love what you see: Kogonada’s Columbus (2017)

Kogonada’s Columbus (2017) is beautifully filmed in Columbus, IN, a small city stocked with distinguished modernist architecture. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) had a rough adolescence, but in the midst of that turmoil, she started relishing one particular modernist structure in an ugly strip mall. (I think it is Deborah Berke’s First Financial Bank, below.) She begins to explore the history of modernist architecture and discovers a possible exit from her current life into a world of art and ideas. 

A fine modernist building is an exquisitely planned abstract design composed of a limited number of elements. So is Columbus. The patterns are “subtle” (which is the effect that Casey “goes for” when she cooks for her mom), but also pervasive. For example, Jin (John Cho) and his father are Korean or Korean-American men who form parallel friendships with Midwestern women. Jin and Haley have difficult relationships with parents of the same sex. Near the beginning, Eleanor (Parker Posey) walks across Eero Saarinen’s Miller House toward Jae Yong Lee. Near the end, Casey walks across the Miller House toward Jin. Just like Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, as Casey describes it, the whole film is asymmetrical yet carefully balanced.

Jin’s father left a line-drawing in a notepad, and Jin tries to identify its subject. It could be Mill Race Park Tower by Stanley Saitowitz. Or it might represent negative space, such as the gap in the brick facade of Columbus City Hall by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Jin’s father, in his coma, is negative space, and the drawing he left probably does depict the gap in City Hall. But Casey doesn’t like that building, ranking it “low teens, high twenties” on her list of Columbus’ architectural monuments. She strives to bridge gaps–much like James Stewart Polshek’s Mental Health Center, which is built across Haw Creek, with the water flowing beneath for the benefit of the patients.

The film is about appreciating where you are and what you have, taking time to observe. Gabriel (Rory Culkin) even delivers an amusing speech about attention spans, ostensibly summarizing the views of a famous–but absent–critic. Everyone wants Casey to get out of Columbus and escape from her family life, but her moral excellence lies in her genuine love for both. This is not a story about a teenager who needs to break away from a small city in Indiana, but about a person who has learned to see and to love what she sees. Columbus is a lesson in both.

notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding

In the current debate about “cultural appropriation,” I would offer these premises: everything is mixed, mixing is good, having your culture borrowed can give you more power, and demands for authenticity are problematic. Although I recognize exceptions and complications, we should start by welcoming “appropriation.”

I have not seen anyone complain that the recent royal wedding was an example of appropriation, and I’m interested in why not. After all, very rich white people incorporated African American culture into their ceremony, literally bringing it into their castle. It seems evident that Black American Christianity arrived in strength and confidence and made the whole ensemble much better than it would otherwise have been. That shows that you can’t judge an act of borrowing without looking closely; and often you will find it admirable.

The wedding was a mashup of English or British traditions with African American culture, the latter in the form of Bishop Michael Curry’s magnificent  sermon and the music (“Stand By Me” and “This Little Light of Mine”). But, like everything human beings do, it’s much more mixed than that. When Rev. Curry read, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, / as a seal upon your arm,” he was sharing his patrimony, a great text of his tradition. He chose the New Revised Standard translation, which subtly echoes the King James Version (particularly prized by African American preachers), which was commissioned by Prince Harry’s eponymous ancestor, James I of England. That Bible was basically an appropriation of the translation by the heretic/martyr William Tyndale, who knew Greek and Hebrew but seems to have read the Song of Songs in the Latin translation by St. Jerome (an Illyrian), who had translated the Greek Septuagint version (made in Egypt), which–in turn–translated the Hebrew original songs, which have parallels with Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry of the same era. The songs are attributed to Solomon, who loved the daughter of Pharaoh and “women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites” (1 Kings 11). Solomon sang for all these nations. 

