Wallet-size

One is wearing a bow tie, one is wearing a clerical collar. Those are as close as this array of images will get to an idea of the extreme. The photographer Fabian Bachrach took a uniform group of subjects – powerful white male Americans during the Cold War years – and represented it, component by component, in a uniform way. He was one of those artists like Vivaldi with his concertos or Morandi with his still lives of bottles who created generously within the limits of a single form. In the aftermath, Google has sorted his creations into a grid.

Viewed online, framed by the bezel of a monitor, the grid loses its cell-by-cell distinctions. It becomes a single picture made up of repetitions of a single picture: a complement to Bachrach’s single mode of composition, a mosaic of just one compulsively relaid tessera. The compulsion hasn’t just shaped the grid, either; it has locked the tessera into its own tessera-form. Not even if it’s pried out of the grid can it regain its pre-grid human content. Before it entered the grid, that content depicted a man within an aura of historical reference symbolized by (for instance) a title: President Dwight D. Eisenhower; Senator John F. Kennedy; Professors Edwin O. Reischauer (of Harvard) and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (of Harvard). But the grid is a barrier against aura. To the image, it admits only indices of visual data: areas of light and shade bounded by height and width. And whatever it is that can be named within the grid won’t be named Dwight or John; it will be named wallet-size print. Forever after, it will be speakable of only in grid language.

But within that language an image may still mean. It won’t mean within an aura; it will mean within the grid. Consider, for instance, this portrait of an aged, FIV-positive feral cat. It’s large, but if it were shrunk to tessera-size, couldn’t it take its place seamlessly within the Bachrach array?

And then wouldn’t the cat live on in there – live on as a someone, without a name but with a history not of what he has done outside the grid but of what he is within?

A tree for Walter Benjamin, author

At the bargain price of $16.78 from Amazon.com, the shirt comes with an almost superfluous bonus: hanging from a button, a tiny four-page book that attests to the shirt’s pedigree. This shirt, the pedigree book certifies, isn’t just a shirt; it’s a Chestnut Hill. And then it humbly asks us (us! us, the undocumented!) to accept it.

In the United States there are at least two Chestnut Hills: a neighborhood of Philadelphia and a suburb of Boston. Both of those Chestnut Hills are upscale, accessorized with architecture that communicates the patrician values of old houses and old money. The chestnut tree (pictured) also has a sturdy American symbolism, as in Thanksgiving stuffing and the first two stanzas of Longfellow’s once beloved poem “The Village Blacksmith”:

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

the-village-blacksmith-granger

However, the chestnut tree itself is now almost extinct in the United States, wiped out early in the twentieth century by a parasitic fungus. In the financialized American economy of the twenty-first century, too, the line “He owes not any man” retains little of its primitive truth-value. In the days of Longfellow it connoted virtue, but now it is only a nonsense, with the additional connotation of irresponsible naïveté. And as to combining the best of American style with a sophisticated European sensibility, the shirt itself is made in China.

So the Chestnut Hill where this pedigree has originated can’t meaningfully be thought of as a visitable place in the physical world, with a latitude and a longitude. All it is, as it looks up at us from the page of its little book, is a concept. Here in the pedigree, its name isn’t to be read as the word “Chestnut” followed by the word “Hill,” with each term referable to the atlas. Instead, it’s to be read as a portmanteau form consisting of two inseparable parts, each deriving all of its meaning from the other. On its own, the first part, “Chestnut Hill,” is actually meaningless. It is a term from an atlas without a geography. On its own, the second part, “®,” is meaningless likewise. It is a term signifying the legal status of a word outside any of the laws of meaning. But when the two parts are brought into meaningful juxtaposition by an economic motive, each becomes a lexeme. The combined word-like object that results, “Chestnut Hill®,” has no textual meaning that might be referable to any document except its own pedigree, but there in the pedigree it becomes something that means. It means in an especially luxurious way, too: silently, drawing all of its wordless significance from the body which it has colored by being put on and buttoned up.

But the pedigree also has a verso: this.

The recto, a series of roman constatives demanding to be read as facts, is actually fiction. The verso, an italic simile asking to be read only as a poem, is actually non-fiction. We can’t read the simile as anything but a simile: a closed semantic system with a tenor referring only to its vehicle, which in turn refers back only to its tenor. Into that closed system the lying world cannot enter. Nothing exists there but the system’s own words. Because the words cannot be falsified there, they are either true or meaningless. And Walter Benjamin, Author, comes naming himself onto the page to assure us that he’s still speaking to us, and therefore he’s still alive, and therefore the words on his page are true.

But are the trees in his picture chestnut trees?

I don’t think so, but I’m willing to believe the document that delivers their image to me. In words, they are something warm, to be worn silently on the body.

 

 

Mid Air

The spring wind was stripping the blossoms. Little was left of this one except its reproductive apparatus. I opened my lens wide and cut back the exposure time to 1/2500 second. That minimized my instrument’s exposure to the quivering thing before it, and the change it was undergoing where it had been touched by light in midair.

