contemporaneity

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.

 

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A new humanities?

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MIT has begun to promote something it calls the “New Humanities,” and to advertise the “Initiatives” associated with this field. To judge on the basis of the projects under this banner, research in the “new humanities” involves the production and use of digital tools, and/or has as its object of analysis some aspects of contemporary digital culture. The campaign is no doubt partly intended for students interested in pursuing careers in computing, of which there are of course many here, and no doubt for the parents of these students (and prospective students) as well. The specific initiatives are all of them valuable; I’m an active contributor to at least one, MIT’s Annotation Studio.

What constitutes “new humanities” work is somewhat scantly defined. There is for instance no compelling reason why the term should not refer to many exciting and innovative kinds of humanistic inquiry being carried out today, including but not limited to digital humanities and new media studies. If the “new humanities” is understood to include the humanities as it is carried out on a computer, moreover, how is this field to be distinguished from every conceivable project in the humanities today? Finally, who is the “new human” that will be served by the “new humanities”? It is true that the sensorium changes over the course of human history — Marx teaches us this; so does Walter Benjamin (both significant producers of knowledge in the humanities). Though they carry more smartphones and tablet computers today, however, students have not notably changed physical form in the years I’ve been teaching.

I go on at length about this rather trivial piece of nomenclature in order to underscore the point – so self-evident as to seem not worth mentioning, were the point not also sometimes contested – that new questions, topics and approaches arise in all sorts of humanities research, all the time. As Natalia Cecire recently pointed out in an excellent and widely-circulated blog post, the humanities are continually producing new objects and modes of knowledge. The humanities do this, Natalia observes, much to the disappointment of those who would like to see the humanities dismissed as a relic, an obsolete pursuit, a merely preservationist field. Myths of its moribundity are just that; they are myths propagated through ignorance or willful blindness to what the humanities actually do – to the work of the humanities inside and outside classroom and university walls. Through a sort of learned ignorance about the humanities, Natalia writes, some describe it as dedicated to producing “old, unchanging narratives about the usual suspects” – those usual suspects being the Great Books, the best that has been thought and said, the dead White men (with maybe a few women and persons of color thrown in). Natalia rightly notes that the truth is entirely different: “at the university level, the humanities, like every other field, is a field in the making. New knowledge is being created all the time.”

Natalia’s post is really great; she builds a better case for the timeliness and urgency of work in the humanities than I can hope to do here. In this post I will do little more than pose a question about the “new humanities,” both as an object of institutional advertising and as a condition for innovation in humanistic research: Is knowledge in the humanities progressive? Does research in the humanities develop incrementally in the way we understand the sciences to do? The question has preoccupied some humanists in the past (I’ll touch on a few of these in a moment), but seems for the most part to have fallen out of fashion. Yet an unexamined assumption that the humanities – branches of them, at least – are not progressive, that theoretical and scholarly movements lead nowhere, has nevertheless survived as an occasional topic of complaint.

Are the humanities progressive? More may still hang on this question, or on tacit answers to this question, than we have suspected.

When in 1814 William Hazlitt asked whether the arts are progressive, the answer was decisively no. The arts are absolutely different from the sciences on this ground, Hazlitt asserted, for the notion of progress “applies to science, not to art.” Hazlitt perceives plainly how the question is stacked against the arts. More than that, though, Hazlitt rejects the premise of the question as a comparison of apples to oranges. To pose the question is to misunderstand the specificity of the objects under consideration. The idea that the arts like the sciences could be progressive is “a common error, which has grown up…from transferring an analogy of one kind to something quite distinct, without thinking of the nature of the things.”

Hazlitt’s inquiry of course concerns the “fine arts” – painting, sculpture, music, poetry, etc. – and not the humanities as that field is typically understood to involve the interpretation of these objects (and more). Indeed we may be surprised to find that Hazlitt places the craft of interpretation in the progressive camp, including biblical criticism alongside chemistry, geometry, and astronomy among those fields of study that have shown progressive improvement over time. In general, though, Hazlitt imagines a impassable border between science (progressive) and the genius of the arts, and seems if anything to identify literary or art criticism with the latter. Hazlitt’s distinction seems too stark today, as does his assertion that “genius” is essentially and absolutely unquantifiable. The arts and humanities do of course regularly make use of “the advantages which time and circumstances have placed within our reach,” though Hazlitt regards these as at best incidental to the perfection of the arts.

