Tag Archives: image

My “epistemology of media lag argument,” part 2

The link below will take you to Google Books and an extract from a chapter of my first book, In the Event:  Reading Journalism, Reading Theory, which appeared in 1999 as part of the “Meridian:  Crossing Aesthetics” series edited by Werner Hamacher for Stanford University Press.  The material in question, then, appeared in print roughly eleven years ago, which was nearly two years after I had submitted the completed manuscript for publication.  At that time, the machinery of academic book publishing worked slowly, and the lag between submission and light of day was significant. 

 http://books.google.com/books?id=4dM8_FUOxggC&lpg=PP1&dq=In%20the%20event%20deborah%20esch&pg=PA61#v=onepage&q&f=false

In order efficiently to provide a brief context for the specific material I want to recall, I will simply quote from the characterization that appeared – and still appears – on the back of the book.

Assuming the burden of reading imposed by the correlation of the order of language and the order of events, this book argues that the possibility of reading and writing history is tied to the endurance of traces of the past and their coming to legibility, allegorically, at a given time.  Through attentive readings of a range of texts – including theoretical writings, diaries, newspaper reports, and “live” television broadcasts – In the Event elaborates the ways in which allegory disrupts our presumptions of continuity and simultaneity between the image (whatever its medium) and what we take it to represent.

The author demonstrates that a theoretical corpus must be understood not merely as a discrete set of arguments, but as work that takes place in time and on which time itself is at work.  Against the temptation to regard a text (including a text of philosophical aesthetics or critical linguistics) as explained or defined by a fixed temporal context, this book emphasizes the textual operation of time.  This attention to temporality opens the possibility of reading the notoriously difficult and resistant text of television.

Next comes the summary version of the part of the book most relevant to the case I hope to make over several forthcoming posts:  an argument, based on what I think is a telling instance or example, about the illusory nature of the “real-time” Web, aka Web 2.0.

The book’s central chapters analyze the seductions of “live” broadcasting:  an incisive account of news coverage of the [first] Gulf War, for example, reveals how the unproblematic articulation of “live” television with the real has its impulse in a broader realist ideology that finds its opportunity in the failure to reflect on the distances of space and time that characterize the medium….  Here, and throughout the book, the readings argue that what we take to be historical events are actually produced, even constituted, by an array of discursive technologies, including language itself.

[En passant, it has been my experience that copy-blogging one’s own past work leads to more wpm and fewer typos.]

Bear with me as I elaborate, over a series of posts, an argument about the ways in which a version of the realist ideology that underpins common conceptions about “live” broadcasting is also at work, in a manner and to an extent that are mostly unacknowledged, in the vaunting of the “real-time” Web.

Leave a comment

Filed under "Real-time" Web, Books, Current events, History and historiography, Journalism, Media, News, Reading and writing, Tech

“Cc…: CCC,” part 13

Hi  all,

John, your invocation of Stuart Marshall’s effort to historicize the epidemic in his 1987 videotape brought to mind your own indelible contributions in this regard, notably Zero Patience, which dates from 1993.  As Paula Treichler writes of your film in How to Have Theory in an Epidemic, “Early in Greyson’s musical…the character of Sir Richard Burton performs an ode to empirical science:  ‘A culture of certainty,’ he sings, ‘will wipe out every doubt.’  But by the end of the film, virtually every apparent certainty has been called into question, including some of the most treasured certainties of AIDS treatment activism.  The character of George, losing his sight from CMV, is also losing patience with treatment orthodoxies, no matter whose they are.  But even as his poignant refrain asserts this condition of radical uncertainty – ‘I know I know I know I know that I don’t know’ – Greyson’s story of the stories of the epidemic never lets us forget what we do know:  That a narrative can be powerfully persuasive, that a democratic technoculture must find ways to acknowledge the power of competing narratives, and that, for all the power of narrative, this epidemic leaves hundreds of thousands of people dead.”  She goes on to remark that, as the film unfolds, the various codes and conventions that have characterized the historiography of the epidemic “are self-consciously framed, contrasted, and denaturalized:  repeatedly called ‘tales,’ ‘stories,’ and ‘histories,’ they are used and manipulated to furnish data for grant proposals, fed to the media, distorted by the media, juxtaposed to other stories, told differently by different people, espoused and repudiated, hammed up, camped up, acted out, politicized, ridiculed, idealized, and discredited.  In this sense, they represent competing regimes of credibility…placed in visible collision.”

