News from the Net – Last Week of November

I spend a lot of time online, as many do. Even this website is mostly just used for my own purposes, the WordPress front to this site is a vanitas project that I mostly used while I travelled but who travels anymore. I still code in the background but have been struggling to make posting a habit.

To that end, perhaps I will add links to stories that I enjoyed reading. I told myself that this was a great way to collect data on what I am paying attention to. That was enough to motivate me. I think. I’ll start tagging posts too that will help me create metrics for the data collection exercise.

First up, China. I have many unpublished writings on the geopolitics of China and Ukraine, mostly related to the historiography of Diplomatic History. My draft folder is replete with stories about the decline of empire but as I incorporate more and more history back into my “Cold War” reading list, I realize how important writers such as Odd Arne Westad are still changing my thinking about these issues as much as Melvyn Leffler did in grad school.

This Wired article about the protests in China is the most important piece from this week. COVID mobility restrictions is increasingly oppressive in many areas as officials struggle to immunize this vast population. Couple this with the inability of Xi to take full advantage of the transition of Hong Kong and the death of Jiang Zemin, and it is no wonder that the ghosts of Tiananmen are on the mind. Funerals and earthquakes tend to be external events that motivate social change in China.

The vector to technology and the Great Firewall of China is important. PRC have loosened mobility restrictions in Guangdong province but doing this may fuel discontent in other regions as they learn this. Can central authorities maintain message control in the light of this “white paper” revolution?

This book on Basquiat is the book release of the week (I type this like it is a thing), but art history remains central to my reading and how I spend (too much of) my time. I am working on an article on Philip Guston and one thing that I am constantly reminded of in his late work is the street graffiti of New York. And while Basquiat is normally seen through the eyes of Warhol, Guston may be more appropriate in an asemic, object oriented, perspective. I’ll write more when I get this book. It will go on the list.

So two links for this week. More to come.


I settle my body like a tree stump.

I hold my arm like the branch of a withered tree; out of the vastness of heaven and earth, the multitude of the myriad things, I am only aware of cicada wings.

I don’t wander or waver, and I would not take all the myriad things in exchange for the wings of the cicada.

How could it be that I’d fail to succeed?

What did I learn from Bruno Latour?

Eda Kranakis told me, years ago, that Bruno Latour was someone worth paying attention to. When I read of his death yesterday I thought about what my interaction with Latour brings me, each time that I engage his thought. His pragmatism is what initially attracted me but the more I read, the less I understood. But the more I paid attention to what he was saying as I was reading it, the more I realized that I was really nothing more than an actor in a network.

I decided to re-read one of his books or one of his essays and while I first thought of We Were Never Modern, I opened On the Cult of the Factish Gods as, for me, this represents the late Latour at his finest: balancing on the edge of truth and madness, religion and heresy, ruminations on the fate of Frankenstein’s “monster”.

(Perhaps if I hadn’t just finished reading Frankenstein then I would be using a different analogy but here we are. I should re-write this in a few weeks since I just started an early version of what would later be known as Dracula by Bram Stoker, unknown outside of Iceland where it was translated and published called Makt myrkranna – Powers of Darkness – but I digress. Back to Latour.)

I put monster in quotation marks because it isn’t ever named as such in the book written two centuries ago. It is called a monster by (sighted) humans. The being that herr Frankenstein assembled was reviled because the sight of it sent humans mad and its existence threatened the species. It was an important point, I think, that the blind man accepts the being because of the its expression of culture, known to the fallen aristocrat. Vision and light.

Dare I say perspectival light, a “modern” light? A type of light created by, among others, Pierro della Francesca. The desiring lux of Dante.

Reviled and shunned because of human sight and its existential threat that these beings would replace humans as supposed by its creator, this living assemblage of dead parts was paradoxical, the source of madness for those that beheld it or contemplated it. In human light, perspectival lux, this being is a monster but human culture and literature was accessible and powerful to this Being. Paradise Lost and other works of literature also “created” this being. These cultural products fulfilled their stated “human” purpose of “humanizing” but why then deny humanity to this being? What makes it monstrous? If nothing else, it is pitiable because it has only the desires of humans. But, again, back to Latour.

For Latour’s flat ontology all things are objects, much like in Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology (noting that they themselves thought that they had divergent opinions on some core issues). The point is that just because Frankenstein looks and acts like a human to some, it doesn’t make it so. Just like a never helpful bot on a website, powered by “artificial intelligence”.

So what does make a human human? Is a human a hyper object that defies categories? This isn’t just about a nominalist debate, it is a clear challenge to Kantian categories of identity that would hold that objects are because of what they do or what they are made of. Latour says that it is what objects are assembled with, networked to.

