History's Folds

The brilliant French philosopher, Michel Serres proposes in recent publications that one of the best ways of understanding history is to think about human events as a series of interconnected folds, a networks of networks in which events that may have taken place thousands of years ago are still connected to the present through human memory and human artifacts.

The folds of which Serres speaks can be visualized as a series of pleated pages in which different points touch, sometimes arbitrarily and other times by design. The metaphor that Serres has developed has another purpose. In order to understand the technologies, social movements and cultural phenomena that humans have created, each point of contact among all these pleats needs to be drawn out in a detailed and narrative manner. Although Serres does not describe this method as stream of consciousness that is sometimes how it reads, to the point where the simplest of objects becomes the premise for an expansive narrative.

For example, (adapting Serres’s method) the notion of networks needs to be understood not only as a function of technology and communications systems, but also through the efforts by nearly every culture and every generation to develop a variety of bonds using any number of different means from language to art to music to political, religious and economic institutions. This suggests that the Internet, for example, is merely a modern extension of already existing forms of communication between people. And, while that may seem obvious, many of the claims about the Internet suggest that it is a revolutionary tool with implications for the ways in which people see themselves and their surroundings. More often than not, its revolutionary character is related to obvious characteristics like speed of communications, which may in fact be no more than a supplement to profoundly traditional modes of information exchange. The intersection of the revolutionary with the traditional is essential to the success of any new and innovative technology and may be at the heart of how quickly any individual innovation is actually taken up by individuals or by society as a whole.

Colm Toibin and Brooklyn

I am a lover of the novels of Colm Toibin. I recently read his new book, Brooklyn. The summary of the story can be found in this review. (I won’t delve into the details of the narrative because I am more interested in discussing the main character and her slow development into a woman of purpose and interior strength.)

Her name is Eilis and to me she is a metaphor for the long history of migration of Irish people from their homeland. It is always a challenge to confer so much historical weight onto a single individual. Nevertheless, Toibin achieves something very special in Brooklyn. Eilis is for the most part rather vague not only about her choices, but also about the way in which she feels about the people she meets. There is a sense one gets that she is propelled forward not so much by a deliberate plan, but by the process of human interaction. There is never any clear sense of purpose to her decisions. She allows her intuitions to envelop her and as a consequence even her descriptions of encounters and places are understated. Even the man she later meets and marries is never fully flushed out as a character.

This minimalism is Toibin’s way of moving the narrative from Proustian detail to to the rather paradoxical realism of human thought and action. Post-hoc, all human decisions seem to have very concrete reasons attached to them. The everyday flow of life allows for few moments of self-reflection. Even when self-reflection is present, it cannot be articulated other than through memories. The present is always disappearing and with it many of the details of thought, decision making, and doubt. Eilis cannot clearly articulate either her attraction to the new life she builds in Brooklyn or what she misses about Ireland. She speculates in a fragmentary way about her job, her living circumstances and her mother and sister.

More remains hidden than is visible and this is Toibin’s central theme. It is also the theme of his novel about Henry James, The Master. Language cannot reveal the depth either of thought or feeling, but language can propel both reader and writer into an imaginary reconstruction and imagination mixes and matches truth, desire and reflection. There is an extraordinary scene in which Eilis describes what happens to her when she goes to a dance at the local church in Brooklyn. She is alone and watches as others find partners and let go of their inhibitions. She sees the man whom she later marries. The physicality of the dancing is measured against her sense that she is unattractive and that her past is more of a liability than a help to her. But, in between these self-doubts and anxieties, she grabs hold of the essence of her decision to leave Ireland. It has as much to do with the fact that her family wanted to help her find a new life as it did with the rather mundane reality of Ireland itself. Eilis who never wanted to plan her future now finds herself not only planning but projecting ahead about her circumstances and her potential.

This is the shift from being an immigrant to becoming a local. It is a shift experienced by many generations. Suddenly all that was familiar recedes into the background. Home is still home, but a new reality has been layered onto the old. This is how personal history and the broader historical context we share develops. This is why it is possible to imagine a new life even as one’s former life suffuses every conversation and experience. As Eilis manages all of this complexity, she matures. The seeming banality of the everyday becomes a glorious pedestal upon which she can stand and survey her present and her future. She has finally found a vantage point to examine her feelings and with that she leaves her home far behind. It is Toibin’s brilliance that brings all these elements together and at the end of the novel there is this deep sense of satisfaction that Eilis has become someone we know and someone whose future seems bright and rich.

Tenement in the 1940's or How Photography Makes History

The Library of Congress' photos on Flickr

 

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The act of taking a photograph is a way of preserving memories, but is also the way in which history (both personal and public) is produced.

“One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realised then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” (Roland Barthes)

The eyes of the emperor’s brother once looked straight into a camera, in this case ‘manned’ by a photographer whose duty it was to take pictures of the rich and powerful. Jerome’s eyes had been privileged enough to look into Napoleon’s eyes. The photograph as described by Roland Barthes allowed him to establish a relay between Jerome (in the 1850’s) and the modern readers of CAMERA LUCIDA This juxtaposition of time and space is at the root of Barthes’s meditation on photography in CAMERA LUCIDA. Barthes provides us with the social and cultural matrix at the heart of his activi­ties as a viewer and as a cultural analyst. CAMERA LUCIDA is part analysis, part theory, a personal examination of the role of photography in Barthes’s life and an hommage to Jean-Paul Sartre’s book, THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMAGINATION. An extraordinary number of essays and articles have been written about CAMERA LUCIDA and Barthes’s work. My purpose here is to interrogate the photographic image in historical and cultural terms. Barthes is a focus, but this short piece is designed to raise a primary distinction between photographs and images. My premise is that this distinction will allow us to more clearly understand the role played by the viewer in the experience and interpretation of images.

