Category Archives: raving bullshit

Drawing Machines, week 1

Doing some catch-up documentation, here. I was finally allowed to replace this class with Mashups on Monday, but I thought I might as well post my work from the first month, since, you know, I did it and all.

The assignments for week 1 were,

  1. Make 3 drawings that explore line & contour according the instructions given in the Nicolaides reading.
  2. Photograph an image that explores line & contour.
  3. Describe an abstract process that explores line & contour.

Continue reading Drawing Machines, week 1

Nothing to see here

Mona Lisa

I don’t have time to keep up with the various ITP discussion lists—yet another reason for my general feeling of not being a part of this program, no doubt—but I do try to glance at them now and then, especially the topical ones, such as phys-comp and ICM. I’m never qualified to answer anybody’s questions, and I’m not working on anything ambitious enough that I need to take advantage of the advice that’s given there, but I do think it’s useful to keep an eye on the list, so that when I do have a question, I may have an inkling of how to look for the answer.

So this morning I was skimming the latest phys-comp digest and saw that gracious Tom Igoe had addressed a comment by the tedbot about this, in which he castigated “clueless people” who use flash when taking photographs, as well as tourists in general, who apparently are “consumers of the misery of the past.”

Never mind that the example image in the Core 77 piece is of the Mona Lisa—hardly a picture of misery, unless you want to get all Marxist about it. The money that Francesco del Giocondo wasted on that portrait of his wife should have been in the hands of Florence’s working poor!


Tom’s response was to take the high road of assuming generally good and intelligent intent on the tedbot’s part. He chose to (a) poke at this random lump of spewage by asking if tedbot had never been a tourist, the reply to which included the elaboration “I guess it’s just the sort of thing that strikes me as tasteless… taking crappy snapshots of the remnants of a painful history,” and (b) say something relevant and thoughtful on the matter, citing personal experience and reframing the tension between tourists and locals as an “art opportunity” and matter for consideration by “physical interaction designers in the tourist industry.”

I always admire that kind of graceful and classy redirection. Whereas my response to the tedbot’s comments would have been, “Oh, shut the fuck up, you pretentious git,” Tom’s was more like, “Oh, go make some art, you pretentious young interaction designer.” Kind advice, assuming you’re not already drowning in phys-comp wretchedness.

But I’m still not satisfied with sidestepping the basic assumption that tourists and tourism, in general, are bad.

What is a tourist? NOAD says it’s “a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.” So, isn’t that something we want to encourage? Isn’t a big part of The Problem with this country right now that there are too many people who’ve never ventured outside their native zip code, have no interest in doing so, and think that everyone outside that line is Other? Travel is not always but often broadening.

I think that if you took ten ignorant, isolated/isolationist Americans and dropped them in the middle of, say, Rome, at least five of them would learn something. For example, they might learn that people in other countries don’t just talk differently—a common misconception about foreigners seeming to be that they’re just like us, only they’re doing everything in Italian/French/Chinese/etc. and they’re dumb—but they also dress differently, drive differently, design signs differently, shop differently, build differently, use public space differently, think differently. Some of our hypothetical tourists would undoubtedly go home confirmed in all their ignorant assumptions about people not like themselves, because there are always some people who can see only what they expect to see. Hence all those people who still believe that the 9/11 hijackers were I-raqis, and that Barack Obama is one of them A-rab muslins. But others would realize that some of the assumptions on which they’d based their assumptions were unfounded. It might take them a while, but the experience would make some permanent dent in those people’s ignorance.

Of course, the best thing that could happen to our hypothetical tourists would be for them to have the good fortune to ask for directions from somebody kind and generous, who in addition to pointing out the way would also engage them in conversation. Maybe they’d even have a meal together. Maybe they’d exchange e-mail addresses and stay in touch after the trip—for example, to send a crappy, flashed-out snapshot of our tourist standing in front of the Colosseum with his or her arm around the friendly Italian. Tell me you’ve never seen this kind of photo.

That kind of exchange—random and rudimentary as it is—humanizes both sides of the relationship. The funny-talking Italian becomes a specific funny-talking Italian; the stupid American tourist becomes a specific stupid American tourist. And forever after, those two people will probably think of each other, whenever they’re tempted to generalize about the other’s country, linguistic group, race, whatever. And that kind of thinking is what makes people less stupid, right?