Shelly ruminates on the fact that the being can and does learn to desire the things that humans do, or say that they do, with his eyes: he sees the interaction of the family and he reads Paradise Lost. Vision, ergo, lux is the core of this cosmogony. But it is human vision that the monster doesn’t have. Human vision, a human way of seeing, is the thing that the being cannot have and the one element that causes so much grief to it: if it saw itself as humans did, it would destroy itself as it initially intends. Instead, it crusades to the arctic desert knowing its vision can see truth, just a different one from the Others. And knowing that its existence is within its control. A funeral pyre is its noble decision when it chooses.

The arctic, for the being, is a spiritual sanctuary and punishment as it is for humans, much as it is represented in Renaissance literature and imagery: challenging clarity and perspective. Even in the early 19th century the arctic was felt as aporia, anti-perspective, unknown. Contingency exists between subject, object, and image in this geography.

Why does Frankenstein’s monster want to interact with the world the way that it does? All the things that the monster both sees and understands about humanity from observation or study comes to naught because of the irrational fears of “humanity”. Each time it wants only what it sees, what it reads to be desired, nothing more. It is frustrated by sighted humans at every turn. It just wants to be a producer and consumer, why else does he demand a spouse? Why else does he kill with his hands?

But it is irrational for this “transhumanist” being, pace Haraway because this ontology is denied for an immortal being. These are human things, these desires that it seeks. Once you think that you grasp them, like the light of faint stars, they disappear, or you disappear. Light the lights of the stars that you see your entire life, stars that haven’t existed for millennia.

These objects can only appear in your peripheral, mediated and translated, consumed. They are Protean since you can only measure them in time with human tools of perspectival ontology, you cannot see them clearly in both space and time because of the mortal coil. You will be frozen and destroyed. Humans are or are not.

Human paradise cannot accept change to its architecture, its ontology denies this change. A ribozymic vine is an existential threat to seeded plants. The short life of humans is what gives meaning and explains its desire. The God Proteus is denied access to Eden. A Heraclitean life was in living, and that was only for mortals. Achilles rages when Patroclus sheds his mortal coil.

This human desire, this type of seeing, of consumption, is a mode of modern translation like Benjamin’s Arcades, an exchange. It is modernism if it is defined as transactional. It is an unchanging desire to desire: one cannot deny the arrow of Cupid – struck by Narcissus. It’s intoxication, like that of the vine. The poison of Bacchus and Loki.

No wonder God denied access to only this tempting thing. It was temptation itself! Desire.

The only acceptable change for mortals is redemption or reformation in the realm of the Gods, active or passive, never the middle voice, never immortality. This is the nature of Bruno Latour’s factish as it is the nature of the fetish: they exist-ish. Time is denied to the immortal. Humans are suffused with existence in time.

Much as Tristan Garcia revives the notion of Dantean love in his philosophy of being or the role of allure and desire to poet Charles Olson and Charles Baudelaire, this is both transformational and informational, it reveals its multitude in its singularity through its denial of history and time.

This is the form of religious talk I think that Latour wanted us to rehabituate ourselves to.

// edit – i hadn’t considered Latour in connection with the philosophy of Zhuangzhi!

The work of the artist in a digital age?

Just thinking out loud.

The digital age means that even the tools of Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction are not representations of reality. For Benjamin, reality has a sense of being the present, an aura of presentness.

The role of the audience or the spectator, like in the Parisian arcades (proto Consumer), becomes part of the assemblage through bracketing.

Bracketing is like purchasing an object in capitalism- an act of consumption. They are transactional but is this Deleuzian?

The bracket of the arcaded city mirrors the bracket of the arcaded nation – the closing of the frontier heralded by Frederick Jackson Turner.

Immersive digital forms are not assemblages of photographs; rather they historical objects that are aesthetically curated – they can be bracketed.

Canada and the Impressionists: New Horizons at the National Gallery

Amidst all the other things going on I was pleased to spend time at the National Gallery yesterday. The new exhibition featured some exceptional works of arts from a range of Canadian artists from Emily Carr to James Wilson Morrice. A catalog was produced and, as usual, it is a well produced book with nicely coloured plates and good paper for viewing them. I will go several times to the exhibit after reviewing the catalogue and reading the essays.

A screen grab from the NGC website showing Helen McNicoll’s Sunny September, 1913.