Iris Murdoch takes up a discipline-specific version of the question of whether the humanities are progressive in the opening paragraph of her 1964 essay, “The Idea of Perfection.” Like Hazlitt, Murdoch begins by acknowledging the tone of irritation and complaint with which people frequently observe a lack of progress in philosophical work. And like Hazlitt, she concedes the point immediately.

It is sometimes said, either irritably or with a certain satisfaction, that philosophy makes no progress. It is certainly true, and I think this is an abiding and not a regrettable characteristic of the discipline, that philosophy has in a sense to keep trying to return to the beginning: a thing which is not at all easy to do. There is a two-way movement in philosophy, a movement towards the building of elaborate theories, and a move back again towards the consideration of simple and obvious facts. McTaggart says that time is unreal, Moore replies that he has just had his breakfast. Both these aspects of philosophy are necessary to it.

Whereas Hazlitt insists on a stark contrast between the timeless arts and the timeliness of the sciences, Murdoch argues that the discipline of philosophy necessarily moves in two directions at once: its movement is both progressive, generating new concepts and pointing out new directions of thought, and regressive or recursive, continually returning to its source and to the encounter with “simple and obvious facts.” These operations – McTaggart’s skepticism, Moore’s common sense – are inseparable and equally essential to the constitution of knowledge in the discipline.

That the humanities, in addition to being characterized by ceaseless innovation, also involves the recovery or rediscovery of things long known may be one of the most difficult things to explain or “defend” about it. Another way of saying this is that the humanities seems so frequently to require defense because of the complicated and seemingly contradictory course that routes to research discovery can take. Murdoch and Hazlitt both identify in the question of whether the arts and humanities are progressive an undercurrent of resentment, hostility or complacency towards these pursuits. A distinctly negative attitude surrounds things of the past; we are a people who hold our breath as we pass graveyards and cemeteries. One reason for the distaste seems clear enough: the past is a principle of drag on the present, or more precisely on the present’s imagined futurity. I remember that in Wisconsin the roads designated “rustic roads” had signs plastered all over with the slogan “a positive step backward.” The seemingly unnecessary adjective “positive” struck me as an odd, funny-in-a-vaguely-sad-way acknowledgement. The emphasis is there to forestall anticipated objections that to “step backward” is exactly the wrong thing to do.

I find these thoughts about whether the humanities are progressive have led me to ask a very different set of questions about humanities research – not concerning its timelessness exactly, but about its recursivity, its attraction to the past, to the ordinary and obvious. Engaging inquisitively and productively with the world around it, work in the humanities reaches to the past (as does my colleague Peter Donaldson’s Global Shakespeares project or the innovative project Visualizing Cultures), often bringing back with it stuff that nobody thinks of, or hardly, but which everybody somehow already knows. The humanities moves culture – it directs ideas and shapes history, is a reliably progressive endeavor – partly because it moves us to repeated contemplation of (and confrontation with) these “simple and obvious facts.” In this kind of innovative research, the “new humanities” will not be found in contradiction with an “old.”

Reading the Pope, reading the present

signs of the times

The Vatican released this week Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, the Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospels”).  The exhortation is the first of Francis’ papacy.  It’s a doozy — and not only for being the most widely-read essay with more than 200 endnotes.

From this lengthy document, a relatively small segment of the exhortation (paragraphs 53-60, of 288 in total) have so far attracted the most attention in the English-speaking world. These remarks concern the “tyranny” of unfettered capitalism, the exploitative nature of “trickle-down” economic theories, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, and the increasing problem of global poverty. Much of the press reporting on the Pope’s exhortation has focused on these arguments. (See for instance articles from The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and Salon.)  The Pope’s remarks on economics have invited many inevitable comparisons to Marx — by Rush Limbaugh, among others — as well as some to less inevitable entities (Karl Polanyi, for instance, or the Oberlin College Newspaper).

The Pope’s assessment of the crises of contemporary capitalism has scandalized some and gratified many others who are glad to see the Pontiff attend to matters of present and widespread concern. Though not a Catholic, I too am engaged by the Pope’s words. I am just as fascinated by the passage that precedes these by now well-known paragraphs on the depredations of unfettered capitalist growth. Paragraphs 50 and 51, which introduce the second chapter of the Pope’s exhortation, are less newsworthy than the paragraphs that follow, though to my mind they are no less remarkable in constituting a reflection on the necessity, challenges and paradoxes involved in reflecting on the present time.

