“These works have led some critics, journalists, and art-lovers to speak of Turrell as a ‘sculptor of the sky.’ He bends it and shapes it, bringing forth novel appearances, but without laying a hand on it. His work is in invitation to the sky to condescend to show itself to us. This invitation is made by offering it a frame, a limit or edge that can contain its immensity and thereby let the uncontainable sky appear. Turrell’s work works around the sky and is always about the sky. Being always about the sky that one is seeing, Turrell’s own work is not what one looks at when one is there. You do not look at what he has made, for what he has made is just the edge circling around what is not made: the sky that his work is alwaysabout.
This sky that is not made is what we are made, patiently, to see.”
On October 14, Jennifer Howard wrote a post for the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s College, Reinvented blog briefly outlining how short-form ebooks might change the face of serious scholarship. “Ditch the Monograph” considered how the short form might free up scholars to use forms better suited to the needs of their projects—evincing the monograph as the go-to vessel for knowledge production, tenure, and cultural dissemination. Howard mentioned the rise of the digital short—embraced by Princeton UP, among others, as a means of parceling backlist content into digestible highlights and by Stanford UP as a series of original e-books—as a possible inroads to demonstrate that short-form scholarship might be taken more seriously by the academy, ultimately arguing that though “disciplinary gatekeepers” might hold the key, it’s publishers and authors who should be leading the charge to the door.
Howard’s piece whipped through the publishing zeitgeist the same week that saw her Chronicle Hot Type article on digital art publishing, focused on Yale UP’s recent efforts with e-monographs. While the current struggle seems to center on finding viable electronic models that can negotiate highly illustrated topics—with red flags thrown up around issues of image rights clearance, digital technology, and the cost of image reproduction—the article’s stance, like Howard’s blog, was optimistic in tone. Chicago’s executive editor for the art, architecture, and ancient studies, Susan Bielstein, chimed in:
Three years go, she said, the Chicago press estimated it would sell 35 to 50 copies of an electronic [art] book. “Now we’re looking at closer to 110,” she said. “Even though the specific numbers are modest, the rates of change are explosive.”
This kind of prognosticating about publishing at a moment of technological change, though certainly nothing new, also generates its fair share of polemics. In the air last week? Colin Robinson’s (publisher of New York-indie OR Books) reformative romp in the Guardian, “10 ways to save the publishing industry,” which offered a reader friendly treatise focused on globally enabled, locally engaged, realtime publishing that acknowledged the complexity of publishing choices, while pursuing the benefits of a slow publishing model in digitally saturated times: hand-selling, good design, and curated content.
Scholar Andrew Piper (his own most recent monograph Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times, just out this month, addresses many of the themes surrounding the resiliency of the printed book) wrote a post on his Book Was There blog in response to Howard, arguing why the aim of going “short and electronic” is not the answer. Piper deconstructs the short v. long binary, addressing the arbitrariness of contesting one form above another in a pluralistic publishing culture. He hones in the problem facing the short itself—at 35,000 words, it’s really a medium-length form of scholarship, the sort of thing that bodes well for article-entrenched scientific culture, but something that might not float in the humanities or social sciences, where complex reiterations of histories, argumentative lineages, and and exploratory details require time and space to literally lay down the grounds for academic claims. Piper doesn’t see the short-form ebook as a solution to print’s lethargy, but perhaps his most salient point has to do with an idea borrowed from one of those page-laden monographs: publishing’s imperative reliance on transforming human into social capital. Peer-review and production take time, sure, as Piper points out, and “there’s a window that can’t be surpassed.”
I’ve read and digested all of these pieces. My views in no way account for the views of the University of Chicago Press, but in order to save myself from live-blogging Linda Ronstadt’s shifting fashion preferences in the YouTube archive, I’ll append them here. Surveying all of this, I go back to Colin Robinson’s point about the reader—which Piper takes up in acknowledging the many, not “sole,” forms of scholarship. Walter Benjamin ghosts all of this, and so too do those publishers who could acknowledge that the present is historically situated and that it already foreshadows a future (technological, mechanical) not-quite-here that might be addressed, forestalled, or advanced by timely intervention. Why are we still chasing the aura? How can we not still chase the aura? Why is the aura a sad opera sold-out in digital real-time?
