Friday, July 23, 2004


Our fave learned journal, Common Knowledge, has published it’s summer issue. There is a special section devoted to “Neo-Stoic Alternatives, c.1200-2004: Essays on Folly and Detachment.” The dates are a little optimistic. For scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, it has gradually become apparent that understanding the intellectual patterns in these centuries in terms of the opposition between the Aristotelianism of the schoolmen and Galileo’s science is grossly insufficient. Some of the most interesting work of modern scholarship has centered  around the rediscovery of, or perhaps it would be better to say the appropriation of, stoicism, such as one sees it in Montaigne’s essays. 

 We especially like one of the articles, Unmasking The World: Bruegel's Ethnography, by Art Historian Joseph Leo Koerner. Koerner’s goal is to run a couple of themes through Bruegel’s work. One of the themes is this: “The ethics of this neo-Stoicism urged pleasure in the experience of distance—of distance from, though curiosity about, the lifeworld of one's time and place. The neo-Stoic is the ethnographer at home, observing his culture invent its lifeworld and then behave as if it were nature's own.” We wonder about these terms – ethnography, lifeworld - and the alien feel of them to that humanistic vocabulary that meditated on curiosities, and sought keys to hieroglyphs. Still, Koerner’s words seem to work for Bruegel’s work, in which the necessity to expand in scope – and thus to assume a distance – is derived from the multitudinous activities that he has to picture.
Koerner’s a great see-er of pictures. Here he is on a bit of Bruegel’s painting of “Fight between Carnival and Lent:”

“Behind Lent's cart, a boy with a basket on his head is busy munching bread, carrying shoes and pretzels, and staring out at us. His humanizing distance from his function in the ritual dramatizes what Bruegel's painting everywhere confirms. Bruegel seems to document, more than to create, the symbolism of which his painting consists. The peculiar detachment of his performance as a painter from the performances that he records finds a reflection in the represented actors themselves. Shown to stand just outside their own activity, they, like the painter, contribute to our sense that we peer behind their masks to an underlying personality. To further complicate matters, however, Carnival and Lent are themselves both masquerades and rituals of unmasking. Cousin to the dramatic form of the antimasque, Carnival reveals the true nature of people and society by mocking their covering illusions: its bizarre costumes and practices aim at a brief but subversively realistic portrayal of the physical and social body. Lent, in turn, banishes Carnival's travesties by reintroducing with a vengeance the drab infirmity of everyday life. Whereas Carnival unmasks life by giving it a temporarily unrestrained expression, Lent unmasks death—hence, in Bruegel's picture, the several corpses that later collectors masked by painting over them. Even as Bruegel distances himself from these ritual forms, he carries into his picture their negative labor.”

Indeed, there is something to this weighing of distances. We don’t see distance transformed into the heraldic past (as we do in the background of hundred of Annunciations); we don’t see this distance as a divine usufruct; we see this distance as the condition of a certain curiosity. Ethnographic, Koerner thinks – and that works. The participant/observer ambiguity is certainly there. Bruegel, Koerner says, was enrolled into a myth after his death – that he was a peasant. The modern take is that he was a sophisticate. But the myth reads at least part of that distance right. 

Last year, in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Perez Zagorin began an essay on Bruegel with a note on the divergent, contradictory interpretations that his work evokes:

“Since the late nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, when Pieter Bruegel ceased to be seen simply as the naive artist Pieter the Droll and Peasant Bruegel, chosen, as his first biographer Carel van Mander said, "from among the peasants" to be "the delineator of peasants,"  he has been generally ranked among the foremost artists of the Netherlands and northern Renaissance as well as one of the greatest of European painters. His oeuvre is broad, consisting of moral allegories and satires, panoramic landscapes, religious and biblical themes, and a variety of genre and secular scenes. Anyone who looks attentively at his forty-odd paintings, his drawings, and the prints made after the latter is likely to notice not only their strong formal structure and outstanding skill in organizing pictorial space, their command of the complex disposition of large masses of figures, and their masterly sureness and economy of figural draftsmanship in the depiction of human beings in every kind of posture and action, but also that many of them seem to be animated by some idea. Gazing at such engrossing and intensely vital images of human life and nature as his paintings of proverbs and children's games, festive peasants, the seasons, and religious subjects like the tower of Babel, Christ on the road to Calvary, and the triumph of death, the viewer is bound to recognize that the painter, in the words of Edward Snow, quoting Cezanne, was "a thinker in images." works known through thousands of reproductions, have elicited very divergent readings….  They have been variously perceived as comic and sympathetic representations of peasant life by a humane observer, as detached and accurate descriptions by an objective recorder, as graphic allegories of human folly, as visions of an organic community which is passing away, as products of a literary and pictorial genre of satirical commentaries on peasant crudity, gluttony, and lechery, and as an expression of the social condescension and moral superiority which humanist intellectuals and the dominant landed and urban classes of the painter's time are said to have felt toward peasants and popular culture.”