In other words, it’s all borrowing, as far as the eye can see. And not just on Rev. Curry’s side. Prince Harry is a British royal. If you trace his paternal line back a millennium, you reach Elimar I (1040-1112), the Count of Oldenburg in Saxony, from whom also descend the royal families of Russia, Greece, and Denmark, among others. Windsor Chapel was founded by a King of England of Viking descent whose motto was the Middle French phrase Honi soit qui mal y pense

I can’t resist noting that if you discuss “appropriation,” you are using a word derived from the Latin appropriare, which is first attested in the medical work of Caelius Aurelianus, who was an African man, a subject of Rome, best known from translating from Greek.

But doesn’t borrowing a cultural product mean taking it from the people who rightly hold it? Isn’t it therefore an act of power that benefits the taker?

Not necessarily, because culture isn’t zero-sum. Everyone can draw from the cultural commons. Jefferson said, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Power is relevant, and it’s not OK to steal other people’s patrimony, like Napoleon carting off 695 Roman sculptures to fill the Louvre. But culture has power of its own, even when it’s set against guns and money.

Again, consider the juxtaposition of English aristocrats and African Americans at the recent wedding. There is no doubt that Black Americans face structural as well as intentional racism, in a pattern that extends across the Atlantic; Britain is implicated in it. White English people who are invited to a royal wedding are far more privileged than Americans of African descent.

But not more culturally powerful. Surely in our world of 7.6 billion, the 40 million Black Americans have some of the most “soft power.” Influence is currently flowing from Black America to places like Windsor Castle in a mighty stream.

One of the reasons is sheer excellence. I don’t think you can properly assess cultural transfer unless you are attuned to quality. Perhaps we should appreciate all the cultural traditions of the world for what they are, but there are great peaks as well as modest hills. The African American church is one of the mightiest ranges. It contributes theology, rhetoric, music, a political repertoire, and a distinctive moral vision to the whole world. Of course, it is made from a mixture of elements: so is everything human. But this mixture is particularly powerful. In the exquisite setting of a late-Gothic royal chapel, representatives of the traditions of the Black church added their unique voices and made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. There are excellent reasons not to call such moments “appropriation.”

See also: what is cultural appropriation?when is cultural appropriation good or bad?cultural mixing and powerMaoist chic as Orientalismeveryone unique, all connectedJesus was a person of color.

Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and memories of Rust Belt adolescence

Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw (pictured below) were born in urban Michigan during the 1950s. By the time they were art students in the early 1970s, they’d seen all the stuff you don’t study in a University of Michigan classroom: doodles drawn in ball-point pen on lined paper while the teacher isn’t looking, fundamentalist tracts, album covers, semi-professional local ads, cable-access shows, comics, sci-fi paperbacks, D&D manuals, second-hand children’s book covers, toy packages from the dime store, pinups, and posters for high school plays. They collected that material, imitated it, and mashed it together in their gallery art and for the stage performances of their punk band Destroy All Monsters.


Their two-man gallery show, “Michigan Stories: Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw” (MSU Broad Museum), evokes the claustrophobia of adolescence, when you realize that you’re being raised to play a role in a society that you don’t much like. All those adults coming at you to tell you what to believe and do feel like monsters from a late-night horror film. Kelley, who died in 2012, was explicit that his adolescence was miserable.

That wasn’t my life. I was raised in a protective family, encouraged to explore a wide range of paths, and basically in love with the world. Yet I can summon memories of, say, junior high school in Syracuse, NY circa 1980 that powerfully evoke Kelley and Shaw. I was a half-generation younger, so when they were blasting their “noise rock,” I was afraid of big kids like them. But the graphic art and music of their cohort formed the backdrop for us early Gen-Xers.

For me, these guys evoke something more specific than perennial adolescent claustrophobia. They witnessed the particular disappointment of Rust Belt America when manufacturing crashed and the postwar promise turned out to be hollow. Black people and women captured some power in cities like Detroit and Syracuse, and everyone got permission to be a bit more free–just as capital and opportunity drained away. Kelley and Shaw were white boys watching a society that seemed unfair or cruel to others and pretty hollow for people like them. Out of that experience, they made some powerful visual art.

