Drawing with Sticks: What Sketching Shows Us About How We Experience the World

My wife and I spent a week in a cabin on Lake Superior, as we do every year.  We divide our days between hiking and reading–or reading and sketching, in my case.  This time I took along a book about drawing with pencil and charcoal, so I was reading about sketching part of the time.  I also brought along some new drawing tools–in particular vine charcoal, which is just what the name implies: charcoal made from twigs.  I found that using it was exhilarating–the broad, soft tip made it responsive to the slightest movement of my hand, and encouraged me to work swiftly and to capture the mass of what I was drawing in a single gesture.  I am used to rather slowly building an image from innumerable lines, but this was more like using a paintbrush.  By employing an artist’s stump I could smear the charcoal to get different tones, almost like I was using ink wash or watercolors.

2 morning birchThe sense of immediacy in my resulting sketches seemed palpable.  But how to explain this?  What did speed have to do with it?  And was the crudeness of the medium–I was literally drawing with a burnt stick–an asset?

I stumbled upon one explanation in a fascinating book by the pencil and watercolor artist David Rankin.  In Fast Sketching Techniques, Rankin tells how he had to learn the difference between a sketch and a drawing late in his career.  He was used to working from photographs, building meticulous works that earned him a great deal of acclaim.  But he began to spend summers in Kashmir, and found his studio skills were inadequate for capturing the new, strange country he was in: “I had the desire to sketch or paint some of the wonderful things I saw and experienced, but was shocked to realize that my existing skills, though substantial, were simply not the right ones for the job.”  In short, he was too slow.  Rankin concludes that the difference between a sketch and a drawing is the “speed at which they were drawn.”  This seems obvious, but  Here are his examples of a drawing, and of a sketch:

Rankin Deanna


Clearly one image is much more refined and detailed–the drawing is an impressive bit of realism.  But the sketch is also impressive, for different reasons.  Rankin goes into this in more detail:

The whole purpose of sketching is different from drawing.  When you sketch from life, you’re simply trying to capture visual and emotional impressions of subjects.  You’re working fast.  Study the movements, the form,the postures and the intrinsic characteristics of a subject moment by moment.  You’re only trying to capture something of its essence in your sketch. . . . Sketches are the fastest and most creative thinking that you do with a subject.  They are intense, loose, rapid and spontaneous.  They don’t look like a slower, more deliberate drawing.

Rankin claims that this way of working exploits the difference between recognition and seeing:

. . . seeing isn’t enough.  In order to draw better, you have to be able to not just see an object, but to recognize its essential characteristics well enough to re-create its likeness on paper with only a pencil.  To sketch better you have to see and quickly recognize shapes, contours, basic features, details and relative values.  The amount of visual information we recognize in a mere glance is phenomenal.  The more alert and aware we are of these subtle momentary impressions in our minds the more we have to focus as we sketch. . . Recognition is more complex than seeing.  Recognition is a higher brain function that involves many other features of consciousness in fractions of a second.

This gets at a paradox that is at the core of what makes art work:  we never see the world, really.  We recognize it.  That is, any object we see is infinitely detailed and could be seen in an infinite number of ways.  Yet objects are recognizable.  There is a certain gestalt to them.  This is what makes it possible to “chunk” the complex stream of sense data into simplified but discrete images of what we call objects.  And it is only by using images that we can think about objects.  We never get the world as it is—we get sketches of it—vastly simplified diagrams.  As Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset put it,

. . . there is nothing we can make an object of cognition, nothing can exist for us unless it becomes an image, a concept, an idea–unless, that is, it stops being what it is in order to become a shadow or an outline of itself.

This gives us a hint as to why sketches can be so compelling.  Rankin’s work provides an example: a complex drawing that took him many hours is an impressive representation; it is a much better description of the object.  But that faithful detail takes us away from recognition and attempts to convince us we are seeing the object.  What was present in the sketch was the moment of contact, which is diluted in the more elaborately worked drawing.  In fact, much of the “work” of a drawing is ridding the image of the traces of contact precisely by adding details which recognition would have overlooked.  The more detailed a drawing becomes, the more it tries to become a substitute for the object itself, which is of course impossible.  But detailed representations can be compelling–they provide a simulacrum which is in itself a stimulating object.  When we view, say, the Mona Lisa, we view a powerful object in its own right, not a representation of a Renaissance woman.  The woman is dead, or may never have existed, and this does not diminish our experience.  Nor do we imagine we are present at the moment of contact between da Vinci and some real person.  The painting has completely replaced its original referent.

What does a sketch give that a detailed rendering cannot—or, to put it another way, why are even crude sketches often more compelling than photographs?  The answer is that the sketch tells us openly that its depiction does not “describe” but rather invokes the object.  It respects the object’s autonomy by not attempting to replace it.  The sketch’s reduced information stands in for the irreducibility of objects.  Their sovereignty.   First the sketch causes us to recognize what is being observed, then it warns us away from any attempt at replacing the object with a simulacrum.

Furthermore, the sketch flatters the viewer because the viewer has more to infer—recognizing the content of a sketch often takes more work than seeing an elaborate drawing or photograph.  The viewer must both identify the subject and be willing to intuit the missing detail, or trust that there is more to be known than can be known.  This is why many amateur photographs are utterly lifeless–they seem to exhaust us with detail, yet there is no sense of depth in the representation.  We do recognize the objects in the photograph but we do not sense that there is complexity beneath them–the image gives us nothing to do.   Of course, this is true of bad sketches as well.  But in that case we are sure that the fault is in the rendering–the objects themselves are not tedious or awkward.   A sketch preserves the basic reality that any perception of an object creates a new hybrid object, composed of the perceiver and the perceived.  We never forget that the subject of a sketch is present to the artist, and vice-versa.

Here are some pages from my sketchbook, most of them focused on an old birch tree which stood outside the window of our cabin.  What I like about them is they seem to preserve the intensity of my encounters.

2 harbors old birch

Scan 1

2 harb old birch 2

Here are a couple of “seascapes”:

2 harb cloud and moon

th2 harb cloudline

I feel happy with these, because they remind me of the power of Lake Superior’s North Shore.  My sketches are not substitutes for the landscape, but they express the recognition I felt when I was in them.  I also remember how pleasurable these drawings were to make.  They seemed quick and effortless.


I spent Earth Day playing folk music and manning a booth at our local celebration, which was held in conjunction with the Saturday farmer’s market.  Despite the unseasonable cold, it was a jolly gathering of mostly the same people I see at all liberal-leaning events in our small Minnesota city.  People were buying organic vegetables and picking up fliers about solar power, climate change, and pollinator-friendly gardening.  There were booths selling hand-made jewelry and the like.  One organization was giving out free tree saplings, another was handing out free starter plants for vegetable gardens.  There was a sense of loose social unity, but in the Age of Trump it seemed hard to believe that wearing a hemp necklace and planting a choke cherry tree would move the needle much.  We seemed stuck in two worlds: one that believes we need to radically change, to move away from the corrupt, self-destructive fossil-fuel-guzzling status quo, and one that wants to double down on the that same system, seeing it as the source of prosperity.  This had me thinking about the Protestant Reformation.

Last November my wife and I went to see the Minnesota Orchestra perform a series of works in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Protestant rebellion against the Catholic Church.  The evening started out with Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite, featuring Adam Kuenzel playing the intricate the intricate twiddles of a fugue.  As always, I was left imagining a formidable and impassioned candy box.