In the aftermath of writing The Brevity of Life, this recalls for me the threat to historiography formulated by Walter Benjamin in his fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “The true image of the past flits by.  The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  Like the dancing shadows John invoked in his last message to us, flitting around the hearth of the virus, whose company presumably includes a number of more and less helpful, useful, risky analogies.  As William Haver notes in his admirable essay “Interminable AIDS,” “The ghost is the figure of what we can never quite forget altogether, but also of that which memory can never satisfactorily recover:  the figure of the impossibility of forgetting what we have forgotten.  The ghost is the figure of what disrupts every attempt at historiographical pacification.”  Witness Zackie’s video phantom addressing the conference delegates and the world from the screens temporarily erected in Barcelona for the occasion.

And John’s question – “Do we learn from history, or do we do history a disservice by recasting its specificity into a generalized metaphor for today’s agendas, today’s needs?” – resonates with Gertrude Stein’s singular history lesson, the final line of her poem “If I told him”:  “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches.”  If, as Gregg contends (with Benjamin), “A radical break with history can only follow from a radical break with an understanding of history,” we urgently need to attend to what HIV/AIDS has to tell us, to teach us, about our understanding of history.  For example, as Gregg also points out, “When we are forced to contemplate the AIDS crisis in the U.S. [in 2002], all illusions of progress disintegrate.”  Hence our received understanding of what Benjamin calls “the historical progress of mankind” is radically undercut by the material events that constitute the history of the pandemic to date, and in particular is shown to rely on a notion of our progression through a homogeneous, empty time.

More later, I hope.

Deborah

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Culture, Current events, Death, History and historiography, Media, Reading and writing

A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 6)

In 1995, Andrews’ implication in the unfolding of the HIV/AIDS pandemic yielded a suite of drawings rendered in oil and pencil and exhibited under the title Album.  The works in this series cross a calendar with a commonplace book, manually reproducing snapshots, letters, sympathy notes and greeting-card images that amount to an inventory of dreams both fulfilled and betrayed, conducted at some distance from the youthful optimism often associated with the promise of the future.  The unframed parchment paper that serves as the drawings’ material support evokes skin, and hence the body that eventually encounters what Seneca, in “De brevitate vitae,” calls “death’s final constraint.”  In the following year, Andrews literalized the allusion to the body readable in Album‘s fragile parchment, resorting to pliant pig intestine as the receptive surface on which he silkscreened familiar, even clichéd images of meteorological phenomena in a series entitled The Weather.  The sunset, tornado, lightning-bolt and wind-tossed waves offer themselves to a cursory glance as givens.  In fact, their complexity resides not in what they represent, but in an interplay of image, medium and material whose effects are not only unpredictable, but incalculable.  These brief landscapes begin by skewing the terms of our received understanding of the figure-ground relationship, cunningly enlisting the body as the surface on which they unfold.  Nothing is more mundane than the weather; yet the artist’s treatment, both conceptually and materially, makes a fresh demand for reflection on what we are perhaps too prone to take for granted.

The diptych “Parenthesis (no gold),” for example, presents both ends of a rainbow, their symmetrical placement adumbrating the invisible arc whose antecedents are inextricably natural and cultural.  For it is virtually impossible to register such an image independently of its palimpsestic overlay, whether the reference point is Jesse Jackson’s coalition, the gay activist banner, or – perhaps most inevitably – The Wizard of Oz.  Thus the stakes of a potentially banal depiction are raised in a way that the work’s title itself confirms:  For what we encounter here is not so much the representation of a rainbow as the figuring of a dubious promise, in the fabled pot of gold.

Read in the context of the new generation of antiretroviral therapies that became selectively available in 1996, the promise figured here takes on a certain specificity.  If in Facsimile‘s commemorative portraits the promise in question was that of the survivor to the dead, emphatically pledging not to forget, “Parenthesis (no gold)” articulates a promise of a different order:  that of longer survival, and with it the prospect of yet more effective treatments, perhaps a vaccine and eventually a cure.  It staked its first claim to our attention at a time when combination therapies including protease inhibitors held out the possibility (predicated of course on access) of a future radically other than the one presumed to that point by the HIV-infected, including Andrews himself.  The Weather, then, administers to its viewers a Wordsworthian “shock of mild surprise,” for the putative landscapes become legible as portraits, and indeed self-portraits.

