Monday, February 25, 2013

Trying to be artful-some thoughts on Ali Smith's Artful

Ali Smith~Artful
I've been trying to finish this post for a week or so now and much of the problem has been that problem of writing about something you like in a way that connects to other people.Especially a book and trying to avoid the rehashing of the entire plot and wanting to communicate what punches or what's worth about the book without giving the whole thing away while also trying to practice a bit of what was picked up in the reading process.

Even the title of the book can be read different ways. Declarative-Artful (by) Ali Smith. Adjectivally-Artful Ali Smith like Dicken's the Artful Dodger who appears and disappears throughout the work. To explore the questions of form, time, edge, reflection Smith creates a/the main character who dialogues with the artifacts and occasional presence of the ghost of a former lover or spouse (hard to tell from the text). Not that it really matters. Artful may also refer to the wanderings that Smith's character takes through the left-behind essay sketches that have been left behind. These sketches become the meat of the explorations of time, form, edge, reflection and edge with various interjections from Smith's character.
Almost exactly halfway through the book, in the "On Form" section Smith states that "Everything can be more than itself. Everything IS more than itself." This book could be read as either a series of narrative-lectures or narrative introductions to lectures or even more complicatedly as explorations of the various connections/interplays of language and text, hidden behind simplicity of text and language. In order to get to the point though of realizing that everything is more than itself requires time, the first essay. In this first essay Smith's character spends time talking about how books require more time than they are often given. And while the character doesn't rub it in, there's obviously been a huge amount of time spent with these texts as they are liberally quoted and occasionally mashed up, including salient points regarding the author's history, biography or the reasons for their (the texts) being written.
Everything IS more than itself. Simplicity can be harder to suss out and perhaps more difficult to dig into because of, at first blush, the limited numbers of ways in or places to grasp hold seem extremely limited. (Think Vonnegut, Saunders, Cummings or even Eggers.)The flip-side of everything is more than itself is that everything connects but only if you know. It helps to know everything but that's usually not possible and so it takes time to grasp the form, examining the edges reflecting on what the text has to offer. Reflecting on what the text 'says' or does. Since the reader is capable of knowing a lot the reader can then recognizing the layers of meanings and interplay that exist between texts. How the ghost of a lover/spouse, leaving behind essays could, possibly, be tied back to Barthes' death of the author. Where the author, imaginary but dead, haunts the reader's character who is also, periodically, the author, flipping the text back and forth for the benefit of the reader while diving off after the plays and subtleties of the whole reason the reader is there in the first place. Time. Reflection. Offer. Form. Edge.

I will say that at the very least, there is now a new e.e. cummings poems on my window, printed out on the plastic sheeting that used to be used for overhead projectors. In order to see out into the hills, and trees outside, in this particular pane, one must read the poem overlaid over the clouds or sky. So that a poem about a day and goodness of the God who created it is held up against that creation as reminder, emblem and reflection.

"I thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of a sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(I who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings;and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting  touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my heart awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
                                                      ~E.E. Cummings

Friday, February 1, 2013

Zeldin on Conversation

I picked up Theodore Zeldin's book Conversation when a patron returned it to the library front desk and started reading, as one is wont to do, the last chapter. I had tried, and failed to read this petite volume several months ago and it had fallen flat. Or at least I had fallen flat. There's some really nice ideas that Zeldin lays out in this last chapter. I offer them to you without commentary for your enjoyment.

“I see thinking as bringing ideas together, as ideas flirting with each other, learning to dance and embrace. I appreciate that as a sensuous pleasure. Ideas are constantly swimming around in the brain, searching like sperms for the egg they can unite with to produce a new idea….The lively brain picks and chooses and creates works of art out of ideas.  
The peculiarity of humans is that they can watch themselves as they go about their business, as they talk and think…They can be either slaves of their thoughts and memories, or decided which of them are useful, which cause only trouble, and which to put away in a bottom drawer. 
Conversation with yourself is full of risk, because you have to decide how much to enhance your ideas with imagination….Ideas need not just to meet, but to embrace.” (p. 85-88 Conversation Zeldin)

“You may wonder whether the art of conversation should be taught, or can be taught, like dancing. The Victorians thought so. They poured out a vast mass of books on the subject, showing that they felt a new style was needed for their new ambitions. But the conversation they wanted to learn had aims which would not entirely satisfy the present generation: to make time pass more agreeably, to get the good opinion of others and to improve oneself. 
The teachers of conversation neglected the idea of personal contact, of the intimate meeting of minds and sympathies and, above all, of the search for what life is about, and how we should behave. They assumed everybody knew what life was about. They regarded themselves as propagating a branch of knowledge between music and medicine; that is, they became elocutionists, correcting accents and presentation, instead of depending the subject matter of conversation. For most of history, people aspiring to be conversationalists have too often avoided subjects which went too deep or were too personal. 
 They cheated: instead of saying what they thought, they repeated fashionable formulae or found epigrammatic ways of saying things they did not believe. I should like some of us to start conversations to dispel that darkness, using them to create equality, to give ourselves courage, to open ourselves to strangers, and most practically, to remark our working world, so that we are no longer isolated by our jargon or our professional boredom. (p. 94-97 Conversation Zeldin)”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What does authenticity sound like?

