October 25, 2009

Into Oblivion

The Afghanistan fixation continues to present a war without the war. The stories that circulate are of troop-level debates, comparative national investments in the hopelessness enterprise of "defeating" insurgency; dreams of "decapitating" the Taliban, as if it were an organism instead of a functioning organization. The death of it all awash in the lavish language of "Hellfire," "Predator," "human terrain."

There is, sometimes, the tough lament for, but no pictures allowed of, the Marines sacrificing their ultimate safety and their comrades for a "policy," for a choice of method. It will matter less that it is for the sake of people sleeping in a hillside house that are quite innocent of whatever it is that is to be blown apart. The people themselves, so remote, remain in the imaginary more or less a mysterious, likely barbaric remnant; mere data in homeland calculations or the crude anthropology that helps determine targets.

There is, in incremental obscurity, Pakistan quietly emerging as the backdrop for the elevated and distant strategic conversations about air-power and force, which themselves dovetail with the truth of CIA contractors operating drones, the tactical function of which has become nothing more, and nothing less, than carrying out Pakistani or Afghanistan assassination requests. The blood price of doing business.

The notions of legality are dissolved and as the slow build up "on the ground" becomes ever more groundless, and at least one steps away from another Richard Holbrooke fantasy, our plot of death unrolls: unstoppable, unthinkable, inexorable in its tragic cadence.

Photographs: Fazal Sheikh (from The Victor Weeps)

October 19, 2009

Seeing the Stern Facts through the Theater of Mental Operations

"He who habituates himself, in his daily life, to seek for the stern facts in whatever he hears or sees, will have these facts again brought before him by the involuntary imaginative power in their noblest associations; and he who seeks for frivolities and fallacies, will have frivolities and fallacies again presented to him in his dreams."

--John Ruskin, Modern Painters

"The boldness of such an approach is . . . compensated for the humility . . . of observation as it is practiced by the anthropologist. Leaving his country and his home for long periods; exposing himself to hunger, sickness and occasional danger; allowing his habits, his beliefs, his convictions to be tampered with, conniving at this, indeed, when, without mental reservations or ulterior motives, he assumes the modes of life of a strange society, the anthropologist practices total observation, beyond which there is nothing except -- and there is a risk -- the complete absorption of the observer by the object of his observations. . . . We really can verify that the same mind which has abandoned itself to the experience and allowed itself to be moulded by it becomes the theatre of mental operations which, without suppressing the experience, nevertheless transform it into a model which releases further mental operations."

--Claude Levi-Strauss, The Scope of Anthropology

October 15, 2009

When the World Is Wet with Autumn

Because we are in the direct situation: it is. If you don't like it you may choose to avoid it.

But if you avoid it that's a pity, because it resembles life very closely, and life and it are essentially a cause for joy.

--John Cage

October 11, 2009

Irving Penn, 1917 - 2009

The day the New York Times announced the death of Irving Penn I was in the Chicago Art Institute passing by a Barnett Newman painting and thinking of a gallery trip to Berkeley in 1985. The show then was Penn' s portraits; large and dense; the wash of the big bulbous bodies he turned to fruit; the arched and aching pictures he made of authors and artists; gorgeous platinum palladium prints. The book of Penn's work from that show was one of the first books I ever owned, certainly the biggest and nicest, and the first that was not a paperback bought at a used shop.

The faces he presented in his highly formal arrangements did not need names. They were eyes with lids just so, lips pursed or agape like the mask he had read onto the character, and heads that seemed to be rotating so slowly around the sun of Penn's lens so that you could imagine him like an astronomer, waiting beneath the hood, waiting and waiting until just what was needed came into view.

When I did look at the captions, few names stood out. Capote, yes. Maybe Mencken. The rest came slowly, piece-meal, year by year, through the accidents of encounter. One was Barnett Newman. I had seen the Penn portrait a hundred times. Later, much later, I came to see the paintings here and there, beside a Rothko, maybe. When I made the connection between the man in the picture and the painter of the color blocks with their singular line of alteration, there was no end of pleasure in the link, in the new meaning behind the portrait. I carried that with me this week, not knowing that when I did, Penn had died, leaving the innumerable traces that craft, formally, if fleeting, in a singular moment, or onement, how one can come to see the world.

photo: Irving Penn
painting: Barnett Newman