A wasteland or a party, desolation row or underground tuber springing into action?

February 13, 2004 at 7:55 pm | In yulelogStories | 6 Comments

Mike Golby is back after a 2-month hiatus with an amazing essay, The Turning of the Key. Don’t miss it, it’s a feast of words, images, and ideas.

Someone left the cake out in the rain

February 12, 2004 at 11:53 pm | In yulelogStories | 5 Comments

I went to a seminar at UVic’s recently established Pacific Centre for Technology and Culture (PACTAC) this afternoon to hear William Leiss speak on the Cultural Politics of Bio-Genetics. The afternoon before I had listened to an early-release report on NPR about the Korean scientists who had successfully cloned a human blastocyst, a news item Leiss also discussed at length as biogenetics provided the frame for his discussion. Leiss’s discussion took the long historical view: he began with Francis Bacon, in Leiss’s view the early 17th century initiator of the modernist project in science. The underlying gist of this project is Naturbeherrschung — Leiss used the English translation: “the domination of nature” — but as he advised at the outset of his talk, he is a Hegelian and familiar with Frankfurt School thinking, and Naturbeherrschung in any translation is a signature word from Adorno & Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufkl

A very brief history of the breast as propaganda

February 8, 2004 at 11:53 pm | In yulelogStories | 6 Comments

Isolating and accentuating body parts has a long history in Western visual representation, but the female breast occupies a special place. (Unless you’re French, of course, in which case you appear to be venerably predisposed to the female rear.) Beer and especially milk drinking Americans love the breast. It signifies both maternal love and eroticism, signalling back and forth between these two expressions of power. It seems prudent, however, to remember that in Western iconography women have not been in control over how breasts were represented or for what purposes. Janet Jackson’s breast-exposure is no exception, as it appeared to have been staged as an assault on her person by a trusted male, which means the traditional power hierarchy is maintained. That is, even if she helped orchestrate the event from the start, it was still represented as one in which male power has control. This puts the accentuated body part (Jackson’s breast) firmly in a tradition of propaganda, and it would be really interesting to read some theories based on that premise.

The most active breast propaganda in recent times has come from the Catholic Church, specifically during the period of Counter Reformation (16th century) when Protestants accused Catholics of idolatry (especially mariolatry), and the Vatican decided to fight back with a weaponised Holy Breast, namely the Virgin Mary’s. However, regardless of how loved or venerated Mary was, the purpose was always to cement the power of [earthly, male] church authority.

In painting after painting, Mary is shown as the life-sustainer of Jesus, via her exposed breast and implied lactation. There were even instances when the lactation was made explicit, as in the print on the left here, St. Bernard of Clairvaux receiving the Lactatio. Bernard had worn himself out practically shouting Monstra te esse Matrem (“Show yourself a mother”) at a statue of Mary nursing Jesus, when, lo, the statue came to life and squeezed its breast to squirt a stream of warm milk directly into Bernard’s open mouth.

In the Caravaggio painting, The Seven Acts of Mercy, (above right, or click on link, too) we see an early 17th century conflation of two biblical acts of mercy (feeding the hungry and visiting the prisoners) personified by Cimon’s daughter Pero, also called the Caritas Romana, who in this Christian context also becomes a stand-in for Maria Mediatrix, the Virgin as Mediator. She is very much incarnated here, as only Caravaggio could do it, but it’s still religious propaganda painted for a monastery in Naples. And while Leo Steinberg stood Renaissance art history on its head for a brief moment in the 1980s by describing in detail the sexuality of Christ as seen in countless paintings, this, too, was an iconography in the service of propaganda and power.

So while the iconography of a lactating woman — or even that of a woman with exposed breasts who isn’t actually in the process of lactating — probably does go all the way back to ancient Egyptian images of the nursing Isis, let’s not get carried away and remember instead that just as Janet Jackson had her clothes ripped off by a man, these older displays of breasts were also controlled by men.

