07 January, 2015

Long Ago in a Place Very, Very Close By

After six and a half years of activity, this is the final transmission from the observatory here at Waves of Guide. Energy is being redistributed to alternative projects of poetry, love, and livelihood. Thank you to all receivers for your receptive attentions. May they guide you now along the waves of this river-bound life.

- G.D.B.


"Every force evolves a form"

- an old Shaker saying

Is it not astounding to have, hold or witness the evidence that in many parts of the ancient world there are drawings that were made on stone, designs placed into architecture or songs composed with music & dance which are the preserved teachings of peoples both dead and everlasting? If a message was so worthy of the time and effort spent to express it by its creators in any of the above media, at special times and with the right methods that fulfill and transcend the challenge of the medium's substance, it must either have been a steadfast representation of the craft and artisanal work in its point in history - or something more valuable than the material itself.

Regarding song, if its message isn't a real piece of mettle to outlast linguistic change, the knowledge it contains through the chosen medium will most certainly perish due to its partiality to history. Let us call such works of art or architecture of the highest value, those creations which are a representation for all current and future free members of humanity to appreciate, embodiments of "universal perception." Universal, because even in different places of the world, with different peoples from different cultures, they were works made not by a machine pressing plastic together but by human hands enacting the fullness of their knowledge and attention upon the work. As a part of the mass of unknown descendants now ready to receive and appreciate these forms, we could see beyond our subjective interpretations, try and match the research upon the museum plaque and truly place the context of the site within our experience of their transmission. If we could, we might not hurry to solve our secret despair at the meaninglessness of dumbfounding wonder.


The above two paragraphs would be at home in an introductory study of one of a small number of scholars that are no longer at work today, and may never be again. Writers who claimed and supported by their research the notion that art & architecture are both meant to convey something to an observer. I'm thinking of A. Coomaraswamy, Otto von Simson, E. H. Gombrich: 20th-century writers on the intrinsic value of art - value that does not lie in the observer but in the expression of the thing itself.

The great and ennobling tone of the above uses terminology that we now associate with the media theory of Marshall McLuhan. Understanding my point revolves around a hinged ontology, like that old parabolic question: which came first, the chicken or the egg? If we affirm the egg, we say that the chicken which hatches from it must've had its parent. If we say the chicken, then we can't go very far before denying that this Adamic chicken could've sprung of itself without first having come from its very own egg - and then we're back to the beginning. When it comes to the medium and the message, McLuhan affirms that the chicken is the egg: A postulate we can't accept when it comes to those creatures, nor to any living thing. If art cannot be described as alive, at least not sentient, it does participate alongside life. Art has done so in our species' history for over 30,000+ years, as the most recent find of drawings & prints in 1994 in the Ardeche's Chauvet Cave.

We can watch Werner Herzog's 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams to receive an opportunity to appreciate the most ancient art there is at Chauvet, but there will always be a tight and translucent scrim over their creators' past(s), not much unlike the original dioramas of Daguerre. View the film anyhow - there is something remarkable about the way the animals were applied to the prepared cave walls. It gives something to the observer - the impression of the very mass and activity of long-extinct cave bears or European lions. The image can still speak to us in the medium by which it was made, though the message is any scholar's guess - which is usually an informed and well-researched return to the first hypotheses: hunting and/or shamanic ritual. Add this late 20th-century find to the dolmens of the Caucasus, the salvaged Antikythera, and many other "mysteries" - mysteries because the culture and the language which contained them are no longer and we only give these objects our clinical gaze when they end up behind glass.

It might not be for us to despair over any of this. The grief over such loss of meaning (if there was some) may have already been suffered by the immediate descendants of any of these works. No need to shed crocodile tears. Perhaps for as much as has been uncovered, there will be much more that remains hidden or lost. But I do find that in great poetry, even in pastorals or lyric poetry, the formal structures (meter, rhyme, etc.) are designed to accommodate both the medium (the composed words of a spoken language) and the message (the poet's craft). By this interaction of the written and the spoken, there can be a third thing or a relationship, accordance with what is represented in the poem of reality with what can be observed in reality. Because both the medium and the message have been enriched by its own history within and without literature, readers' knowledge & understanding of these histories will afford the opportunity for them to be present in the poetic relationship between sound & light. "Unintelligible" poetry may find at its root the lack of such a principle relationship.

But what of it? What if the poet, living in your own time, gives you an uneven solution to the problem of poetry and its composition - a message and a medium? It may surprise you, shock even, to get you out of your head and back into your body via the heart, the hand, any parts of you that were cold. When you stop feeling alone for a moment and know that someone else also hates this or loves that, the memory of it all lapses just as easily as it arose. It is very difficult, increasingly so, to remember even just one whole day, when one is absolutely awake and can recall everything about it, without this ready-made judgment of 'liked' or 'disliked'. It may be possible that by spending time with great poetry, ancient and modern, this attention and awareness can be aided, wherewith poorer poetry it cannot. The poorer poet only accomplishes the shock and not the sustain, whereas the greater one stays with the readers as a guide or a teacher. Below is a photo of Robert Duncan, a recent teacher of mine through his posthumous work The H.D. Book. Here are a few of his words:

"In sound and sense it is the music of inner relationships that moves me." 

And in turn, one is moved and can move, as Orpheus did so with his lyre.

