Tag Archives: Seneca

My informal Twitter poll, part II

Yesterday I wrote about my impulse to conduct an informal poll of a handful of folks I follow on Twitter, each of whom has something to say about one or more of the core concerns of this blog:  media, journalism, historiography.  To date, I have tweeted (some through DM, others by way of @reply) eight people, all of whom I know only through Twitter, some of whom have engaged with me in the past on various matters.  To each, I posed a version of a simple question:

Hey.  For an informal poll of some folks I follow on Twitter: who are your intellectual (philosophical/theoretical) exemplars/heroes?

As I noted yesterday, @CodyBrown was first off the mark, with his speedy and decisive nomination of Mario Savio.  Later in the day, another of my addressees got back to me with two tweets enumerating several possible candidates.

I still read Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, everything else collects dust.

But I also like the “self-help” genre:  Seneca, Thoreau, and so forth.

This from @nk, aka Nick Kallen, whose Twitter profile is, like his handle, succinct enough:  “Wealth and personal achievement expert.”  I started to follow Nick around the time that Twitter was rolling out its “lists” function, with which he was closely involved.  The only other things I know about him are that, at last count, he has roughly 300,000 followers, and that he lives and/or works in San Francisco, where I resided for part of the year that I taught at the Stanford Humanities Center.

While Seneca would no doubt appear on my own list of exemplars – after all, I borrowed the title of his essay on “The Brevity of Life” for my last book*, and urge anyone who will listen to read it (the essay, that is) – and while I have no problem understanding the “self-help” classification under which my hero appears in the tweet, the most striking thing about Nick’s response was not his short “list” of luminaries, fascinating as it is in response to my query, but the fact that a guy like him (as I imagine him, to the extent that I do so) would have volumes of philosophical writing lying around his place collecting dust.  Absent @nk’s reply, I would not have associated him with that particular particulate matter.

This morning, after sending another round of @replies to the malingerers, I promptly heard from @ryansholin.

Tough one.  I’m inspired by Chaplin, Hemingway, Godard, Han Solo, but certainly don’t try to live like them.  Except for Han. 

@ryansholin’s profile identifies him as “Product Manager, Local Sites at Gannett Digital.  I make/do/talk about cool things for journalists.  Also, a lot of parenting.  And some humor, if I’m lucky.”  It also provides a link to his website, http://ryansholin.com, aka Invisible Inkling:  Ryan Sholin on the future of news.  And other stuff.  I came to know of Ryan, and to draw on his expertise, through a very cool thing for journalists that he helped develop and distribute:  publish2, a news sharing and archiving program that I have found useful.  So evidently I’m in Ryan’s debt several times over.  And I congratulate him on his new job, where he is sure to do more cool stuff for journalists and their readers, thereby (to my mind) outdoing even Han.

Further poll results and (possible) aggregation thereof in due course.

* The text of The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible appears in this blog’s archives.

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 2

Dear Gregg, John, Jack and Kendall,

I hope this message finds each of you well, wherever and whenever it reaches you.  I hope, too, that it will serve to initiate an e-mail exchange about the virus and the pandemic that will appear at the conclusion of my recently completed The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible.  The manuscript, parts of which some of you may already have had a chance to read, and others surely not as yet, includes as the volume’s proposed frontispiece a photograph of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), dated 1987-1990, an installation that features two apparently identical clocks hung side by side, barely touching one another, and synchronized such that both read “2:43:58” (or “14:43:58”).

 

My hope was that Gonzalez-Torres’ work, photographed in situ, would resonate with a citation I was considering as an epigraph for the book:  Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), writing in his “Foreword” to the Encyclopedia of AIDS that “the worldwide AIDS epidemic has become a permanent challenge to human integrity and solidarity.  Given the scale of suffering, given the proven effectiveness of several approaches, and given the prospect of furthering other human goals through the fight against AIDS, an expanded response makes ethical and practical sense.  Instead of letting AIDS turn back the clock, let us use our response to the epidemic to turn humanity’s clock ahead.”

Now John, who was kind enough to take the time recently to read the manuscript and to respond with characteristic generosity and insight, wondered in an e-mail to me whether Piot’s language in this instance set a tone in keeping with the chapters that follow.  I take the liberty of citing from John’s message:  “Peter Piot [citation]:  for me it set the wrong tone, starting your book like that – I’m sure I’m carrying around too much baggage vis a vis UNAIDS and that very mainstream don’t really rock the boat agenda…. Couldn’t you start with Seneca – maybe juxtaposed with Ben and his phone card?” **

John’s thoughtful and wide-ranging response reached me on July 15, as I was reading the Report on the global epidemic  just released by UNAIDS.  Writing in the report’s preface, Piot notes that “In 2001, the world marked 20 years of AIDS.  It was an occasion to lament the fact that the epidemic has turned out to be far worse than predicted, saying ‘if only we knew then what we know now.’  But we do know now.  We know that the epidemic is still in its early stages, that effective responses are possible but only when they are politically backed and full-scale, and that unless more is done today and tomorrow, the epidemic will continue to grow….  The time has come to put all the pieces together.  Plans have been made.  Needs are clear.  Solutions are available.  Now act!”