Bach’s music is the essence of the 18th century Protestant world-view, one that embraced middle class order and decency, empowered by a newly rationalized view of nature and society.  With the collapse of Christendom’s central authority, the Papacy, the new nation-states of Europe had to find other sources of political unity.  Perhaps for the first time since the Roman Empire, Europeans turned their idealism to this world, rather than living in anticipation of the next one.  Luther removed celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood and dissolved the monastic orders: as a result Christians could suddenly embrace procreation and the family in a way that was only provisionally possible in Medieval times.  The emphasis on scripture as the sole authority in spiritual affairs (sola scriptura) made reading the Bible central to religious life and therefore encouraged ordinary people to become literate and to explore their individual faith.  The Reformation made the church local and participatory again: church music of the early 15th Century was “sung in Latin by the clergy in the church choir stalls. The reformers aimed at giving music back to the people – to all worshipers, including the women,” according to the Virtual Museum of Protestantism (which is a trip in itself, if you want to wander the dreams of the Reformation, French-style).  The result was an explosion of music composed in the vernacular, performed and sung by the community it was written for.  Bach is the high end of the movement, as he was subsidized by the aristocracy (and was criticized for being too intricate).  But the blending of the music of the court with the music of the people is still part of his legacy, as every child who has had to play Bach on a rented instrument in a local school concert can attest.

Here is the opening of the Second Orchestral Suite in Bach’s own hand, so you can hum along (this is from the Bach Digital website):

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 5.54.00 AM

Of course, this cheerful narrative elides the chaos of the Wars of Religion (of which there were nine in France alone).  In the next 150 years, 10 to 20 percent of the population of Europe would die in sectarian violence.  Much blood flowed before the calm notes of Bach.

We might see the obsession with order that is so noticeable in Bach’s music as a reaction to the extreme disorder that preceded it.  In fact, the entire Enlightenment might be seen as a response to Christendom’s great civil war.  This is the subject of a fascinating book, Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  Toulmin argues pretty convincingly that Modernity’s insistence that nature is rationally structured and that society should follow suit is a result of trauma experienced by the generation that had suffered through religious war.  Nature became “Nature,” a supreme authority that could be invoked without dissent.  As Nature was God’s creation, it was religious, but not theological: the “book of Nature” could be read by science instead of by religious partisans.  It was the great unifying concept that helped patch together Europe by making Europeans Moderns.  Although this concept would drive the movement toward secularism, it was not secular at the outset.  Thus, I hear in Bach’s music the sublime reassurance of the clockwork universe, complex and various but always moving toward a predetermined unity.

Which brings us to the second work performed by the Minnesota Orchestra that November night–Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” symphony, which was written in 1830 to commemorate the tercentenary of the Augsburg Confession.   Which is what? you may ask if you are not a Lutheran.  The Augsburg Confession was a response by Martin Luther and his associates to a demand from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that the breakaway Princes and Free Cities of the new Lutheran movement explain their new belief to him.   Which they did in the city hall of Augsburg.  Charles V was hoping to resolve doctrinal differences in order to unite Europe against the Ottoman Empire.  His tactic didn’t work, and instead the Lutheran “confession” became the central document unifying the Lutheran faith– the wars of religion would soon follow. 

Why would Mendelssohn write a symphony about Luther’s confession three hundred years later?  The conflicts fueling the Reformation kept rumbling underneath the peace of Westphalia, which ostensibly put an end to the religious wars in 1648.  King Wilhelm Friedrich III of Prussia was planning to throw a big celebration in Berlin.  Wilhelm was ambitious to make Berlin a center of European culture, and he was also hoping “to unify Calvinists and Lutherans into a single Protestant liturgy, thereby strengthening its political influence against the Catholic church,” according to conductor Michael Lewanski’s helpful notes on the Reformation symphony.  Prussia had emerged as a political power capable of unifying the German people, and Friedrich was hoping to use religious unity to help solidify that power.  Mendelssohn was the scion of a prominent Jewish family that had converted to Protestantism; he was also an ambitious composer.  The symphony would serve to both further his musical career and affirm his commitment to the Lutheran ethos. 

The party in Berlin never happened, and Mendelssohn’s composition would not be played until 1832.  At the time it was not well liked; a premier in Paris was cancelled because, according to the Chicago Symphony’s program notes, “the musicians found the score unplayable (‘much too learned, too much fugato, too little melody,’ was one verdict).”  But it has become popular in the ensuing years, especially with Lutherans.  The composition features two popular melodies, well-known to church going audiences: the “Dresden Amen,” a series of six ascending notes popular with liturgical choirs, and Martin Luther’s famous composition, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

The symphony enacts, one might say, the struggle of the Reformation: Lewanski refers to the development mode as “a crisis and out-pouring” of “deep and conflicting emotions” that are resolved by Luther’s melody “as if to suggest that not only faith, but the power of music as an expression thereof, is a savior.”  The symphony ends with, Lewanski says,

a full-throated, almost too insistent chorus of the entire orchestra declaiming the hymn at first in unison, then in a traditional harmonization.  It is a striking claim — rather than music as an agent of transcendence, here it seeks to affirm and unify the social order with the religious in [a] way that only a composer like Mendelssohn, born and raised a member of the only recently emerged bourgeoisie, whose family were Lutheran converts from Judaism, was in a unique position to have imagined.

This expression of social solidarity was very apparent in the audience that night, as a great many middle- and upper-class Minnesotan Lutherans (the whole night had been partially underwritten by a Lutheran arts organization) were palpably aroused by the symphonic affirmation.  Conductor Osmo Vänskä caught the fervor of the moment.   Always an emotional conductor, he seemed a whirlwind of passion on his little platform:

venska, violin

The musicians, too, played with Romantic fervor.


bass bowed

The audience at the finale roared its approval.  Doubtless many of the Lutherans in attendance were only Lutheran by family tradition, the winds of secularization having swept them clean of their faith.  Others may have been descendants of various flavors of the Reformation–Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist–and many were doubtless Catholic, either confessionally or culturally.  But for a moment the hall was united by the dream of einheit that Mendelssohn was orchestrating.  That is one of the supreme effects of music.

After the intermission came the much-anticipated premier of RE-FORMATION, a choral symphony specially commissioned by the Orchestra for the anniversary of the Lutheran revolution.  Composed by Sebastian Currier, RE-FORMATION is described in the program notes as a work which “recalls the past—incorporating fragments of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony—while also looking forward, ending with a choral hymn that encourages us to protect our natural environment for future generations.”  This of course attracted my interest, and was the main reason for my being there.  I am always on the hunt for art that attempts to address our looming environmental predicament.  In descriptions of the work, Currier is explicit about his intention to do just that.  As the program notes say:

Currier was particularly struck by the connection between Psalm 46—the basis for Luther’s Ein’ feste Burg text—to modern environmentalism. “In the Psalm’s first stanza, God’s strength is depicted by his ability to save us from the ravages of a destructive natural world, from apocalypse,” he notes. “Considering the world today, this viewpoint is reversed. We cannot stand by idly and permit our actions to destroy the planet. We need to take action.”

Wow.  Okay.  Would this be the kind of clarion call we needed?  Would it help mobilize our energies in the direction of change?

Unfortunately, no.  And the reasons for its failure are worth considering, as they arise from the limitations of Modernity itself.