08 November, 2014

Casualties of Culture

The Fourth of July is ever the holiday of those simultaneous inventions, gunpowder and printer's ink. For Americans, it is the day of celebration of the colonies emerging from under royal authority as a nation ruled by its people: a democracy. Across the pond, the day goes by without cultural significance for the British descendants whose ancestors were fighting one of many rebellions which the Empire saw intensify each subsequent century from the 17th, on. For most of my generation, it's gaudy flag prints on t-shirts and ripped jean shorts, beer in the cooler, beef on the grill and bags full of controlled or barely controlled instruments of color and destruction raining smoking debris down on friends and family.

A cold autumnal wind has now thoroughly ended my memories of a summer now passed in New York as to the north of us in Concord, Mass. the "shot heard 'round the world" is ringing no more in the ears of our revolutionary ancestors. And what of fall celebrations? Halloween is over, so I'm sick of sugar for a little while, and Christmas decorations are up at work, skipping over the harvest of Thanksgiving. As we are smacked with the grit of miniature shells of media explosions crackling along the ridges of our attention from screens and newsprint, the meaning of days set aside for cultural observances is moot. One forgets to look further into the absence before the next lovely distraction, the next brilliant explosion captures our attention - an Attention tattered and wholly abused, as that flag of Fort McHenry which Francis Scott Key saw from the HMS Tonnant - remember?


"Culture wars," a phrase I first saw along with the stacks of a large and independent bookstore, a very liberal bookstore, was such a distracting explosion to my senses. Not a "war on culture," which would be too literal, but culture wars - battles featured in every stacked book, many of them new titles written and published in our very new but already worn out century. The battles are fought in the nebulous space that hosts the raging of our minds and wants to know the Cause! Or bolster our confidence that we're on the right side of it all. A cultural battle is usually fought over a virtue we are defending or a vice we're up-ending as a society. And as in actual combat, both sides suffer losses.

T.S. Eliot's 1948 book, and subsequent 1962 edition Notes Towards a Definition of Culture was published on the heels of the Second World War, a very fleshy conflict, but already taking the leap to distance one from witnessing the inhumane at firsthand by a drop of the utmost destruction from the old Enola Gay. Eliot's series of lectures attempt to define the difference between the senses of culture, which are threefold: individual, group (or class) and the whole society, as well as provides an exploration of regionalism in the history and modern creative facility of the European nations in the mid-20th century. The primary concern is over the transcendent quality of all the different senses of culture: culture, no matter at what level, is a particular, "evolutionary fruition, a structure elegantly expressed with literature and the arts," rather than having biological form. These structures are nonetheless living and require defending and protecting as civilization changes. They are organic jewels from elder ages and new changes may chance the disfigurement of their faces.

I read this book alongside George Steiner's T.S. Eliot Lectures from 1971 that was entitled (somewhat) affectionately, In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture. By chance I happened to have alongside these two "chatty Kathys," as my mother jokes, a piece of mostly late-20th century literary criticism with some personal essay by the writer Sven Birkerts called The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in the Electronic Age"(READ: Digital), 1996. It was a 2006 edition with new foreword and afterword and I waded through the molasses-quality first half to get to the second half and its afterword in preparation of his personal/historical hindsight. I'll return to this later.

All 3 of these books are concerned with the probable (or evident by example) degradation of the cultural fabric of Euro-American society during the mid-to-late 20th century. By their estimation, the activity of reading (Birkerts), the transmission of culture (Eliot) and the beginning of a post-cultural phase (Steiner) are all due to a shift in values. Tracing a chronological trajectory, the values which were to become unacceptable to the Sixties generation were already values which had lost their intrinsic meaning at the turn of the century, thereby allowing for the vacuum to be filled by the subjective (and by elimination, only true) value of society: the liberated, modern, democratic, self-interested individual.

In Birkerts, this loss of intrinsic value is due to the rise of technology; in Eliot it is because of the advance of secularization i.e. loss of eschatological meaning/ontological bearing, and the loss of traditional education; in Steiner it is a mixture of the two with a few more culprits to boot - the atomic bomb, the conflation of Humanism with humane social conduct, the breakdown of economic stability, etc.


I followed the ley lines commonly walked by these writers and found myself often with uneasy footing alongside steep cliffs. Eliot refrains from even defining culture. At most he says it is not what we call education or class or religion, defining it by negation, or by the conception of culture as an inheritance of accumulated past riches. Birkerts puts all of his argument behind the intractable experience of reading and what gets in the way of the process (the screen) pokes holes in our understanding of this cultural fabric. Steiner seems to be the most well-spoken, with this to say:

What is central to a true culture is a certain view of the relations between time and individual death. The thrust of will which engenders art and disinterested thought, the engaged response which alone can ensure its transmission to other human beings, to the future, are rooted in a gamble on transcendence.

One more source of this conversation on culture is relevant to the question of the loss of value in modernity, and it comes from the late Guy Davenport's "The Geography of the Imagination" (1981):

The imagination, like all things in time, is metamorphic. It is also rooted in a ground, a geography. The Latin word for the sacredness of a place is cultus, the dwelling of a god, the place where a rite is valid. Cultus becomes our word culture, not in the portentous sense it has now, but in a much humbler sense. For ancient people the sacred was the vernacular ordinariness of things.