For now my head is brimming with questions such as how these artists thought about impressionism and their pictured responses – and would the artists assembled in this collection think of themselves as impressionists, whatever that might have meant to each of them? The catalogue and its essays will help me understand this better from a curatorial and academic perspective. I am cognizant of the use of the term “impressionism” and how it was originally a satirical take on what once critic assumed was an “unfinished work”.

I take this as my starting point: as the camera aesthetic emerged as a means of visualization and “freezing time” (think Muybridge) and “documenting” time (think of the use of the camera for policing and anthropological itemization), imaginative works of paint were not limited by the “instant” nature of time and could allow interactive lighting effects between the viewer and the object of art to mimic time but non-synchronically.

As an aside I find that I need a multi-media or a multi-modal perspective, not a “virtual collage” but rather an assemblage of techniques and tools to reflect upon. Since each medium* has its own “perspective” and each has their own benefits, when I approach objects like this exhibition I want to create my own first impression before I consume too much of other people’s perspectives and biases accrete. Much like how I normally don’t like to listen to the audio guides the first time: I prefer to take my time and explore on my own initially. This is an entitled view, of course, since I can visit this Gallery frequently.

*Marshall McLuhan has been on my reading list of late. I have recently found a copy of the first article that I ever wrote on the internet back in the 1990s on McLuhan, filled with my embarrassingly youthful utopian ideals about the global village and its hope.

My interest in Impressionism is its treatment of light. I see this predominately in relation to the emergence of photographic tools and aesthetics and how these challenges were faced by painters.

Of course by the time I saw the first work at the Gallery, it was the colouring that most grabbed my attention. And notwithstanding some lighting issues in several of the rooms (since these rooms were designed for prints and not framed canvas works) with shadows that interfered with the artists composition (the Carr landscape has its yellow sky darkened), the works are a cornucopia of styles and techniques that provided several hours of viewing pleasure. The application of paint and its control was intriguing like this example, from Ernest Lawson’s Canal Scene in Winter.

Ernest Lawson’s Canal Scene in Winter, c.1894

I have been reading the essays from the catalogue and am struck by a remark that artists such as Maurice Cullen shared certain attributes with Hokusai. It struck a cord with me since I have shared that opinion not only of Cullen but that many works of easel paintings of landscapes from the mid-19th century share not just the colouring and loose brushwork but also that same “angle of view” that resembles an aerial perspective or a hilltop view as opposed to a eye-line frontal viewing perspective. Visualization in late Meiji (called “modernizing” Japan in the West) Japan shares many of these elements. This presages the aerial views that were popularized by painted visualizations from hilltops, tall buildings, airplanes or balloons in the early 20th century. I think of it as an “anthropological” perspective. It differs for me from a “cartographic” perspective used by the Dutch in Elizabeth Sutton’s work, for example. It assumes an objective rather than a notational perspective. It is this assumption of “objective” that is soon to be the subject of much attention in the first half of the 20th century.

David Milne The Blossom Pickers, c.1911-12

The artist and the viewer have a larger focal length and more encompassing view that someone that would be a participant in the visual would have; not necessarily omnipotent but detached. So while the more “standard” impressionist work from the urban streets of Paris were photographic, many took the imagined perspective from slightly above. Note the Harris below compared with the Milne. Also, its opposite in the Henri Beau.

Lawren Harris Winter Afternoon, City Street, Toronto, or Sunday Morning, 1918
Henri Beau Woman With Parasol, 1897

And my three favourite works from this visit are below. I cannot help but make the connection between the urban and industrial works and Burtynsky’s photographs in his Anthropocene.

William Blair Bruce Landscape with Poppies 1887
J.E.H. MacDonald Tracks and Traffic, 1912
Lawren Harris Moonlight, Corner Store, Toronto, 1911

Photography, visualizations, art and identity: “seeing” people in data

As all of you know February is Black History Month.

And as many of you know, I am an avid reader and lover of data visualizations and art, it has become my pandemic passion in addition to baking bread and meditation sessions. This is one of my latest book acquisitions and has intersections with Black History Month here in Canada and data collection & data visualization, what we do here in CDOB: Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition.

The pioneering American activist and sociologist hand-drew infographics showing and representing the progress of Americans of African descent since the abolition of slavery in that country, a scant 35 years before. As a sociologist, he conducted research employing various ways to assemble data including in-person interviews, community data collection using standardized forms, and research into State taxation and household records. The variables that Du Bois visualized include family income, occupations, taxable property and mobility. These data visualizations and accompanying photographs from across the United States formed an exhibition of 500 photographs as well as charts and other maps that were collected for the Paris Exposition in 1900.