Now, having pissed off the religious by mentioning Mary and Janet in one breath, what I’d really like to see is a critical iconography of the latter’s breast and how it figures in media politics in the present age. If big media was able to halt Howard Dean’s train in its tracks and elevate Kerry to front-runner, how could it not have controlled The Breast? The thing was as rigged as an altarpiece commission in the Counter Reformation…

Paul Williams at USC

February 7, 2004 at 2:58 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Paul Williams at USC

Just a follow-up to my last blog entry: if you’re in the Los Angeles area, you can see an exhibition (admission free) of Paul Williams’s work at the University of Southern California’s Watt Hall, Architecture and Fine Arts Library, University Park Campus, now through March 31, 2004. See Williams the Conqueror: The Legacy of Architect Paul Revere Williams (Ninth Annual Trojans of Ebony Hue Black History Exhibition) sponsored by the USC Black Alumni Association.

The price of blood

February 5, 2004 at 11:53 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

I learned about Paul Williams through an article in a shelter magazine. Williams was the “architect to the stars” who at mid-century designed houses for Lucille Ball and other luminaries. He was also the architect of the futuristic-looking Los Angeles airport building. And he was African American. His early childhood sounds nearly Dickensian (orphaned at age 4, brought up by strict foster parents, sent to a white school where he was the only “negro”), and it also has elements of the classic teleology set forth by Giorgio Vasari, the first modern writer of artists’ biographies: young boy with no advantages whatsoever is discovered drawing on a rock, in the sand, on a discarded paper, by a passer-by or other influential stranger who takes it upon himself to mentor the protege, and the rest, as they say, is istoria. Which is a bit like what happened with Williams, who was introduced to the possibility of an architectural career by a builder. Williams had tremendous skill in drawing, sketching, and draughtsmanship. He also felt acutely the prejudice many of his white clients had against Africans, and so he learned to draw upside down: that skill allowed his clients to sit across from him at a table and see his designs, vs having to sit next to him. His high school counsellor had tried to dissuade him from an architectural career thus:

“Negroes will always need doctors and lawyers, but they build neither fine homes nor expensive office buildings.” [his high school counsellor advised] “Who ever heard of a Negro being an architect?”, the counselor added. (…)
In a July 1937 article in
American magazine titled “I Am a Negro”, Williams acknowledged his feelings about racially-restricted housing that was prevalent in Los Angeles at the time. Referring to a client’s country house in “one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world,” he wrote: “Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home. But this evening, leaving my office, I returned to my small, inexpensive home in an unrestricted, comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles…because…I am a Negro.”

In the same article, he wrote: “Virtually everything pertaining to my professional life during those early years was influenced by my need to offset race prejudice, by my effort to force white people to consider me as an individual rather than as a member of a race. Occasionally, I encountered irreconcilables who simply refused to give me a hearing, but on the whole I have been treated with an amazing fairness.”

Sensitive to clients who might feel uncomfortable sitting next to him, Williams perfected the skill of drawing upside down. This enabled clients review his designs right-side-up as he sketched them from across the table. [More….]