To this telegram delivery man, it seems that "the thrust of will" for Steiner is the very activity carried out by Davenport's "imagination." Whereas the immanence of a thing in Davenport's measure of the Ancient Greeks was its sacredness, for Steiner (and his intellectual forbearer Eliot) the chance that we take on there being something worth transmitting to future generations is a matter of preserving the center, transcendence, which reconciles or at least keeps in communion the human value of both death and time. There is a risk in this, personal hazard - what shall we not do for the preservation of this value? - but whether the value is immanent or transcendent, we culminate the rite of it only in one space: Culture. The warp and woof of which all of these writers have as their concern - to keep its integrity alive. This is done through the activity of the imagination and it is a sacred rite performed by the artist, as Orpheus did so with his lyre.


The Fourth of July: A holiday we celebrate, as the younger generations of my country celebrate, in remembrance of the delight in bright, burning objects which we also saw when we were even younger. Not an observance but a great time to day-drink. Commiseration over the terrible terror-state we now live in while we rarely wonder what it would be like to sacrifice the treasure of our individuality (whatever that really is) so that a generation or two from us can be free from horrors that would pale in comparison to current injustices. Eliot: culture is "evolutionary fruition, a structure elegantly expressed with literature and the arts." Elegance? Perhaps those very motions that people used to perform as a rite in order to give thanks to the origins of their present conditions.

The casualties of culture are the disappearance of these practices and traditions which provided the means by which to perform these rites that are now altered for the convenient "update" or rendered "obsolete." The cause? Either ignorant termination while laying down the pavement of progress or by refusal in aversion - because we do not personally, as individuals - align ourselves with men or women of the past (but mostly men) who thought or felt "that way." We can move beyond them and never look back again. This is our vista, and who knows how it was raised? You know, evolution.

In the phrase "nothing's sacred" - which actually comes from the old adage of admonishment "Is nothing sacred?" - we have what might be identified as the secular dogma. One might broach, but if nothing is sacred, doesn't this fulfill the Ancient Greek "vernacular ordinariness of things" mentioned by Davenport, making everything sacred? And didn't the Greeks gift us that which we value or purport to value above all else in our culture, Democracy? If there is anything to be defended during these culture wars, surely it must be the virtue of Democracy. I'm not so convinced that sacredness is what permeates everything now.

If that were so, there would be devotees in electric temples, for nothing permeates our lives more than electricity and the fields of forces that are produced by its help. Communication, or the opportunity to communicate, is chief of all and positioned by electricity - and yet I find it harder and more difficult to speak to and stay connected with everyone I care to keep close. There is more hindrance than cultus. What's humble about Facebook walls and the blathering of comment sections on news websites? It is most artless and we're fooling ourselves and each other when we try to convince someone of the ingenuity and creativity of the Internet and of current technological interfaces. I rarely encounter what Steiner states as "engaged response" except in chance face-to-face dialogue. There's no sacred space in the neutered vastness of the World Wide Web just as there isn't any inside of the enclosed cables connecting a grid. There's no Internet cultus because there isn't a rite being performed. You type and hit Enter - but you don't go anywhere. Convince me that you engage with and transmit something verifiably precious beyond your own love or hate on the Internet and then we can admit of the existence of dialogue and a culture that values it.

"True Culture"

I haven't even touched the topic of sub-cultures or the schismatic nature of this modern breakdown of values into smaller, subjective truths. There is an eerie fulfillment in Eliot's essays, as he was undoubtedly irked by the predictions of Arnold, Ruskin and/or Morris before him. My reading list keeps increasing on this topic and will likely never keep being added unto. I cannot conclude this article, no matter how hard I try to string the bits together. Though I do remain highly skeptical of "the now," it's not in Luddite fashion because I try to struggle with my relenting to the unrelenting advance of that which we've replaced most of the space where literature and the arts performed the rites that attempted to contextualize time & individual death. What virtues can we have upheld and what vices have we upended if either action done in battle is for the land we can never return to? We'd be worse off than Odysseus.

Sven Birkerts reluctantly submits in his afterword to The Gutenberg Elegies to the incredible efficacy of technology and by the example of his children, the adaptability of coming generations to encountering the wonders of literature and the arts off-the-page. Perhaps they are such rare wonders that my surprise at finding so very much detritus in what is supposed to be havens of culture or representatives of culture is actually the normal state of affairs. I do hope this is so, and I might be forgiving for prescribing any sort of sickness in our post-modern ways or enlarging what is merely a wrinkle. I'll end this with two more quotes from "Bluebeard's" by the inimitable George Steiner to ponder this post:

A culture "lived" is one that draws for continuous, indispensable sustenance on the works of the past, on the truths and beauties achieved in the tradition.

It is the collapse, more or less conscious, of these hierarchized, definitional value gradients (and can there be value without hierarchy?) which is now the major fact of our intellectual and social circumstance. The horizontal "cuts" of the classical order have been made vertical and often indistinct.

30 August, 2014

Democratic Activity of the Early 21st Century

Typing text to fill the box which becomes the body of this post, I am implicit in the very topic I intend to critique. A difficulty arises on the one hand but on the other, this is the most natural and easy action. It's demanded of most of us each day - either on a full keyboard or shrunk down to the palm-sized displays we've adapted for any occasion. A mistake in our typing? Delete and vanish goes the record. No carbon copies, no ink cartridges or correction tape. We need not even print these texts on paper. The text field is where we "write" in this century's public domain, but it might not truly be where we speak and listen to one another.

