Deer in a liquor store

Last week a town on the South shore of Massachusetts made news for a day when a deer came crashing through the plate glass window of a liquor store, running through the aisles and to the back of the store for an exit. Witnesses speculate that the deer — panicked and in search of an escape, or, as many joked after the fact, a cold one — was made frantic by traffic on Route 3A outside.


Quick 6 Weymouth security cameras deer 2

This bizarre event, reported on extensively in The Boston Globe and in regional outlets such as Quincy’s The Patriot Ledger, took place on 8 July in nearby Weymouth, Massachusetts, a town of about 50000 people located 16 miles southeast of Boston. After crashing through the window, the deer — a doe from all appearances, bloodied from the broken glass — ran around the store for an exit. A few minutes later, and with the help of the store’s owner and some patrons who happened to be in or near the store, the deer made it outside (passing through the door this time), and ran away.

“It looked like Bambi.” 

The surveillance cameras on scene capture from several different angles a silent real-time documentary of this event. One sees how the sudden crossing of a physical threshold and (with it) a boundary between two worlds causes a brief skirmish; we see both the panic and the quick thinking of all parties involved in the incident.

The security footage is particularly striking where it captures the creature in its brief and frantic moments through this alien, air-conditioned, hardly salutary space. In freeze-frame, some of these images can look as fantastic and otherworldly as the pictures in Brittanie Bond’s The Wilderness Project, a series of photographs superimposing images of wild animals with modern cityscapes. The deer in the Quick 6 could be the subject of one of Amy Stein’s photographs in her series Domesticated, which shows animals living in intimate, uneasy proximity to humans and the built environment. And as moving footage, the Quick 6 tapes are at times visually suggestive of Werner Herzog’s documentary investigations into the bleak, remorseless, and indifferent heart of the natural world (and frequently into the hearts of the men and women, differently composed, who seek to make a home in these unwelcoming spaces). Maybe I think of Herzog because the deer in a liquor store presents a mythic inversion of the situation narrated in Grizzly Man (2005), about Timothy Treadwell’s life and death as a man alone among creatures of the wild.

Let me proceed to paint the scene in Weymouth with tints borrowed from the German master’s palette — to out-Herzog Herzog, as if such a thing were possible.

Some of the images recorded by the surveillance cameras present the deer with a simplicity or economy of line and color that suggests similar representations of these creatures in the cave paintings of Lascaux, Altamira, or the Chauvet caves where Herzog shot his documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010).

Altamira cave deer

Altamira cave, Spain (source)



Lascaux cave painting deer detail

Lascaux cave, France



deer in the liquor store camera 4 quick 6 weymouth

Quick 6 Liquors, Weymouth MA









The magnificent images of Lascaux, Altamira, Chauvet, etc. were created long before the imagined birth of Art. The Quick 6 surveillance cameras at once show and themselves epitomize a world that lives on well after the “end” of it (see: Hegel; Danto). One might read the passage from prehistoric painting to security camera footage as a transition from the first stirrings of humanism to the full arrival of the posthuman. Still, the Quick 6 images have undeniable beauty and mystery, though none of these effects were produced intentionally. Nor is it the case that the impersonal objective gaze supplied in the present instance by security cameras originally required advanced technical means for its realization. Whatever impulse first led men and women to imprint their marks on the stones and make these earliest surviving images of human and animal life, cave paintings are themselves a kind of documentary (re)presentation. The first artists made the stone walls show an image, as objective as you like, of the world when they walked outside the cave.

The deer in the Weymouth liquor store made news as one of those curious phenomena you’d typically see at the end of a local news broadcast (squirrels on waterskies and so on). But though it’s not terribly common for deer to come plowing through plate glass windows on the South shore, it’s not so uncommon an occurrence either, at least not anymore. From the crowding of species into Boston’s suburbs and exurbs, residential density and scarcity of space creates competition for shrinking land resources that affects human as well as deer and other animal populations. A web search turns up several similar news stories, all describing more or less the same event: a single deer crashes through a store window and around aisles of merchandise, causing havoc. In November of last year a similar incident occurred in Western Massachusetts, in South Hadley; in 2010, a deer crashed through another store window in Lawrence. And in the South shore neighborhood of the Quick 6, only a few months ago a deer crashed through the window of a private home. Some in Massachusetts regard the white-tailed deer population as unsustainably high, and the deer themselves as pests whose numbers should be thinned more aggressively.