So maybe instead of trying to fuck with the clueless, tasteless tourists by sneaking stupid messages into their crappy snapshots, we should fuck with them by talking to them. Fuck with them by trying to belie the stereotypes about the people in the place that they’re visiting, wherever it may be—such as that New Yorkers will probably run off with your camera if you ask them to take a photo of you standing in front of the whatever. Or that, if they don’t do something outright illegal like that, they’ll probably fuck up your snapshots by projecting crap into them, and then deliberately give you wrong directions.

Being kind is a little more work than simply sneering at people, but it might also be a tad more constructive.

Photo: Mona Lisa by See Wah Cheng; some rights reserved.


Still from the movie 'Taking Off'

I think Marshall McLuhan makes a lot more sense if you add the direct address “Dude,” followed by a comma, to the beginning of each paragraph or pithy sentence. As in,

Dude, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace,


Dude, the essence of automation technology is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.


Dude, the past mechanical time was hot, and we of the TV age are cool.


Dude, we are suddenly eager to have things and people declare their beings totally.

Yeah, like, totally, dude. But please, sir, do not bogart that joint.

McLuhan’s writing is more comprehensible than the Walter Benjamin piece, which still deflects every attempt at comprehension, but this is likely because it’s easier to dismiss as simply incoherent nonsense. As with the Benjamin, I feel like we are entering the discussion in medias res.

Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.

What in the Sam Hill is he talking about? Is there an antecedent missing somewhere? How does electricity extend “our” central nervous system? And who you calling “we,” white man? Apparently it doesn’t include me, because two pages later there’s

It is this implosive factor that alters the position of the Negro, the teen-ager, and some other groups. They can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media.

I’m sorry, but “the Negro” has always been involved in my life, thank you very much.

I know, I know, he was writing in a different era. But still, presumably we are being asked to read this because it has something relevant to say to our current studies. Okay, what could that be?

It’s got to be something more profound than the simple “Wow! It’s like he wrote this yesterday!” section on page 30, where we learn that (a) violent movies and video games engender real-world violence, and (b) living in Orange Alert all the time is completely meaningless. It’s also got to be something more germane than the assertion that

A tribal and feudal hierarchy of traditional kind collapses quickly when it meets and hot medium of the mechanical, uniform, and repetitive kind. . . . Similarly, a very much greater speed-up, such as occurs with electricity, may serve to restore a tribal pattern of intense involvement such as took place with the introduction of radio in Europe, and is now tencing to happen as a result of TV in America.

which is expressed more clearly and concretely in Here Comes Everybody.

Is it the litany of hot and cold items, which is exactly as useful as (though significantly less amusing than) the game of dividing everything and everyone into “punk” or “goth”?

Hot Punk Cold Goth
waltz courtly and choral dance styles
radio telephone
movies TV
photographs cartoons
ballet speech
phonetic alphabet hieroglyphs
paper stone tablets
lecture seminar
book dialogue
steel axes stone axes


How does any of this relate to what we are doing? Is this a connection that’s obvious to everyone else in the program—are they all, like, Dude, that’s so profound? Am I alone in having a block against finding anything useful in this kind of free-floating jive? Is it simply meant to be provoking? If so, then it’s not working—every week, we seem to have less and less discussion about the reading.

I read steadily, if slowly. Mostly nonfiction, and novels from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I don’t think I’m a lazy reader; the kind of book I like best is one that helps you see things from a different perspective. But this kind of writing makes me want to pitch the book across the room. Every article we’ve had to read for this class is of the sort that causes my brain to completely shut down. These readings bring out in me what one of my friends calls “Republican moments”: they make me want to start hollering about those elitist, arugula-eating people who always have to go and use those ten-cent words.

It is, as I said weeks ago, precisely the kind of writing that made me decide, after suffering through plenty of it in college, not to apply to graduate school in English. Yet here I find myself, again. Is this merely the result of sleep deprivation?

In any case, since you asked, here’s my response: This is bullshit.

The one thing I did get out of this reading is a list of other—and, I hope, better—books to read that may be more illuminating. These include,

  • John Betjeman, Slick But Not Steamlined
  • Kenneth Boulding, The Image
  • J.C. Carothers, The African Mind in Health and Disease
  • Douglas Cater, The Forth Branch of Government
  • Alexis de Toqueville, Exploring Democracy in America
  • Leonard Doob, Communication in Africa
  • E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
  • Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion
  • Bernard Lam, The Art of Speaking
  • Wyndham Lewis, The Childermass
  • A.J. Liebling, The Press
  • Lewis Mumford, The City in History
  • J.U. Nef, War and Human Progress
  • Constance Rourke, American Humor
  • A.L. Rowse, Appeasement
  • G.B. Sansom, Japan
  • Wilbur Schramm, Television in the Lives of Our Children
  • J.M. Synge, Playboy of the Western World
  • Robert Theobald, The Rich and the Poor

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Somewhere I have some notes on this mind-numbing article, but I can’t find them. It’s probably because I carried this thing around with me for almost two weeks, as I slowly, slowly forced myself to read it. When I finally got to the blessed end, my response was . . . nothing? I have next to nothing to say about this article. It has next to nothing to say to me.