The preamble to Chapter 2 of the exhortation, “Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment,” opens with an appeal to consider the situation of contemporary life — “the context in which we all have to live and work” (50). “We” are thus brought to the scene of crisis itself, and to the condition of being “amid” this crisis, rather than a passive witness to it.  The position of immanence that Francis urges parishioners to assume is consistent with a now-famous statement from the previous paragraph: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (49).

Paragraph 51 continues in this vein by emphasizing the necessity of attending closely to “present realities”:

It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality, but I do exhort all the communities to an “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.”  This is in fact a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse.  (51)

Francis prepares the ground for the argument to follow with this call to the “analysis of contemporary reality.” The implication from the warning at the end of this passage is that the agents most clearly responsible for “present realities,” those in other words most committed to the untrammeled expansion and consolidation of wealth, the triumph of free market ideology, the multiplication of capitalism’s externalities in the continued destruction of the environment, and so on, are also those least invested in undertaking such an analysis. Francis thus shares with thinkers from Nietzsche to Agamben the idea that to be contemporary is to be at once in sync and out of step with “present realities.”  The “analysis of contemporary life” requires some measure of distance from present time; in essential respects it is, as Nietzsche reminds us, an untimely [Unzeitgemässe] endeavor — “acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time.”

As it happens, the call to contemporaneity and to the consideration of “certain present realities” has a long history — both in the Papal tradition and elsewhere.  The “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times” refers, as Francis’ note informs us, to the 1964 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam suam (1964). In this text, Paul endorsed his predecessor Pope John XXIII’s program of Aggiornamento, a “bringing-up-to-date,” as “the guiding principle” of the Catholic church, as well as “the aim and object of Our own pontificate.” In the encyclical Paul VI urged the Church “to take stock of itself and give careful consideration to the signs of the times” (50).

The appeal to the “signs of the times” was one of the rallying cries of the Aggiornamento, calling the priests and laity to consideration of the modern world.  “Signs of the times” has been a phrase regularly invoked since the days of Pope John XXIII — Francis being here no exception.  The phrase is famously associated with its usage in the pastoral constitution of Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et spes (1965):

the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.   (4)

The Papal use of the phrase has its origin in the gospel of Matthew (16:3), where Jesus upbraids the Saduccees and Pharisees for being better acquainted with meteorological portents than with those of greater and more lasting significance currently passing on earth: “O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” (KJV).  

To attend to the “signs of the times” is at once, then, to scan the present and to anticipate the future. In the Catholic context, the exhortation to scrutinize the signs of the times connects the activity of reading the present to the venerable traditions of the past too (both recent and ancient).  Francis recovers some of the original urgency attached to the activity of discerning the “signs of the times” by referring to the threat of “dehumanization,” and insists on its being the responsibility of all. Notwithstanding the disclaimer that the Pope’s task is not to provide a comprehensive “analysis of contemporary reality,” the necessity of attending to the signs of times turns even the leader of the Catholic church into a bit of a sociologist. At the same time, Francis is frank (sorry) about the limitations of such analysis:

Today, we frequently hear of a “diagnostic overload” which is not always accompanied by improved and actually applicable methods of treatment. Nor would we be well served by a purely sociological analysis which would aim to embrace all of reality by employing an allegedly neutral and clinical method. What I would like to propose is something much more in the line of an evangelical discernment.  (50)

The condition of “diagnostic overload” is one remarked upon in the present by many well outside the Catholic faith. Academic readers may associate the Pope’s caution with similar assessments of the forms and disciplines of “sociological” critique in the university — among others, with Bruno Latour’s assertion that the explanations furnished by critique have, as in the title of his well-known essay, “run out of steam,” outlived their usefulness, and so need either to be reinvented or discarded entirely. I am reminded of a brilliant and beautiful remark by Lauren Berlant about the limitations of the kind of critique that humanists frequently carry out: “The correct analysis of a symptom does not reveal, produce, point to, or give confidence about the shape of its cure, which is why so much work in the humanities limps along in the phrases that follow out the description of a problem.”

Francis’ reflection on the limitations of “sociological analysis” and on the conditions of contemporary life urges us think anew about what happens when we train the eye of criticism on the “signs of the times.” If the principle of “evangelical discernment” does not seem quite adequate to the purposes of scholarship and social criticism in a secular age, I would not quite wish to resort to the luxury of condescension either. The effort to renew the project that Foucault named “the history of the present” will need — has always needed — more than “an allegedly critical and clinical method” is capable of providing.  What methods will arise in its place may still need to be worked out.