What was rare about the incident in Weymouth, in other words, was not so much that a deer crashed through a window and into human space; it was that it happened this time in a liquor store, where security camera systems are for obvious reasons extensive and footage is recorded. The effect of the extraordinary in this case depends to a high degree on the particular but otherwise very ordinary environment in which it takes place.

​In a coda to his film on the Chauvet caves, Herzog introduces the albino crocodile as an uncanny link between the present world (he inventively but falsely links their albinism to exposure to water run-off from a nearby nuclear power plant) and as a bizarre vestigial reminder of the ancient world from which the Chauvet cave paintings came. But a deer in a liquor store, like the white-tailed deer population in Massachusetts more generally, is not an albino crocodile. More familiar but still not like, it is a creature with which we share (without perceiving that we share) much of a common world today. This beautiful elegant creature and many others like it occupy a world adjacent to but typically separate from ours — in the midst of and yet out of place in an environment that other beautiful elegant creatures have made.


Literary theory class this term

I’m excited to be teaching for the first time 21L.451 Literary Theory, on accounts of feeling and “the feelings” in aesthetics and affect theory (I put a very rudimentary course website here). I knew I wanted to cover a lot of ground, and to break somewhat from the theory survey format. The title of the class, “Feeling in Theory,” is brazenly ripped off from Rei Terada’s great book of that title (which I regret is not on the syllabus itself; I may try to correct that oversight in weeks ahead).

I will ask students (one per class session) to bring to class a cultural object in any medium suggested by the day’s assigned reading — something that can be usefully discussed in relation to the reading, in support of the argument or not. Cultural objects that have been brought into the class discussion are indicated below in brackets. Let’s see how it goes!

M 2/10 Plato, selected dialogues [Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs (1965); Red Bull commercial]

W 2/12 Longinus, On the Sublime [a clip from Transformers 2, illustrating how the artist may be “carried away, as though by drunkenness, into outbursts of emotion which are not relevant to the matter at hand” (103)]

T 2/18 Edmund Burke on the sublime and beautiful [the aural sublime: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring]

W 2/19 Immanuel Kant, from Critique of Judgment [no cultural object today, as I wisely deemed the hour would be better spent staring at the text in a state of desperate stupefaction]

M 2/24 William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads [scenes of everyday life and labor in 19th-century paintings by Gustave Courbet, Winslow Homer and others]

W 2/26 Karl Marx, from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; Theses on Feuerbach [“Of the butchers and floorsmen, the beef-boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb” — excerpts from The Jungle by Upton Sinclair]

M 3/3 Sigmund Freud, from The Interpretation of Dreams [E.A. Poe, “A Dream within a Dream”; e.e. cummings, “You are tired”]

W 3/5 T.S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets”; W.K. Wimsatt, “The Affective Fallacy”

M 3/10 Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” [Chaplin as the Tramp in Modern Times; Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation]

W 3/12 Benjamin “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”

M 3/17 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”

W 3/19 Roland Barthes, from The Pleasure of the Text; Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” [“What you see is what you see.” –Frank Stella]

M 3/31 Stanley Cavell, “Aesthetic Problems in Modern Philosophy”

W 4/2 Cavell, from The Senses of Walden

M 4/7 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” [Your gaze hits the side of my face]; Michel Foucault, from Discipline and Punish [in the U.S., ongoing debates about “the humane way” of putting individuals to death]

W 4/9 Foucault, from The Use of Pleasure (The History of Sexuality, vol. 2) [the sins of the flesh; the pleasures and temptations of the flesh]

M 4/14 Deleuze, “Percept, Affect, and Concept,” in What is Philosophy?

W 4/23 Jacques Rancière, “Aesthetics as Politics”

M 4/28 Leo Bersani “Is the Rectum a Grave?”

