Observation: as the political atmosphere changes, the sounds of meaning also change

On December 27, 1933, as the Third Reich approached its first anniversary, The Nation published a letter of political protest. The policies being protested weren’t Hitler’s; they were The Nation’s. Wrote the author about the magazine that was publishing him: “Its insinuations that the new leaders [of Germany] are men without conscience — in short, cruel, inhumane, selfish, and even immoral, lacking even one redeeming characteristic — I resent.”

Six and a half years ago, when I discussed that letter on this blog, it seemed obvious that its author’s expression of resentment was meaningless not just factually but ontologically, as if it were a contradiction of its own language. The word “resent” was so totally wrong in its ghastly historical context that it was almost funny. Obviously (it seemed to me in 2013, during the Obama administration), whatever The Nation had opined in 1933 about Hitler must have been provably right — and the proof was in the protest. If a Nazi sympathizer resented someone calling Hitler cruel, the a priori case was that Hitler must have been cruel. But how strange it is to say “cruel” in 2019, when the c-word has changed from a term of disapproval to a term of approval, like “fuck” in the mouth of Lady Chatterley’s lover!

So here, if only for its antique-store curiosity, is my post from 2013.


I reread it yesterday because I’ve learned some new details about its contents, and these are now incorporated in the text. But the text as a whole now seems beyond revision, doesn’t it? I wrote it in the American English that was current in 2013, and as of 2019 that language is becoming incomprehensible. It is a dying language: victim of its writers’ will to cruelty.

Ars longa

The carrying case in the man’s right hand would have held 8-by-10-inch glass plates for the camera in his left hand. The camera would have been a serious professional instrument; its lens is marked with the brand of an important German manufacturer, C. P. Goerz. And the portrait of the man is the work of an artist who understood how much his instrument was capable of. In the foreground, his feet planted on the earth and his massive hands grasping the instruments, is the subject who forms the composition’s human center. Though the equipment he holds is expensive, he is dressed in rags. He is black. In the background, off center and out of focus, ostensibly only a detail, a white man leans with casually crossed legs against a door frame.

That man is out of the sun. He isn’t mentioned in the caption that was composed for the glass negative’s paper jacket some time between the turn of the twentieth century when the image was made and the middle of the century when it was cataloged by the Library of Congress, but for the author of the caption that detail wasn’t necessary. The object before him as he wrote it up for posterity was a work of art, having effect over us who have become posterity only so long as we care to pretend we are bounded within its 8-by-10-inch image frame. There, within, the black man holds his sway under rules of visual composition and a let’s-pretend acceptance of the continuing existence of the historical present. Anywhere else, of course, he is non-existent. He was once a form becoming itself amid a manifold of histories, but at any spatial or temporal point recorded there he has always been imperceptible. The names of the photographer who took the picture and the librarian who may have written the caption appear to be lost to history, but they once had at least the potential of being known to the record in full human detail, as if they were the knowable, lovable characters of a novel. Not so, though, the man in the picture.

The caption tells us that. It reads, “Negro, the photographer’s assistant.”

If it had been written as “The photographer’s Negro assistant,” it would have identified the man by his profession and a personal trait. If it had been written as “Gordon Parks, the photographer’s assistant,” it would have given him a name and the possibility of an imagined life. But “Negro,” just the undifferentiated common noun, has a uniquely zero significance. As Bloomsbury afternoons drew to their end, Virginia Woolf would, we are told, sometimes laugh to Clive, Lytton, Maynard, Vanessa, and E.M., “I must go home and feed the Jew.” That substitution for “Leonard” or “my husband” identifies its subject as a singular member of a class. It scorns to individualize him with a name, but it does identify him by a trait that its speaker considers worth being aware of. But “Negro,” without the definite article, is traitless. It has no definition, and its etymology is only a spectral name: black.

It will do no good for you to look at the black, because you won’t be able to see in. But look anyway. You won’t learn the proper name of what you see on its surface; you won’t even learn to call it, with anything like Virginia Woolf’s native fluency, “the Negro.”