I am not a music critic, and I am pretty much your standard oaf when it comes to classical music.  Perhaps, had my ear been more refined, I would have been able to, as the New York Times critic did, experience Currier’s work as “harrowingly effective.”  But instead I found it a dissonant, self-mocking morass.   Moreover, I was conscious that this effect was by design.  The composer’s own notes (from his publisher’s website) indicate his intention: “As RE-FORMATION begins, we hear fragments from Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony ring out amidst a more obscure sound world, like decaying structures in a ruined landscape.”  The “ruined landscape” is not expressly defined, but we can pretty much assume that Currier is critiquing the bourgeois affirmations that Mendelssohn forged out of his first and second movements.  That is, Currier is to some extent dissing the very feeling of social union that moved the audience to thunderous applause before the intermission.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century it has become axiomatic that high art must be suspicious of those grand gestures which unified Europe in the previous century.  The crisis of faith in Western Civilization began in the late 19th century as the internal contradictions of Modernity began to emerge: first, the rise of scientific challenges to Biblical narratives (and especially Darwin’s new mechanism for creation) began to erode the faith in, well, faith.  Moderns discovered that, having installed Nature as an inarguable authority, they didn’t particularly need the authority of scripture, or even the idea of God, to wield that authority.  Moderns believed themselves to possess, for the first time, objective knowledge of Nature, which they felt distinguished them from all other societies; Modern political and moral life would be based on sound reasoning and objective facts, not superstition or blind tradition.  This new belief empowered a growing secularity which ate away at religion and traditions alike.

However, for a long stretch of the 19th Century Christians and secularists alike  were committed to a belief in Progress.  The great imperial projects of globalization and industrialization, combined with the rise of technical expertise and the bureaucratic state needed to enact it, seemed to promise the “heaven on earth” that in some ways Luther was enabling when he married Katrina von Bora, an ex- nun, in 1525.  Bourgeios business in this world could be a noble calling, and could be part of God’s plan for universal uplift.   However, by the end of the 19th century, intellectuals came to the  realization that the West represented not just enlightenment, freedom and democracy but also imperialism, exploitation and fratricide.  The “civilizing mission” that had been seen as The White Man’s Burden looked, when stripped of its veneer, a lot like the rapine of global capitalism.  You can see this revelation at work in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to name a prominent example.  Kurtz’s final words, “The horror!  The horror!” are expressive of how a lot of intellectuals felt about newspaper accounts of European atrocities in the Belgian Congo and, by extension, about injustices occurring throughout the entire project of the European imperium.  Finally, when Europeans turned on each other with machine guns and mustard gas in 1914, that was the end of any optimism about civilization’s grand march forward.

The resulting intellectual suspicion of grand narrative and of bourgeois demands for cultural solidarity is thus understandable, even morally laudable.  But it tends to create a major problem when an art form is asked to perform the old task of unifying, rather than critiquing, the audience.  Modern art and literature have been especially skilled at skewering, lampooning, deconstructing bourgeois society.  The prevailing methods have been fragmentation, bricolage, and pastiche: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as Eliot says in The Waste Land.  The main point has been to present a broken mirror to society, so that it might awaken from its dream of unity and take up the burden of self-knowledge.  We might say that the prevailing mode is tragedy, rather than comedy or heroism.  But in the Greek usage, the tragic mode was supposed to remind audiences of the transcendent power of the gods and the limits of human power.  The secularism of late Modernity meant that tragedy now presented the audience with an anagnorisis but no higher dimension to appeal to.

According to the program information, RE-FORMATION is a fairly standard modern product:

In RE-FORMATION composer Sebastian Currier and writer Sarah Manguso continue this process of using material from the past and reconfiguring it to suit contemporary needs. In 1517 Luther’s predominate concerns were the corruption of the papacy and an individual’s relationship to God. In 2017 Currier and Manguso recast Luther’s concerns from the sacred to the secular: to the environment and the urgent need for humans to take responsibility for the safety of the planet. As the piece unfolds, this lineage becomes apparent. We first hear a fragment from Psalm 46 sung in the original Hebrew, then the same fragment in a Latin translation from Roman times. Following this is the first phrase of the Martin Luther in German, and then a translation of the Luther, from the time period, into English.

This does make a kind of sense.  Environmentalism is seen by most people as a reform issue: Modernity must be adjusted so that our industrial civilization can come to “care for Mother Earth.”  The problem with this comparison is that Luther was reforming the Church by pushing it back to what he considered to be its original purpose.  He believed that the Church of his day was corrupt, and needed to be put back on course.  This sense of returning to original purpose is antithetical to Modernity, which does not seek to return to an original state but attempts to assert a radical break from the past.  “Reform” for Moderns can only mean doubling down on a belief in objectivity and rationality–a belief which, increasingly, seems to be a source of new conflicts rather than a solution.  But for a secular society to admit the limitations of human reason and will is to, in a sense, enter a cul de sac where neither Nature nor God are helpful.  As Nietzsche realized, the result is nihilism.

It is in this sense that the language of environmental politics is so fraught.  Are we fighting for Nature?  Nature is everywhere and everything, so why does it need a savior?  Are we then fighting for human survival?  Darwin told us that already, and what does that have to do with protecting species?  Moreover, some wish to cling to the older, more theistic Modernity in which science was the handmaiden of the Church (for example, most Fundamentalists are of this persuasion–stuck in ideas about God and Nature that animated Descartes and Newton but fell away after Darwin.  This explains the seeming contradiction of their embrace of modern technology and their hatred of evolution).  Everywhere the contradictions are growing more pronounced.  The “Radical Right” is correct that there is a lot of strange religion in environmentalism: most environmentalist are animated by some notion of the sacredness of creation which is hard to explain scientifically.  And of course, people on the Right don’t admit there is a lot of strange religion in their camp as well–an irrational hybridization of Ayn Rand, Leo Strauss and American evangelicalism, to be exact).  With this fraught background in mind let us examine the words Sarah Manguso penned for Currier’s choral section of RE-FORMATION:

Black sky, forgive us.
Black sea, forgive us.
Black earth, forgive us.
Orb rushing dead through the silent night,
all cinder,
forgive us.

First of all, we can see how Nature has revealed itself to be just another name for God, who is being asked, in the guise of sky, sea, and earth, to forgive us for our transgressions.  You can see how this might be confusing to Christians and scientists alike.  Second of all, a dead orb is not a likely rallying point for consolidating political action.  Manguso is seemingly describing Mars, rather than Earth.  Contrary to her vision, the earth is not a “cinder”–not yet–and the geosciences all tell us that the planet is a very robust agent with a long history of spectacular comebacks, so it is extremely likely to outlive our current troubles.  Moreover, if it is dead, we are surely dead–unless we are somehow in heaven looking down?  The confusion compounds.

Passing over our objections to the talk of a “dead orb,” the next stanza is much more dynamic and seems to presage a bio-resurrection:

Deep in the ash of the grave of the world
Where nothing is,
We pray for the sound of new being to sound.
For one bright drop to swell—
For life to seethe, green-blue,
flowering endlessly.

Which might be something we could get behind.  But notice the next move Manguso makes:

We will unfoul the waters,
the sky, the terrestrial marrow.
We will unpoison the heart of everything that is.

The poem has moved from utter helplessness and a cry for forgiveness to a kind of human triumphalism, almost a paeon to geo-engineering.  Here is the modern problem: Nature is sometimes all-powerful, invoked as the final authority, as the source of “laws” that govern us, and sometimes utterly passive, tractable, random, and meaningless.  It is both the source of all value and the negation of all value–often at the same time!  RE-FORMATION concludes its choral section with an attempt to weld this great contradiction together, asking first that Nature wake up (implying it is passive and inactive) and then that it “have mercy” on us, implying we are the helpless ones who need it to save us.  What a weird contradiction!  The last lines sound as if Joseph Priestly had rewritten the Catholic mass as some sort of deist rite:

Light, decorate the heavens.
Benevolent system, awaken.
Have mercy. Have mercy.