Simply listing those ideas damasks them – somewhat unfairly, since the list’s very heterogeneity allows Zagorin to avoid committing himself to acts of individual criticism. Since Koerner’s essay is printed in a special section of Common Knowledge dedicated to neo-stoicism, another “idea” is being at least claimed to be countenanced by the painter’s work. Of course, painters have several ideas. They think they’ll put some purple in that corner; they think it is time for a brewsky; they think that armed revolution would be a good thing; they think their girlfriends are betraying them… and so on. Famously, as Zagorin points out, Bruegel – as well as Bosch -- has been the subject of a story started by a critic of the thirties, Charles de Tonay, that he belonged to a millennial sect, the Family of Love. And that sect was a sext sect – to the pure all things are pure, I am pure, ergo, let’s get down.
Koerner has a welcome knack for seeing that a painting isn’t a space that is given all at once. His interpretation of Bruegel’s paintings depends on the fact that the eye tours the surface. In other words, the seeing of the painting exists in time. Too often this aspect of perspective – its deferring function – is neglected. There is a line of painting, going through the minimalists, that takes the painted surface as a means of seizing the eye’s seeing in something that is impossible to tour – and thus throwing the eye back on itself and its present. This is the claim of the purely painterly, and it is present as an element in every painting.  Here is Koerner doing the phenomenon of seeing a Bruegel painting, Jesus Carrying the Cross:
“A viewer needs to remember his or her first impression of Bruegel's picture to recognize its radical design. An initial experience goes something like this. We enter the picture through the grand sweep of the landscape. Bruegel plots this sweep through the flow of figures from the sunken distance on the left, past a middle ground, to a higher distance on the right. There, in the spatial and narrative full stop of the circular crowd, we notice that the cross of Christ is missing and we are sent back to the foreground, to a scene we perhaps noticed but slipped past due to its formal reserve. Yet here, where we expect to find him among his followers, Christ is still absent. The stake and wheel at the far right, together with the skull at its base, help trick us into thinking that the crucifix rises next to the Virgin, on Golgotha, hill of the skull. Between the skull and the wheel, however, a second group of mourners nudge us back into the landscape. Some wear contemporary dress; the man in the red cap at furthest to the right (who, like us, observes the landscape with the stake just to his side) is believed to be a self- portrait. In any case, it is around now that, tossed back into the agitated movement of the crowds, we seek and at last discover the tiny figure of Christ.

Dwarfing him in the expansive landscape, crowding him out by a teeming humanity, Bruegel performs the world's nonrecognition of Christ—also the subject of several of paintings by Bosch. Love of the world, for Bosch, caused everyone to overlook Christ in heaven. Yet whereas in works like Bosch's Hay Wain our own perspective as viewers of the triptych remains aligned with a salvific structure, in Bruegel's Jesus Carrying the Cross our place is inside the sinful parade, not only because Bruegel offers no external standpoint from which to view it with impunity, but also because he assures us that our world is the same. Realism, the sense we get that "this is how people actually look and act" repeats both our knowing the world and our not knowing Christ.”

We love the fancy stepping here. To see in, to go further, to back up – these are not in particular the stages of a narrative, which is, of course, the temptation with Bruegel, and an increasingly over-used trope in criticism -- everything must be narrativized this season. But Koerner's description of the viewer's passage through the painting is a narrative about a non-narrative reality. The narrative, here, is outside of the painting. It was suffered through by Christ.  Inside is the observer’s moment –and the observer’s gains and losses, shuffles and ducks.  

Thursday, July 22, 2004


LI recommends Richard Cohen’s column in the WP this morning. Most of the re-assessments of the supporters of the Iraq war have cast their positions, both then and now, in the light of their smooth and consistent use of reason. Meritocrats all, they added up reasons pro and con and do their little checklists, they read the journals, they know all about the history. Except of course they know nothing about the history, the checklists consisted of bogus items, and they wrote for the journals they read – groupthink in monad-land. There are, remember, no windows in monads. Cohen is not having any of this, and he chooses a clever image to make his point: that recent issue of the New Republic that featured a lot of hedging liberal hawks:

“I mention anthrax for the simple reason that no one does anymore. It's a curious silence since, along with the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, it all but dominated the news. Some of us did not get mail deliveries and, when they resumed, we went into secure rooms where we donned latex gloves and face masks before opening letters. On a tip, I asked my doctor early on to prescribe Cipro for me, only to find out that, insider though I thought I was, nearly everyone had been asking him for the same thing. People made anthrax-safe rooms, and one woman I know of had a mask made for her small dog. I still don't know if that was a touching gesture or just plain madness.

