Look at the miscellaneous

After we realize we have seen, we sometimes teach ourselves the experience by giving it a name. The publisher George Stacy taught experience to other people for a living, and one day in about 1860 he made it his business to jot down some helpful ideas about an item newly visible then. You might call it American scenery, he suggested, and after that specifically clipper ship with a catalog number and a name, and finally, off in the right margin for any leftovers, miscellaneous.*

Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017645288/

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When we think we have completed a naming like that, silence may follow. As of 1860, two technologies that seemed to prepare silence for us were the stereopticon and the lexicon of words specialized for the genre of caption, which shortcuts from perception to understanding on the quiet. Shortly after 1860, however, the Orphic moved melodiously back into the modes of knowing. During the Edison era Hart Crane composed in the presence of a Victrola, and something singable now to Stacy’s image might be one of Crane’s Victrola-words from The Bridge: curveship.

Requires red-and-blue stereo viewer.

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Or, within Stacy’s margins, the lyric Miscellaneous. Before that came to mind it existed as silent sensation, but then Stacy cordoned it within yellow and connected it into a directory of names. That’s what happened, for instance, when one sensation resolved itself into the name George W. Green, Sail Maker. Roman-font George W. Green, living man, is no more, but through the agency of perception his yellow-highlighted name has entered the breath-warmed history of your own remembered reading. Simultaneously, in front of a building named Wall Street, another name ripens to significance. If the blur that’s barely distinguishable there happens to be a wheel-shaped grindstone, we may be able to begin naming the person treadling the wheel. What emerges from the blur won’t be capitalizable like George W. Green, but historical probability and the sociology of gender will at least let you call it a man. In a poem named “Sparkles from the Wheel,” Walt Whitman poignantly observed that to know such an incidental detail is only an approximation in parenthesis. The man he describes is a reduction to “(an unminded point set in a vast surrounding).” But he is a point.

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And beyond the parenthesis lies Great Republic’s great dark hull. Ever since 1860, George Stacy’s image has filled us who see it with the desire to become one of its cargoes of shadow. Barely noticed at the foot of Wall Street, however, is another darkness, this one an inky deposit of words. Pasted onto a wall half the length of the pier, it amounts to a collection of promissory notes promising meaning.

The promise can’t be kept, however. Rendered delible by loss of optical and historical signal, the posted words now communicate only miscellaneous, and the meaning of that word doesn’t extend from its aged yellow script to the forever new word-bearing wall. At term, all you can use it for is seeing without reading. The words within the double image of Great Republic mean now only to it, not to us. In an artwork intended to be readable with reference to changing time, they have sunk back into their image and gone timeless again. They are no longer in the stereo plane of readable surface. Having returned to the pre-perceived, they no longer bear the meaning of a readable word, even miscellaneous.

But just offshore of that worded silence lies Great Republic, moored to the still land of words but afloat on its river in tiny tidal motions. If we hope to know it we’ll have to get moving, because the knowing will have to be done on moving’s sole term. That term will be a hapax legomenon: a single generatrix of significance, a curveship not in the lexicon of caption. But if you’ve failed at learning the motion and you’re still on the pier with the unreadable words, do at least whisper to yourself in Great Republic’s shadow, Victrola.

* A small mystery about this stereo pair is that the images appear not to have been taken at the same time, even though stereo cameras generally have twin lenses with synchronized shutters. In the right-hand image, one of the ferry terminal’s three gates is open and the funnel of a boat is visible. In the left image there is no boat, all three gates are closed, and something round on a stand is in front of one of them, with the man I identify as possibly a knife-sharpener. (But what would a knife-sharpener be doing in this neighborhood?) Likewise, the ships in the far background seem to have moved, and in the left image but not the right a boat is visible behind the ship astern of Great Republic. Perhaps Stacy’s published stereo card is a composite of the left half of one pair with the right half of another.


Update, August 10, 2020:

Replying to a query, Michelle L. Smiley, Ph.D., assistant curator of photography at the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, writes:

“Thank you for contacting the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. I have looked at the Clipper Ship stereograph in question and your observations about the changes in scene between stereo images seem accurate. These are fascinating differences between images, but they are also not unusual.

“While you are correct that photographers did employ stereographic cameras containing two lenses, true synchronous shutters didn’t come into common use until the 1880s, so many stereo photographs prior to that time are asynchronous. Some photographers used what was called a flap shutter over their lenses to synchronize their exposures, but most were removing a lens cap or a stop individually from each lens. Additionally, it was also a practice for photographers to use a camera with a single lens to take two pictures in succession with a slight adjustment in the position of the camera between shots. After consulting with my colleague, we believe that, given the seeming match of the offset of these two views, Stacy was using a twin lens camera, but making a unique exposure with each lens. My colleague also pointed out that portrait photographers may have been more likely to use a flap, whereas city/landscape photographers like Stacy may have had less of a concern with people or things moving between exposures. It’s also possible that Stacy composited halves of two separate negatives as you speculate, but with only the visual evidence to go off of, it is difficult to say definitively which of these methods was used.”

Her mother sleeked her hair, forever. She looked down, forever.

