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Archive for the ‘impersonality’ Category

impersonality and the individual

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“Of the vaporization and centralization of the Ego. Everything depends upon that.” (Baudelaire, “My Heart Laid Bare”)

Henri Lefebvre toward the end of the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life, in the course of arguing on behalf of American literature and against the French stuff of the period:

Petty-bourgeois individualism has reached the extreme limit of exhaustion, and that goes for the intellectual as well as the writer. In the ‘human sand’, each grain, which is so dreadfully similar to all the others (unless we look at it through a psychological microscope) thinks it is frightfully original, even unique! Individualism ends up as the impersonality of the individual. It is the dialectical result of the ‘private’ consciousness and of its internal contradiction: the separation of the human being from the human. Nothing is easier to express than that abstract ‘psychology’ of this individuality, devoid of any content which might be difficult to express. Only a little knowledge of grammar is necessary. And there is plenty of that around! But unfortunately the tone of all these confidences and all these descriptions happens to be that of impersonality; therefore of boredom. The accusation that the Marxist dialectician levels at modern French literature as a whole is not that it expresses individuality, but rather that it expresses only false individuality, a facade of individuality, and abstraction. Nor is it by working in an element of ‘anguish’ that a young writer can give his descriptions or his story the direct, visual, physical, moving style, so much more individualized and varied, that one finds in Faulkner’s characters and novels. (237)

Yes. Not so worried about the Faulkner issue right now. But what’s interesting about this is the way that it maps on to the complicated issue of literary impersonality, which is significantly different from the impersonality (actual individual impersonality, that is lack of a personality, an interesting one) that Lefebvre’s discussing right here. That is to say, literary impersonality, which is generally understood to mean the distancing or problematization of the notions and ideas of the author (you knew what Dickens wanted to tell you but with Joyce it’s much harder) is a formal stance, not a psychological status or condition.

Maybe you know Eliot’s exquisite joke about this…. He really was funny sometimes in his essays. This is from “Traditional and the Individual Talent”:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Ha!

But here’s the thing. Literary impersonality, which in its narrative manifestations generally takes the shape of some variety of free indirect style, tends as it happens to be a priviledged means of exposing just the sort of impersonality that Lefebvre’s describing above. The free indirect form penetrates the interiority of the character, but only in such a way that we seem to remain outside of the character. We are not probing it, like a headshrinker, nor is the poor guy or girl spilling his or her guts – it’s just there on the surface of the prose for us to see. As a form, free indirect discourse depends upon the exteriorization of the interior. Or – and I should show my math, but just bear with me for the moment – it depends upon the exteriorability of the interior, even the pre-exteriority of the interior. It doesn’t take too much in the way of mental gymnastics to see that for what goes on inside to come out in a shape that (sometimes, often, in the best cases) is intelligible, fairly coherent, and not really all that out of step with conventional narration (in step enough that you have to teach people to see this fact, right?) might well have been, well, conventional, available for this sort of presentation right from the start.

It’s no wonder that Flaubert pushes the form to the fore in the work that he does – in a way, a romance novel about a woman who reads romance novels is a straight shot…. One even starts to wonder whether the theme that he chose didn’t invent the form rather than the other way around.

We’re coming pretty close to what I would call the tacit, implicit, or unconscious formal politics of modernist prose. Lefebvre believes we learn something important when we, having passed through the moment of the Cogito, come to a further step along the path toward self-understanding – the step which takes the alienated, flimsy self for a marker of both alienation and the possibilities that might come of the social forms that generate it. The recognition that we are not simply ourselves turns from a tragic consequence of modernity into the announcement itself of the imminence of another sort of world, a better sociality and sociability.

(There – I’m going to count that as having worked on the m’script today…. That’s clearer than usual and I’ll work with it….)

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May 12, 2009 at 12:19 pm

kid’s stuff

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[Redacted. I shouldn’t write on Sundays. God gets mad.]

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February 8, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Posted in blogs, impersonality

“an American-like personal quality”

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Not really a big fan of the Onion, or really of any of the many permutations of fake news to emerge in the last few years. But this piece is very well done – close to perfect, actually.

CHAPEL HILL, NC—A field study released Monday by the University of North Carolina School of Public Health suggests that Iraqi citizens experience sadness and a sense of loss when relatives, spouses, and even friends perish, emotions that have until recently been identified almost exclusively with Westerners..

[…]

Iraqis have often been observed weeping and wailing in apparent
anguish, but the study offers evidence indicating this may not be
exclusively an outward expression of anger or a desire for revenge. It
also provocatively suggests that this grief can possess an
American-like personal quality, and is not simply a tribal lamentation
ritual.