I think about Virginia Woolf hand-setting the type for The Waste Land in 1923, in Hogarth’s edition of 450 that responded to the speedier demands of dissemination at the heels of magazine publishing, acknowledging and resisting the power of commercial printing and its technologies. I think about the chapbooks of Lower Eastside poetry put out by presses like “C” and Angel Hair in the late 1960s, in response to what they advocated as the importance of communities, audience, and work produced at the margins of the mainstream, despite the saturation of new forms of media. I collect Melville House’s Art of the Novella and New Directions’ Pearls series, but I just as avidly read digital-only forums like Rhizome, dis, and Triple Canopy as loci for my generation’s serious media scholarship.
Was there ever a moment when publishing wasn’t always already (yep, that monograph) plural? And, necessarily so, the span, limitations, and horizons of its readers’ attention and interests? Despairing of the printed book, despairing of ebook, despairing of the short, despairing of late capitalism, technology, the Internet, the coming or not-coming shift in how we tenure our scholars and educators isn’t a medium itself. If Marshall McLuhan could dictate the electric light as a kind of pure information, then all of this is a kind of cultural filtration made possible the book. The book already contains the e-book; the e-book already contains the short; the short already contains the demand for new forms that respond to a seismic shift in our sensibilities. We’re holding up mirrors and trying to see ourselves tidily fit, fully subsumed producers and consumers, enraptured and embedded in our forms of scholarship.
This post by scholar Marcel LaFollette, the first in her series on television and the Smithsonian archives, perked our interest. LaFollette writes about the show-and-tell parlance of early morning talk shows, pulling up archival images from an April 1953 sit-down by Smithsonian Secretary Leonard Carmichael, his predecessor Charles Greeley Abbot, and aeronautics curator Paul Garber celebrating the fiftieth anniversary powered flight. The crew brought along related ephemera from the Smithsonian’s collection, including Charles Lindbergh’s flying suit and a map of the flight plan (along with an elaborate passenger plane-model prop).
WTOP announcer Bill Jenkins can be seen clutching the latest issue of Saturday Evening Post, which featured Part 3 of an article by Lindbergh himself. We did some digging in the internet archives and found a copy of the May 2, 1953 issue, which ran Part 4. The cover art, an illustration by Thornton Utz, is equally remarkable—Utz designed 50+ covers for the Post in his lifetime, along with some corporate ad design for Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Ford Motor Co. You can check out a post on the Mad Men meets B-movie dynamics of his work here and an overwhelming archive of his illustrations for The American Magazinehere.
In On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extensions of Life, Sypros Papapetros argues for an abridged history of animated life, locating the “peripheral” and “eccentric” animated objects at the margins of modernism someplace between Freud’s overdetermined elements and diagrammatic, simulating metaphors of life and movement. He willingly takes on the complimentarity between subject and object that animation infers (at one point citing the response of a young victim to a kind of Pokémon hysteria induced by the rapid flashes and hypercolor intensity of the Japanese cartoon as a seizure both “spatiotemporal and epistemological”). Positing the animation of inanimate objects as part of a deeper project of how twentieth-century modernist culture repressed empathy, Papapetros suggests that the animation of the image comes at the expense of its human subject—which got us to thinking.
Watching the commentary—literally watching, since so much is the product of YouTube clips and re-Tumbled images—following last night’s vice-presidential debate has been a stupefying morning experience. My brain has long since been trained to ride the contours of Papapetros’s epistemological shockwaves—more often saturated than not by animated-GIF culture and the new media aesthetic, I’m more profoundly taken aback when my generation’s response to realtime socio-poliltical engagements takes a detour from fragmentation (screengrabs, Twitter), ornamentation (digital manipulation of images), repetition (memes), or juxtaposition:
Tumblr “live-GIFFED” the debate last night, and responses were immediate and forthcoming—part of this “new” aesthetic could be said to argue for the speed at which these GIFs circulate, displacing the circuits of a lost high-art superhighway, and discombobulating the relationships between animate and inanimate, subject and object. Papapetros writes on William Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy (1907), and like Worringer, cites the polarity between abstraction and empathy as “the product of two different external worlds, both of which appear to be equally treacherous.” In this sense, thinking about the rapidity of satirical GIF assemblages last night, I can’t help but consider its relationship to early Italian Futurism, with its peculiar patriotism, embrace of directional tendencies of an object through space, and the heightened emotions surrounding technology, speed, and “the smear of madness.”
