams' photos of the crowd. Ironically, Watten sees hypocrisy in the photo, which Adams included, as if the decision to include it, involved a compromised failure, and was evidence of the ambiguity of the project. But if Adams had chosen not to include it, then we would not even have had it to consider in the first place. Indeed, if Adams had chosen to exclude it, might that not have been evidence of the very corruption Watten insists the photo signifies in the first place? Finally, though the archive itself is exhaustive, no attempt is made in Watten's criticism to distinguish between the vast archive file, and the images that were actually published in the book. 

Watten's attempt to associate his undergraduate self--and later his associates in the Language School activities in subsequent decades--with the era of student dissent at Berkeley in the 1960's--is an amusing maneuver. Watten himself was never an active protestor, and in fact was a science major during that period. In a discussion we had during the 1970's, he was adamant in insisting that participation in political demonstrations and activities was a futile and pointless choice. During the 1960's, I had had friends in the student radical movement. When I went to work for the U.S. Government, I discovered that the FBI had developed a fat file on my movements and activities during the 1960's. When I reported this to Watten, he was angered and frightened, worried that his association with me might have compromised his own non-participatory, officially a-political stance. His first concern was for his own reputation, and his image. "You keep my name out of that shit!"  

There is nothing in the writing of the Language School participants to suggest that its "poetics" should be seen as a politically correct program. From Watten's point of view, it makes sense for him to regard himself, in retrospect, as an early messenger of Left political points of view. It's a way of polishing his legacy reputation, and that of his associates, to accord with current politically correct attitudes. Their poems are relatively free of political referents, primarily because they eschew the kind of timely dialectics which require clear stands, that fade and date with time--names and places and events that determine real outcomes. 

Watten can put down Ansel Adams--that's just shooting fish in a barrel--because it provides an historically convenient symbolic document for his argument. Indeed, I myself have put Adams down for aesthetic reasons, which have little or anything to do with his politics, which Watten deliberately ignores in favor of easy, and clearly unjustified character assassination. Fiat Lux is, on the whole, a quotidian archive almost completely denatured of political content, primarily because Adams himself wasn't a critic of the university, but it's also worth pointing out the context of the commission itself, which had nothing whatever to do with the student protest movement, or with Watten's preferred point of view, fifty years later. 

If Watten's goal is to privilege "transparent rationality" in institutions of higher learning, he might begin by engaging with current politically correct activities and attitudes on present-day American campuses, where freedom of thought and expression seem as much in jeopardy today, as at any time in the last century. In the 1930's, "fellow traveler" was a derogatory term used to criticize those who shared political beliefs with identified radicals. Today, there's a whole generation of American academics--of whom Watten is one--who flirt with socialism (in its various guises) but who never risk anything that might jeopardize their tenures and pensions. It's a kind of dishonesty that sees harmless (fake) association as a convenient cheap badge of honor. It's just chicken-shit behavior. 

But why not? 






Fellow-Travelers On the Road [Part One]


Why not.

Barrett Watten's new book Questions of Poetics. Language Writing and Consequences has just appeared from University of Iowa Press [Iowa City: 2016]. Its overall intention, by my reading, is to reaffirm and consolidate the legacy of the soi-disant "Language Poetry School" and its members, in an ongoing campaign for its literary valorization. 

In the course of this long-winded account, Watten takes on Ansel Adams' Fiat Lux: The University of California portfolio [New York: McGraw-Hill Books, 1967]--  





--a commercial project the famous photographer undertook near the end of his career. The project, which was begun just months after the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, provides Watten with a proximal contextual marker, seeing Adams, and the Fiat Lux project, as a conscious instrument (and symptom) of the monolithic power structure of the post-war American UC system, against which the subsequent resistant student protests, and later aesthetic movements (i.e., the Language Poetry movement) are posed. 

Watten has strayed a little outside his comfortable area of expertise. But why not? Adams is an easy target. 

As a serious large format photographer, I know a good deal more about the contexts and meaning of Adams' life and work than Watten does, and I find his analysis wanting in several respects. 

Since his death, Adams has been an easy target of photography's critics, and for obvious reasons. Originally, he had wanted to be a professional classical pianist, but gave this up in favor of photography in his twenties. His early associations were with Yosemite Valley, where he lived and worked for several years, which led directly to his involvement in the landscape preservation movement (Sierra Club). His aesthetic inspirations are all to be found in his appreciation of wildness, of nature's grandeur and persuasive beauty, and his fame rests primarily on his nature images, which portray natural wonders in an heroic style, unencumbered with abstract theory or problematic distractions. Unlike Stieglitz, or Strand, or Edward Weston--who sought deeper levels of revelation in their work--Adams saw photography primarily as a craft. Indeed, his researches into the chemistry and technology of image-making, which include the Zone System of light measurement (which he pioneered), enabled him to focus on the precision and clarity of imaging (see F64). Though his reputation in retrospect came be be seen as primarily preservationist and naturist, he took commercial work of all kinds in his career. Adams's politics were centered around the preservationist aesthetic, both as a key figure in the Sierra Club, and as a promoter of (photographic) visions of the unspoiled American West. Indeed, if anything, Adams' stance against conservative figures such as President Reagan, specifically on environmental issues, would place him well left of center on the political spectrum. Later critics have seen in Adams' "superficial" celebration of landscape values a hypocrisy about the ultimate realities of modern industrial exploitation of the ecosphere, as if he ought to have understood that the real work lay in exposing pollution and the ugliness of chaotic human development, a task which has fallen to later generations of serious photographers.

Though it is true that his images do not embody the ironies and problems of modern urban and suburban developments, of factories and clear-cuts and cesspools and smokestacks, no one worked harder for preservation values than Adams.    

But why not? Who cares if we bring Adams down another notch or two on the aesthetic scale?

Adams would have seen the University of California Fiat Lux commission as an opportunity to celebrate the optimistic spirit of public education and scientific research, not as the expression of a repressive, capitalistic, militaristic power structure. Adams would see buildings and trees and plazas in the same way he would see mountains and lakes and landscapes. What would you expect him to have done--use the commission to pillory the university system as the evil monolith of Yankee Imperialism?  

The Fiat Lux commission is described by the UC System's permanent art collections: "Besides his personal work as a nature photographer--his art--Ansel Adams took commercial assignments in order to support himself. Among these was a commission from the University of California to produce a book celebrating its centennial in 1968. The subject was the nine campuses that then comprised the UC system--and the book's title was UC's motto, Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light)." The full archive of images can be viewed online here. "The project also enlarges our sense of Adams' career by showing us not only the talent he had for genres other than nature photography, such as portraiture, but also the ways in which he adapted his landscape aesthetic to the subject of the UC's campuses and agricultural stations."   

Watten: "These photographs provide a record of the university's image of itself as it was before the cultural changes begun by the FSM ['Free Speech Movement'] , and as such they stand as a record of what the student movement saw itself as opposing, even as it assumed many of its values. They give, as well, accurate evidence of the historical constructedness of purported universals: the sedimentary thickness of all claims to the transparency of knowledge represented by the university." As evidence for this "sedimentary thickness" Watten emphasizes Adams' foregrounding of the Campanile as the towering symbolic representation of the oppressive atmosphere of the university administration and the opaque "universal knowledge" it purports to represent. Hedging his bet ("even as it [the student movement(s)] assumed many of its [the University's] values"), there is a pertinent irony in the meaning of those very values. So why not? Can't we have it both ways?  

End Part I