Not much history seems to have survived this remnant. It is a daguerreotype, apparently American, apparently dating from about the 1850s, and that seems to be almost all we know about it now. The Library of Congress’s catalog link at https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/dag/item/2014655145/ notes that the image was acquired in 2014 from a Dennis A. Waters, but Waters

( https://finedags.com/about-us/about-dennis-a-waters/ )

was a commercial dealer, not an archivist. In any case, this isn’t one of the pictures in the Library’s daguerreotype collection that are archivally identified by name and place and date. Almost all that remains to be known about it now is almost all that remains to be seen. It is almost nothing but picture. Almost nobody except a fashion historian or possibly a medical historian could articulate a word about it now. Because all the words that were once spoken over it by the people it depicts have fallen away, it has become an abstract idea of what was once flesh-round and warm to the touch.

Consider a lens, then. It seems to be a portal through which life goes into the past and brakes to a stop.

Idol: its history

A portraitist sees flesh quantitatively, like a butcher.

Beginner's Guide to Beef Cuts Angus Beef Butcher Chart image 1

In the course of professionally seeing flesh the artist may come to know desire, but his job is to look past what he knows to what he only sees: flesh’s light and color and shape. Because he has starved his senses in the brutal slimming salon of formalism, we customers of his ordeal have been enabled to look at the formal result and say things like, “She looks like she’s alive.” Working the artist’s diet in reverse, we who behold the art have purchased the sensation of flesh rewarmed under a heat lamp.

Back then, back there in the kitchen, the artist worked at a first remove from the space outside, manipulating not a bodily sense of things plein-air but an abstract model of sight made of stone or paint or pixels. In the same way, a historian works at a first remove from time. He works not with event and perception as they occur but in the afterthought of event and perception that’s called retrospect. The artist defamilarizes the spatial, making the appearance of the hitherto real seem different and then replacing it with a counter-reality. The historian defamiliarizes the temporal, replacing the mind’s external sense of is with was and then with a purely mental construct, because. With the advent of because, a newly living past kills a newly dead present. What happened is replaced by an idea of what happened.

So consider this body under two aspects in sequence: first as seen absolutely and without the mediation of thought (by, for instance, an artist) and then, in retrospect, as a relation between words (by, for instance, a historian of words.)

First the perception: a body seen. This is a prehistory.

Second, the perception’s translation into words. A general title for such words might be histoire: a French term that means both “history” and “story.” Of all possible histoires, here’s one.

OED

You can read it with your Larousse.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c0/Logotype_de_Larousse_par_E._Grasset.jpg/250px-Logotype_de_Larousse_par_E._Grasset.jpg

As the word-seeds blow, a matinee metaphor in the present will be seen to have sown an image in the past. Now, with the reading of the metaphor’s words, the curtain before the image rises and an idol begins presiding over its altar. Now is now happily ever after. The image has become a god to be believed in. “He looks like he could be in a movie,” the customers think — and if the artwork has been powerful enough, could be is replaced in their minds by ought to be or even in my bed last night, in a dream, was. A faithful belief in a reality has come into being, even if the stone body newly fallen on the dreaming customer’s pillow doesn’t happen to be warm to the touch.

Tickets here:

Climax shadow

In addition to land and water, some globes are printed with a kind of map that looks like a skinny numeral 8. This is called the analemma, and it charts the apparent path of the sun up and down and across the sky as the seasons change. For the northern hemisphere, the analemma teaches you that in summer there’s a lot of sun and it soars high toward the north.

One more marking, right around the middle of the globe, shows a belt of latitudes called the tropics, bounded north of the Equator by the Tropic of Cancer and south of the Equator by the Tropic of Capricorn. The word “tropic” means “turning point,” and it’s at the two tropics where the sun changes its course along the analemma: from northbound to southbound when it’s directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer on the first day of northern summer, and back again from south to north when it’s directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn on the first day of southern summer.

So in the tropics, and only in the tropics, there are two days in the year when the sun at noon will be directly overhead on its way up to and then back down from its boundary tropic. On those days, at the brief moment when the sun is at the zenith, a vertical object’s summer-short shadow will dwindle all the way down to nothing. In Hawaii, America’s only tropical state, the first of those days is always in May and the second is always in July. For today, May 26, 2022, the celestial event in Honolulu was this.

The moment of zero shadow is called the zenith passage or (specifically in Hawaii) Lahaina noon. Before that moment this month, the sun where I recorded this composite image was a little clouded over and the shadow of the boom on the pole wasn’t intense enough to be educational, but you’ve now seen the teaching aids from just at and then just after the climax. Notice how the invisible shadow of the speed limit sign becomes visible again as Hawaii’s sky swings back to ordinary. You were looking northeast.

To time the shadow, the preferred chronometer will be Frances Cornford’s (1886-1960) mood watch. It goes tock tick, not tick tock, and you see that that’s the correct right-to-left astronomical order.

I wakened on my hot, hard bed;
Upon the pillow lay my head;
Beneath the pillow I could hear
My little watch was ticking clear.
I thought the throbbing of it went
Like my continual discontent,
I thought it said in every tick:
I am so sick, so sick, so sick;
O death, come quick, come quick, come quick,
Come quick, come quick, come quick, come quick.