See also: Detroit and the temptation of ruin.

Anachronist review

The Anachronist is my interactive novel. Several readers have posted reviews of it on the Interactive Fiction Database. (If I may say so, the one person who gave it a low quantitative rating had a complaint about a technical issue that I’ve fixed since then.) A reviewer called CMG makes some helpful and valid critical points, but in the interest of blatant self-promotion, I’ll quote from the good parts of the review, which nicely summarize my intent:

You play as a woman about to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. She is lashed to it when the story starts. It is being lit. But she doesn’t burn just yet. She has been apprenticed to an alchemist, and has gleaned the art of memory. This allows her to retreat into her own mind and escape the fire — temporarily.

A single moment expands to encompass days, weeks, years, lifetimes as she plunges deeper and deeper into her memories. …

Time obviously goes out the window. Anachronism isn’t a mistake: it is the truth. The more time decomposes, the more we understand as we come to learn the circumstances surrounding the present moment. It’s a complex little plot, with conspiracies and double-crosses. Bit players enlarge to take central roles as our protagonist’s focus sharpens. Structurally, this means that the story is based around increasingly dense telescopic descriptions. We have a scene, we concentrate on a detail, that detail becomes another scene, we concentrate on another detail in that scene…

More than any other interactive fiction I’ve played, this feels like a novel. …

I faced the hardest decision I’ve had to make in a choice-based game in this story. At multiple points, you can break your concentration and return to focusing on the stake, the rising fire. I didn’t do that. I stayed in the protagonist’s head (or maybe the protagonists’ heads). And finally I reached a point where I had been reading for hours, for days, while the stake was still burning, and the game confronted me: what was I accomplishing by living in my memories? Shouldn’t I focus on the fire, what’s actually happening?

I didn’t know what to do. After playing for so long, I really felt as though I was avoiding the story’s reality. I had stretched out my time on the stake in real time by reading the text. It was absurd. I should’ve been burnt to a crisp. Here was the story’s most glaring anachronism, and I was the anachronist enabling it.

What I chose to do next doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the game created this situation in the first place. This isn’t a story whose strength rests on making the “right” choices. Its strength comes from how its themes are reflected in the reader’s own experience, which can only happen because it’s interactive.

In this sense, it’s some of the strongest interactive work I’ve seen.

Mozart illustrates the importance of “bids” in romantic relationships

The psychologist John Gottman discovered a fundamental condition of successful romantic relationships (which is consistent with my experience of 21 happy years of marriage). Partners frequently make “bids” for positive attention. Emily Esfahani Smith illustrates with an example: “the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, ‘Look at that beautiful bird outside!’ He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.” Couples who stay together respond positively to each others’ bids an average of 86% of the time. Couples who end up divorcing respond only 33% of the time.

The opening scene of the Marriage of Figaro is set in the room that Figaro and Susanna expect to occupy after their wedding the next day. They are alone together. Figaro is busy measuring the space for the bed that they will share. He sings a foursquare, masculine theme that has been identified as a march. Simultaneously but separately, Susanna is admiring herself in a new hat and telling herself how happy it makes her. Singing in her own ornamented and undulating gavotte, she asks Figaro to pay attention for a moment: “look a little, my dear Figaro.” He keeps on counting, and she keeps on asking: their two themes now playing in counterpoint. She gets more insistent as her light gavotte turns forceful: “look a little / will you look already at my hat!” At that point, Figaro notices her bid. He switches to her melody and meter to reply, “Yes, my heart, it is very pretty. It really seems  to have been made for me. Ah, next morning at our wedding …” Susanna answers in counterpoint, “How sweet is my tender groom,” as Figaro keeps singing about the “beautiful little hat.” Their melodic lines join as they sing the same lyrics about their wedding.