I remember the first time I used a computer to access, at that time, our emerging Internet. It was 4th grade, 1995. After learning the QWERTY order, going through a few short typing lessons and exercises, we were ready to log on to the World Wide Web in our new, subsidized Macintosh computer lab. After visiting Yahoo! and putting a few search items in, we were given free rein to visit a website of our choice. On account of gift subscriptions to National Geographic and Nintendo Power that both advertised their websites only these two came to mind. I chose the latter, and along with the classmates in my row, each of our computer screens soon had an image of the controller for the newly announced home gaming console - the Nintendo 64.

 The first image I ever printed from a web source

It was so alien, so cool and automatically the #1 item on all of our Christmas lists for next year. 

The Internet became something to me, something that I could use for my own satisfaction, as more and more households in America purchased their PCs. I recall attending a sleepover a couple years later which consisted of drinking liters of Coca-Cola well into the night and playing Nintendo's Goldeneye 007 for the N64 - the multiplayer's game-of-choice. During breaks (sugar crashes), we'd switch from TV to computer screen and enter into that other shoot 'em up game - the chat room. Before instant messaging, you'd join these nebulous digital spaces with one of two juvenile goals: try to entertain a dialogic fantasy with some unknown user identified as your gender of choice, or gradually get into venomous trash-talking with an anonymous opponent. Either way, your blood was pumping again. Now 20 years later, observations indicate that this use and abuse are all we really know "here."

If the Internet has any history to speak of, it isn't archived away but alive in the shared experiences of virtual stages of engagement by a public wherein they encounter each other but not grasp one another. I'm not ruling out all possibilities of communication - there is evidence that there can be mutual understanding across the fiber-optics. Goodreads is one small stage of 30 million users with a focused frame of concern. It could be argued that authors and readers have never been in closer contact with each other. Priding itself on its sense of a well-read (and behaved) community, there is even allowance for "Goodreads librarians" to aid in the editing and managing of book entries as Wikipedia's volunteers. But does a more localized and concentrated "activity" make for a more evolved and less brutish experience? Their top 50 reviews of all-time in the world can be viewed here, and the standards by which the staff of Goodreads measures the acceptability of such reviews can be looked over here. Compare and contrast, reader, and try to stand the commentary and meme heavy pages.

In our physical world, we speak somewhere. In the ring, the forum, the bull pit, the coffee shop, there is a sonic reference, spatial characteristics, multiple sensory impressions, etc. Dialogue is also an aspect of the visceral. You can reach out and touch the arm of your interlocutor - in fact, this might make all the difference. This has bearing on our delivery, degree of intensity, quality of dialogue and numerous more subtle factors we are hardly aware of influencing us. Who of us has not encountered the difficulty of rendering the inflection particular to sarcasm for a small joke and been completely misread? Verbal bashing often ensues.

Miranda July's most recent short film/advertisement for both an app & clothing line turns the virtual distance that can be a misreading on its head: technology is instead a medium for the conveyance of intimacy at any time, as the messenger can be both a sender and the nearby stranger willing to deliver. There and not there: It is the most strange and fantastic conceit with bearing on what we believe our Internet activity to be and do for us.

In this world "here" we speak both everywhere and nowhere. The humanist-rhetoric myself and my generation have amazingly borne ourselves through have always been in favor of humans having technological experiences, having them be pleasurable, and turning our critical eye elsewhere. We look to message boards, comments sections or walls as placeholders for democratic opportunity and rather await the next moment's announcement from the favored champion of the Futurists' god of speed. Convenience bridges continents and cultures, but also addles us with banners and superfluity. And evermore, that same frothy anger that we witnessed in the chat rooms of our youth is ever slogged against the shores of all this democratic "activity", piling up and obstructing our vision of anything else but ourselves.

My workstation desktop, framed with an ancient reminder

22 August, 2014

To Gain A Clearer Perception of Humanity, Part II

In our last installment, I brought into question how one's method of study, namely the study of humanity's Being, requires an ability to gauge the attentive value paid to this subject by both the observer and the observed. I used cited examples of polarized opinions to give you a glimpse of how a materialistic ideology cannot alone provide for these immaterial components of our Nature. Being a child born in the 1980s, I used a subterfuge example of the Back to the Future trilogy and hypothesized that the free inquiry of science is fueled by the very breadth and depth of questioning which is the philosophic project. Finally, I asked how do we "gain a clearer perception of humanity?" in lieu of any time-travel or space travel, but to do so here, now.

High Storied War

I recently shared a poem for critique amongst the Grass Snakes, a writing group of which I am a member, based here in New York City. The poem can be heard read aloud and on your screen by the TeleGramMan himself here. "Kitchener's Attrition" was written after viewing Joe Sacco's "The Great War" monograph, an illustrated 24-foot Japanese album-style panorama, beginning with a calm General Haig the morning of July 1st, 1916, and continuing through the day's gruesome and great loss of life which exceeded 50,000 soldiers wounded or dead in a few hours. Being conscious of the centenary of the beginning of the First World War this year, I felt I needed to respond to the tragedy and madness of The Battle of the Sommes and attempt to render the helplessness we feel before all wars.