As Andrews notes in the artist’s statement that accompanied the exhibition of the series in New York in 1997, “New drugs have afforded a ray of hope.  Hope is a fantasy of a future that might continue to unfold before us.  Who can predict?”  The cliché enlisted here takes the specific form of a catachresis:  a “ray” of hope.  As it does so often (so often that we may fail to notice), the language of affect borrows from other realms – the weather, for example – to figure an experience that resists formulation and formalization.  This reliance on the resources of language is evident in another component of the same exhibition:  a series of cyanotypes of a handwritten alphabetical list of names (Arthur, Berta, Cesar….) by which the season’s hurricanes – the unpredictable tempests of 1996 – were anthropomorphized, their force linguistically domesticated.  Tacitly, then, another allusion to The Wizard of Oz emerges, especially if we recall that the film’s storied heroine also has a telling surname:  Gale.  Taken together, these works attest that the black-and-white of the past (which was all along multiple shades of grey) has been sucked up and dashed to pieces by a vortex that has transplanted the very horizon, depriving us of our bearings.  We find ourselves catapulted to unmapped terrain – if not over the rainbow (“no gold”), then at some other point beneath its arc of promise.  Like the artist’s earlier efforts, The Weather thus combines a certain skepticism about the durability of the work itself with an abiding optimism about what is to come.  If biodegradability dictates in advance that this corpus, with its fragile material support, is destined soon enough to return to dust, the force of its attestation, which is irreducible to sense, may prove more resistant to the ravages of time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Culture, Death, History and historiography, Media, Reading and writing

A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 4)

If these portraits are of lives lost, of friends and comrades no longer accessible to perception, the relation of image to model in this instance cannot be conceived according to the representational criteria of mimetic fidelity.  Fidelity to memory is of another order, and operates otherwise.

The manual translation that produced these pixelated portraits (the marks were left by a jeweler’s screwdriver applied to the oil- and graphite-coated beeswax) was not that of a hand following the prescription of a model.  The movement of memory left these traces, so many notations for future reference.  Facsimile documents what was virtually a state of emergency in an affected community – the artist’s own – in the early 1990s, respecting the specificity of individual instances even as it locates them in a geographical and historical context.  The series format itself attests to this history’s unfolding over a critical time:  The quasi-mechanical enumeration, case by case, is not dialectically resolved, comes only arbitrarily to a close, and could conceivably go on indefinitely.

But how can a crisis go on indefinitely?  The portraits ranged in Facsimile‘s four parts address this question both to members of the community in question and to those at some distance (spatial or temporal) from it, who may imagine themselves untouched, even immune.  As Thomas Keenan notes in a conversation published in 1991 under the title “The AIDS Crisis is Not Over” (a text that, like Facsimile, retains all its pertinence decades after the fact),

There’s a way in which the telling of the story, the testimony of the affected community, functions or can be received as an accusation, by those who thought they were uninvolved.  The testimony is an address, which means that it’s a provocation to a response.  And that’s what they don’t want to give.  They don’t want to respond to the person who has called – for responsibility.  When someone says “I don’t want to hear about it”… they are telling the truth.  They are creating themselves as something insulated in its generality from the specificity of the address, by disavowing any involvement with the one who appeals.  [American Imago, 1991]

In the commemorative portraits gathered under Andrews’ resonant title, the appeal comes to the viewer not only from before and beyond the grave, but from the moment at hand.  It is a call to recollection and to responsibility, one that we ignore at our own risk.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Death, History and historiography, Media, Reading and writing, Tech

‘what history teaches,’ part 5

If City of Men takes citation to a provocative extreme, audaciously rewriting Whitman in his own words (Whitman was of course continually rewriting himself, for example in his ongoing revisions to Leaves of Grass), the citational gesture and its allegorical structure are also crucial to reading Unbound as a poetics and a historiography of AIDS.  In Shurin’s formulation of his project in “Inscribing AIDS:  A Reflexive Poetics” (1995), he proposes to

estrange and reconstitute Whitman’s Civil War vocabulary, pushing images of battle and comradely witness to a newly disoriented wailing point.  In “Human Immune” [1993], the speaking subject inhabits experience from simultaneous locations as if all persons of voice (first, second, and third) are equally at risk.  The poem proceeds formally via an epidemiological model:  each “stanza” inexorably increases in length by one line, an expanding vortex.  Hell is round, the motif…may bear Dante’s centripetal impasse, but also dimensionalizes AIDS from the personal to the historical:  the curve one rounds is also around one, surrounding, a world.  For the gay community, this circumnavigate descent can be read as the process of history itself disappearing.  [74]