 —

“Flirting with Death in Mid Air,” reads the curving headline. Like the curve, the choreography of flirtation with death had to be planned to its conclusion, even when (as here) the flirtation was called off in advance. It’s the having been planned that remains in evidence, going brown under the touch of light and air but still serving as the record of an intent.

9971158295_9d8beecdf1_bB

“This act will not be done,” said the scrupulous newspaper. Yet the artwork that promises a doing still clings to language’s living  stem. Its trace remains as a print on paper. It was always on its way into the homes. In the homes where it went to be read, the idea of flirtation with death became an act promising to be done. Ninety years later, the flirtation has been consummated.

Sources:

Carter Buton album loan, image 00055. San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdasmarchives/9971158295/in/photostream/

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” trans. Harry Zohn:

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.” (Illuminations [New York: Schocken, 1968] 257-58)

Second homes

March 20, 1939: Gershom Scholem, in Jerusalem, writes to Walter Benjamin, in Paris:

I’ll be traveling to Port Said at the beginning of next week, to see my mother for three hours once again when her ship [carrying her from Germany to exile in Australia] puts into harbor there: this is likely to be our last meeting by human reckoning. I’ll be writing much more soon. I will certainly make use of any opportunity I might somehow, somewhere, come across for you. I am asking myself whether you shouldn’t try to get into the U.S.A. while you still can, and whether that wouldn’t be better for you than anything else. (251)

September 25, 1942: snow falls in Iowa and Illinois, USA. For the weather bureau in Des Moines this is the first September snowfall on record, and elsewhere in the state the football game between Garner and Buffalo Center has to be called after wet, wind-blown snow breaks seven lights on the field. On a train, the conductor and brakeman are impressed enough to make a note. In chalk, one of them writes “1′ / of Snow 9-25 5 PM” on one of the rafters that support the roof of his caboose. The words will still be there four months later, when the photographer Jack Delano records a moment in the history of the caboose for the Office of War Information.

http://www.shorpy.com/node/9733
Click to enlarge.

To posterity, Delano will later explain: “Freight train operations on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. The caboose is the conductor’s second home. He always uses the same one and many conductors cook and sleep there while waiting for trains to take back from division points.” After Delano, other viewers of the image will follow his narrative to its completion. To the comment stream where I found the image on Shorpy.com, one will contribute the weather report for September 25, 1942, while others will observe the splatters of tobacco juice on the floorboards and the different sorts of girls’ pictures on the bulkheads. Those data are precious to the commentators because they are history, because there are no cabooses now. The commentators explain: brakemen are no longer needed to watch for fires under the train because wheel bearings are no longer packed with oil-soaked rags; and switches now are thrown electrically under radio control, not manually by a brakeman who has climbed down from a caboose; and air pressure in the train’s brake lines is now read and communicated to the engineer by electronic sensors, not by a brakeman swinging a lantern.

But the brakeman in Jack Delano’s picture doesn’t know. For the camera he is wearing new overalls and a new shirt and smoking a pipe, as many American men did in January 1943, the month that shows on the calendar beside his head. Photography has done its magic again; looking, we believe the moment can be 1943 forever, with the pipe scenting the air along with coal smoke from the iron stove. And above the conductor’s head, as he sits at his desk, is the punctum of the men’s presence in the moment: inconspicuous on the bulkhead behind the girl prettily standing on tiptoe to hang laundry on a line the way American women did in 1943, an air pressure gauge. Until that indicated a certain number to a brakeman, a train in 1943 couldn’t move. But of course there’s nothing left of any of this information, now, except a still photographic image bearing pictures of a conductor and a brakeman and some scribbled words and some pretty girls who are less likely than the two men in their little portable home to have gone invisible to memory.

As to Gershom Scholem’s mother, she disappears from the text of The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem after the sentence I’ve quoted above. The correspondence itself ends fourteen pages later. We know how it turned out. In an appendix, Scholem notes that cemetery attendants in Port Bou “who, in consideration of the number of inquiries, wanted to assure themselves of a tip” (268) used to show visitors an enclosed plot of ground and tell them it was Benjamin’s grave. But it wasn’t a grave.

Here below are some more plats of homes from which Walter Benjamin was absented. And Susan Schultz, whose mother now listens as an attendant in what’s called a home reads to her from The Little Prince, thinks of exile and a lost kingdom and writes:

There was a happy ending, at least for a time. Using dowsing sticks, they found a spot, unmarked by stone or twig, dug until they reached a vein of water. They drank from the same bucket, sharing more than the cold water. But then the daughters came, and their retinues, and their resentments, even the youngest one’s recovered love. There were swords and bitter words, nothing water could wash away, not yet.

*

 

 

*

http://www.shorpy.com/node/10430  “Haifa, British Mandate Palestine, circa 1940. ‘Swimming pool at the Casino, Bat Galim neighborhood.’ Medium-format acetate negative by the American Colony Photo Department/Matson Photo Service.”

 

Works cited:

The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940. Ed. Gershom Scholem, trans. Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere. New York: Schocken, 1989.

Schultz, Susan. “King Lear Enters The Little Prince.http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com/2011/04/king-lear-enters-little-prince.html, 25 April 2011.