Now that you have listened to the minute-long reading, you might have similar questions being asked and simultaneously answered by either a) your distant memory of a history class b) if you have seen it, the monograph itself or c) an entry into your convenient search field for "Kitchener" and/or "attrition." The only option available for the group at the time was 'a.' After comments, some explanation and discussion, I asked, "Is history worth remembering?" and I received an emphatic "Yes, of course!" I was not wholly convinced by the end of the meeting that it did for any of us present. Had I just written a poor poem or was there nothing in it that a post-modern man could appreciate? "It sounds nice" is a common enough compliment I receive each time I share, so perhaps not all is lost if we can be left alone with simple aesthetics. Simple appreciation was not my intention alone.

I suppose neither Sacco's drawing, nor your search, nor even my poem can grapple with the reality of those events. My attempt leaves the reader at the end of the poem with the pathos of a U.S. President not notable for this afflicted decision to send boys to war, but his racism. This wasn't a conscious decision when I composed the poem but is an unexpected effect with a real bearing on its reading. Wilson was a racist, Kitchener was a warmonger, and Haig a poor tactician looking over numbers incompetently behind the front - all predominant historical opinions of these figures that relieve of us of further questions about their persons or the contexts that contain them in the annals of the Great War.

The Arc of Law

Perhaps we need to take a more Tolstoian view of the Great War, as he did with the Napoleonic Wars in his monumental War and Peace: causes cannot be identified in the figures of history and the actions they take - there are laws we cannot explain with however many isolated causes, because they have a law as well - the law of coincidence of causes. So many things happening at the same time which makes objective identification of a single cause impossible. What I chose to isolate in the poem was not a weak expression by a great man and the subsequent cause of American losses in the Great War, but a mark of humanity that any human might feel - terror, in this special case, held up by an expression of grief. Perhaps Wilson knew as Antoine de Saint-Exupery succinctly expressed with his insightful statement as a pilot of wartime: "In the end, fate still walks on two feet."

The historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, has the most intelligent advice to give that one can read out of all assessments of Tolstoy's masterwork and on his philosophy of history. It also gives a reader some taste of what an objective opinion might be like. His long essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," makes use of Archilochus's saying that "the fox knows many things while the hedgehog knows one big thing." He asserts that Tolstoy was "a fox who thought it right to be a hedgehog," i.e. a man divided unto himself, both willing and unwilling to appreciate the facts, compose a novel in the interest of telling a good story or disprove of the headstrong socio-historical theorists of the 19th century.

Proving to us Tolstoy's enduring mind, we see in this essay both fatalism and optimism - a struggle - perhaps the only truly universal, empirically sound possession humanity shares between all of its many families. Wilson shared in this too - and so does the hypothetical veteran of the first stanza of my poem "pawing a mouse" over search answers, with his own experience of cause and effect in that Great War. I am not Tolstoy, nor could I ever be the talent he was on any similar scale of degree or measure. However, I share in his methods because he too creates characters out of shared experiences to represent a common feeling that has no exact record. Great lives are written down and may slowly fade, due to distorted representation, new facts brought to light, etc. The "inner empiricism," to borrow a term of Hume's, of men and women are not recorded - it is lived - and Berlin underplays this insight in War & Peace. Perhaps there remains something of it not in history, but in the common folklore and traditional storytelling, the shared myths that aren't objectively reliable but voice the lived experiences of past lives in symbolic forms?

Tall Tales

We haven't answered the question I posed to the Grass Snakes - "Is history worth remembering?" - or the larger one that can be traced through both parts of this article - how we might "study" - because they both lack answers that would satisfy one both intellectually and practically. What can be known in the very least (I'm appealing to a stretch of everyday thinking here) is that history as an accumulation that can be analyzed and then cited for conclusive statements is not the history that we should be concerned with or entertaining as "the truth." There is another history, a continuum that exists alongside or concomitant with our idea of history, that we speak of in a common tongue and always have and might continue to have contact with generation after generation. The figures in this history are the sorts that Tolstoy made of Kutuzov or Malory of Arthur: people historically verifiable to have lived, but who then are made to transcend their life and become the symbol of or myth for a representative "time" or "mind" or "emotion" shared by many in a certain period.

The preservation of the former idea of history has much in common with the idea of the preservation of Nature. Both are fairly modern movements that everyone can accede their support to with one side of their mouth, while they continue to benefit from its destruction by decisions made with the other side. Oddly enough, nature doesn't seem to need our aid in preserving itself - it simply needs us to keep from working against it, and it rolls along. History requires a method, records of facts, and stories (context) to pass it down from generation to generation. When this is housed by institutions and made canonical, it becomes frigid. No longer passing from our lips, it tastes nothing of the kiss of life. We pride ourselves in the "information age" on our accumulation of facts and the education based on this stockpile available for all. This information is separated so cleanly from ourselves that we no longer share in the process which gives any of our supposed "knowledge" bearing on the outer form of life. We live knowing but die forgoing the taste of that inner life that experiences our world so directly and used to be so important that it always needed a storyteller.

Some symbolic language remains as evidence of these experiences. In America, we have our "tall tales" of John Henry, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, and so on, which are records of the proliferation of railroads, the logging of our continent's indigenous forests, and the ecological changes/perils of  westward expansion, and not some fireside yarns to poke fun at. These stories may contain the seed germ of much-collected experience, but perhaps there are no longer any of us who know how to tease it out, read it, nurture it. They are also all tales of struggle. What symbolic figure will emerge to exemplify the thoughts and feelings of the struggle in a contemporary man? We're too often arguing for the abolition of humanity from its own mind and feeling, speaking of the future achievement of A.I. or some other presence that will continue on in our stead. Little can we say or do against this hypothesized material immortality - it's far too popular as a "cool" idea in popular culture, which is the only culture with enough clout to parlay being extinguished - so no doubt more time, money and energy will go into its realization.