The majority of GIFs circulating last night and this morning on Tumblr revealed a pro-Biden bias—so much so that part of what became jolting for me was the role of their obvious use of humor in caricaturing Paul Ryan. For turn-of-the-century thinkers like Worringer, Theodor Lipps, and Sigmund Freud, empathy is complicated perceptual process with an important and problematic relationship to our ability to abstract ourselves as subjects and negotiate otherness through shared acknowledgements that defer our own objectification. For Freud, especially, the relation between empathy and humor was incisive, if complicated. Worringer, though, thought our modern sensibility thrived in a climate of “empathic abstraction.” I follow Papapetros’s dismissal of empathy as the immediate channel of animation, and find myself taken up by his account of how “every instance of animation is complemented by an equivalent occurrence of paralysis.”
I wonder, then, if part of the har-har at Ryan’s expense is a coming-to-terms with our emotional surplus, in an era where we are pre-disposed into a cult of abstraction, or even distraction. The unfathomable navigation of internet channels—to blog and reblog, “like” and retweet—permits the image to perform a sort of infrastructural violence. At the same time, the animated GIF itself seems unlike the myth of Daphne cited by Papapetros, where excitation reaches such a level that the subject instantly freezes and is unable to react. Although in suspended motion, both Biden and Ryan can’t escape the truncated movements of these clips. Overwhelmed by the possibilities of the Internet but bound by its penchant for fragmentation, is this kind of animation, as Papapetros claims, at the expense of its subjects, no matter our own political position? Or does GIF culture, acting in its prescient sphere of spontaneity, abide by a different set of rules?
“Animism spiritualized the object, whereas industrialization objectifies the spirits of men,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer. Papapetros takes on this notion, in a conclusion that might here be apt:
There are no truly animated objects in modernity, yet we are inundated by cartoons—mere semblances of animation that conform to Warburg’s “you live and do me nothing.” Perhaps then the paralysis or the “arthritic” effect of modern culture diagnosed by Horkheimer and Adorno is in the epistemological divisions that disallow all forms of being other than the human to live and have a language of their own.
“People want perfection, even if it’s a falsehood,” is the observation proffered by photographer Laura Letinsky in a recent New York Times overview of her work, establishing the stakes her images subtlely, and often intimately overturn. The article goes on to consider Letinsky’s assignments for a variety of glossy magazines—Bon Appétit, Brides, and Martha Stewart Living, among them—that would seemingly eschew her favored aesthetic: the banal objects of our everyday (foods, bodies) in states of disarray, consuming and consumptive, half-eaten, leg-locked, caught mid-meal or in flagrante delicto.
But instead of rejecting Letinsky’s painstakingly detailed dis-compositions, these otherwise static, commodity-infused, well-coiffed periodicals have embraced the “tiny details” of her “chaos.” If there is room in late-capitalist culture for a movement like slow food, with its preservation of traditional cuisines and pursuit of sustainability, it might be worth asking if Letinsky’s work responds to a virtual slow cultural hegemony—here the dominant worldview, with its norms that sustain our existence (how we view the rules of eating, sleeping, sexing) still impinges its implications upon us, but our resistance is to strip them bare and backward. Letinsky’s photographs show the world as it is—contextualization isn’t lost, but for a moment it seems profoundly deferred by the immediacy of legs intertwined or a cantaloupe slowly (though not yet visibly) rotting, once glasses have clinked, and bodies have left the table.
In 2000, we published Letinsky’s Venus Inferred, a selection of 46 photographs of lovers in their inhabited domestic spaces, a realm some theorists call “the intimate public sphere.” The images are instantly recognizable as “ordinary,” in that what they portray is the version of these lovers as seen by themselves, were the camera substituted with a mirror: private/public, slightly undone, discomfited in their creature comforts, imperfectly absorbed by their human skin, parts, bodies. Like Letinsky’s food series, they might jolt us with a particular kind of vulnerability, as the most animate kind of still life.