If you interpret the duet as a competition or struggle of wills, then Susanna wins. Daniel Heartz (1987) writes:

Susanna makes Figaro sing her tune to her rhythm, while complimenting her on her hat. With this little drama in music, which almost needs no text, Mozart has succeeded in foreshadowing the entire opera in the first number. By the end of Act 4 Figaro will have been taught a lesson by Susanna, and learnt to sing her tune for good, we hope, with regard to matters of trust and mutual respect between them. The conflict of march and gavotte, of military masculinity with the feminine grace of one of the most gallant court dances, will [recur in later scenes as well].”

But I’d prefer to see the scene as win/win. Each partner makes a bid and each replies. As soon as the duet concludes, Susanna asks in recitative, “What are you so busy measuring, little Figaro?” Statistics predict that these two will have a happy marriage.

source: Heartz, Daniel (1987). “Constructing Le nozze di Figaro.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 112.1, 77-98. For a more detailed analysis of the duettino, see Stephen Rumph, Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics, University of California Press 2011. And see why romantic relationships do not function like markets.

Derek Walcott becomes the volcano

(Orlando, FL) I’ve settled on a poem with which to express homage to the late Derek Walcott: his “Volcano” (1976)

Joyce was afraid of thunder
but lions roared at his funeral
from the Zurich zoo.
Was it Trieste or Zurich?
No matter. These are legends, as much
as the death of Joyce is a legend,
or the strong rumour that Conrad
is dead, and that Victory is ironic.
On the edge of the night-horizon
from this beach house on the cliffs
there are now, till dawn,
two glares from the miles-out-
at-sea derricks; they are like
the glow of the cigar
and the glow of the volcano
at Victory‘s end.
One could abandon writing
for the slow-burning signals
of the great, to be, instead,
their ideal reader, ruminative,
voracious, making the love of masterpieces
superior to attempting
to repeat or outdo them,
and be the greatest reader in the world.
At least it requires awe,
which has been lost to our time;
so many people have seen everything,
so many people can predict,
so many refuse to enter the silence
of victory, the indolence
that burns at the core,
so many are no more than
erect ash, like the cigar,
so many take thunder for granted.
How common is the lightning,
how lost the leviathans
we no longer look for!
There were giants in those days.
In those days they made good cigars.
I must read more carefully.

Two of “the great” are named in this poem: Joyce and Conrad. Joyce is a foil for Walcott: an exiled former subject of the British Empire who wrote Ulysses, to which Walcott, from a different Atlantic island, replied with Omeros. It turns out that lions did roar at Joyce’s funeral, and one can risk the pathetic fallacy that they roared for the master’s passing.

I don’t know Conrad’s novel Victoria, but Wikipedia suggests why Walcott might like it (as long as it can be read as “ironic”). Apparently, it describes yet another colonial island-outpost, this one in the Pacific, from European and subaltern perspectives–offering that double vision that fascinates Walcott. And according to Walcott, it ends with two lights shining on the ocean horizon, one a cigar and one a volcano. Seeing a similar pair of lights on the sea off his Caribbean home, Walcott imagines them as messages from Conrad, who is only “rumored” to be dead because his words still speak.

Walcott, the future Nobelist, has every right to place himself in these men’s company. He strives to write great works, to make his own mark. The poem relates a moment, however, when he considers whether it might be better to devote himself to reading: in fact, to become the “ideal reader.” That is a ruminative life, more modest, quieter, although Walcott’s character still compels him to be the “greatest reader in the world.”

“Volcano” adopts a rhetoric of decline. “Awe … has been lost in our time”; “so many take thunder for granted.” But I think the narrator pokes a little fun at himself for that mood when he says, “In those days they made good cigars.” It’s not really that culture has declined and all the great ones have passed. That’s simply what a person feels when he or she pledges, “I must read more carefully.”