Can we not hold up some representative man, as Emerson would have it, who, whether fictional or not, expresses the inner life of our present? Test the quality of this question for yourselves, or post a tale in response.

End of Part II

11 July, 2014

To Gain A Clearer Perception of Humanity, Part I

"The intent here is to gain a clearer perception of humanity - where we've been, where we're going, the pitfalls and the possibilities, the perils and the promise. Perhaps even an answer to that universal question - Why?"

- Dr. Emmett Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd in the 1989 Robert Zemeckis film Back to the Future Part II

My brother and I continually watched the trilogy of films featuring Doc Brown's DeLorean time machine and Marty McFly's escapades as we grew up together. Why? Well, it was full of action, well written, had a very cool premise and when there was nothing else to watch on TV, the VHS tapes were at the ready. My brother's favorite film was Part II and for me, it was the concluding Part III. I didn't care for the way the future looked (which was 2015, in reality, next year) and the revisiting of the first film was a little confusing, and, I thought spoiled some of the original. I wanted a whole new adventure, and I got that in Part III.

However, after revisiting the series with a newly purchased Blu-ray set (courtesy of Mr. Matt Ross), the above line from the second film really stood out to me. I don't recall what I thought about it exactly if anything, but reading it once more I see Doc Brown's aim and goal for his creation: and it is a philosophical, not a scientific endeavor alone. Lloyd always played him as severe, technically minded. But by the third film, Brown shows his romantic nature and by his actions expresses his true intent behind the brilliant invention. The time machine was built not to study space-time, but to try to understand the nature of our being.

How to study Existence

Working backwards, from ourselves to the Universe at large, one could at very least attempt to approach such a huge topic as being or existence (the study of which is called ontology) via our local group, to this galaxy, solar system, planet - to a continent of the globe, in a certain nation, at a certain time; countless folk have sought to know as much about the history of a period as one could, devoting an entire scholarly life to say, "the aesthetics of the Victorian era." We do not have a DeLorean time machine at our disposal, so, how would one begin such a study? We must first be considerate about the method of study, so that its beginning leads us to question the practice of history: this practice would stem from a philosophy of history. But what is a philosophy, and what are its origins? We continue to trace backward...

Essentially, philosophy is a system of thought. Let's ask the seemingly self-evident - what are thoughts? Today, thoughts are regarded as having their origin in the brain. Neuroscience continually announces discoveries that show chemical reactions and cerebral activity while observing conscious and unconscious behavior. To surmount that all thought is brain-based brings all knowledge back to the material itself - all knowledge and all being.

Today, the philosophy of science is likely to disprove that valued and particular vehicle (materialism, not a DeLorean) which we ride toward Truth as a philosophy sufficient enough in and of itself. It is the charioteer at the reigns of modern-day science. However, if thought is a product of the neurological processes alone, this is where the time machine of our Mind ends its journey. Better place some hope in matter itself then, and since we are only the product of genes and the planet is dying, get this material to another one. Will 'push off then!' be the rallying cry of the coming generations? It would lack all hope and spirit, however much our boundaries into space are pushed in the name of 'destiny'.

Materialism, the Ideology

Let's take a well-known outspoken voice about the above, the host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and director of the Hayden Planetarium here in New York, Neil deGrasse-Tyson. Tyson views philosophy as a product-less pursuit, suggesting it is an impediment to progress and not an academic study worthy of the young. His friend Massimo Pigliucci, a man of balance between the humanities and the sciences, has held a recent conversation with Tyson about these statements. Follow the link to his article from the Huffington Post - it is a telling example of the sort of difficult public debate about the use of academic studies.

For Tyson, it's a matter of wasted "brainpower," and for Pigliucci, it's about exploring "conceptual space," the invisible, the unaccountable, and yet, the present and experienced phenomenon, i.e. of consciousness. Some scientists are engaged in exploring these borderlines that polarize the public opinions of both science and philosophy (see Rupert Sheldrake's banned TED talk). Others have chosen their sides and are defenders of the flag of Reason because that is their territory and it needs expanding to support their convictions (and garner public and private funding).

Don't forget to read the comments section below either of these pages.

Why such conflict? Science has been incredibly successful as its discoveries have been rapidly applied to our lives in the form of technology, medicine, and the manipulation of Nature. Unfortunately, science as an honest inquiry into the nature of reality, cannot teach us how to use the tools it helps to create while we continue to investigate with its methodology. This requires a vaster range of human abilities than reason alone, and studies as impartial as the original science behind the capitalizing of technologies.

It is part of the struggle of historians to account for all the factors of personality and culture that make an age what it is - how do we account for our present situation, let alone Victorian aesthetics? If we do not reflect or even criticize with a formal philosophy to gauge the value of a predominant worldview, we render the immaterial virtues null (temperance, prudence, courage, justice, etc.) which have been taught to exist eternally, whatever period. Corporeally, we transform Nature and then that transformation changes us in our own, fixed image. We forget where we were and only look toward where we are going from now. Where is our neutral territory, our contemplation? Perhaps only with a philosophy that aids our reason and tempers our awareness, which gains help from "other" sources unknown to us. Dare I even say, from the metaphysical.