This is not so weird really, if you see it as revealing the contradiction at the very heart of Modernity and therefore exposing the source of our feckless inability to deal with the existential threat of climate change.  No wonder, then, that at the conclusion of RE-FORMATION, members of the audience were noticeably unenthused.  After being reassured by Bach and brought to their feet by Mendelssohn, they were both confused and somewhat affronted by the message of the composer.  And I don’t blame them!

We desperately need a new Reformation–our current one is on its last legs and cannot address the dangers we face.  We need a new unifying vision, but it won’t be found in Modernism, or Post-modernism.




This pond lily grew all night and broke the surface this morning.  I bought it at a nursery and submerged it in my fish pond, which I spent Saturday cleaning out and getting ready for the summer.  My previous pond lily didn’t make it through the winter.  All week I have watched this new one reach for the sun.


It is difficult to draw things which exist in two media: how to differentiate what is submerged from what is emergent?  How to depict the sheer wonder of that bifurcated existence?  This occupied me for the length of time it took to do the sketch.

I am reminded of William Stafford’s poem “Connections”:


Number Nine

9 of clubs

Last week my good friend Kurt posted a great piece on his blog about “Driverless Cars and Bodiless Brains” (http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/2018/03/driverless-cars-and-bodiless-brains.html#more).  He is referring of course to the news that Uber’s prototype driverless vehicle just ran over and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.  Kurt points out the folly of thinking that AI will be able to replicate the complicated systems that make up human cognition, in part because the researchers are under the false impression that intelligence is isolated in the brain.  Kurt points out

human cognition is not a thing. It cannot be reproduced without reproducing the entire system within which it operates. Human cognition emerges out of the system we live within rather than merely being embedded in it. Cognition is a process rather than a result. But so are the whole host of other processes we attribute to humans: feeling, judging, willing, and perceiving.

I was musing on this as I fingered the nine of clubs that I found in the alley a couple of days ago.  It was frozen to the asphalt and glittering with ice crystals when I pried it up.  It hardly looked like a playing card, as it was mottled with filth and swollen from the March snow-melt to something like the thickness of a cracker.   I put it on a window ledge on my front porch, which faces south and is in the direct path of the spring sun.  By yesterday the card had dried out and resembled itself again.

I am–like many of my readers, I suspect–superstitious about cards encountered randomly.  I once picked up a tarot card on the road by my student dwelling in Freiburg, Germany.  It was the King of Pentangles, which, I found when I looked it up, signifies a person who is a “a natural manager and businessperson” who “has the Midas touch.”  Now, obviously, I didn’t believe a playing card was magically diagnosing my personality or predicting my future.  Certainly I am not in any way a “natural manager,” nor do I have the ability to turn everything I touch to gold.  Yet I also didn’t believe the card to be meaningless.  It seemed somehow an important omen at a very critical point in my life when I needed to feel that the universe was on my side.  I wove the card into my story, and its meanings were ambiguous and varied enough to allow for that.  If the card represented a character who handles a task “competently, drawing on his wide range of skills and practical knowledge” as well as being “always dependable and responsible,” that was an aspirational invitation, if not really a prophecy.

What meaning should I draw from this nine of clubs found in my alley? The back of the card tells me it is from a pack sold as part of a magic kit–there is a goofy drawing of a cartoon magician.  Some kid, probably, practicing sleight-of-hand on his way home from school, let the nine of clubs slip away.  Now the deck is useless to him, I suppose, but he left me a mystery to contemplate.  According to one internet source the nine of clubs represents a “person has all the power tools they need to construct a successful and rewarding life. Developing a strong work ethic and clear direction are essential for unlocking their inherent potential.”  It would, of course, be hard to argue with that.  Another site developed this idea further:

The 9 of Club is known as the “Adventurer’s Card”. They like to gamble and are always willing to take a chance. They are intensely curious and when they apply their adventurous spirit to the field of knowledge, they are capable of making profound discoveries that benefit others on a universal scale.

Well, that does sound propitious.  Or, more to the point, I feel it is propitious because I am at a time in my life when I sense that I may need to take more chances, to be more adventurous.  I am at the tail end of my teaching career, my children are grown up now, and I am feeling the call of adventure.  So of course I ally myself with the (admittedly trite and randomly encountered) meanings of this card.  I’ll keep it pinned to my bulletin board as a reminder of my psychic situation.

To think of an object as significant in some way is to risk apophenia, “the tendency to perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things.”  For any serious Modern, that would describe most of what we think about all day.  Because a Modern must scrupulously police his or her thinking for any kind of confusion between facts (empirical truths about Nature) and values (superfluous preferences, prompted by the imagination), pretty much everything we find significant is a mild version of apophenia, a kind of “white lie” we live with but shouldn’t really avow.  But that is a skepticism too binary to be descriptive, and it tends to make rigorous Moderns feel either phantasmal or nihilistic.  Luckily most of us are not rigorous Moderns, and we instinctively know that we value things because we want to put them to use.  The tangled complex of body, mind and world that each of us is relies on narrative, on poetry, on art, on any number of pragmatically fetishized objects or images to marshal our actions and focus our aims.

The term apophenia was coined in 1958 by psychiatrist Klaus Conrad to describe truly debilitating mental states, such as those experienced in early stages of schizophrenia. He defined the condition as “unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness.”  Anyone who has encountered a person in the grip of psychic mania or a paranoid episode can affirm the misery of too much meaning.  And certainly one of the advantages of the Modern world-view has been its heightened critique of human tendencies to over-invest the world with significance.  Experimental empiricism provides a powerful critique of human fallacies such as anthropomorphism, hasty generalization, “gambler’s fallacy,” and confirmation bias.  But by the same token, one of the debilitating effects of Modern skepticism is a specific feeling of abnormal meaninglessness, brought on by the fact/value divide.  Because Moderns, since the 1620s, have been obsessed by the desire to construct a true picture of the underlying structure of the natural world, they are continually discounting the other instrumental functions of cognition. What is thought “for”?  Their answer can only be “dividing fact from fancy.”  But such a neat cleavage does not take into account–or at least is not nearly critical enough–of the provisional status of facts and the fanciful uses we make of them.

Science tends to begin in skepticism and end in certainty–starting with a hypothesis and ending with facts.  But, as Bruno Latour has pointed out, that is only one cycle in an endlessly looping process.  The move from openness and skeptical questioning to certainty is always provisional, and always at the cost of some left-over contradictions and confusions which must be set aside in the interest of going forward.  Yet the truly innovative spirit of science is the promise that at some point the case will be reopened, as new information, or even just the excluded old information, must be accounted for.  Yet we often are tempted to treat our facts, our theories, our systems, as more solid than they can ever be.  We become superstitious about our certainties. And this encourages us to build systems that we promise “cannot fail.”  Until they do, as just happened in Tempe.

My nine of clubs card speaks to me of the mysterious significance of the world.  No thing is meaningless, because everything is connected and everything is speaking.  But neither can we grasp fully what a thing is saying.  There is too much potential meaning, and very little understanding.  So we proceed in fear and trembling–or at least with a healthy dose of irony.  My card is supposed to signal adventure: there is an adventure for you.

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 6.01.57 AM

UPDATE:  for a fascinating artistic take on this subject, see the collaborative project “Agency Apophany”:



Ecce Homo, Amor Fati

ecce homo 2

This guy was sitting a row behind me at a recent performance by the student orchestras at the University of Minnesota (my daughter plays viola in one of them).  I sketched him for a good 15 minutes, during which he never once looked up from his phone.  Something about the intensity of his engrossment prompted me to give him a halo and the Latin epithet which means “Behold the Man.”  Ecce Homo is both a brand of late medieval piety, one in which devout people focused on depictions of Christ being exposed to the mockery of the Jerusalem crowd (“Behold the man!” is what Pilate says as he leads Jesus before the rabble) and the title of Nietzsche’s (self-mocking, self-promoting) last book.  Nietzsche likes the phrase because it is laudatory and ironic at the same time–it conjures both triumph and ridicule and is tinged with martyrdom.  I attached it to this man because I see him, locked in amor fati with his phone, as a martyr of sorts.  A sacrifice to the complexities of late Modernity.

