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The Fallacy of Rejecting Closure
Gary Hume, Dream, 1991 (From “Door” series)
My first camera, which I was given at the age of twelve, was a Japanese made Petri, a simple rangefinder camera that my father had bought at the PX in Okinawa, where he was stationed for three years as an Air Force Lieutenant, from 1954 to 1957. The camera traveled back to the U.S. in the hold of a ship, just as the pre-me did, doubly held in my mother’s “hold”, which was, in turn, held, strapped into a top bunk, in the ship’s hold. All together, I am told, we rode out a typhoon.
The rangefinder camera was a design perfected, most famously, in the early 1930’s in Germany by Oskar Barnack for Leica. Rangefinder cameras are still being produced, mostly because of a strong niche interest in the superior optics that the lenses used on these cameras are capable of and for the smallness of the camera itself, its precision and rapidity of use. Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston, Gary Winogrand and Robert Capa (who, during the Spanish Civil War, took perhaps the most famous combat photograph of the 20th century on September 5th 1936) all used Leicas. Among the camera wielding masses of today, it is rare, indeed, to see anyone using a Leica or a Zeiss rangefinder, not to mention film.
At school, in a photography class, I learned the basics of my Petri, of negotiating between three possible choices: aperture (the F-stop: how wide the shutter blades would open), shutter speed (how long it would stay open) and film speed (either ASA, or –internationally – ISO). The higher the speed, 400 ASA let’s say, the greater the capacity of the silver halide emulsion coating the negative to absorb light, but also the more “grain” the image would contain. Lower ASA would produce a more pellucid image, but needed more light to begin with. These were the technical considerations – one could learn them. Then there was the aesthetic factor, framing and composition, which remains a mystery and cannot be, in the strict sense of the word, learned. Modern photography in a nutshell. The advent of the SLR (single lens reflex), in time for the Vietnam War (the Nikon F was the photojournalist’s M-16) simply substituted the range finder (which worked via parallax correction, aligning the viewfinder with the lens) for a through-the-lens view at the picture frame thanks to a mirror and a prism – that tiny pyramid on top of the camera.
During the 70s and 80s electronics, automated systems and plastics gradually overwhelmed those three basic principles, empowering and enabling the photographer, professional and amateur alike, to achieve a wider range of pictorial wonders without having to “think” about the simple technical compromises at the heart of photography. Motors replaced winders; auto-focus replaced manual focus, aperture priority and more sophisticated matrix metering released us from the need to understand light and finally fully automated systems eliminated the problem of getting bogged down in how the camera actually worked thus freeing up our creative energies and allowing us unfettered access to an ever opening visual world.
The advent of digital photography enhanced this paradigm even further. At the top of the list of miracles was the fact that as soon as the sensor replaced the negative, and the pixel replaced the grain in silver halide emulsions, a whole new dynamic was introduced. Since there was no longer a one to one relationship between cost and image, we were now free to shoot endlessly. This inspired a whole new way of taking photographs. The end product was released from its classic terms of production as labor was subsumed by the camera itself. Instead of doing the work of making an image, we could “capture” hundreds and pick the “one” we wanted, deleting the rest. And that one image (the result an aleatory process) could then be altered in Photoshop to suit our inner vision of the outer world: change the sky, add clouds, ramp up the saturation, remove the undesirables, like airbrushing away an apparatchik fallen from grace. There was no need to ever stop capturing, stop manipulating, stop deleting and adding, or to differentiate between still image and video, nor was there any need to understand the underlying technology, or the properties and raw materials converted by that technology. In fact, the technology was gradually replacing the subject. It was no longer the look of the world that fascinated, but the look of the way a very compact and, for most, incomprehensible system had taken that look and manipulated it according to a pixilated grid and its underlying Boolean system of endless recombinations, algorithms of plusses and a minuses: an amorality of one or the other. In the hands of the greatest practitioners it was still possible to distinguish and evaluate, aesthetically, what had come from their art. But even this ability to judge seemed to be increasingly eroded by a proliferating second echelon of photographers, whose qualities and languages created a swirl of color, a visual vortex generated by empowering anyone who cared to be a photographer, that sucked both master and minion into the same downward swirl.
The rise of literary theory and its colonization of what we used to quaintly call the “primary text” parallels the rise of those technologies which have changed “photography” into “digital capture”. Since the seventies and eighties of the last century the technology of literary theory, with its increasingly complicated circuitries, have gradually supplanted a more analog notion, especially in poetry, of that sense of a particular and completed act, of the poem as an aesthetic object which is capable, within the broader contexts and conditions of life: social, artistic and historical, of conclusion and, in its own way, like the photograph, of stopping time and dictating the terms of its own insight.