This article from the Columbus Dispatch entitled "'Lincoln' full of  authentic sounds" was recently forwarded to me. In order for the rest of this post to make sense you should, dear reader, take 5-7 minutes for a read-through or two of the above link. Clicking the link should open up in a new tab so you won't have to worry about losing your spot here.
There's a couple of really interesting aspects of this article that seemed to be worth commenting on.
1) The title of this article is worth noting. If the title read 'inauthentic' instead of 'authentic' what would an inauthentic sound be? Would it be if, during the movie, the watch was displayed and it didn’t tick or if the sound of the watch was from Big Ben? Or if the sounds of John Wilkes Booth's watch was played when seeing the watch? Or perhaps an inauthentic sound is one that is not historically grounded. But the term “historical sound” doesn't quite fit. I'll come back to this.
2) Additionally I found this article is interesting because it seems to be dealing with a need or desire to explicitly point out the supposed authenticity of sounds in an entertaining/entertainment medium. I think this is due to dealing with an historical subject or biography, with what we refer to as 'historical fact(s)' and trying to use the sound of a legitimate historical object to lend credence to the authenticity of the storyline in a medium that is very much about intertwining truth and illusion.

     I would posit that the interest in 'authentic sounds' stems from the desire to make movies about historical figures or history as believable as possible. The concept of originality is rather highly prized in Western art and culture-making where the original is supposed to matter more than an unoriginal or a copy. Hence calling someone or their work/art "original" is truly a compliment while calling someone's work "derivative" indicates that the creative foundations or source(s) of an individual's art work are too easily linked to the influence of other artists and thus does not seem to arise ex nihilio and is therefore not original or not original enough.
     Truthfully I've not actually seen the movie Lincoln yet but the concept explored in this article has been bouncing around my head for the past couple of weeks. In referring back to item 1, if the article hadn't pointed out that particular sounds were from historical artifacts and places, the viewer wouldn't notice. Because the viewer doesn't know that the recorded watch sound is from a watch Lincoln owned, the sound is, of itself, without meaning or weight. Substituting a recorded sound for the watch's true, as it were, tick may actually be less authentic since it is not the seen watch which generates its own tick that is heard. The watch is, if you will, lip-syncing. And in the context of human performance lip-syncing is often seen as one of the deadly sins of live performance, fit for scandal and  wild speculations. (Note the very recent brouhaha of Beyonce's performance at the inauguration. There's whole other area to explore here of the belief in originality and live performance, but that's for another time.)
Adorno suggests that "mass media are not simply the sum total of the actions they portray or of the messages that radiate from these actions. Mass media also consist of various layers of meanings superimposed on one another, all of which contribute to the effect." (p. 164, The Schema of Mass Culture) The sound of the watch must be portrayed as 'authentic' in order to contribute to the overall layering-of-meaning process. The authenticity of the sound is supposed to bring authenticity to the movie, because of the factuality of the sound the rest of the movie now has greater meaning or weight. The contribution of a specific historic recorded sound to the movie watching process, which is filled w/ other, supposedly, historically accurate item, layers on the acting and visual elements to add layers of convincing meaning to the reception of the film. The viewer has no way of knowing this, until educated, but the sound of the watch is supposed to matter more than other sounds.
 "Everywhere the public's nose is being rubbed in the alluring aroma of authenticity so that everyone can experience the intoxication of watching as it happens and Being There...In cinemas every second set of opening or closing credits announces that the film is based on real events." (p. 45 Five Dials No. 26) In the end it doesn't really matter what sound gets used for the watch.  The source of the sound is supposed to give its authenticity to the moment of observing Lincoln's watch. The ticking indicates that what you are seeing is real even though the watcher does not hear the ticking of the watch that they are seeing. They are hearing a second watch, layered onto the visual of the first watch to make the first watch, and the movie by extension, an authentic experience. I would suggest that by engaging in this layering process the notions of original or authentic are actually undermined. To describe this sound as authentic is to engage in what Adorno refers to as the 'jargon of authenticity'. Those art/entertainment-works practicing or using this jargon are ultimately more concerned with the appearance and reception as authentic (realer than real) than actually being so.