Modernity–privileging as it does mind over matter while simultaneously claiming only matter exists–specializes in producing loneliness.  Moderns wander homeless among the material agents that invent and sustain them; the assumed inauthenticity of their subjective life leads them to doubt the authenticity of others–with whom they connect mainly through the brutal–but mathematisable–competition of the marketplace which Marx called “the icy water of egotistical calculation” that “resolved personal worth into exchange value.”  No wonder mid-twentieth-century Moderns were frightened of being alone in a crowd (viz. books with titles like The Lonely Crowd)–this is not a formula for happy fellow-feeling.  But at least  loneliness left Moderns time to think.  Now the crowd never leaves them alone.  Thanks to the internet, Moderns are trapped in an incessant conversation with millions of others frantically vying to be “liked” and clicked on and responded to, all in a virtual space, far from those physical bodies doing the liking and clicking.  Alone and crowded!  A strange, anxiety-soaked achievement.

This man I have sketched is neither here nor there.  He is not here because he is oblivious to his actual surroundings–but neither is he lost in his thoughts.  He is somewhere between mind and world, on a flat screen, watching texts scroll by like marching insects.  His problem is not alienation but engulfment.  He is networked to a crowd whose every trivial thought is hurled at him with increasing rapidity.  If he is on Snapchat or Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, then it is a preening, flattering crowd, intent on reducing him to a court sycophant.  Like a character out of Dangerous Liaisons, he must present his best life, powdered, bewigged, rouged, to the judgment of others equally dedicated to self-promotion and capable of turning on him in a vicious, seething horde.  Is he reading his news feed?  Is he checking his bank account?  Is he bidding for a snowblower on eBay?  Is he looking for love on Tinder?  Then it is a wheedling, conniving crowd, pressing in on him, amplifying his desires in hopes of robbing him of his time and money.  The “icy water of egotistical calculation” has been heated and accelerated to a boiling torrent.

Worse yet, this man is addicted to the onslaught.  Social media turns every smart phone into a dopamine-fueled slot machine.  The intermittent reinforcement which the network affords mimics chemical dependency; statistically, this young man will likely check his phone 75 times a day and he’ll spend three hours–and very possibly up to eight hours– staring into it.  He will check his phone within minutes of waking and it will be the last thing he sees before he falls asleep.  This is a level of devotion lovers of old could not boast of–there is even a one-in-ten chance he has looked at his phone while having sex.

This is a radical twisting of what was originally meant by “the text.”

The picture below is Albrecht Durer’s rendering of St. Jerome, the man who translated the Vulgate Bible:

St. Jerome

Notice the similarities in concentration: the downward look, the half-closed lids.  But there is a profound difference between what the two men are doing.  St. Jerome leans over a text that is utterly still. The text is not vaporous or reactive, it is inert.  Whatever moves is his own doing, and what he is doing is shifting his attention between a text he is reading and a text he is creating as he translates the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into Latin–the common language of his day.  He is combining what he receives with what he understands to create new content, but that new text will always only be a still object, a surface with marks on it.  This object–this Latin text–will be replicated throughout the late Classical and Medieval world, but slowly, painstakingly, in the scriptorium (and later in the print shop).  Human hands will copy strings of letters onto sheets which other hands will collate and sew into books, each one bearing the weight of time and materiality.

Also, notice that Jerome is alone.  A book is an object that speaks, but haltingly, locally, singly.  Books can network minds, yes, but they remain objects.  Each book is unique; it bears traces of contact–marginalia, lunch stains, wormholes–and smells of vellum and dust.  A book is a solid node in a ghostly network–like a bus stop on the spirit line.  It is built of thoughts yanked from the stream of consciousness, but they have been halted and stilled and incarnated: one can shelter in their solidity.  Others can gather there too–but only one at a time.  A book is infinitely patient and will stand to one side for millennia, passively awaiting further visitors.  The structure of printed text does not shift with time, or with interaction.  That contact between the still and the moving–between  text and  person–is what has made the text so meaningful to civilization–stabilizing language, codifying belief, bolstering the state, and, with the spread of literacy, forming the Modern person.  That is to say, the very idea of the individual, which is so central to Western notions of religion and politics, is in large part a function of literacy.  As Walter Ong has said, unlike oral cultures, for whom language is irremediably social, in text based cultures “reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves.”  This is why Protestantism championed public education, the goal of which was to turn each person into an individual soul in solitary meditation over the Bible.  Reading was a sacred rite of passage.  Subsequently reading became a political rite of passage: democracy in its modern form is unthinkable without literacy, nor is industrial society.   Science, law, politics, religion, all rely on texts–no wonder the United Nations has defined literacy as a fundamental human right.

Yet the written text owes its structure to oral culture.  In his discussion of the shift from oral cultures to text-based cultures, Ong points out that oral cultures use elegance of structure to aid memory: without writing, “How could you ever call back to mind what you had so laboriously worked out?” he asks.  The answer is to “Think memorable thoughts.”  Oration is characterized by “mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence,” patterns such as balance, antithesis, rhythm, anaphora, consonance.  Once writing began these patterns were transferred: what we call “good writing” has the hallmarks of memorable speech.  The figures and tropes of rhetoric which have been part of the literary curriculum for thousands of years are based on hundreds of thousands of years of oral practice.  Eloquence aids memory, quite simply, and even thought written texts to some extent made memory irrelevant, the physical difficulty encountered in reproducing and transporting books, and their irreducible singularity (only one person at a time can read an individual book), meant that memory still played an important role in written structure.  When books are rare, one often has to remember them rather than own them.  Moreover, reading (like oration) is linear, and longer texts require memory for comprehension.  Reading the Bible, for example, necessitates that readers hold ideas and events from previous chapters in mind as they work their way through the vast labyrinth of stories, proverbs, laws, and prophecies.

In sum, the physical text, like the oration that preceded it, had to be carefully constructed in order to be comprehensible.  Since artful construction takes time and effort, it was axiomatic that published writing was reserved for important content.  Which is not to say that all writing was eloquent.  The origin of writing  is in record-keeping: advanced agricultural societies required a way to keep track of their storehouses of grain and pottery and weapons, so memory was outsourced to the clay tablets of scribes.  No one needed, in a literate age, spend a great deal of time making an eloquent grocery list–though in oral times one would do so if one wanted to remember the items.  The creation of un-artful language is thus to some extent a function of literacy.

One sees a gradual abandonment of memory-based writing as civilizations age; a good illustration being the decline in the use of poetry for mundane content.  Many Greek texts on natural history, economics, agronomy, etc. were written as didactic poems.  Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things is an example from the Roman period of a work of philosophy set to verse.   As late as the 18th century the naturalist Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) versified a botanical treatise called “The Loves of the Plants”–but today it would be unthinkable that a scientist would turn to verse to express his or her ideas.

But what happens when technology begins to invent new ways of recording and disseminating speech?  Ong claims that with the coming of radio, phonographs, telephones, television and magnetic tape, technology had created something new, which he called “secondary orality.”  This new form of orality differed greatly in scale:


Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, . . .But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture-McLuhan’s “global village.” Moreover, before writing, oral folk were group-minded because no feasible alternative had presented itself. In our age of secondary orality, we are group-minded self-consciously and programmatically. The individual feels that he or she, as an individual, must be socially sensitive.