Essential being

In the end, Doc Brown and Marty McFly are left each to their own fate: one recognizes his weakness toward personal offense and chooses against drag racing toward a wreck with a Rolls Royce. The other embraces his feelings of love and the need to strengthen this most transcendent human emotion in the face of death by saving his beloved Clara. Science is the vehicle for discovering components of humanity's essential being and philosophy is the fuel.

To free ourselves of the materialistic hold on the sciences would be a much greater accomplishment in the early part of this century than even our latest discoveries in physics. If Heraclitus was correct in his wise statement that "opposites cooperate: The most beautiful harmonies come from being in opposition. All things repel each other," than we have no object to quarrel over but belief in the impediments of our own beliefs. Destroy your time vehicle if it cannot do but divide you.

End of Part I

21 April, 2014

The Folly of St. Ann's

Between the walk from my apartment to my workplace lies a piece of architecture in front of an NYU dormitory building that strikes my sense of perspective every time I walk past it. I have taken multiple photographs of this remnant of what was once the 12th Street Baptist Church, the Congregation Emanu-el and for over a century, St. Ann's Church. The section that remains of the original 1847 construction without its 1870 French Gothic sanctuary, is a stark sight in front of the 26-story dorm. 

Apart from the odd vacancy of a cross above the nude steel spire, it is the strangeness that I experience when coming around the side of the folly (the architectural term for a freestanding facade) which sends me into a pensive mood. There is nothing really between the dorms and the Citi bike racks off the sidewalk. 

There is the bracing of brick crossing a few stained-glass windows from the '20s, boarded up entryways to the inaccessible tower and the most peculiar thing of all, the backside of the front doors which cannot be approached through the black iron fence of the gateway. Behind me, a building attendant behind an NYU decal on the glass door to the dormitory building known as "Founders Hall."

Two other articles have a more thorough write up than I could produce of the history behind the place of worship that did exist here and the story of its demise at Bedford and Bowery & Daytonian in Manhattan. What I would like to highlight from them both though is an affinity with the underdog (The Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, former churchgoers, forlorn art appreciators) and a distaste for the outcome at the hands of the multiple parties involved in St. Ann's fate (New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, NYU, the developer Alan Bell).

Many factors are cited: dwindling outreach and attendance; shifting demographics; debt incurred from multiple parish loans; the tide of progress lapping on the shores of all neighborhoods in Manhattan, especially the Village. Who can say which and in what measure or combination of the above created this particular result, the folly of St. Ann's? It is not so eerie to me, the observer, or melancholy, or maddening. 

My concern I believe is aesthetic, which is also in its own way, moral. My aesthetic experience as I pass this facade every time is as if the sanctuary continued to extend through the dormitory building, all the way back to 11th Street as it once did. This structural impression, the effect of the remnant on the observer creating a disproportionate sense of continuity in regards to the folly, must have escaped the consideration of the developers and their architect that NYU hired entirely - or it wasn't even given a thought, credence or weight.

Both links above include pictures of the church around 1914 when supremely crafted Gothic spire work topped the tower. The cross of symbolic power and its crown of ornament are no longer present. What is present is a memory of something else, of a different school, a religious school. Founders Hall may house current students or future scholars of religious study in an ethnographically or theoretically interested "focus." The place that was St. Ann's provided space for the religious experience to occur for, to, or with a person in the sanctuary. The study became practice, the worship an exercise in scale between immensity and the infinitesimal.

In Catholicism by the taking of communion, the transcendent God becomes accessible through the immanence of the human being. However, this is also represented in the architecture of a church itself. The facade and its tower have a verticality that is counterposed by the horizontal stretch of the sanctuary. They meet together (as in the cross) and as this is also true from a point of view of looking down on the floor plan from above, it is just as true from a side view of the chapel. The idea is old: Heaven and earth meet in the house of the Lord. The development and raising up of these structural forms during the medieval period is thoroughly investigated by Otto von Simson in his Bollingen Series book The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order if it is of any interest to the reader.

No Easter confirmations were given after 2003 at St. Ann's Church. The neighborhood is not without its examples from the 19th and 20th centuries when it comes to churches continuing service and even offering organ recitals at midday, such as Grace Church still does only a block away.

The continual recurrence of the experience that the folly of St. Ann's gives me keeps me shooting pictures and contemplating over and again. Sometimes I have to walk/run to work and with my face forward, feet shooting out sidewalk behind them, my attention isn't taken by the folly because I couldn't care less - I'm going to work now, I'll be late, so what? But on the slow walk back home, when these same legs are tired, I cannot help but be a witness to the affront of the folly. Was this really a show of "compromise" in answer to the appeals of the neighborhood? Why leave the vertical without its horizontal, half-disassembling the place's dignity and history?

We see now that purpose is plainly writ in the brick and the steel of any building we encounter. It is a moral and an aesthetic choice - but under the rule of what William Morris called "anarchic plutocracy," the true divinity of the sky is the half-symbol stiffened, straight, lit up and beaming in its sheer and utter verticality. And my God is it beautiful every time I walk uptown and see the Chrysler Building from afar! Forgoing the Earth for the sky. And so, craning my neck forgoes I.

09 April, 2014

Nostalgia and Music

A post dedicated to Devin G., who prompted this inquiry into nostalgia & music.