With Walcott gone now, I’d like to think of him as a light from far offshore, sending his slow-burning signals for a long time to come. Best to enjoy them, not try to outdo them, because they really don’t make writers like Derek Walcott any more.

on inhabiting earth with inaccessibly beautiful things

I unfortunately know no Chinese. The sounds, resonances, allusions, and calligraphy of traditional Chinese poetry can reach me only through paraphrase or as abstract patterns, each character looking not much different from the next. However, Perry Link writes,

Should we compare poetry across civilizations? If we do, classical Chinese poetry wins easily. The contest is almost unfair, because, as my students of Chinese language eventually come to see, the fundaments of language are different.

Indo-European languages, with their requirements that tense, number, gender, and part of speech be specified, and with the mandatory word inflections that the specifications entail, and with the extra syllables that the inflections add, just can’t achieve the same purity—a sense of terseness and expanse at the same time—that tenseless, numberless, voiceless, uninflected, and uninflectible Chinese characters can achieve. In a contest, one person has a butterfly net and the other a window screen.

I thought of this passage during a recent, brief visit to the Sackler Gallery in Washington, which is showing “Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty.” The highlights are vast, wall-sized hanging scrolls that display poems in the original authors’ calligraphy. The setting is abstract, modern, respectfully dark. In the background, a recording of a classical Chinese zither plays. The English translations by a Sackler curator, Stephen D. Allee, produce what I would call good poetry. The language is moving and sometimes surprising. For instance:

My friends are scattered few and far apart and the rain just drizzles on.
Fragrance fades from the incense burner and the teacups have toppled over;
I composed a poem on plum blossoms, but I’m sorry it is not well done.

I trust that these English lines convey the sense of the end of a poem by Wen Zhengming (composed ca. 1500), but they bear only a distant relationship to the scroll he painted and the sounds that his intended audience would hear as they read it. It’s strange to think that I will never be able to experience a deeply valuable art form–in Link’s estimation, the best tradition of poetry in the world–even though I can stand in the same room with it.

(See also: nostalgia for now and Ito Jakuchu at the National Gallery)

cultural mixing and power

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These two objects were juxtaposed during a wonderful Tisch Talk in the Humanities yesterday, with Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Lisa Lowe from Tufts’ Department of English.

On the left, an 18th century desk made in colonial Mexico that’s now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Lowe noted that the shape derives from the Northern European Renaissance. The geometric patterns on the outside are reminiscent of Moorish Spain. But, as Lee Lawrence writes, “With the desk flap lowered and the bookcase doors open, … the gold-on-red interior screams China—until, that is, you take a closer look. The artist has depicted a hacienda with palm trees and deer, not a landscape with willows and oxen, and the figures wear sombreros, not conical hats.” Some of the figures appear to be Africans, slaves or freemen.

On the right is a photo of Campos-Pons in the Piazza San Marco, Venice. She is an Afro-Cuban artist with some Chinese-Cuban ancestry. She was responsible for the Cuban Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, a remarkable installation built partly of bird cages. Here she is dressed in an elaborate costume that has Cuban, Chinese, and Yoruba elements, claiming the piazza as a kind of town crier.

Both objects mix Chinese, New World, European, and African content. Both are made by Hispanic artists of color.

It might seem that power and agency is different in these two cases. Campos-Pons is an internationally recognized and successful artist. She makes images that mix specific cultural elements of her choice, and she is honored for the results. The anonymous (to us) artisans who made the desk combined a specific set of cultural elements because Spain had occupied Mexico and turned its indigenous people into subjects. The Empire also forcibly combined the decorative art of the conquered Mudéjars, Chinese porcelain (via the Manila-Acapulco galleon route), and the cultures of Africans who’d been transported as slaves.