W 4/30 Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading”

M 5/5 Lauren Berlant, “Affect in the Present” “Cruel Optimism” [Robert D. Putnam, “Crumbling American Dreams,” The New York Times, 3 August 2013]

W 5/7 Berlant, “Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event” [from Hermann Hesse’s Demian: “How strange that the stream of the world was not to bypass us any more…”]

M 5/12 Sianne Ngai, “Stuplimity”

W 5/14 Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” [cute politics; “Giga Pudding”]

Wordsworth on the senses

I recently delivered to Cambridge University Press the final version of a short (ca. 3500 word) essay for the book Wordsworth in Context, edited by Andrew Bennett.  I include roughly the first half of that essay here.  Parenthetical references refer to the Cornell Wordsworth editions and to the Prose Works from Oxford, the standard scholarly editions.  BL refers to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria from the Princeton Collected Works of Coleridge.  The image below, dated 1800, is a dig at Frenchified sensuality by Wordsworth’s contemporary Thomas Rowlandson.Gratification-of-the-senses-a-la-mode-francois-Rowlandson-LWL-729x1024

   Few poets before or since Wordsworth have made sensation and the bodily senses more central to their poetic theory and practice.  Wordsworth’s famous ‘experiment’ in literary language, as articulated at the outset of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, is conceived as a venture to impart pleasure ‘by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’ (LB, 741). From the beginning of this programmatic document, Wordsworth makes the representation and/or evocation of sense experience central to his poetic project in at least three related ways. Wordsworth asserts, first, that the poetry concerns itself with particularly elevated expressions of passion or feeling (‘vivid sensation’), either on the part of the lyric speaker or of the characters depicted, or both.  Second, this experiment in poetic representation is principally designed to produce pleasure; as Lionel Trilling observed years ago, Wordsworth’s commitment to what he calls the ‘grand elementary principle of pleasure’ (LB, 752) and to the centrality of pleasure to poetry is virtually unprecedented in literary history.[1] Finally, Wordsworth designates poetic meter as a privileged medium for the communication of vivid sensation, either raising passion or lowering it as required for the poet’s specific purposes.

            With such statements, Wordsworth establishes the dependence of poetry, as much as the poet, on the senses, and on the ‘elementary feelings’ that follow from them (LB, 743).  In some of the most characteristically Wordsworthian lyrics – ‘The Solitary Reaper’ or ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud,’ for instance – the physical and cognitive activity of sensing takes center stage, to become the focus of representation as much almost as the perceived object itself.  Seemingly simple impressions of seeing or hearing reverberate in the speaker’s mind long after its passing: ‘The music in my heart I bore, / Long after it was heard no more’ (PTV, 185). The senses are thus directly connected to poetic inspiration, and serve as vehicles of self-expression: in Wordsworth’s famous formula, ‘Poetry…takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (LB, 756), which in representing also re-creates the ‘powerful feelings’ that lay at its source. But Wordsworth makes clear too that both poet and poetry are dependent on a generalized ‘atmosphere’ of feeling, and on sensations that may be singular in nature but are attached to no determinate subject position.[2] Of the poet, Wordsworth writes: ‘though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings’ (LB, 753). This ‘atmosphere’ belongs to no single person, or belongs to all: ‘…this whole Vale, / Home of untutored Shepherds as it is, / Swarms with Sensation’ (HG, 664-6). The poet endowed, as Wordsworth asserts in the Preface, with a greater than usual proportion of ‘organic sensibility’ (LB, 745) is the one who detects this atmosphere most keenly and is most responsive to changes within it.

Wordsworth’s conception of poetry as an art of sensation brings that art into conversation with the contemporary sciences of the senses, the science of physiology principal among them. Though Wordsworth is remembered for having famously decried the scientific rationalist as one who ‘murder[s] to dissect’ (‘The Tables Turned,’ LB, 109), he was in fact deeply invested in the scientific topics and debates of the day. The Wordsworths were acquaintance with several leading scientific figures, including Humphry Davy and Thomas Beddoes. David Hartley’s neuro-physiological account of mind has long been recognized as a durable influence in Wordsworth’s work. More recently, literary historians have perceived links between Wordsworth’s poetic theory and practice and a number of contemporary physiologists and medical theorists, including Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, and figurehead of the Midlands enlightenment; William Cullen, one of the leading figures of the prestigious Edinburgh medical school; and the Scottish physician John Brown, the controversial and influential opponent of Scottish medical orthodoxy.[3] In 1798 Wordsworth wrote to the publisher Joseph Cottle to request a copy of Darwin’s ‘Zoönomia by the first carrier,’ citing ‘very particular reasons for doing’ (28 Feb or 7 Mar 1798, EY, 199). The poem ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill,’ which Wordsworth describes in the 1798 ‘Advertisement’ to Lyrical Ballads as based on ‘well-authenticated fact’ (LB, 739), was almost certainly drawn from a medical anecdote included in Darwin’s influential book.