I honestly do believe that many (most?) Americans do have a bit of trouble picturing people from other nations, especially non-English speaking nations, as human in the full sense of the word. Not trying to be silly or mean in saying this – I believe it’s a strange sort of cultural dysfunction. Partly it has to do with the isolation / insularity of the place. It’s hard to get anywhere from most of the country where another language is dominant (Mexico for some along the southern border, and Quebec for us in the northeast.) Only about 25% of Americans even have a passport – I’d love to find the number of us who die never having left the US. (When my wife’s grandfather was driving her to college, they stopped at Niagara Falls. He was in his 70s – and would die two years later – and had never visited another country. Faced with the very easy prospect of driving or walking across the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of the Falls, he decided not to. A bit too scary and strange to leave – why bother now, at this point, etc…)

It’s no excuse, really, none at all, for condoning what has been condoned. But it is a factor…

(via Ghost in the Wire)

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July 25, 2007 at 9:50 pm

“see what you mean”

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A famous passage from Joyce’s Portrait:

The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

The ambiguity of literary modernism’s dream of “impersonal” art is brilliantly captured in the stringing together of “invisible” and “refined out of existence.” Can’t, of course, be both at the same time: either the artist is there but hidden or has actually been wrung out of the work. The oscillation between egotistical artistic supremacy and the “death of the author” is one of the rhythms that define the progression of this period’s work.

I tend to be more interested in the “no artist” side of the issue than the other, because I think a good bit of what utopian / progressivist tendencies or even side effects there are to be found in the works of such figures as Joyce and Beckett, Woolf and Proust are to be found there. And I’m also very interested in the legacy of this preoccupation on the part of the “high modernists.”

One place that we find its development, of course, are in all of the strategies of opening works to contingency and randomness practiced by fellow modernists and figures that are usually affiliated with later schools / periods. Automatic writing, from Yeats through the surrealists and onward. Burroughs’s cut-ups. All sorts of “found art” tactics. Often enough, these techniques are staked either on the “unconscious” as the black box that generates the disorder or the disorder as the means that gives access to the truths of the unconscious.

But there is another way to think about impersonality – or maybe even to do impersonal art. And while I’m sure there is precedent for this sort of idea (commenters?) – a few things I’ve been seeing around the internet and on tv have got me thinking in a different direction.

The first is this tv commercial:

It’s fairly difficult to discern what exactly this ad is meant to sell. The Dassault website is only somewhat helpful…

Sophisticated technologies tend to be the preserve of experts. Today, Dassault Systèmes wants to break with this tradition and establish 3D technology as a new universal language with applications in every walk of life. But that’s not all. At Dassault Systèmes, we also strongly believe that the more advanced and complex technology becomes, the easier it should be to use.

To express this groundbreaking vision – and the major advances we have driven in 3D technology in terms of capability, flexibility and ease of use – French advertising agency devarrieuxvillaret has created a new tagline for Dassault Systèmes:

See What You Mean.

OK… “Universal language,” eh? (Of course, Dassault is best known for making warplanes…. and for owning Le Figaro…)

At any rate, the ad is a mashup of SimCity (the bit where the building flashes red because it’s not connected up to the underground utility conduits is the deadest giveaway) and letraset type peopleoids (not sure if that’s the appropriate term for the little guys pictured below or not…)

That’s all well and good. It’s likely the sort of ad that presents a image of something not yet possible, but which, by triggering a mass-fantasy, will urge that impossible thing into existence… Not unlike the fancy computer interface in Minority Report….

But what interests me in particular about this ad is the way that it proposes a new form of fiction, not yet possible, but dreamed of, perhaps, for at least the last 150 years. (The Joyce quote is, of course, only a plagiarized version of a few passages from Flaubert’s letters). What would it be like to use a technology like the one shown in the commercial as a technology for the creation of fiction? A fiction in which the “characters” were left to roam “on their own” a preconstructed section of “reality” forged by the artist, following the imperatives wired into their advanced AI? The little people stuck in the traffic jam in the ad, the pedestrians yelling at the cars – what would it be like if we could follow them closely, “hear” what they are thinking, establish ever more complex situations to drop them into? Fiction as experiment in a sense truer than any that has ever before been attempted. Fiction, at last, opened to the contingency and unpredictability that it has crept towards, largely unsuccessfullly, during the entirely of the period that we label the “modern.”

I am not talking about machinima, not the way it is practiced now, anyway. I am not talking about “user-controlled” “characters”….

Anyway, so that’s the first trigger. Second is this, which handles things a bit differently.

“Anthroptic” is an edition of 80 hand-made artist books that represents the collaboration between new media artist Ethan Ham and writer Benjamin Rosenbaum. The book contains 8 folios that pair one image with one “chapter” of the story. The images were taken from Ethan’s online project “Self-Portraits” in which he trained a facial recognition program to his face before unleashing it onto the internet photo service Flickr. While searching the millions of photos on Flickr for its creator, the computer program sometimes made mistakes, identifying inanimate objects as Ethan. These mistake images became the starting point for Benjamin’s short short story. Benjamin weaves these images into an exquisitely interconnected tale that can be read in any order.

Scripted recognitions, epiphanies. Algorithmic revelations. That sort of thing. Robotic portraiture. You start to see where I am going here with this…

The final example came through today, via we make money not art.

(re)collector is a public art installation that approaches Cambridge as a ‘museum of the mind’, using cameras to acquire memorable images that can then be reorganised into ideas. The Greek concept of ut pictura poesis claims that poetry is more ‘imageful’ than prose. In this project, the cameras do not document Cambridge using a simple, straightforward archive of events, but rather seek to record a collection of dramatic moments. The city becomes a tableau for pictura poesis, with events amplified through combinations of framing, movement, and silence, becoming more memorable and cohesive as a result.