Much of the twentieth century was consumed with this new orality, as broadcast media played an increasingly important role in social organization.  At first, media reinforced eloquence, as transmissions were not repeatable; but with the rise of recording technologies, oral communication was freed from memory–and to some extent from eloquence, especially since it was occurring alongside a vast production of written texts.  In secondary orality, one exploits the emotional immediacy of personal delivery, but no longer is disciplined by the formal demands of primary orality.

This leads to an noticeable shift in expectations for public communication.  The fact that one does not have to be memorable when communicating means that one can be “informal” –i.e. unstructured, non-repetitive, spontaneous. When informality is allied to the warmth of presence, the result is a kind of illusion of intimacy.  Intimate speech is elliptical, allusive, telegraphic because the close relation between communicants provides context.  Many things are unsaid because they remain in the storehouse of shared experience–events, beliefs, aspirations can all be “pointed to” without being described.  When public communication mimics this intimacy in its embrace of informality, inarticulacy begins to signal close–therefore authentic–relationships.

One can trace this by comparing the rising informality in the discourse of American presidents; from, for example, the speeches of Wilson, which where extremely formal and had to be written down and disseminated by newspapers, to the “fireside chats” of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which made use of the “secondary orality” of radio and happened right in people’s living rooms– to the television version of such a chat Jimmy Carter gave in 1977 in a beige cardigan (demonstrating that visual information was beginning to play an increasingly important role).  In the twenty-first century, it is a short distance between George Bush deliberately mispronouncing the word “nuclear” to the ungrammatical, misspelled Tweets of Donald J. Trump.  Clearly something quite profound has happened: Trump’s supporters feel a degree of intimacy with him purely as a result of the medium he is using.


I would argue that social media like Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat have moved us to what I would call “tertiary orality”: a stage where public communication lacks the memorable structure of orality because it leans on the permanence of text and lacks explicit content because it pretends to intimacy.  If secondary orality convinced us to be “group-minded self-consciously and programmatically” in ever-larger groups, tertiary orality highjacks language and uses it to serve primarily as an incessant reinforcement of group belonging.  Tertiary orality  mimics intimacy because its use is not to develop thoughts or arguments but to simply mark one’s place in a social network.  The average text takes less than five seconds to read, so there is literally no there there.  Yet 913,242,000 of these minimal texts are sent every hour of every day worldwide.  It is not their content but their status as action that matters.  This is part because human beings can’t actually be intimate with more than about 50 people.  Social media, with its capitalistic love of expansion, tries to employ the discourse of intimacy to push the user past the possibility of intimacy.  If Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message,” we might say the message is “I text, therefore I am connected.”  Affirmation, confirmation, are all that is required for the most part.  Like the reassuring caws of agitated flocks of crows, most messaging is conducting the primary business of holding the group together.  The result is the social enshrinement of inarticulacy and superficiality as a signifier of belonging.  This would explain the widespread use of emojis, which essentially replace linguistic structures with visual symbols, and this would certainly explain Snapchat messaging, which is largely sub-literate. It would also explain the over-use of exclamation points, all-caps, and other textual devices that are the equivalent of speaking more loudly when you think you are not understood. It is a language of likes and dislikes, a language that points to content but never conveys it.  In this it resembles most the parlance of advertising (which got to false intimacy as a mode long before the internet).  What is texting and Snapchatting and Instagramming but the parlance of the commodified personality?

To return, finally, to the young man depicted above, the martyr who began this conversation: he is scrolling and clicking and swiping right–he is passing on gossip and terse rejoinder and trivial commentary on his status that once would have been reserved for the ephemera of breath.  And yet does he have time for reading the texts painstakingly carpentered to outlast the flood?  Does he have time to be alone with either his own thoughts, or the thoughts once deemed worthy of remembrance?

We have entered the age that we might call “the tyranny of the thumb.”  What can’t be said by a thumb isn’t worth saying.  Many will admit that this is frustrating, even debilitating at times.  Yet we must love it!  Moderns must accept the Modern!  Ninety-five percent of people under 25 have phones–a truly remarkable market penetration.  I mentioned in my first paragraph the phrase amor fati, which is translated as “love of one’s fate.”  Nietzsche was an expositor of this idea, as he puts it in Ecce Homo:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.  Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it–all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary–but love it.

It seems that we are to take this world of phantom intimacy, this swarming embrace of a needy and demanding virtual crowd, as the condition of our time.  I feel that gravitational pull as I walk through the world, among those who gaze into their hands.  Yet I still don’t carry a phone most days (and when I do it is an antique flip phone).  I have never learned to text.

I do carry a sketchbook.

Phone watching 5
The tyranny of the thumb


EXHIBIT A. Sketches from the Boston Trolley


Phone watching 1
People watching their phones.  Are they different from people reading books or newspapers? Am I imagining it?  Do I see obsessiveness, anxiousness in the phone-watching-face?
Phone watching 2
Sometimes the phone is like an eclipse.
Phone watching 3
This guy is part of a “three body problem.”  He has made his communications frantic in a non-linear manner.


Phone watching (book)
Here’s a guy reading a book.  He looks more relaxed to me.  When he’s reading he’s “in” the book, but the book is not actively pursuing him.  It is not intermittent, or preening.  It is just there.  He knows it is an object.


van gogh man reading.jpg
Sketch by Vincent van Gogh.  Because we always need a sketch by van Gogh.

The Past Isn’t Dead. It Isn’t Even Past.

blade runner
A sketch of a building on Newbury Street in Boston.

Something the Minnesota musician Charlie Parr said about the nature of time has stuck in my mind: in an on-line interview he describes time as being like the curl of waste aluminum coming off of a lathe, an image he gets from watching a craftsman mill a resonator cone for a steel guitar.  Time isn’t linear, Parr says, it twists and turns and folds back on itself in unpredictable ways.  We experience certain moments again and again, while others are left behind.  Sometimes it even seems that the past is still ahead of us.

I am connecting this with my sketch of a building off of Newbury Street–Boston’s boutique-district which comprises 19th-century Back Bay mansions with slate roofs and sandstone gargoyles re-purposed as Anthropologie and Juicy Couture stores.  It is only four blocks  from Newbury to the John Hancock tower, a 60-story exemplar of the international mid-century modern style which overtook most cities of the world after the Second World War.  The minimalist outlines and maximalist scale of the Hancock is typical of architectural modernism–the glass monolith looms over the Back Bay, an inscrutable alien presence.  It is defiantly asserting itself as utterly dominant over  its surroundings.   This is how Moderns see the future.


For Moderns, the arrow of history flies in one direction and carries nothing with it.  The future is a liberation from the shackles of the past: the theology of enlightenment requires that the future be the paradise that justifies this rupture.  We are all hurtling toward freedom, toward a hard-edged world in which every decision is rational and every consequence known, a world freed from the shadows of superstition and fear.

This is reflected in the cities Moderns imagine they will inhabit.  The designs of visionary architects like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier depict vast towers surrounded by sky and empty space.  There are no previous styles in the radiant city of the future.  There is no past.  Like the Heavenly Jerusalem in the Book of Revelations, the city of the Moderns would descend and supplant everything existing before it with crystalline order.