Wordsworth’s poetic theory and practice is closely informed by these contemporary medical contexts, and more generally by a deep vein of empiricist thought that had flourished in Great Britain from the late seventeenth century onward. Of Romantic poets, perhaps only Keats insists more strongly on the power of the bodily senses to do the work otherwise charged to forms of abstract ratiocination. In ‘Expostulation and Reply,’ for instance, the poet addresses an interlocutor ‘who was somewhat unreasonably attached to modern books of moral philosophy’ (LB, 355-6):

The eye it cannot chuse but see,

We cannot bid the ear be still;

Our bodies feel, where’er they be,

Against, or with our will.

In the jocular debate that the poet conducts with his friend, the ceaselessness of bodily feeling is taken as an argument against the necessity of book learning. Wordsworth’s preference for truths immediately and vividly disclosed by the body and its senses informs his critique of abstract systems of moral philosophy (see the ‘Essay on Morals’, Prose, I, 103-4) and of poetic personification in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

As committed as Wordsworth obviously is to the primacy of the senses, the poet’s powerful apprehension of the limitations of ‘mere’ bodily experience is equally notable. Wordsworth and Coleridge both write of the ‘despotic’ character of the eye (1805 Prelude, 11.174; BL, II, 107); the suspicion that Wordsworth bears towards the conventionally most privileged of the senses applies, albeit to a lesser degree, to all of them, at least so far as they are capable of achieving ‘dominion’ over the mind (1805 Prelude, 11.174; BL, II, 107). The poet is similarly critical of literary genres, notably that of gothic fiction, which in relying for their considerable popularity on the production of violent readerly effects seem to pander to what Wordsworth unsparingly refers to a ‘degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation’ (LB, 747).[4] Wordsworth’s great poetic narratives of intellectual and imaginative development, The Prelude and ‘Tintern Abbey’ especially, associate maturation with an access of visionary power accompanied by the suspension or momentary dimming of the physical senses. As William Empson demonstrated, ‘sense’ is an extraordinarily polyvalent term in Wordsworth’s poetry, signifying either a primitive excitement of the physical senses or the highest intellectual exercise, or often both at the same time.[5] Wordsworth’s poetry frequently expresses considerable ambivalence as to whether vivid sense experiences are valuable in themselves or only valuable insofar as they serve as a prompt or foundation to thoughts of a higher order.

These equivocations may not ultimately be hedges against unbridled materialism (and the associated taint of immorality or irreligion) so much as reflections of the indeterminate status of aesthetic experience as at once physical and cognitive in its origin. In contrast to ‘sense,’ ‘sensation’ in Wordsworth generally refers to experiences that combine the intellectual and bodily affection. Proceeding from the ‘feeling intellect’ (1805 Prelude, 13.205), they count among that class of experiences that a later generation than Wordsworth’s will call ‘aesthetic.’ Aesthetics, the branch of philosophical inquiry concerned with the nature of the beautiful and of art, took its name in eighteenth-century German philosophy from the Greek term for sense-perception; from its inception this field was concerned with forms of physical and psychological response. In the first of his influential Spectator essays on the subject, Joseph Addison situated ‘the pleasures of the imagination’ in an intermediary zone between sensations and ideas.As the bodily senses are a necessary but not sufficient condition of aesthetic perception, aesthetic perceptions belong to the class of experience that the poet calls ‘[t]hose hallowed and pure motions of the sense / Which seem in their simplicity to own / An intellectual charm’ (1799, 1.383-5). ‘Poetry, ‘the history or science of feelings’ as Wordsworth defines it in his 1800 note to ‘The Thorn,’ (LB, 351), is the paradigmatic aesthetic form of Romanticism in furnishing at once an effusion of powerful feeling and a form of sophisticated reflection on it.

[1]  Lionel Trilling, “The Fate of Pleasure,” in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays, ed. Leon Wieseltier (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2000), 427-449. 