But that contrast negates the creativity and agency behind the beautiful desk. Some person or group chose to make it look as it does. If a Spanish-descended patrón had a lot of say in the matter, he or she had vision and talent. And if a native artisan conceived the object, that person was highly creative and–for all I know–well rewarded. As for Campos-Pons, her ethnic and cultural heritage is due to the same Empire. And now she produces goods prized by powerful patrons: museums, collectors, and foundations. Her clients seek a cultural mix or synthesis, as did the original owner of the desk.

One can push the analogy too far, until it seems to make no difference whether an artist has political and economic rights. Campos-Pons faces different objective circumstances from the maker(s) of the desk, and it’s important to improve all people’s circumstances. Still, we can find agency and artistry everywhere, and often it’s by mixing disparate inheritances that we create the objects that represent us best.

See also: when is cultural appropriation good or bad? and upside-down Foucault

Maoist chic as Orientalism

tseng kwong chiWhile visiting the excellent Tufts University Art Gallery exhibition, “Tseng Kwong-Chi: Performing for the Camera,” my colleagues and I heard the following story. Tseng was the child of Chinese anticommunist refugees. He moved to the East Village in the 1970s, where he worked and played with people like Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. When his parents visited from their home in Vancouver, they wanted to take him to Windows on the World, the fancy restaurant that used to be at the top of the World Trade Center. It required a jacket, and the only jacket Tseng owned was a Chinese Communist uniform that he had bought in a second-hand store in Montreal. The restaurant not only let him in but fawned over him, assuming that he was a Chinese dignitary. This reception gave Tseng the idea of posing in front of iconic monuments all over the North America and Western Europe, dressed in his Mao jacket, Ray-Bans, and an ID badge that reminds me of the X-Files. He always donned the serious, distant look of the Chairman inspecting the Red Army’s triumphs.

Tseng had studied art in Paris, so Richard Wolin’s book, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s provides some helpful background. Wolin writes that Communist China was all the rage in Paris in 1967. That year,

Mao-collared suits–“les cols de Mao“–had become immensely fashionable. Try as they might, the clothing boutiques in Paris’ tony sixteenth arrondissement could not keep them in stock. … Lui, the French equivalent of Playboy, decided to jump on the pro-Chinese bandwagon by featuring an eight-page spread of scantily clad models in straw hats, red stars, and Red Guard attire. The accompanying captions were culled from The Little Red Book. One striking image portrayed a young woman, unclad and equipped with an automatic rifle, emerging from an enormous white cake. “The revolution is not a dinner party,” read the legend.

Tseng might not have seen this Lui issue, but he lived in Paris soon after Chinese communism had inspired everything from softcore porn to an insurrection. Meanwhile, in the actual China, during the year 1967 alone, some 237,000 citizens were killed and 730,ooo permanently disabled as a result of the Cultural Revolution.

Tseng was a Canadian citizen, a gay man, an East Village artist, and an Asian immigrant to North America. In these pictures, he is role-playing the most powerful Asian man of the time, one whose victims–almost all Asians–may number 65 million. By passing as a Communist official instead of an East Village immigrant artist, he was able to experience social recognition in his adopted land. He also parodied the appropriation of serious matters for profitable pop culture and made serious art out of the parody.

See also:  French post-War intellectuals: some generalizations and when is cultural appropriation good or bad?

remembering Melisto

MellistoThis is Melisto, a daughter of Ktesikrates from Sounion, which is now a day-trip from Athens. I think her name means “Melody,” unless it’s related to the word for “honey.”* Melisto lived for a few years (six, perhaps?) around 340 BCE. The Macedonian King Phillip II was dominating Greece at the time, and his son Alexander was soon to conquer a vast empire. Ktesikrates and perhaps other members of the family were sad enough to lose Melisto that they had a very handsome marble stele carved for her, with her name at the top. She is showing a live bird to her fluffy lapdog and smiling at the results. The figure in her other hand may be a votive object rather than a doll, according to the museum label. A nice little classical building shelters her and announces her name to us, 2,350 years later, in Cambridge, MA.

*Is it from melisma (song) or melisseios (honey)?