I am not I

“This is not who I am,” tweets a millionaire whose racist email about President Obama has been intercepted and published.

“This is not who we are,” sing a chorus of pundits in antiphonal response to a Senate report demonstrating that the United States government, like other governments, tortures people.

And today’s snailmail brings, for the second time this year, this letter.

img221Enclosed with the letter are three low-resolution photographs showing a smiling middle-aged man with sandy hair beginning to go gray. He is a man of leisurely action, apparently. In one image he is wearing a white turtleneck as he sits among a crowd in bleachers; in another he is seen closeup in morning dress with wing collar; and in the third he is seated in a small aircraft next to a pretty girl.

This is not who I am.

But I do share my sense of who I am not with the millionaire and the chorus of pundits. After all, that sense is built into the language we all hold in common. It has been built in for centuries. Here, on damaged paper, is its theory.

And its practice comes to us still. If we bid it to teach us, it will. Undamaged amid the clutter of torture instruments, it will explain what we are not to who we are not, saying:

Estampe VI: a correction for the passage of time

The original: “Buffet library car on a deluxe overland limited train,” between 1910 and 1920. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994002352/PP/. Click to enlarge.

A century ago, it wasn’t as easy to see as it is now. The lighting wasn’t as good, and the air coming through the open clerestory of the buffet library car would have been smoky. A century afterward, too, it no longer seems possible to determine the exact date on which this 6.5-by-8.5-inch glass negative was exposed. But the negative’s unchanging physical property of large exposed area has preserved into the future a large latency of light and form. A 35-millimeter negative, a standard way of archiving the records of light until the day before yesterday, has the exposed dimensions of 24 by 36 millimeters, or 864 mm². A 6.5-by-8.5-inch negative comprises 35,645 mm², or 41 times as much potential terrain for light and lens to fill with detail.

Now, claiming that detail on behalf of my own time in the future, I digitally effect entry into the image. Entering, I move closer to one of its pictorial elements than I ever could have in what’s called real life, when the pictorial element was a still living man with a word printed on his cap and, perhaps, a sensitivity to having it and his face looked at together, close up in the same frame of reference.

No, I can’t quite read the word yet. But with Photoshop’s help, I can now see that the failure to be readable is only a minor error of institutional history. As it turns out, the word is hard to read because the negative has been printed backward. Correcting the error, I re-reverse the image. Up comes the word then, and it turns out to say “Porter.” Now that I can see the word correctly on the porter’s cap, I can also see the porter correctly. At least partially, I have learned to read the man’s face and body and their printed label as they were read when men rode the deluxe overland limited in a library. The word “Porter” has become part of the lexicon of body language.

In body language, then, let’s reread the text of the men in their library, this time oriented correctly on their page.

Seen reading as they pass through time, the men with their spittoons and the servant who cleans them are once again outlined as sharply as they were when books enclosed within their covers illustrative engravings in black and white.