[2]  Contemporary affect theory has emphasized the trans-subjective character of affect and feeling.  See for instance Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004). In Romantic studies see especially Kevis Goodman, British Romanticism and Georgic Modernity: Poetry and the Mediation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), and Mary A. Favret, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[3]  On Wordsworth’s indebtedness to Darwin, see Richard Matlak, ‘Wordsworth’s Reading of Zoonomia in Early Spring,’ The Wordsworth Circle 21 (1990), 76-81; and Alan Richardson, British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). On Wordsworth and Cullen, see my Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), esp. 75-80, 84-8. Paul Youngquist discusses Wordsworth’s aesthetics in relation to John Brown’s medical theory in ‘Lyrical Bodies: Wordsworth’s Physiological Aesthetics,’ European Romantic Review, 10:2 (1999), 152-62.

[4]  On Wordsworth’s ambivalence with respect to the gothic’s production of vivid sensory effects, see especially Karen Swann, ‘Suffering and Sensation in “The Ruined Cottage,”’ PMLA 106, no. 1 (January 1991): 83-95.

[5] William Empson, ‘Sense in the Prelude,’ in The Structure of Complex Words (New York: New Directions, 1951), 289-305.


Of pleasure problems (and Louis CK)

“There is a host of arguments in these feelings” – William Wordsworth

     I have been working on a project about beauty that attempts to restore to view the mixed and conflicted character of this aesthetic category. The beautiful is conventionally identified with feelings of unmixed pleasure on the part of the spectator, in marked contrast to the sublime. If pleasure is regarded — by Gilles Deleuze, among others — as a domain where affective intensities are neutralized, the beautiful is typically conceived as a refined and uniformly mild expression of pleasure. Yet in experiences of the beautiful, feelings of pleasure and displeasure frequently operate in unison; the feeling of pleasure in beauty regularly appears in conjunction with sensations of irritation, discomfort, or displeasure inseparable from the pleasurable circumstances that call the experience forth. 

     One of my goals in examining such moments to arrive at a new and more adequate account of the relationship between affect and the subset of affective experiences we call “aesthetic.” To this end, the project situates the beautiful in relation to a larger category of what I call “pleasure problems.” The pleasure problem refers to circumstances in which the predictable functions or operations of pleasure have been impeded, arrested, suspended, or set aside. These are often circumstances where pleasure takes on a problematic aspect, though the pleasure problem may with equal likelihood represent conditions in which pleasure emerges, improbably, from problematic circumstances. 

     The larger project draws mainly on writing in aesthetics and poetry from the long eighteenth century. But there is a much longer tradition behind the blended quality of pleasure and pain in experiences of the beautiful — and one needn’t look two hundred years into the past to find an illustration of the pleasure problem either. For a contemporary instance, we can look to the opening sequence from a 2011 episode of the sitcom Louie (season 2, episode 6, “Subway/Pamela”). 

     This episode delays the opening credits and reverses the typical sequence, beginning with Louie emerging from a comedy club rather than descending into one. Louie is shown walking down the stairs onto the subway tracks where a handsome young man in a tuxedo is playing violin. (The piece, as I learned from the internet, is “Csárdás” by Vittorio Monti [1904].) Louie tosses a bill into the violinist’s case as he passes and leans against a girder to watch him. The man playing the violin is beautiful; the piece he is playing is beautiful. 

     As he watches the violinist, an older, heavyset man laden with large plastic bags descends the stairs onto the platform. The man lays out a plastic sheet on the tile floor, removes his shirt, pours soapy water over his head and proceeds to bathe himself with abandon. The man’s appearance on the subway platform is preposterous; his condition would be heartbreaking were it not for the obvious relish (and obliviousness) with which he scrubs himself. We see the man’s body, pink, wet, and glistening, as he reaches down behind himself to soap between his ass-cheeks. The violinist and the homeless man occupy the same visual plane; in one shot (shown above) we see the back of Louie’s head as he looks on at both. 

Louie 2 06

    Critics noted of this scene how in Louis CK’s New York City, the beautiful and ugly, romantic and repulsive, are yoked together in visual proximity. Were Louis CK a sociologist of aesthetics in the Bourdieuian vein, one could read the sequence as pointing to beauty’s silent dependence on an extruded material remainder. The repulsive, shirtless man operates in the scene as the unavoidable background from which the beautiful man and his beautiful music springs. In this way is the beautiful conceived as emerging from a background of negativity, of poverty and privation, even as our unmixed pleasure in the beautiful somehow depends on us being blind to these conditions. Once you admit those conditions into your field of view, beauty ceases to be wholly pleasureable.