In these terms, the history summoned in the culling and grafting, the estranging and reconstituting of citation is itself in the process of disappearing, prematurely, perhaps irrevocably.  “Inscribing AIDS” thus recalls the threat to historiography identified in Walter Benjamin’s fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  If the witness who reads the process of history itself disappearing is haunted by images of the past (and ghosts abound in Unbound), the text of his testimony is likewise haunted by prior texts that are themselves commemorated even as they are enlisted in a work of commemoration.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Death, History and historiography, Reading and writing

Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 11)

Neither does Blue spare us the related task of accounting for the other crucial incommensurability it renders:  that between the time of its recorded testimony and the time of the experience to which it testifies, with which it cannot coincide.  Blue‘s blind address to the blind summons us to hear the difference as the spoken soundtrack reverts to the past tense:

The virus rages fierce.  I have no friends now who are not dead or dying.  Like a blue frost it caught them.  At work, at the cinema, on marches and beaches.  In churches on their knees, running, flying, silent or shouting protest.  It started with sweats in the night and swollen glands.  Then the black cancers spread across their faces – as they fought for breath TB and pneumonia hammered at the lungs, and Toxo at the brain.  Reflexes scrambled – sweat poured through hair matted like lianas in the tropical forest.  Voices slurred – and then were lost forever.  My pen chased this story across the page tossed this way and that in the storm. [Blue, 7-8]

It calls us as well to register the prophetic cadences of the outraged witness:

How did my friends cross the cobalt river, with what did they pay the ferryman?  As they set out for the indigo shore under this jet-black sky – some died on their feet with a backward glance – did they see Death with the hell hounds pulling a dark chariot, bruised blue-black, growing dark in the absence of light, did they hear the blast of trumpets?  David ran home panicked on the train from Waterloo, brought back exhausted and unconscious to die that night.  Terry who mumbled incoherently into his incontinent tears.  Others faded like flowers cut by the scythe of the Blue Bearded Reaper, parched as the waters of life receded.  Howard turned slowly to stone, petrified day by day, his mind imprisoned in a concrete fortress until all we could hear were his groans on the telephone circling the globe. [Blue, 16]

Or again,

We all contemplated suicide

We hoped for euthanasia

We were lulled into believing

Morphine dispelled pain

Rather than making it tangible

Like a mad Disney cartoon

Transforming itself into

Every conceivable nightmare  [Blue, 17]

In a journal entry dated August 1993, written contemporaneously with preparations for the release of Blue, Jarman alludes to the temporal asymmetry between perception and attestation in experiential rather than conceptual terms:  “The stinging eyedrops are in, the reading chart which has a flaw – as if you read with your good eye first you can remember the letters, to whose benefit?  My illusions…. Eleven o’clock and still waiting for the dragging minutes to pass…. I feel less and less like fighting, giving up, giving in.  Writing blind now…. Yawning void”  (Smiling, 224).  For the blinded Jarman, of course, visual perception belongs to recollection, as the editor’s preface to the posthumously published Smiling in Slow Motion confirms:  “In the final diary he wrote without vision, his semi-legible scrawl only possible from his memory of the scratch of nib on paper” (Smiling, np). 

(In his Memoirs of the Blind, Derrida poses “a thoughtful question:  what would a journal of the blind be like?  A newspaper or daily of the blind?  Or else the more personal kind of journal, a diary or day-book?  And what about the day, then, the rhythms of the days and nights without day or light, the dates and calendars that scan memories and memoirs?  How would the memoirs of the blind be written?” [33].  Smiling in Slow Motion answers Derrida’s questions by and for example, in chronicling the rhythms of Jarman’s final days and nights without day or light.)

In his journal of the blind, as in his film without images, Jarman attests that he has finally seen enough.  “The blind man thus becomes the best witness, a chosen witness.  In fact, a witness, as such, is always blind.  Witnessing substitutes narrative for perception.  The witness cannot see, show, and speak at the same time, and the interest of the attestation, like that of the testament, stems from this dissociation.  No authentification can show in the present what the most reliable witness sees, or rather, has seen and now keeps in memory” (Memoirs of the Blind, 104).  Nearing the end of his journey without direction, with no prospect of an afterlife beyond the horizon, Jarman finds that no image can show in the present what he has seen and now keeps in memory.  In place of the “pandemonium of image,” he bequeaths to his viewers an imageless archive:  one that preserves a time that was “all awry,” along with its own fundamental incommensurability, as testimony, with the awful devastation of AIDS.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Culture, Death, History and historiography, Media, Reading and writing