One of the aims of the project of CAMERA LUCIDA is to discover whether there is an interpretive space betweeen image and photograph which will allow for if not encourages new ways of thinking and seeing. Barthes tests many strategies of interpretation with regard to photographic meaning, but much of the book is governed by an emphasis on death, the death of his mother, the death of photography as a form of cultural expression, the death of the interpreter. “If photography is to be discussed on a serious level, it must be described in relation to death. It’s true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more. Even if the person in the picture is still alive, it is a moment of this subject’s existence that was photographed, and this moment is gone. This is an enormous trauma for humanity, a trauma endlessly renewed. Each reading of a photo and there are billions worldwide in a day, each perception and reading of a photo is implicitly, in a repressed manner, a contract with what has ceased to exist, a contract with death.”

This theme has been researched and commented on by a number of writers but my sense is that Barthes is exploring the meaning of death at the symbolic and imaginary level. Death in this instance speaks to the frailty of memory, but most importantly, Barthes follows the writings of Bataille in recognizing the silence of the photograph in the face of all that is done to it. “Death is a disappearance. It’s a suppresion so perfect that at the pinnacle utter silence it its truth. Words can’t describe it. Here obviously I’m summoning a silence I can only approach from the outside or from a long way away.”

The distinction then between image and photograph is about the cacophony of voices which engulf the silent photograph. My position is somewhat different from Barthes. He is worried about loss and absence. My concern is with the rich discourse which arises from the human encounter with images and the creative use which is made of photographs as they are placed into different contexts.

 

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Communications: The Discipline and its Transformation (1)

Brief Overview — Strategic Approaches to the Study of Communications. The following list is not intended to be comprehensive, rather it articulates some of the many (too many?) debates and ideas that circulate within the study of communications. The discipline has become so broad because of a misconceived idea of multi-disciplinarity to the point where it is unclear what the boundaries are between different areas of study. Perhaps, the very notion of a discipline needs to be rethought. Or, perhaps the evolution of Communications into something far greater than the term itself can contain, suggests that the work of the next few years will be around meaning, creativity and classification. Think of it this way, the taking of digital photographs is less and less about aesthetically rich images and more about organizing large amounts of information into meaningful patterns. The software that we use to organize our images is dependent on a tagging system that is above all else semantic and is driven by language, by what we say about the photos and less by the photos themselves. The danger is that as classification becomes central and as the sheer bulk of images increases that it will be more and more difficult to frame and critique what is being produced. This is a difficult challenge to the development of disciplines because it implies a continuous and evolving fluidity that institutions in particular have a hard time containing.

 


 

Literary, Legal and Historical Inquiries into the Press —
News as Information — Growth of Print Culture

 


 

Intersection of Sociological and Institutional Analysis — Electrification —
Telegraph — Telephone — Radio — Cinema

 


 

Broadcasting — Audience Research — Social Sciences
provide main model
for analysis — Empirical Methodology

 


 

Frankfurt School — Cultural Analysis — Popular Culture as Category —
Models of Consumption and Commodity Fetishism — Intersection of Psychoanalytic,
Sociological and Anthropological approaches —
Language as Paradigm for all modes of Communication

 


 

Television — Mass Communication Studies — Relationship to Policy —
Communications and Development — Questions of Economic and Political Control — Ownership of Media — Democratic Control

 


 

Paradigms from Literary Study — Applications of Textuality — Homology
between written and visual-oral texts Structuralist claims with
respect to the Production of Meaning —
Efforts to link Media Analysis with Semiotics and Deconstruction— Intersections with Ethnographic Research — Shifts in Anthropology and Sociology

 


 

Ideology — Cultural Analysis — Marxist and
Post-Structural Models —
Reconfiguration of Institutional Analysis — Reaction to Positivist Empiricism —
Dissolution of Base-Superstructure Paradigm for the Explanation of Cultural Processes —
Links between literary analysis and
development of Communications and Media Studies

 


 

Feminist Reconfiguration of Communications and Cultural Studies Paradigm
Shift in Concerns for Audience to notions of Reading, Spectatorship —
Post-Colonial Discourses — Challenges to the hegemony
of 1st world views

 


 

Postmodernism — Redefinitions of the theory—practice dichotomy—Move
to Discourse models—Shift in Language Paradigm—Shift from Representation
to Simulation

 


 

Virtual Reality—Hyperreality—Cyberpunk—Cyberspace—Reconfiguration of Computer—C.D. Rom—Notions of Infinite Memory—Multi-Media

 


 

The above taxonomy and the way in which I have separated its historical constituents should be seen as entirely heuristic. My aim is to show the inherent intersection of concerns between the humanities and the social sciences, but also to talk about the way in which communications has colonised many different areas of research and thought over the last twenty years.

This process of boundary creation and dissolution — the inherent weakness of any attempt to lock boundaries into place — has produced an almost non-stop integration of disciplines into communications with the result that what we may need to examine at moment is a redefinition of the very notion of a field of study or a discipline. The presumptions which guided the creation and installation of disciplines in universities up until the early 1980's may be in need of serious revision.

Let me explore this a bit further. It can be argued that any attempt to define the domain of communications study runs into a classic confrontation — the vested interests of the humanities and social sciences both converge and diverge. Though the latter has taken the mantle of leadership upon itself, the most interesting research of the moment is going on in cultural studies, games, computer-human interaction, digital communities and design. But even as I say this, the disciplinary framework of cultural studies represents a challenge of its own because it is so very fluid as to definition and even more so as to direction. The question of what constitutes cultural studies finds itself in precisely the same crisis of definition as communications. Is this because of the nature of the phenomena under examination?

(End.....part one)