     While I detect the elements of an aesthetic theory here, it is not Bourdieu’s. In an interview Louis CK described the genesis of the scene: “The violin player, I came up with because a woman played violin at my daughter’s school concert, and I almost cried just from hearing the music, so I kind of dreamt up that sequence.” This scene of emotion recollected in absurdity converts a beautiful memory into an occasion for laughter by juxtaposing it with something absurd and repulsive. But then too, to get at what is involved in a pleasure so intense as to make one feel like crying, one would have to imagine how the beautiful could produce feelings of discomfort or displeasure. Louie depicts this proximity of affects even before the old man’s entry. In successive shots, we see the stages of Louie’s response, from the clenched and exhausted facial expression many wear in the subway — 

Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 8.32.04 PM

to a pose of relative contemplation. His face softens. 


In the shot just prior to the old man’s entrance, Louie’s head appears once more in tighter close-up. His face momentarily contorts; the expression is a wince, an expression of emotion, even of pain. 

Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 8.32.54 PM

Later, shifting his view between the beautiful violinist and the homeless man, Louie again winces, with a face that signals strong discomfort and disgust. Before the entry of the homeless man, however — a wince. The wince of “pleasure” precedes and anticipates the wince of disgust.

     That the scene unfolds entirely from Louie’s perspective (a perspective that, as the second sequence of the episode establishes, may be wholly imaginary) is not incidental. In the interview, Louis CK says: “The whole subway episode was supposed to be an entire episode of me observing and not talking to anybody. I wanted to do a whole episode that just shows me scratching in my notebook and looking at people, and seeing things happen.” The sense that what is seen in the episode is seeing itself explains why all traces of the female are erased (the biographical context of a woman playing violin at his daughter’s school) in favor of the homoerotic (a man observing men) or the intrasubjectively narcissistic (a man contemplating two separate and ludicrously juxtaposed externalizations of his own aesthetic response).

     But what Louie sees is nothing special. He is an ordinary guy, an Everyshmuck; his representativeness as White/professional/middle-aged/divorced/a father is repeatedly emphasized in the show. The scene in other words presents an extravagant image of contrast in order to display something about the everyday perception of beauty. It illustrates how, before the sight of a beautiful person playing (beautifully) a beautiful piece of music, one cries — or winces. 

     The excellence of Louie consists not simply in how imaginatively it represents absurd and improbable scenes of contrast. It is great too for the ease with which it makes visible qualities not typically subject to empirical verification. I’m interested in how this scene articulates a principle I’ve wished to trace more broadly: that to problematize pleasure is a way of visualizing a property of pleasure itself. To problematize an experience like that of beautiful is no more than to ask questions of it — not because the experience is itself so frail (it is not), but because nothing is more natural than to call it into question. Where one seeks pleasure, one finds pleasure problems.  

Of lightness (a likeness)

     If I had any intention in starting this blog (which is questionable), it was not to serve as a space for autobiography or memoir. But neither was it to present a record from which the autobiographical subject is entirely absent. Both principles, the inclusion of something which for want of a better term I’ll call “subjectivity,” and demurral from making self a world of its own, do not seem like positions I take so much as automatic and reflexive responses that are in a sense taken for me. All this to say that in the course of things on this blog I will describe what I see; and if doing this I also happen to describe facets of myself, so be it. (But if I start posting pictures of my late grandparents, please contact the authorities.)

     This past weekend I visited several New York City museums. It was intensely hot outside; inside, the crowds were overwhelming. In these crowded spaces I saw three current exhibitions that make light and the absence of light a central subject: James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim and two exhibitions on separate floors of the Whitney:  Hopper Drawing, pairing the sketches and finished canvases of Edward Hopper, and Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil – Black Rectangle – Natural Light, a recreation of the 1977 exhibition in that space. The exhibitions by Turrell and Irwin are natural complements, as both artists are associated with the Light and Space movement originating in southern California in the late 1960s. Hopper’s use of light, his lifelong fascination with the properties and effects of light, is legendary.