Reading about Williams I kept thinking of a Reconstruction-era painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, The Price of Blood (1868), on the right. Noble had gone to Paris to study painting in the studio of Eduard Manet’s teacher, Thomas Couture, but I don’t know if he came into contact with Manet during his time there. I like to speculate that perhaps they did, that they discussed modern subject matter. Manet painted Luncheon in the Studio in Paris around the same time that Noble worked on The Price of Blood in America, and it always struck me that both paintings have a similar moral-sexual subtext (although Manet’s painting is much better than Noble’s, whose style is mired in conventionalism). Couture had tried to get his pupils to paint history paintings, but perhaps in spite of him, they took modern life as the history that mattered. Manet’s picture shows a young man, Leon Leenhoff, who was quite possibly an illegitimate son born to Suzanne Leenhoff and Manet’s father, a respected judge, and who was passed off as Suzanne’s little brother. Manet later married Suzanne and adopted Leon as his stepson. Noble’s painting shows an equally scandalous — and socially even more corrosive — filial relationship being subjected to an economic transaction that tore America apart. By the early 1860s, Noble would have learned that Couture was most famous for his painting The Romans of the Decadence, and that American artists had already spent considerable energies in building the country up as the new Manifest Destiny course of empire inheritor. Stylistically, Noble might have understood that huge history paintings like Couture’s or Cole’s weren’t going to allow him to proceed, although he clearly had some problems finding a new style. If Manet’s Luncheon is quintessentially “modern cool,” Noble’s picture is still 19th century sentimentally “hot,” but it tells quite a story. We see three men arranged in a shallow plane near the foreground. Only one is seated, a distinctly well-off older bourgeois who could easily have been at home in a Paris apartment. He has a sovereign manner, his casual placement on the chair suggesting ownership and ease, but with a claw-like pinkie resting and simultaneously pointing at a piece of paper on the table. He stares out at you, the viewer, forcing some kind of engagement. In the middle stands a man reading a piece of paper he holds in his left hand, his right hand resting on the table, a hand seemingly ready to protect the pile of gold coins carefully stacked and counted out before him. At the far left of the picture stands a young barefoot man, his feet a marked contrast to the elegant shoes and spats worn by the seated man. The young man strikes a slightly ridiculous pose, and Noble can’t quite pull it off: his expression looks merely annoyed, like a petulant Blue Boy after Gainsborough, when he should be expressing so much more. He is the illegitimate son of the rich seated man, he is of African descent through his slave mother, and he has just been sold to the contract-reading slave trader who is checking the paperwork before counting out the payment. This was modern American history in some parts of the country, and when I saw Paul Williams’s pale skin in some photographs and read about those white clients incapable of sitting next to him, I thought of The Price of Blood.

Tee-Hee Bits?

February 5, 2004 at 7:34 pm | In yulelogStories | 8 Comments

I really feel like getting hammered this evening. Last week, while munching on my favourite confectionary item (hard salted licorice from Holland), I gave a molar the death knell. Low-grade pain for several days now has left me feeling ready to rip any- and everyone’s head off, and this afternoon I had a temporary crown installed. The dentist used plenty of anaesthesia, and I really enjoyed the sensation of being drugged. Unfortunately, it’s worn off now. I’ve heard that it’s not a good idea to mix ibuprofein with wine and that some people have experienced organ failure with this combination, but I couldn’t care less right now: I want relief. A liver transplant doesn’t seem like such a bad thing compared to these revived and irritated nerve endings.

There’s an irony here which doesn’t escape me: last summer I had to get a new motherboard for my iBook, to the tune of nearly CDN$1K. I don’t really have that kind of spare change lying around, and had to swallow very hard to commit to the repair. Hence, I was very pleased to get a call from the computer store the other day informing me that Apple now admits that its iBook motherboards are funky and that the company is starting a procedure to reimburse us iBook users whose computers failed.

So what’s ironic? Just a day or so after learning that I might get my money back, I whack my tooth, and my dentist bill (no insurance, alas) is CDN $1K. (I think I need to address some serious feng shui problems in my living space here…)

And as I said, I’m in a bad mood about this, so don’t comment unless you have something really funny to add.

Meanwhile, my daughter’s choir is giving a special live performance tonight for the Right Honourable Iona Campagnola and other assorted special guests at Victoria’s McPherson Playhouse where Ballet Victoria is premiering Peter Pan. (I’d like to shoot Peter Pan myself, but I’m not the artistic director of a ballet company, so we’ll leave that aside…). I was to bring her to the lobby and then take her upstairs to the reception area, which was tightly guarded, however, by a phalanx of exceedingly nervous and utterly stuck-up society dames ridiculously garbed in off-the-rack evening wear that made them look about as individual as penguins. I hope they were freezing in the pre-performance chill of the theatre. Said creatures seemed afraid that we might pollute the ethereal atmosphere of the mezzanine and coldly told us to wait downstairs. (It’s relevant to know that Viva’s Enriched Chorale is singing for free here, and that they provided the choral backdrop to the recorded music which the ballet is using as its dance score….) Was this gracious? No. These old biddies are the last guardians of an utterly outmoded culture keyed into ossified notions of Old Blighty as defended in the outermost colonial outpost of empire… and they still know, I guess, what’s upstairs and what’s downstairs. I can only keep my fingers crossed that The Great Conveyor Belt gets them.