This interesting enough at this point, the idea of constructing “ideas” or narratives out of CCTV footage. But where things get truly fascinating comes in the next paragraph:

The gothic character of the Bridge of Sighs, King’s College Chapel and various city centre side streets present backdrops for extracting cinematic moments from peoples’ everyday activities. Surveillance cameras installed around the city, will be programmed to recognise and capture public activities including farewell scenes, meetings, escape scenes, chases, love scenes, etc. Each day over the festival, the results will be edited to produce a daily feature film, complete with premise, protagonists, locations, plot, to be viewed at a public screening in Cambridge during the festival programme. The movie’s audience is composed of many of the same people that feature in it; the project seeks to renegotiate our relationship with where we live by showing us the latent narratives embedded in our everyday lives that we cannot see.

I’d love to know exactly how the cameras are programmed to decide what a moment of fictional significance, of narrative crisis, looks like. (I certainly don’t doubt that it can be done as it is already being done). And what if instead of humans getting involved with the editing of the clips into a coherent narrative, the machine performed that task as well. Surely, the recognition of a “love scene” is more complicated than sticking the scenes together in some sort of coherent order.

I’m going to have to write a follow-up post, unfortunately, detailing the aesthetic and political ramifications I think might come of such endeavors when focused properly, as I’m too beat to continue tonight. A few of the words and phrases, though, that are hovering about in my mind include “fiction as experiment,” “(repurposed) automatic behavioral detection,” “automation for automation’s sake,” “interchangeable parts,” “autonomy vs. advertisement” and…. “(truly) socialist realism.”

More soon… Sorry to defer the punchline…

(NB: I should say that I do know that some parallel work is being done on this sort of thing by the media/body people, by, for instance. But it nevertheless seems to me that I am aiming in a slightly to very different direction than much of that very helpful work…)

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April 18, 2007 at 12:02 am

first person (plural) shooter

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(Xposted to Long Sunday)

I’m sure soldiers, ever since there have been soldiers, have hooted adolescently in the throes of combat. What would we expect, that they’d go about their work gravely, constantly reminding themselves of the seriousness – the mortal seriousness – of the things that they do, the weapons that they discharge? That is undoubtedly too much to expect. The stupid talk and yells undoubtedly represent a release from the psychosis inspiring and inspired actions that they are committing.

It is not new, it is not groundbreaking, to think: “They sound like the subset of students that you see hooting and unawarely spewing stuff they heard in a movie somewhere. They always talk like this, yell like this. They likely feel most themselves when they most completely give themselves over to the canned material they have been served, night after night, for their entire lives.”

What we hear is not the organic, the militaristically gnomic, the earthy – it is the sitcomedic. MTV trashtalk, some Full Metal Jacketisms (Kubrick would have loved this, at least in a way) thrown in.

And, because you too have seen the same movies, at least a lot of them, you are able to try to reconstruct any possible reason, any scenario at all, in which the cars that speed in, crash, disgorge their occupants, who then are blown away by the Americans. The sniper was in a car? The insurgents, after a lengthy pause, get into their little cars and attempt, as an act of insane bravery perhaps, to speed past the marines’ position? Why?

Unlike the talk, no, the actions of the “insurgents” don’t fit into any plausible script, especially not the one posted at the end of the video.

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March 27, 2007 at 10:30 pm

Posted in impersonality, movies, war

“a fair share for all of us”

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Another brilliant post at Sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy one that happens to be indirectly apropos of so much that I’ve been saying on here. Go read it. Here’s the start:

Perhaps the most irksome element of ideology as currently practised is the belief that in the face of climate change the individual can make a difference. Hence the moronic plaint of various charities in sundry adverts that by not overfilling the kettle, or by not leaving your telly on standby, you can help avert the holocaust that rising temperatures will cause in the global south. What this serves to occlude is that the only measure that could really avert this is massive cutbacks in private cars, Rationing and some form of Central Planning: by curbing the individual, in other words.

(This lovely poster I’ve brought over… Interesting to think about the way that the relationship between the photo-hands and the abstract infographic image actually enacts the relationship between the individual and the state under planning….)

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March 27, 2007 at 11:30 am

closed ending

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So, I’m getting ready to do something with the Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Drive, which might just be my favorite moment in film, and I’m looking around to see what’s been said about the scene… And I find this:

Without reference in the screenplay, the surrealistic Silencio sequence was shot in late 1999 as a finale to the original TV-Pilot. The idea around Club Silencio is a results of a deal between Disney’s Touchstone Television and David Lynch. The company contributed 2,5 million dollar more to the Pilot project (to a total budget of 7 million) with the proviso – which Lynch grudgingly accepted – that he shoot extra footage to be used as a “Closed ending.” Disney’s Buena Vista International intended to recoup the company’s money by releasing the longer version as a film in Europe.

That there is one hell of a confluence of the demands of the market and artistic genius… And one hell of a “closed ending.” I wonder what the Disney folks thought?

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January 16, 2007 at 11:39 pm