Like digital technology, literary (i.e. French) theory defers conclusion. Conclusions are of course reached. We must still eventually stop. The aching question is how inbuilt deferral affects the creative process, how students educated in theory first and poetry second end up writing poems, and how teachers (poets) who have deferred leaving the academic world end up teaching their students how to write poems. Just as there is a digital divide, there is a theoretical divide; both of them occurred in the last decades of the 20th century, both changed the way humanity a large inhabits its world, and poets in particular inhabit poetry and the poem.
Try to calculate the distance between a fountain pen and a high-end program, like Microsoft Office for Mac, the crème de la crème of document producers. You can’t; that is because there’s a basic gap, a wormhole between the two space-times. Instant publication, the instantly created simulacrum of the published page, the ease of editing, the surpa-cerebral storage of knowledge, the never ending supply of reference which converts a hunch into an assumed fact on the basis of speed-of-light data sampling, the temptation to include everything, the failure to adjudicate and the whole loss of the manual, temporally based, book-in-the-hand, wrist-strengthening accumulation of knowledge have opened up new ways of viewing ourselves and our artistic products. Certainly a variety of suffocating hierarchies have been shattered, and a more democratic, a more leveled playing field has been established. But the heft of the thing has been lost. This gap finds its perfect analogy in the difference between the developed silver halide negative (which will never change) and the digital file, which has not only converted light into an algorithm instead of an image, but changes – loses information – every time it is manipulated; ie., opened, sent through the internet, printed, etc. With the pace of technology our seemingly secure digital files of today will be, within ten years, utterly outmoded, unusable artifacts of a bygone era, while the traditional negative will remain forever adaptable to new means of production.
The formational texts on poetics written during the eighties and nineties now read as apologias, attempts at measuring drift. And yet, like the new technological advances, their primary crusade was, at the time, to enable the reader, or to empower the user of the product. The author (read the death of – watered-down Nietzsche), was downgraded to the status of mechanic, a kind of interface, or a content provider, and the reader (under the tutelage of critic-theorists, some of whom were poets themselves) was elevated to the status of avenging angel. Armed with the hermeneutics of deconstruction, no poem was safe. Augmenting the reader’s tool-kit with the latest super-hard drill bits was coupled with an attempt to politicize the reader whose duty it became to tear down not only the poem, but the whole poetic canon; the political project was grounded in, and justified by a very traditional American trope of liberating the individual (a recycling of the radically conservative vision of the individual conquering the wilderness, that vast and open linguistic frontier). The incomprehensible poetry of the Language School blessed by the sanctification of a group of ur-language poets (Emily Dickenson, Gertrude Stein, the early Ashbery of The Tennis Court Oaths – his least favorite of his own books – and others) created an instant oppositional tradition for the now largely MFA sequestered avant-garde. For a poet-theorist of the day it was the politico-ethical projects like “anti-absorptive” poetics (the strategy of poetry as a continuation of politics by other means was how one of our more famous poets, a bit too cutely, put it) that legitimized an endless stream of conventionally un-interpretable poetry, and took as its target the poem as an aesthetically achieved whole. The fact that much of language poetry was anti-readable was hardly an impediment to the more over-arching project of empowering readers. While Williams and the Objectivists were intent upon opening up poetic form, and creating theoretical rigor and fixed strategies (Williams’s tripartite line, Olson’s breath-based scansions) that could stand up against the well-oiled mustaches and bow-ties of New Criticism, later generations of poet theorists would bring in traditional late nineteenth century notions of personal empowerment (echoing an Emersonian version of the anti-Trinitarian and personal Godhead), a kind of Unitarianism for poetry, or, in secular or civic terms, a Thoreauvian poetic disobedience.
There were, however, a couple of problems. Foremost among them was the fact poetry was never going to lead to broader political effect, nor would it free the reader, over the author’s dead body, especially since most of the readers were the actual authors. Most problematic of all, however, was that there was no evidence that readers wanted to be empowered in the first place. Empowerment ran against the two thousand three hundred year old notion, first formulated by Aristotle in his Poetics, of catharsis. According to the Aristotelian tradition readers read (or, in his version, attended theatre) because they wanted their emotions to be purged. They wanted to experience the emotion of falling from a great height and then they wanted to go home and have a good night’s sleep. The American poetical avant-garde of the late twentieth century lacked the humility to give American readers what they craved, a cathartic experience, and instead tried, with great hubris and the new technology of literary theory, to feed them an agenda.
I said above that there was an analogy to be made between the deferral built into digital technologies and the deferral (a radical stance against closure) built into literary theory and the now academically accreditable discipline of poetics. These days our cameras do the work for us, and armed with the conveniences of poetical technologies poets point and shoot. Photographers don’t know how their cameras work and poets don’t know how their poems work. The fabrication of vast quantities of doggerel is like the obsession of capturing every moment of our lives digitally and then “publishing” them on Flicker.