All I’ve really wanted to work on is the continuation of the Adorno Bits, not Tee-Hee Bits like this, but my life is in bits most of the time: there is so little continuity and it’s all work-run work-run work-run all the time. And so I’ll have to end this note right now because it’s time to go back to the Thee-Ate-Her to pick up the offspring. Then another glass of wine and another ibuprofein to placate the nerves in this bugger of a tooth…

The once-again coming of the ice age

February 5, 2004 at 6:49 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on The once-again coming of the ice age

Doug at The Alders pointed to this a few days ago, on Feb. 2: an article by Thom Hartmann that explains how the malfunction of the Great Conveyor Belt might be the new ice-cold tipping point for global cooling that no one can ignore:

…the warm water of the Great Conveyor Belt evaporates out of the North Atlantic leaving behind saltier waters, and the cold continental winds off the northern parts of North America cool the waters. Salty, cool waters settle to the bottom of the sea, most at a point a few hundred kilometers south of the southern tip of Greenland, producing a whirlpool of falling water that’s 5 to 10 miles across. While the whirlpool rarely breaks the surface, during certain times of year it does produce an indentation and current in the ocean that can tilt ships and be seen from space (and may be what we see on the maps of ancient mariners).

This falling column of cold, salt-laden water pours itself to the bottom of the Atlantic, where it forms an undersea river forty times larger than all the rivers on land combined, flowing south down to and around the southern tip of Africa, where it finally reaches the Pacific. Amazingly, the water is so deep and so dense (because of its cold and salinity) that it often doesn’t surface in the Pacific for as much as a thousand years after it first sank in the North Atlantic off the coast of Greenland.

The out-flowing undersea river of cold, salty water makes the level of the Atlantic slightly lower than that of the Pacific, drawing in a strong surface current of warm, fresher water from the Pacific to replace the outflow of the undersea river. This warmer, fresher water slides up through the South Atlantic, loops around North America where it’s known as the Gulf Stream, and ends up off the coast of Europe. By the time it arrives near Greenland, it has cooled off and evaporated enough water to become cold and salty and sink to the ocean floor, providing a continuous feed for that deep-sea river flowing to the Pacific.

These two flows – warm, fresher water in from the Pacific, which then grows salty and cools and sinks to form an exiting deep sea river – are known as the Great Conveyor Belt. [More….]

I actually remember hearing about this some years ago, but Hartmann’s article spells out new details, for example that the Eastern US & Canada and Europe will be hardest hit.

And now, dear reader, my one and only conspiracy theory, mainly to lighten the mood of this doomsday message: if I heard about it, so perhaps did the neo-cons, who have subsequently begun this take-over of Middle Eastern oilfields to ensure a continued supply of heating fuel, gargantuan amounts of which the Atlantic states will need to stay even moderately warm. Dr. Strangelove, forget the underground bunkers for the chosen few: we’re talking hell-hole size heaters.

Ork? Orkin? Orkut? The Lord of the (web)Rings?