This is one of the earliest examples of the use of colour and infographics for knowledge transmission. While mapping and other forms of visualization were the predominant way to “see” information for centuries, the rise of photography as a way to standardize and itemize information was a revolution for statistical data collection. This torrent of data collection led to the demand for new ways to present complex data, a similar problem faced by us today. This was over 120 years ago! Adding yet another reason to celebrate DuBois: as a pioneer in data visualization.

But what does this have to do with Black History Month in Canada? Du Bois wasn’t Canadian but he did enter and stay in Canada as a visitor. Yes, its a stretch.

In 1905, Du Bois, then a professor at Atlanta University gathered 29 men from 14 states in Buffalo, New York to discuss the “accommodationist” stance that they claimed that Booker T. Washington advocated. These men were public leaders and intellectuals who were interested in making a stronger community, a stronger country. They sought a place to retreat to in order to think, debate and plan.

From Buffalo, they then travelled to the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario near Niagara Falls, spending a week in Canada.

According to Du Bois’ own writings at the time, the group sought a “quiet place outside the city near the water where we can be to ourselves, hold conferences together” and have access to recreation; the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario was their destination.

I agree that the Canadian side of Niagara Falls is much nicer than the American side.

Photographs of these infographics can be found in the Library of Congress link below. No known information is available on the photographers of these works that were taken at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Du Bois’ hand-drawn charts, maps and graphs represented the achievements and economic conditions of African Americans in radically inventive forms, long before such data visualization was commonly used in social research.

From the publisher.

From the Paris 1900 collection that can be found here: Library of Congress

The message from the Minister of Health that can be read here recognizes the significant and unique challenges faced by Black Canadians.

A Story of Film: A New Generation

I was more than impressed by this documentary of recent film made by Mark Cousins available on demand. This is international in its scope and certainly is epic for what it attempts to survey. Films from Korea to India to Chile are featured with an eye to how filmic visualizations have appeared on screens from 2010-2020 including the effects of Covid on such things as on-demand and streaming content. I was pleased to add a few new films to my “must watch” list for my holidays including Baby Driver, Moonlight and Vengeance.


The Dante Project

Edward Watson

I watched the stream of this ballet and I was very impressed. I don’t know a lot about the technical aspects of dance but I was utterly enthralled by the motion of these dancers along with the music of Thomas Ades. The production of the stream was impressive and while I do love going to the theatre, seeing this on my own couch with a blanket and slippers has a lot of appeal.

The art by Tacita Dean was really intriguing! Her inverted mountainous landscape was fantastic as the backdrop of the inferno and the dancers wore chalky grey and black that, as the dancers would embrace, let out these ghostly clouds. It was really awesome. There were hints not only of Botticelli in her visualization but to her earlier chalk work. The use of Dean’s street photograph from what looks like Los Angeles dominated by a massive tree. Like her chalk drawings, Dean has visualized trees in her work, including photographing Majesty, one of the largest oak trees in England.

The street visualization is rendered as a photographic negative, dominated by a Jacaranda tree (I had to look it up). The tree evidently blooms purple in the summer. This as a negative would show up as a surreal green. This is the backdrop to this Act where Dante sees his own and Beatrice’s history unfold. And while her art was static for each of the first two Acts, the third is a film of ever shifting celestial orbs. The production was really breathtaking!

For more about the production itself:

The artist as detective

I am watching The Trouble With Harry, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The main character, outside of the dead Harry, is Sam Marlowe (SAM Spade, Philip MARLOWE), an artist who acts like a detective. Based on a 1950 novel by Jack Trevor Story who, interestingly, also wrote Sexton Blake stories who was originally based on Sherlock Holmes, the archetype of “detective” for many. Saul Steinberg’s opening sequence is excellent!

Marlowe is a painter who feels unappreciated and comments that his work would sell better in Manhattan. His calm style of elicitation reveals the reality of the situation that the characters find themselves in and he even sketches a realistic funerary portrait of Harry when he initially finds him. This visualization is composed much like a mug shot with a tight frame on the face.

My point here is that in 1950 a character who is introduced initially as a canvas painter, an artist, an abstract expressionist artist, is easily acceptable as the “detective” by the audience. This shows how artists were seen not as bohemian eccentrics; rather, the artist is here visualized as someone who easily “solves” the case and has access to hidden truth.

And I missed it at first but here is Hitchcock’s cameo as he walks by the very out of place rich guy who is interested in Marlowe’s paintings.

The poet, the artist, the sleuth—whoever sharpens our perception tends to be anti- social; rarely “well-adjusted,” he cannot go along with currents and trends. Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967)