Monday, January 9, 2017

Fellow-Travelers On the Road [Part Two]


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? 

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