First of all, the political angle seems utterly forced. If you lop off the preface and epilogue, the essay seems less absurd, more grounded in reality. Instead of contextualizing Benjamin’s arguments, the comments about Marxism and Fascism push the discussion out of context, from the matter-of-fact, yeah-duh realm of “films are different from paintings” to the what-the-fuck-are-you-talking-about realm of “everything can be explained by Marxist theory, including your sandwich.” I’ll have the roast Capitalist Pig with frisée on ciabatta, please. Thank you. Sentences like,

However, theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production.

make my brain shut right off. I must have restarted reading this piece four times; finally, the only way I got past the first page was to just turn it over. Skipped it. Gave up on trying to make sense of it. Moved on.

This kind of thing makes me feel like I’m growing senile. Help! I’m turning into my mother!

It also makes me wonder if it’s just a translation issue. “Aura”? Are you kidding me? Surely there was a better word available—a word that means something, a word that does not automatically invoke the sensation of being bullshitted. If we’re supposed to take this “aura” concept seriously, the translator needs to find a word that’s not loaded down with the weight of all that is woo-woo.

Probably another reason why I found this essay mind-numbing is that I just. don’t. care. about. film. I watch, like, four movies a year, and those are all on Netflix. I can’t remember what was the last movie I saw in a theater—Art School Confidential, maybe? To which I was dragged. Before that, I think it was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Honest. Not a movie person. Even when I was TA’ing a film class in college, I don’t think I ever watched more than half of the movies that were under discussion. It wasn’t necessary to see the films in order to mark up students’ papers: if the paper’s good, you don’t need to have seen the film.

Similarly, if the essay’s good, you don’t have to be already up to your neck in Marxist art theory to find it relevant.

The essay is not good.

The question my mind kept coming back to, as I drifted in and out of sleep while trying to read this thing, was, What does this have to do with our class? The best I could come up with was that bit about how at a play, the audience identifies with the actors, while at a film, they identify with the camera. So . . . something about interactivity, and what’s interactive versus what’s mock-interactive . . . ?

The other thing I kept coming back to was, He’s piling an awful lot of cultural significance on top of traditional art. Not just the aura nonsense, but also the stuff about cult and ritual. Maybe this is my perspective only because I’m from an era that has radio and TV and movies and computers, or maybe it’s because I grew up in an artist’s family, but I don’t find art important. Not in and of itself. Individual works, or parts of works, might be moving or thought-provoking, but art by itself? A lot of it is shite. The idea of it having any cult significance? Unless Benjamin is talking about religious icons, I don’t see it. And if he’s talking about something else, he fails to explain what that something else is.

One of my favorite lines in the whole string:

An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.

Those are strong words, Walter. And completely meaningless ones. Awesome.

Another fave: “Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects designed to serve in a cult.”

This, I’m certain, is just an instance of awkward translation. The verb tense is confusing. Why present tense? Why not “Artistic production began”? Because that’s what he goes on to mean. So, here, the translator is just making him sound like an ass.

Much as in the aura argument, Benjamin’s invoking, in §xiii, of Freud as some kind of master of scientific investigation, undermines whatever it is he’s trying to say. So, as the film reveals to us visual details that normally go unnoticed, so psychoanalysis supposedly reveals psychological details that we otherwise don’t perceive.

Yes, we don’t perceive them because they’re not there. It’s amazing to me that people still talk about psychoanalysis, when to me, it’s always seemed that Freud might just as well have been talking about astrology or cloudbusters. I mean, he just fucking made stuff up about his patients. He generated ideas about how people behave in his head and then managed to convince himself—and thousands of other suckers—that his ideas could be seen in living, breathing action.

I don’t know. I’m trying to make it sound here like I have some kind of overall response to what Benjamin is saying. But, really, I don’t have a response to his argument because I can’t find his argument. He says a bunch of stuff, a few words on each page may spark a glimmer of recognition in my brain, but otherwise he might as well be talking about 1930s German politics, for all that I can relate to it. Oh, wait—he is talking aboit 1930s German politics, at least in part. Right.