Tom Habinek, realism vs. the ‘glob’, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; tempora cum causis (11)

Ancient. Last weekend was the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies. Since I was still back in the UK with my family over the New Year, I missed most of it, but I was there for the last day to take part in the panel commemorating Prof. Tom Habinek, who sadly died last year. Tom was my PhD advisor, and a major influence in the field of Roman Studies. The event was very poignant, but fitting. On Sunday evening I posted my part of the panel, which you can read here: “Tom Habinek on ‘generativity’.” 

Modern. In an essay originally published in 1971, “The Culture of Criticism”, Hayden White describes the frustrations of Ernst Gombrich, Erich Auerbach, and Karl Popper (respectively: art historian, philologist and literary critic, philosopher of science) with the avant-gardists as typified by, for example, the abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock. Each of these scholars held an attachment to realism; in some cases considering realism, in historiography and art alike, to be a means of resisting authoritarianism, with its power to overwrite the experience of reality by means of ideology. White (2010*: 105) writes that for these critics, historical, literary, or artistic realism, i.e. an attempt to represent reality as it actually is or was “results from the controlled interplay of human consciousness with a shifting social and natural milieu.” In the face of the fact that realism is supposed to reflect the human perception of reality, the avant-garde is taken by these critics to be a frustration of perception rather than a refinement of it. More than this, this break with tradition is a challenge to perception. White writes (2010: 107): 

“The surfaces of the external world, so laboriously charted over the last three thousand years, suddenly explode; perception loses its power as a restraint on imagination; the fictive sense dissolves — and modern man teeters on the verge of the abyss of subjective longing, which, Auerbach implies, must lead him finally to an enslavement once more by myth.”

(The fear of “myth” — figured as an antitype to so-called “rationality” in tandem with “realism” — has probably produced a number of negative results itself.) By the end of this essay, White (2010: 108-110) points to one of the real comforts of realism, one which lies in its hierarchical nature. Realistic art or narrative reflects a grammatically syntactical worldview, i.e. a mode of composition which privileges certain ideas over others, and arranges information around that privilege; whereas artefacts of the avant-garde might be interpreted as paratactical — presenting discrete elements “side-by side” (= παρά) in a “democracy of lateral coexistence” (2010: 109).

In Washington DC last weekend, I found myself face-to-face with Hans Hofmann’s Oceanic (1958) in the Hirshhorn Museum. I was really struck by the large heaps of paint in certain parts of the work, which I have now affectionately come to call “globs.” It feels appropriate!

Inspired by that visit, when I returned to Boston I wanted to go and look closely at more oil paintings in the MFA. Last night we got up close with some more excellent globs from Lee Krasner (Sunspots, 1963) and Joan Mitchell (Chamonix, c. 1962):

Digitization is vital, and I depend on it for my teaching and my scholarship, and I would never want digital resources to be taken away from me. But there is pretty much nothing like looking a glob straight in the eye, if you get the chance to. You can get a general sense of texture from a photograph. But the glob is just so noticeable IRL. Krasner applied oils straight from the tube onto the canvas for Sunspots, and you can tell. Looking at that painting tells the story of its making. As for Mitchell’s Chamonix, you can see the movement of her body in its wide, energetic strokes. Each is a record of embodiment, one which figurative, narrative, and supposedly veristic accounts tend to leave invisible. Back to Hayden White (2010: 110) one last time:

“The avant-garde insists on a transformation of social and cultural practice that will not end in the substitution of a new elite for an old one, a new protocol of domination for the earlier ones, nor the institution of new privileged positions for old ones — whether of privileged positions in space (as in the old perspectival painting and sculpture), of privileged moments in time (as one finds in the older narrative art of fiction and conventional historiography), of privileged places in society, in privileged areas in the consciousness (as in the conservative, that is to say, orthodox Freudian psychoanalytic theory), of privileged parts of the body (as the genitally organized sexual lore insists is ‘natural’), or of privileged positions in culture (on the basis of presumed superior ‘taste’) or in politics (on the basis of a presumed superior ‘wisdom’).”

* “The Culture of Criticism” (1971) is reprinted in The Fiction of NarrativeEssays on History, Literature, and Theory (2010), edited by Robert Doran.