February 3, 2004 at 10:11 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

Jeneane Sessum is a powerhouse of information. By following her bloglinks and her community and network links on Orkut, I can find out so much… It’s mind-boggling. Some people I know (like my husband) might think there’s an element of trivia here, but I’m not so sure — after all, the only reason I ever went in for academia is because I’m naturally snoopy (research, sweetie, research!). Around 4th grade I discovered, however, that being a secret agent (I dreamed of being an Avenger!) was too sordid and dangerous in real life, but when I was 23 it struck me that being a researcher was a safe alternative. (Ha.) So, I like to snoo… I mean, research. Because of Jeneane, I saw Paul Boutin’s blog where I learned that Wesley Clark is on Orkut. And by following another link of hers, I wound up at BoingBoing where they (she? Xeni?) posed the Orkut = Roach Motel analogy: you can check in, but you can’t check out. She has a whole string of links to everyone who has been posting about Orkut and stuff about it.

But you know what’s really weird? Shelley Powers managed to check out of Orkut! Incroyable. I read her blog …and then I quit Orkut and thought she was just saying that she was leaving. But she did it. And here I was thinking Orkut is Orkin with its guarantee that it will kill you dead….

Multi-tasking 101? Find hired help

February 2, 2004 at 10:23 pm | In yulelogStories | 5 Comments

(…and the seasons on the hamsterwheel they go ’round and ’round and the painted ponies they go up and down…)

As a PhD’d homeschooling mother who doesn’t have a career — but who did for a while have au pairs for the duration of her brief teaching career at MIT, Brown University, and finally, the end of the road, Harvard Extension School — I LMAO when I read this article in The Spectator by Rachel Johnson, Mother of all inventions (via Arts & Letters Daily).

Johnson is rather nasty but also very truthful, in this our grim Prozac-ridden age where you take anti-depressants to get over the fact that you’re depressed because You Can’t Do It All and still Smile, Smile, Smile. She writes about writing smart columns for newspapers about how to have an interesting job at home such as writing columns about how to be a successful-mom-with-career-at-home:

You write a searingly honest piece dealing with the self-esteem issues that loom when men ask, ‘And what do you do? Or are you just a mum?’ halfway through a dinner party, after you’ve interrogated them over two courses about their golf handicap and City job, and you start idly imagining whether they would look more attractive with an axe buried in their skull. Or you write handbooks (or run websites) for mothers just like you. [read more]

And if you’re not capable of writing any kind of self-help bullshit, Rachel Johnson’s very wicked explainations of who these wonders of career opportunism really are will make you feel a bit more even-keeled, and leave you chuckling:

So you want to know who these women are who seem to be having it all, but not walking the walk, only talking the talk? After all, we are peddling a cosy fiction, an apple-pie lie, that our columns and books somehow get written between the morning school-run and an afternoon spent chiselling mashed banana off a high chair; for as we hymn the delights of home-made Play-Doh from our panic-room-style workstations in attics, our column-fodder kids are more often than not sitting in front of the DVD under the care of a Croatian au pair or Filipina Gastarbeiter who is working her socks off to send money to her seven children back home in Manila. [continued…]

Read the article, it’s funny. And BTW, I read this not as an attack on feminism or women-having-careers, but rather on the insane notion that, man or woman, you can have it all, at discount, or for free, even. Johnson simply points out that there is a price, and that we’re paying the salaries of those peddling the dreams.

They are writers, but as part of the machine, they’re not necessarily writing stuff I want to read.


Is there a woman I admire who combined many diverse things? Definitely Carol Shields:

There’s an early quote from Shields about how she only started writing because she couldn’t find any novels about the women she knew. ‘Women in fiction were either bimbos or bitches.’ She recalls a talk she once attended by George Steiner. ‘I stood up and asked about women writers and he said there weren’t any from the 20th century. He could think of a couple from the 19th but that was that. It’s all so dispiriting. I went to another talk by Martin Amis and pretty much the same thing occurred. I didn’t bother asking any questions that time.’ There’s a spiky passage in Unless about how men simply aren’t that interested in women’s lives – are these Shields’s own sentiments? ‘Pretty much. I think men want to be around women. They enjoy their womanliness and get relief from it. But I also think they may not care much about how the synapses of a woman’s brain operate.’ [More…]

Yes; for one thing, everyone’s too busy working…

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