Between 1900 and 1910. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/det.4a17943/. Post-processed to restore contrast and detail.

But what will loom into the image frame is a black face, and that will turn out to be a caption in itself. Communicating the possibility of undying form, it will tell you: “I live because I have become the blackness that is my name. I am Negro, the photograph.”


Published eighty years ago, probably on cheap paper in a mass-circulation magazine (online, it’s unattributed), this page has physically deteriorated in the course of nature.


But we can be helped to see it with refreshed regard. Tear out the page, carry it into a dressing room, read it into a computer, and the light reflecting from the mirror will grow bright again. The film of age will seem to have been windexed away.


Brightened, the pictures (of hat, of corsage) have been repaired and restored to what they seem to have been at the time of their conception: cultural emblems, metonyms of the feminine. Look at me, they say; in myself, as such, I am pretty. That is my primary meaning. But the color pictures bracket a page of words in black, and those have their primary meaning only off the page. They are less a text than a musical score — a score for woman’s voice, solo.

In current performance, this score’s fidelity to register is low. Its reception has been made partially obsolete by advances in recording technology. “Slipper,” the voice was intended to whisper in sibilant soprano. “Meekly obeys,” it was meant to murmur with a smilingly knowing evocation of a vow at a wedding. When it sings, “Put your foot down,” the voice is probably intended to perform a messa di voce, swelling and diminishing between masculine loud and feminine gentle. But after eighty years we hear the shellac rasp and see the whiskers showing through the soloist’s makeup. History is beginning to mime from the aisle that it’s time to cut the performance short and leave. “Treadle” is 1939 sewing-machine nomenclature, but not even a feminine exclamation mark formed with a dainty little circle can make an audience believe now that Buick the Beauty had ruffles around her pedals.


No; despite the page’s restoration in historical space, its time has continued being 1939, decay and all. Photoshop has refreshed the colors of the page’s language console, but the console itself is not a live vocabulary but a Victrola running at 78 rpm. Never to rise away from 1939 and go free, its sound from the time of black and white only fills and refills the yellow-filtered Edward Steichen atmosphere of the stage which Buick traverses. There it enters her open windows. And there in her, treadling as he holds back his tears, slippered gay Jill drags through his errands.

* A treadle, under the unmotorized sewing machine. You rock it with your feet.

Excelsior sewing machine aiB


Toward a deck on wheels, light blasts horizontally. Its source would probably have been powdered magnesium heaped on a palette, ignited by an electric spark and leaving in its aftermath a cloud of yellow-gray smoke. The men illuminated on deck are being caught in a recorded act of what’s now called history, with coordinates in space and time: Pennsylvania Station, New York, USA, August 27, 1920.

In the station, the light has caught some men with notebooks in the act of recording the history. On their platform underground they are at the edge of terra firma, just at the brink of the gap that separates them from the man on the deck who is speaking the history to them. The same historiographic impulse that has directed a bolt of energy into the magnesium has given the speaker on deck a title that enrolls him in flash’s vocabulary: Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, Democratic candidate for the presidency.

Below deck is the level of dark. There, simple machines are at their work: wheels, steps up an inclined plane, an Archimedean screw. Because these execute physical law, not historical process, they don’t need the light that men require. Beneath the level that has been penetrated by flash, they are about to begin bearing the voluble men on the deck away from the illuminated fraction of a second where it has been 8/27/20. An instant from now, they and the men will be together in the dark tunnel where it is forever.



“J. M. Cox.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014711189/. Post-processed to restore contrast and detail.

“Cox to Amplify His Charges Here.” New York Times, August 28, 1920, page 2.

Flash: she was framed

John Vachon, “Grandmother of tenant farm family, Guilford County, North Carolina,” April 1938. Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017716972/. Post-processed electronically for contrast and detail.


You see her through a frame decorated with a pattern of sprocket holes. A flash occurred, the custodian of the frame moved an advance lever with his thumb, and the image was moved on toward its place in the historical record. Left behind in the wooden room was what was to remain of the face after the light had blasted it into the record. Left behind was the shadow cast by the hand warding off the light. Those had vanished in a flash.