In her essay accompanying the images “The Sublime and the Pretty,” scholar Lauren Berlant writes:
“What ensues is a kind of fetishism. The body, the scene of the a desire to cultivate civic personhood, nonetheless overwhelms the principles of education that become associated with it. This links the crisis of politico-aesthetic form to the ontology of the photograph. Walter Benjamin suggests that photography always enacts violence on its object, but not only because it rips objects from their original reality. His bigger concern is in the way that the object’s meaning then leans heavily on the caption and the captioner. Likewise it could be said that the body at the center of the aesthetic training in subjectivity becomes socially intelligible by being trained to photograph itself, to zone itself like, again, the couples who pose themselves to be witnessed by Letinsky’s work. Their bodies become meaningful insofar as they get captioned, clothed, or contextualized within the syntax of propriety. The hierarchies of value that caption in order to normalize sensual self-understanding become then, one way or another, names for what the human expresses in his encounters with beautiful and painful or sublime processes or experiences. At this juncture any debate that opposes cultural and materialism politics seems to miss the point—that they collaborate, even when in apparent antinomy.”
Later, in the interview between Berlant and Letinsky that closes the collection, Letinsky’s attention to our ability to supersede the norms of our human experiences gets drawn out:
LB: So on the one hand, you’re like some ethnographer of the normal, and on the other hand, you feel like you’re encountering and picturing the enchantment of love that lifts the normal from itself, to what feels like a unique space?
LL: Right, it’s about the relationship between privacy and particularity. At first I had a sense of being a scientist or an explorer going into people’s private space. Then I wondered whether it was a private space, since its conventionality works against that. Not only in love’s promise, but in the singularity of the spaces, the sheets, the pajamas, the coffee cups. These details evaded the generic and particularized the couples. I became interested in the desire to be normal, and how people tried to live that dream out. And I saw how people could never quite do this, and yet still tried.
Sex is normal as shit; sex is un-normal as shit. Sex is the hounds of hell, and intimacy—those feelings cauterized around bodies enmeshed and ideas enabled—is a never ceasing bark, yipping, chasing, trying.
“Among West German artists of the second postwar generation—those who came of age in the 1960s—Polke most definitively expressed in his paintings that the first true lapse in the tenets of modernism had occurred. Emerging during the heyday of pop art, Polke toyed with the forms of high and low, simultaneously drawing comic attention to the gap between them and attempting to break down the perceived opposition. With this shift came a marked embrace of the trivial and an accompanying perception that seriousness need no longer be the primary goal for postwar German artists. Polke’s parodic sense of humor and comedic dismantling of numerous modernist visual tropes made him a key figure in the West German variant of pop. Polke’s work stands for the early phase of postmodernism, when an acceptance of the inevitability of stylistic repetition led to a critically effective version of humor.”
“To develop a theory of an ecology of happiness, we must go beyond these statistical correlations and understand what, in their contact with a preserved natural environment, makes people happy. Looking back at the origins of human beings’ relationship with nature is an obvious first step. American biologist Edward O. Wilson, professor at Harvard University and a great pioneer in biodiversity studies, in 1984 proposed the concept of biophilia, from the ancient Greek bios—“life”—and philos—”beloved” or “friend.” According to Wilson, people have an innate tendency to establish a relationship with the living world and natural processes. In other words, the human species has an innate emotional affinity with other living beings as well as with the plant kingdom and natural surroundings. This concept of biophilia thus refers to the psychological well-being that people experience during a close interaction with the natural environment. An attraction to nature is the expression of a biological need that has been an integral part of the development of the human species since its origin and which is essential to both the physical and the psychic parts of human nature. The hypothesis of a human dependency on nature implies much more than a need to satisfy one’s physical wants; it also includes a search in nature for aesthetic, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual satisfactions, and more widely, a quest for the meaning of life.”
“We come back in the end to Dr. Faustus, who was one of the most important folk heroes of the world of printed books and a rough contemporary of Don Quixote. Faust was a product of early modern learning, of all those books that were increasingly available to readers. Faust was Quixote’s serious side. Unlike the Don, however, who steadily devoured works of fiction, Faust tried to know too much about the world. He tried to surpass what could be known in a book, whether it was the Bible or the alchemical handbook. Faust, the fist, in other words, is our modern day demon, not Mephistopheles, his devilish double. Faust reminds us of the way books are totems against ceaseless activity, tools for securing the somatic calm that is the beginning of all careful but also visionary thought. If we believe in the value of rest, and the kind of conversional thinking that is makes possible, then we will want to preserve books and their spaces of readerly rest.
But Faust also reminds us not to hold on too tightly. He shows us the risks of grasping.”