Le Corbusier’s Radiant City

But all attempts to realize this future have had unintended consequences, not least being surprising resistance from the past.  Many people instinctively recoiled from the Modern vision of the city; it seemed to them that on the one hand the human will dominated the landscape, but on the other humans had become insects, crawling in the shadow of their own triumph. It was surprising to architects to find out that people actually liked things to be at human scale, a revelation that happened often in the 1960s as critics like Jane Jacobs began to push back against the modernist consensus.  The historic preservation movement gained tremendous influence from the mid-’60s on.  When the John Hancock Tower went up in 1976, architects had to respond to public outcry that the building would cast a shadow on Trinity Church, a Registered National Monument.  The past, it seems, had a vote when it came to determining the shape of the future.

Charlie Parr’s metaphor expresses this well: if time is not linear, but clumpy, recursive, then we are not so easily shed of it.  Parr’s experience of time is informed by trauma–he has never quite gotten over the death of his father.  His grief over that event has not been left behind, it keeps confronting him; it is in fact the mainspring of his art, as he was driven to write songs in reaction to his sorrow. But it is not only trauma that stays with us.   One could also reference joy, or beauty, or any kind of intense fulfillment, the experience of which bobs in our wake but then is re-encountered ahead, flooding future moments with nostalgia but also with value.  The memory of both joy and pain gives consciousness its significance and ensures that time is not the simple ticking of a chronometer.  The human personality is almost entirely composed of memories–when we lose them we are no longer ourselves.  What is death but the end of memories?

I thought of this recently while reading the reviews of Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film.  I have watched original Blade Runner many times.  When it came out it was startling in part because of its complex vision of the urban future.  The setting, Los Angeles in 2019, is rendered as a disorienting composite of rotting, abandoned buildings and sleek ultra-modern towers, of film noir detectives in raincoats riding in flying cars and Asian street vendors selling bio-engineered snakes.  While science fiction films had sometimes depicted the city of the future as dystopian, in general the look had been in line with Modern fantasies–massive domes and pylons, streamlined trains and airships.  Most had no street life to speak of, and certainly none featured dilapidated neighborhoods decorated in superseded architectural vocabularies.

A central source of Blade Runner’s hybridity is the set itself; for budget reasons, the movie was filmed on a pre-existing Warner Brothers’ set which had stood for years in a studio lot in Burbank and  had been used in countless movies, including The Maltese Falcon.  The set was called “New York Street Scene” because it reproduced a typical block of 1920s Manhattan.  When director Ridley Scott began the pre-production design of his movie, he and futurist Syd Mead (who Scott had originally hired to design his flying cars) decided to update the New York set by applying an overlay of ducts and pipework to the original architecture, giving the impression of a world which was retrofitted, even jury-rigged.  The future was a tangled encrustation appliqued over a dilapidated past.

This felt intuitively right: by the 1980s Americans were living in environments that were visually chaotic.  When they went downtown they walked past 19th-century brick storefronts, Art Deco banks, and sleek glass modernist boxes. Americans lived in neighborhoods where Queen Anne mansions mixed with craftsman bungalows and cookie-cutter ranch houses from the 1950s; on the highway they drove past the “Googie” architecture of fast food restaurants and shopping plazas, often juxtaposed to farm houses and weathered barns.  Beginning in the ’60s, huge swaths of urban infrastructure had been simply knocked down for parking lots or to make room for freeways, giving every city the look of having survived a bombing.  In addition, many Americans had lived long enough to see once-modern buildings beginning to age, both stylistically and structurally.  The average American city in 1980 seemed stuck between a past that had been half demolished and a future that had only been partially realized–or had been partially realized and then abandoned.

The bewildering visual contradictions of Blade Runner are thus the contradictions we all live with: Deckard, the eponymous Blade Runner, has an apartment with both a personal computer and an old-fashioned piano on the surface of which, next to his futuristic gun, are old photographs in antique frames and a stack of classical sheet music.  There is a glowing orb of Saturn above an oriental rug.   Past and present are all jumbled together–as it is in the street down below, where vehicles out of sci-fi comics share space with jingling bicycles ridden by people wearing coolie hats.

Of course, the contradictions of past and present are central to the movie in other ways.  In particular, the plot centers on the question of what makes someone really human.  Apparently a good way to tell an artificial human from a real one is to test for memory–at the beginning of the movie, Detective Holden says to the replicant Leon, whom he is interrogating: “describe in single words, only the good things that come in to your mind about… your mother.” This rather Freudian query is met with gunfire.  It seems that the lack of a past is one of the things driving replicants crazy.  Later, industrialist/inventor Tyrell tells Deckard his corporation is endowing replicants with artificial memories–“If we gift them the past we create a cushion or pillow for their emotions and consequently we can control them better” he says.

So central is this idea that memory is what determines humanity that at the climax of the movie, replicant Roy Batty, Deckard’s nemesis, asserts his moral superiority over the men who are trying to erase him by asserting the validity of his real–not his manufactured–memories: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” he says, “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.”  This speech confirms that Roy, the artificial man, is completely human–more so than Deckard, as it turns out.

I titled this post with an oft-repeated quote from Faulkner.  It seems more significant now than ever.  Modernity assumes a clean future, divested of the past’s tendrils.  The past is now pulling hard: American politics is being driven by ghosts from the Civil War and by the nostalgia of the white working class; the “Me, too” movement is dredging up abuses which the abusers thought were long buried; even our climate system is refusing to forget the past, as the accumulating effluents of our fossil fuel era begin inexorably to work our doom.  Nothing is thrown away, nothing is forgotten.  The more we try to make a clean break to the Utopian future, the more catastrophic the blowback, it seems.  The model for our Modern moment, as Bruno Latour has said, is not Prometheus but Oedipus.




Danger, Will Robinson!




Apparently Netflix has decided to reboot the 1960’s series Lost in Space.  Coincidentally I have been watching the series on Hulu–something to do while washing dishes.  But since a side interest of mine is science fiction film, I’ve actually been doing a lot of thinking about the show and its place in American culture.

Two television series made a huge impression on me when I was in grade school in the 1960s.  One was Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry’s paean to the space age (1966-69).  That show has worked its way deep into the Modern psyche, spawning a vast empire of spin-offs and novelizations and Comic Con costumery.  The other was Lost in Space (1965-68), which has inspired only one really terrible movie (1998).  But I have to admit, as I re-watch the serial episodes of Lost in Space, that it was just as important to my young mind as the more cerebral and adult Star Trek.  In fact, I was surprised how viscerally I remembered those early episodes which depicted the Robinson family, their pilot Don West, the stowaway Dr. Smith, and the barrel-shaped, lobster-clawed robot that served as Smith’s comic foil as they struggled to survive on a desert planet unknown light years from earth.

What strikes me forcefully, seeing the show as an adult, is how utterly preposterous the premise of the show was and yet how completely appropriate it was to the American experience in the 1960s.  For starters, sending a nuclear family into space to colonize a distant planet in a ship no bigger than a split-level suburban house is crazy–the fuel and supplies alone would require a vessel many times bigger.  The pie-shaped “Jupiter 2” spaceship bears a superficial resemblance to the flying saucers of Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still, two 1950s films that made science fiction respectable in a decade of bug-eyed-monster movies intended for teenagers at drive-ins.  But in producer Irwin Allen’s version, the ship was like a magician’s hat–the Robinson family is constantly pulling various items of heavy equipment–including a full-sized caterpillar tractor vehicle–out of a space that could have barely contained the family’s luggage.  Yet the size of the ship is oddly appropriate: the real forebearer of the Jupiter 2 is Disneyland’s “House of the Future.”  This was a sleek modular pod built entirely of plastic components–everything from the fiberglass outer shell to the polyester couch pillows– and stuffed with technological innovations such as a microwave oven, an “ultrasonic dishwasher,” an intercom system, and modular sinks that raised and lowered to accommodate the height of the user.  The House of the Future was a joint project of Disney, the Monsanto Corporation and M.I.T.–and was intended to be a 3-D sales pitch for the home products that would soon flood the market. The Robinson family is on some level doing what most American families did throughout the 1950s and 1960s–leaving our crowded post-war American cities to colonize the wilderness of subdivided farmland, moving into ranch houses and split-level Cape Cods that looked as if they had been dropped from the sky.