With your permission, I would like to take Piot’s language in the preface to the UNAIDS report as a provisional point of departure for our exchange.  In what context or contexts do you place this brief exercise in historiography on Piot’s part?  More specifically, perhaps, how do you read and respond to its concluding imperative?

With my thanks in advance, and warm regards,

Deborah

** John here alludes to one of the epigraphs to the prologue, which cites Ben, a long-time seropositive man who tells the New York Times that he feels like someone with a phone card who knows that at some point he will hear the inevitable “you have two minutes left.”

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 5)

2.  As the examples enlisted in the foregoing posts eloquently demonstrate, the need to tell time is also the need to attest, to testify in words and images not just to a time that is, as Derek Jarman has it, “all awry,” but to an unfolding history that depends upon such testimony for its own survival in collective memory.  The tasks of writing and reading the historiography of HIV/AIDS were outlined in advance by Walter Benjamin, who summoned us, prospective readers of his theses “On the Concept of History,” to recognize in the image of the past what urgently concerns our own present, lest it disappear, perhaps irretrievably.  

Paul Klee, "Angelus Novus"

Writing decades later in his capacity as witness to the pandemic’s devastation, Aaron Shurin likewise proposes to read and record “the process of history itself disappearing,” in an effort to “turn it around.”  Like Herve Guibert’s autothanatographical roman, like the giveaway paper stacks and candy spills proffered by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, like Stephen Andrews’ “Untitled” (2000-2001), with its poignant and pointed citation of Jarman’s Blue, Shurin’s Unbound can claim to be of AIDS, with the full force of the partitive. 

Invoking “the oracular remark of the greatest of poets,” which has itself effectively disappeared, leaving our posterity only the barest, most prosaic traces of its former glory, Seneca ventures in “De brevitate vitae” that “‘It is but a small part of life we really live.’  Indeed, all the rest is not life, but merely time.”  The foregoing posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life urge with all due humility that it is time that we have interminably to tell in our attempts to reckon with what we have come (only belatedly) to call AIDS.

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 10)

It is fitting, then, that the final sequence of “Untitled” (2000-2001), subtitled “the future” (deliberately rendered in the lower case), should take the form of a multiply-mediated citation of Derek Jarman:  a series of blue frames traversed by the scan lines that Andrews produced by videotaping a vacant television screen, photographing the resulting tape as it appeared in turn on his monitor, then photocopying and transferring the frames onto the mylar strips.  The last part of “Untitled” is thus readable in part as a homage to Jarman, as Blue itself is readable in part as a homage to the work of Yves Klein.  More specifically, Andrews’ photocopy transfers stand as so many mute (or “still”) commemorations of the eloquent testimony in the voiced soundtrack of Jarman’s final film, which is pointedly not reproduced, but rather entrusted to the viewer’s fallible memory and unpredictable sense of responsibility.  Attesting to the distance, the mortal difference between Blue‘s provenance and its own – “Untitled” (2000-2001) is of a time that Jarman did not live to see – Andrews work proffers a series of afterimages of what is itself an afterimage:  “the future” figured, poignantly, as “a short sequel of sorts.”

In the context of this blog’s trajectory of readings, Andrews’ inexact visual quotation may also evoke one of Seneca’s own citations in “De brevitate vitae,” enlisted to substantiate his claim that life, whatever its duration, “is long if you know how to use it”:  “so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets:  ‘It is but a small part of life we really live.’  Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time” (Seneca, trans. Costa, 60)  [adeo ut quod apud maximum poetarum more oraculi dictum est, verum esse non dubitem:  “Exigua pars est vitae, qua vivmus.”  Ceterem quidem omne spatium non vita sed tempus est].  Because, as the philosopher’s English-language editors and translators acknowledge, “The quotation has not been identified,” what Seneca bequeaths to us is but a “prose rendering of an unknown poet” (Seneca, ed. Costa, 117 n4).  The erstwhile “greatest of poets,” relegated by time to the rank of unknown, lies degraded in the compost of cultural memory, surviving in and as a prosaic paraphrase of a brief remark, partaking of the shared fate that Andrews’ work never lets us forget.

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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.

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