My point is that we were panicked. Yet that panic never gets mentioned. Last month the New Republic published a "special issue" in which a bevy of very good writers wondered whether they had been wrong to support the war in Iraq. Most of them admitted to having erred about this or that detail or in failing to appreciate how badly George Bush would administer the war and the occupation. But none confessed to being seized by the zeitgeist. I read the magazine cover to cover and unless I somehow missed it, the word anthrax never appeared. Imagine! Not once! Not a single one of these writers admitted to panicking over anthrax.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

According to the Forth Worth Star Telegram, Ashcroft’s DOJ report on the Patriot Act claims that it "has charged 310 defendants with criminal offenses as a result of terrorism investigations" since 9-11, and that 179 have been convicted.

The thirty five of that number who were charged in Iowa have turned out to be a fiercesome group of dedicated jihadists, according to a story in the Des Moines Register (via Atrios). The story, picked up by the Omaha paper, lists some of the villains:

“Included among the 35 cases were:

• Four American-born laborers who omitted mention of prior drug convictions or other crimes when they were assigned by a contractor to a runway construction project at the Des Moines airport or when they applied for manual-labor jobs there.

• Five Mexican citizens who stole cans of baby formula from store shelves throughout Iowa and sold them to a man of Arab descent for later resale.

• Two Pakistani men who entered into or solicited sham marriages so that they and their friends could continue to live in the Waterloo area and work at convenience stores there.”

Our favorite quote in the article comes from Ashcroft’s prosecutor on the spot, Richard Murphey. Surely Murphey was suckled on J. Edgar Hoover’s You Can Trust the Communists (to be Communist). Tough as nails, the man’s x ray vision saw right through that baby food scam, and what he saw sent shivers through his spine: the attack on Western Civilization:

“Prosecutors stressed that many of the Iowa cases were classic examples of illegal activities that are perpetrated by terrorist groups. And though any evidence of terrorist connections or motives was rarely mentioned in the courtroom, officials implied that some of the suspects might still be under suspicion, even since their release.

"'Bona fide' terrorism is a matter of semantics," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Murphy, who heads the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Cedar Rapids. "I don't think you can draw conclusions based on what a person is convicted of."

Murphy has started a strike force to target jaywalking by anyone with a terrorist sounding last name. There are also the terrorist shop lifters to go after – especially the ones that ‘boost’ gateway products, like lipstick and hair dye. In a memo that LI has obtained from the famed prosecutor’s office, he explains: “Lipstick and hair dye look trivial to the civilian eye. The fellow travelers and soft on crime crowd will yell and whine. But remember: yesterday’s thefts of Maybelline TN-100 lead to tomorrow’s thefts of aluminum tubes and yellowcake uranium. There are no gray areas here. You are with us, or against us.

Just yesterday there was report of an Arab looking fellow cheating a McDonald’s take out cashier of a buck fifty. This guy is loose in America. He could meet your daughter tomorrow. Think about it.”

Monday, July 19, 2004

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead - all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism.
Michel Foucault,  Discipline and Punish 
There is an aspect of the Bush administration’s conservatism that has not often enough been scrutinized: its attachment to the engineering achievements of the late nineteenth century. Hence its love affair with the internal combustion engine, the coal burning power plant, and the test.
Bush naïve fondness for testing is like a man who judges the success of his dentist by the amount of pain the man inflicts.  From what we know of Bush’s academic career, he was never a good taker of tests. He took away from that experience a certain awe of them. Tests, in his mind, are powerful idols that must be placated. If you placate them with enough sacrifice, you receive a good grade. And if you receive a good grade, you must have learned something. Given this chain of reasoning, it is no wonder that his educational initiative is perhaps the most concentrated expression of testmania in American history.
LI is, on the contrary, an old skeptic of tests. We have taught classes, given tests, and graded them. Indeed, usually our grades did correspond with our intuitions about the relative merits of our students – their grasp of the subject, their willingness to work, and their acquaintance with the elements of English grammar. However, as an instrument for assessing learning, we find testing highly suspect. Like all assessments of human performance, its advocates like to cast over it the aura of objective measurement. But because assessment is embedded in social activity, the measurement, here, inevitably effects the thing measured. While the cloth is indifferent to the ruler the seamstress lays over it to cut off a given length, humans are not at all indifferent to measurements that will reward or punish them, and will change their behavior accordingly. Teaching the test instead of teaching, the numbers achieved by American kids may go up, but the quality of what they learn will certainly go down. This, we think, makes testmania a disaster for U.S. education.
That disaster emerges from two things: the qualitative change brought about in the social nature of knowledge from the quantitative change in knowledge itself, which necessitates that shedding of a context of schooling adapted for the assembly line rather than the network; and the nature of the test itself, as a disciplinary, rather than a learning, tool, as it has developed in the American classroom.
More later. 

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...