In that sense, the “space” of Lost in Space is part of a social fantasy.  After twenty years of collectivism, which enabled America to survive first the Great Depression and then the Second World War, America was reverting to its individualist ethos with a vengeance.  And that meant the return of the frontier as a trope.  One of most popular genres in this period was the Western–I remember very well the ubiquitous cowboy shows on television–Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Maverick, The Rifleman, etc. and the CinemaScope horse epics in the movie houses.  Another important TV show of the time returned Americans to even earlier frontier experiences: I was an avid fan of Daniel Boone, which was itself inspired by the Disney film Davey Crockett, both starring Fess Parker.  America has always been able to romanticize the frontier as the source of its virtue.  The “untamed wilderness” is the necessary condition to American individualism, as unclaimed spaces provide the opportunity for advancement without the visible presence of politics.  A man and his family can carve out a living in the forest or on the plains, or so the story goes.  Frontier space is the theater for the realization of the libertarian dream, since there is nothing to interfere with the natural relationship between hard work and bountiful results (the prior claims of indigenous people notwithstanding).

But by the 1960s we had run out of wilderness–so we naturally turned to spaces beyond the planet.   It is no accident then that John F. Kennedy called space the “New Frontier,” a phrase Captain Kirk echoes in Star Trek‘s opening monologue, when he calls space the “final frontier.”  The “space” everyone is talking about is not a place, but an ideology of expansion.  In America this usually translates into a denial of the frustrations and limitations of community.  When social conflicts become acute, Americans are tempted to imagine they will “light out for the territories,” as Huck Finn puts it.  Just start over somewhere further west.  This was the story of the 1960s, as the suburbs became the easy solution to the social problems of the American city.  The Robinsons are, according to the story line of the show’s pilot, fleeing from an overpopulated, polluted earth, trying to start over again in a new land–and this was just a mirror image of the flight from urban spaces.

It is important at this point to remember that the precursor to Lost in Space was the Swiss Family Robinson–the 1812 novel by Johann David Weiss.  Weiss’ book is the source not only of the Robinson family’s name but also the show’s basic plot predicament.  In Weiss’s story, a family en route to Australia is shipwrecked on an island in the East Indies.  They manage to salvage supplies from their ship and set up camp on the island, surviving by dint of their fortitude, intelligence, and faith.  In fact the book was intended to teach children “about family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance,” according to Wikipedia.  The assumption underlying these didactic lessons is that unclaimed spaces are testing grounds for God’s providence; the world is so constructed that well disciplined and rational protestants can thrive.

swiss familly

This is the piety of empire.  The characters in Weiss’s book survive because they salvage guns and domestic animals from the ship they came in.  They proceed to dominate the “empty” space around them with their technology and their agriculture.  This is the project of Europe throughout the 18th- and 19th- centuries, and this is how we envision the extension of our civilization into outer space.  It is our “manifest destiny” to spread ourselves across the stars.  Here is a grainy still of the Robinson family replicating the Protestant piety of the original story.  In Episode 5 of season one, the family has survived a perilous sea journey and when they are safely on land, Maureen Robinson hands her husband a Bible and they form this somewhat awkward tableau.

robinson prayer

The difference between the Swiss Family Robinson and the Space Family Robinson was that the Swiss Family Robinson was making itself at home on earth, a planet on which it had evolved and to which it was admirably adapted.  The characters in Lost in Space inhabit a world singularly hostile–it has an eccentric orbit which causes it to swing wildly between hot and cold.  Also they did not bring with them domestic animals or the tools to create the kind of agriculture they would need to survive.  There are scenes showing them planting a little garden bed, the kind that suburbanites toy with in the back yard.  But the planet’s hostile climate would have made any farming problematic.

And that is the point I made at the outset: this expedition is not really equipped to be self sufficient, any more than the new suburban pioneer is equipped to use his yard for anything but an ornament.  The actual biological basis of America’s highly industrialized civilization had, by the 1960s, become invisible to most people.  Food appeared in grocery stores, water from a tap.  Whereas the original Swiss Family Robinson story was intended to teach “husbandry” and methods of self-sufficiency, its 20th century successor was perfunctory at best in its treatment of such subjects.  The original story was intended to teach the reader something about life on earth.  Lacking an earth, Lost in Space must fall back on family drama and a constant supply of hostile aliens–much as the westerns of the 1950s and ’60s were never about animal husbandry but about fighting Indians or “bad guys.”

I have always found it curious that the setting of John Ford’s classic westerns is Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border.  Having lived in the Valley myself I know it is high desert, not much good for farming (without irrigation) and not even great for ranching.  The Navajo manage to scratch out a living with sheep and goats.  But Ford was attracted to the cinematic qualities of the place–its barrenness, its fantastic rock formations.  These formed a compellingly alien backdrop to his stories of bloody confrontation.  In similar fashion, Lost in Space envisions its foreign planet as largely desert.  Though there are jungle scenes, and there is an ocean, the Jupiter 2 sets down in a landscape very similar to that of a John Ford movie.  The spaceship becomes the lonely ranch house, the outpost of civilization, ever vulnerable to hostile interlopers.

Space, that is, has become increasingly empty in the American imagination.  Like the “white spaces” in 19th-century European maps of Africa, the landscape is blank to signify its availability.  Something we can write our destiny on in large letters.  Something we can fill with our desires and dreams.  The problem is that such spaces are only in the imagination.  A desert is only seemingly blank–its geology and ecology are real and complex and easily disrupted.  Even outer space is not really empty–it is, for example, full of fierce radiation which, as we are finding out in our plans for a mission to Mars, makes any long-term voyage through it very problematic for living beings.  Thus our willful simplification of space can hide many dangers–and can also become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  As I write this entry, the American territory of Puerto Rico has been utterly devastated by hurricane Maria.  People are trying to survive without electricity–thus without clean water or food or air conditioning or medical help.  What was in the tourist brochures a tropical paradise has become a hostile desert–the forests stripped, the cities decimated, roads and power lines out of commission, and (most tellingly) the small but promising agricultural sector utterly debilitated.  Overnight Puerto Rico has become the dystopian future that many contemporary science fiction novels predict.   And of course the energy that amplified Maria’s destruction was provided by our collective inability–and when I say “our” I mean Americans–to face the reality of climate change.  Ignorance makes its own deserts.

To be lost in space is to not know where you are.  We imagine we are in a providential narrative of inevitable progress and perpetual expansion.  That very assumption is not only blinding us to our true position, it is actively working to make the one space we really occupy more and more hostile to us.  We are increasingly living on an alien planet–one which we ourselves have alienated.

The one surviving meme from Lost in Space depicts the robot waving his arms wildly and shouting “Danger, Will Robinson.”  The comic paradox of an assumedly unemotional machine hysterically gyrating like an overwrought metallic version of Oliver Hardy is what makes the meme stick in the mind, I suspect.  But the robot’s warning takes a more sinister tone in my own consciousness.  Part of the robot’s function is to act as a kind of cybernetic guard dog for the family.  Its sensors are always interrupting the Robinsons’ sense of equanimity by detecting dangers just beyond their ken.  The happy nuclear family does not know what is coming.  Will it heed the warning?  Will we, lost as we are?