Excerpt. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 1987: 44: “I thought about myself and art: that I could catch the likeness of anything I could see — with patience and the best instruments and materials. I had, after all, been an able apprentice under the most meticulous illustrator of this century, Dan Gregory. But cameras could do what he had done and what I could do. And I knew that it was this same thought which had sent Impressionists and Cubists and the Dadaists and the Surrealists and so on in their quite successful efforts to make good pictures which cameras and people like Dan Gregory could not duplicate.” 

Daily Life. We spent New Year’s Eve walking along the shore at Troon. 

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Vergil enamels, liking what you like, Adrienne Maree Brown; tempora cum causis (5)

Ancient. Vergil’s Aeneid has inspired no shortage of visual representations in antiquity and modernity. In the 16th century, an unknown enameler made a series of plaques (82 are recorded) illustrating episodes from the Aeneid. These images are based on woodcut illustrations in the complete works of Vergil, edited by Sebastian Brandt, and published by Johann Grüninger in Strasburg in 1502. Here’s a small selection: Aeneas leaves Dido in Book 4 (Met Museum); Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld in Book 6 (Fitzwilliam Museum); Nisus and Euryalus in the enemy camp in Book 9 (Met Museum). 


Modern. This week I’ve been thinking about how difficult it can be to be open about what you really like. I was listening to Monday’s episode of What a Cartoon, which is done by the Talking Simpsons hosts, Henry Gilbert and Bob Mackey (I’ve written about them before, and surely will again). This week they were talking about the Pokémon anime (Japan 1997; US 1998). Both of the hosts spoke with their guest, Kat Bailey, about the fact that they felt pressure to hide their interest in it, despite the fact that it was deeply attractive to them and deeply resonant. There are a number of reasons why you might feel the need to hide your interest in something benign. We do want to connect, of course, but openness of this kind is a vulnerable thing. And it’s not just about the popularity contest. When I think back to times when I kept my interests to myself, I can pinpoint a dread which stems from middle class anxiety. For a long time, part of me truly could not embrace pop culture publicly, as much as I wanted to, because I felt that I was supposed to be interested, or appear to be interested, in something else. It’s certainly connected to my profession; in some of the academic environments I’ve found myself in, there has been a performative preference for the high brow. But it didn’t originate there for me. Education more broadly has historically expressed itself as the individual’s ability to make the correct series of references to correct audiences. The peer pressure which arises from a common consciousness can be enough to make you want to hide the parts of your interest that do not fit into the contemporary cultural lexicon.

In this context, I find myself, again, having some praise for the internet, despite its current and growing toxicity. Early on, it gave me an outlet and a community for my (probably bad) creative writing on message boards. The mainstream acceptance of quote unquote nerd culture could be explained by the fact that those who developed secret ways to find their people back in the nascent years of the internet over time set the stage for the embrace of once niche interests by the general public. (The cynical commodification of our desires and childhood nostalgia also has a role to play here.) While my twitter account is primarily geared towards an audience expecting Classics content, these days I tweet almost as much about the “bad” tv I watch, Adam Driver, or video games.

I’m beginning very slowly to operate by the principle that even if I know the thing I like is not actually that good, it’s okay for me to like it, and to admit that that’s the case. I’m beginning to regret not giving some things a chance just because I thought I was supposed not to like them. If some cultural artefact resonates with you, the draw is magnetic. The feeling of being pulled in a certain direction without knowing exactly why is the same divining rod that I use for my scholarly life. I’m drawn to certain texts for my research because something about them resonates with me; I read some ancient authors instead of others because I’m more interested in how they do what they do. Resisting that magnetic pull based on the expectation of imagined rejection is an extra mental block which none of us needs. 


Excerpt. Adrienne Maree Brown 2019: 11: “I believe in transformative justice — that rather than punishing people for surface-level behaviour, or restoring conditions to where they were before the harm happened, we need to find the roots of the harm, together, and make the harm impossible in the future. I believe that the roots of most harm are systemic, and we must be willing to disrupt vicious systems that have been normalized. I believe that we are at the beginning of learning how to really practice transformative justice in this iteration of species and society. There is ancient practice, and there will need to be future practices we can’t yet foresee. But I believe that with time it must be an incredible pleasure to be able to be honest, expect to be whole, and to know that we are in a community that will hold us accountable and change with us.”

Daily Life. I received two sets of flowers for the first time in my life!