     Each of these exhibitions is well worth seeing. To exhibit these works in summer, the season of sun and long hours of daylight, makes perfect thematic sense too. The Hopper exhibition is large and intricately curated, featuring two main types of work: preparatory drawings for his major paintings, paired with those iconic works; and free-standing sketches. This latter type of Hopper’s work (to me equally as exciting as the sketches for the famous canvases) contains early self-portraits, including several sketches of his hands, occasionally bearing the tools of the artist’s trade; of his wife Josephine, portrayed tenderly, or at times with frank eroticism; of New England, Gloucester and coastal Maine (among other places), its architecture and bleak natural beauty. The centerpieces of James Turrell’s exhibition are the installation pieces, including the site-specific installation Aten Reign (2013), which fills the space of the Guggenheim rotunda in concentric circles of colored LED light. A separate room contains Turrell’s works on paper, each lit from above by a powerful spotlight, creating impressions of stark whiteness on a dark surface, as in an image backlit, or illuminated from within. Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil is simplest of the three exhibitions, consisting of one large installation, but may to my mind be the most powerful of the bunch. The Scrim Veil is Irwin’s name for the diaphanous barrier that extends across the upper two thirds of a large museum room (the “Black Rectangle” of the title), which it cuts in half along its length. This barrier is solid at its narrow base of steel and wood (most spectators will need to duck to pass from one side of the room to the other), but its sheer vinyl plane is partially transparent as it rises to the ceiling, illuminated across its surface by the natural light that makes the third element of the title.

     I take away from these exhibitions a single, simple impression, a retinal afterimage of sorts, of light in an empty (or near-empty) room:

Edward Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room” (1963)

Turrell’s “Meeting,” from the portfolio First Light (1989–90)

Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil — Black Rectangle — Natural Light (1977).


Each of these images is marvelously resonant, evoking a sense of quiet and secular mysticism. That these spare, majestic, auratic works of light are also all creations of white men is not I think entirely incidental. What is it in these vacant illuminated spaces that tells of self? And why should that self be coded as a privileged one? Light is on one account impersonal and available to all: that the sun rises and sets on the good and evil alike is a notion as old as the Gospels (Matthew 5:45). But the enjoyment of sunlight is also of course a privilege. Light is not guaranteed to all, as the New York Times’ Real Estate section and Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” both clearly remind us:

Some are Born to sweet delight

Some are Born to sweet delight

Some are Born to Endless Night

It is in the nature of privilege that its lack is more clearly specified than its possession. Light confers visibility on objects, but the possession or enjoyment of light (e.g. as whiteness) is itself less visible than its absence. To be “Born to sweet delight” (the language of inheritance is unmistakable here) is to be born to space and light in plenty — the vacant sovereignty of privilege, the room of one’s own. The object of privilege is here clearly pronounced in Blake’s powerful lines (“delight” / “de light”) and conspicuously absent from it.

     Formless and contentless, the medium of light focuses attention to a great degree on the act of seeing itself. One way of putting this is to say that the vacant space invites introspection. But the dark room penetrated by beams of light is one of Locke’s prominent metaphors of mind too. The vacant and illuminated interior, far from representing a site of extreme impersonality, can thus represent a sublime figure of Mindedness in its own right. Such a figure is evident in Hopper’s Sun in an Empty Room (1963). A late work, Hopper’s painting removes the solitary human figure that most often appears in his interiors, leaving the geometrical play of light and shade in a straw-colored room (“outside” is represented by a single windblown tree seen through the window). The painting verges on abstraction, but it is no less inclined to narrative than other of his great canvases — only the narrative subject is more obviously Hopper himself. The painting lays bare, theatrically as in other of his great works, the principle that has animated his life’s work. (“All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house.”) When asked what he was after in creating the painting, Hopper said, “I’m after ME.”

    Of the three artists, Turrell is most explicit that what one sees as a spectator of his light-based art is in large part nothing other than perception itself. So too, the exhibition struck me as most willing of the three to invite association between the artist’s work and the fiat lux of the creator. At the exhibit, one woman within earshot had a brief exchange with another about the spiritual feeling that Turrell’s light works instilled in her. I felt at once the deep truth of the sentiment and embarrassed to overhear it.