"Nostalgia is immediate, and tends to be localized. As often as not, it is triggered by an experiential short-circuit; our awareness of the present is suddenly interrupted by an image, a feeling, or a sensation from the past. A song on the radio, an old photograph discovered in the pages of a book. The past catches us by surprise and we are filled with longing: for that thing, that person, that place, but more for the selves that we were then."

- Sven Birkerts, from his book The Gutenberg Elegies

In Morrissey's Autobiography, which I have not read and only opened up to a brief paragraph in a bookstore, he describes his experience hearing David Bowie's 1972 song "Starman" from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His description includes a trace of criticism, in that he noticed the chorus ("There's a Starman waiting in the sky...") has a melody that almost exactly duplicates, if not completely lifts, the melody of the opening line to the chorus of "Over the Rainbow" written by Harold Arlen with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg for Judy Garland to sing in 1939's The Wizard of Oz. The embedded links are provided to confirm for your own ears what a young Morrissey experienced right away, having in all likelihood acquainted himself with the film over and over again during his childhood in the company of his mother.

There was something that caught my attention about Morrissey's observation. I knew he was right immediately, and I began to think about the phenomenon of that sly chameleon Bowie and his own impact on me as a listener of popular music and after, understandably, about my own young adulthood. I received a double-disc copy of Best of Bowie (US) on my 18th birthday, along with a pink feather boa, paper crown and a plastic scepter filled with glitter suspended, but not obstructed from floating around, in water. It was a fun day of high school and my friends, who were all young women, thought it was a gas to play this image-flipping trick on the birthday boy that they found so nice, so harmless and closer to them than the burgeoning brutishness of the male sex at our campus. 

I was not and am not now an overly effeminate heterosexual or a closeted homosexual. However, I knew while listening to Bowie after school that day in my bright accoutrements that the lines of sexual orientation can be cleverly blurred and in doing so you confuse viewers, inflame curiosity and even beget a little fame from either the love of androgyny or the hate of its vagary. For Bowie, with "Starman" and a number of other hits, sexual preference and outward gender confusion was always codependent upon that strange sensation of remembering who you once were (the older Morrissey in his Autobiography), who that person thought they were then (a young Morrissey watching tele with mum) and who they related that self to (seeing Judy sing in the first five minutes of The Wizard of Oz). As the teacher of dance G.I. Gurdjieff taught by his own words and in the records of his pupils, there are many little "i"s in us, but not one whole unity known as "I".

The word nostalgia itself was coined by Johannes Hofer, a medical writer in 1668 looking for a description of a disease, at times deadly, experienced by those displaced or in exile from their homeland. I thank Helmut Illbruck for bringing this interesting origin story of the term to my attention through his book Nostalgia: Origins and Ends of an Unenlightened Disease (Northwestern University Press, 2012). Hofer created the neologism from the Greek 'nostos' ("return home") and 'algia' ("pain"). Illbruck notes as well the masterful work of Richard Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), in which Burton seems to describe this state or one similar to it as "banishment" and deems it to be an almost adolescent feeling, one that has its root in the unhealthy attachment to a place and the denial that variety in itself has some principle of unity, i.e. the sun shines the same everywhere. However, by the time Hofer published his Dissertatio Medica de Nostalgia, Burton's book was falling out of print and wouldn't appear again until the 1800s. It would become a notable book once more, for example in the libraries of Walter Pater and the Aesthetic movement. Perhaps Burton's definition of "banishment" as nostalgia describes much about the interior scene of the dandies and decadents of the 19th century's fin de siecle - whose top literary celebrity Oscar Wilde was and is a primary influence upon Morrissey's lyricism and, let us say, his own particular panache

Today, we switch on the radio and find the popular hits fulfilling their function: hitting our ears with catchy but unoriginal phrases, inserted samples with co-opted melodies and our own memory proves not to be a solid vinyl record with an adamantine needle - but a fluid, dentritic and complicit partner of our experience of nostalgia. The aim and development of major advertising for consumable media in the latter half of the 20th century has been directed towards the young. But I hear not 30 years of time between, as with Garland and Bowie, to press "replay" with references and rehashing - now there's only a decade. There is a parallel to Hollywood genre films and the "rebooting" of whole franchises (ex. Spider-Man, Superman, Godzilla, Robocop, etc.) where the target is as always a younger generation, but in this case it's those who might have been playing with the action figures of the earlier ('80s or '90s) franchise attempts, who are now able to get into the new and improved version without parental consent. Nostalgia as a dependable source of suggestive advertising!

I think Birkerts has it right in the quotation I've included above, especially with the phrase "experiential short-circuit." Nostalgia happens in a flash, is an association without formal cause. We experienced something in the past and identified with it. "I" am not a unity, and so the song is heard and my awareness is without, unbound by my current place and time, and lost, homeless to the present...We can imagine a man or woman of the 17th century in a carriage or on foot, leaving behind home, no, a whole world that they won't ever see again, and then years later they meet a person who sings the same bardic tune that their wet nurse sang to them, herself remembering the far away village she would never step foot in again, then the man or woman completely struck with fatigue, longing and the rootless wasting away of their energy. In actuality, it is because there isn't that breastmilk, or that mother, or that feather boa around our necks anymore. We aren't that "i" and we aren't the "i" who writes this article or posts that comment. The real question becomes:


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Portland, OR, United States
For the Observatory's Grand Opening