From the history of gray

Paris, March 1839: Samuel F. B. Morse, in France to obtain European patents for his telegraph, attends a demonstration of Jacques Daguerre’s new system for recording what has been seen. Taking note there of a gap in the record, he writes to a New York newspaper:

Objects moving are not impressed. The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot black, and the other on the ground. Consequently his boots and legs were well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion. (Taft 12)

The headless, bodiless ghost that Morse saw in Daguerre’s studio was probably this one.


L. J. M. Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, 1838 or 1839
Click to enlarge.

Just over a hundred years later, in America, another man fell under the influence of long exposure and went ghostly likewise.


Jack Delano, Street corner, Brockton, Mass., January 1941
Library of Congress,

The grammar of Morse’s 1839 description is beautifully precise. The feet of the shoeshine man’s customer are described in the past tense because their moment of stasis is now only a historical fact, but the body and head remain in the historical present (as in “In 1865, Lincoln dies”) because their invisibility now belongs to the category of the forever after (as in Secretary of State Seward’s sentence after Lincoln’s last breath: “Now he belongs to the ages”). As history, too, Morse’s description approaches the fundamental. It reminds us that photography has erased every identifying mark of the shoeshine man and his customer and sunk them deep in a memory record which endures only as its elemental daguerreotype forms, copper and silver and mercury and gold.

Later in the process, Jack Delano was able to supplement Daguerre’s monochrome mnemotechnic with color. To him it was given to see an image through to its end in Kodachrome, the crystalline and slow to fade. But the ghost in the margin of Delano’s record is even less visible than the one in Daguerre’s. In each of these two photographs with men in their corners, the process has failed to hold life still at the instant of its final pose.

In ways that Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag have discussed, Delano’s photograph of a street corner is history inscribed in the genre of elegy. Once, not long before the approach of a photographer named Jack, a New England storm swept through Brockton, Massachusetts. For the moment and yet also approximately forever, a memory of the storm remains in white on a utility pole. There, seen as an image in a photograph, the white is a metonym for “winter” or “New England” which any American will know how to read.  With the metonym’s help, too, an archivist might be able to write (say) a history of snowplow routes in Brockton as of January 1941. But of course metonymy can’t restore les neiges d’antan, or the way a winter day in Massachusetts would have made itself known to eye and flesh eleven months before Pearl Harbor, with so many of New England’s soon to be dead still alive in their snow. In this image, snow reads its white to us, but its cloaking gray surround seems not yet to be readable, even after 71 years.

That color-coded signal warns the eye that Massachusetts’s gray extends not just through its space but through its time as well.


Jack Delano, Near the waterfront, New Bedford, Mass., January 1941
Library of Congress,

Yes, there’s time in this picture. Those squat steel towers in their girdered cages were called gasometers, and few remain now in the United States. The smoke pollution may be due to return under a Republican administration, but for now it too is largely a thing of the past. And finally the image itself is depopulated of the people of 1941. As of 2012, what you see here of historic New Bedford is less a photograph in its own right than an architect’s rendering of a not yet written history. It is a visual metonym for the past, camera-ready to be positioned on a page between paragraphs full of words about the past. Call your metonym something like “the gasometer era,” and there’s your symbol,  right in the illustration. As an illustration, too, the symbol may be applied to any number of subjects.

But its grays don’t cling to anything like a subject. Jack Delano, a documentarian with the Farm Security Administration, certainly had subjects in mind when he arranged to depict them, but even if he had considered gray to be a political quality (as in a pictorial equivalent of a phrase like “the grim gray of industrial New England”), he couldn’t have taught it to make a political impression. In Jack Delano’s New Bedford, gray is the unruly all-color that takes dominion because it defies classification by hue. Sunk below form in the color layer, a surround that decolors the image it encloses, the gray will be seen always to have been ghosting itself away from subject and composition and social order. If we could speak of a form in transit into the unsymbolizable, we might be able to name that thing “Gray” and speak of it as such. But it can’t be spoken of as such. It is only the gray: a form that neither Samuel Morse nor we know how to say we didn’t see.

Source of the passage by Samuel Morse: Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene. 1938; New York: Dover Publications, 1964.

I am not related to Samuel Morse.

“I commit”: the administrative intransitive

The Jerry Sandusky football sex scandal at Penn State reverberated in the school’s policy chambers, where the Board of Trustees belatedly learned that it had been kept in the dark by the school’s then president. Reacting, the school’s new president made a pledge to the board about future communications.

“I commit,” he said, “to loop you in.”

And that’s how we learned about Penn State’s new varsity sport.

— Jon,
SCHS ’58,
PSU ’62

Music for the manicure

Maeve Reston, “Donors arrive at Hamptons fundraisers with advice for Mitt Romney.” Los Angeles Times 8 July 2012.,0,4909639.story

A New York City donor a few cars back, who also would not give her name, said Romney needed to do a better job connecting. “I don’t think the common person is getting it,” she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. “Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them.

“We’ve got the message,” she added. “But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies — everybody who’s got the right to vote — they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”

Ladies, is the radio in your shop tuned to the right station?

For Newt, Dinesh, and Sheriff Joe

Taken from the lawn of Central Union Church (United Church of Christ) in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA, this photograph (click it to enlarge) shows the Shinshu Kyokai Temple (Buddhist). The apartment building at the right is where President Obama spent his youth. The low, tin-roofed building between the temple and the apartment house is the True Jesus Mission, Church of the Latter Rain.

Donald and Mitt, would you be caught dead being born into such a neighborhood?

Invisible reading


Beware, says the United States Department of State. If you’re an American on a street in Ukraine, you risk being read adversely.

Street crime remains a serious problem in Ukraine. The country continues to undergo significant economic, political, and social transformation, and income differences have grown accordingly. As a result, you and other foreign visitors may be perceived as wealthy and as easy targets for criminals. United States citizens often stand out in Ukraine, and are therefore more likely to be targeted than in Western European countries, where incomes are higher and U.S. citizens may blend in better. The police are poorly paid, motivated, trained, and equipped, and also are considered to be one of the most corrupt organizations in Ukraine.

“Ukraine: Country Specific Information.”


This morning the statistics counter for the blog you’re reading showed this. Click it to enlarge.

The page view marked with an American flag was mine. Everything else on the page — all those hits flying in from an ever-changing array of internet protocol addresses and then touching down, exactly seventeen seconds apart, on every single tag for every single one of my blogposts — came from a spambot in Ukraine. The term “page view” implies that some human being is looking at language in a language-enabled way, but the bot that generated this arrival log is the agent of a different purpose. What that purpose might be, however, isn’t clearly discernible.


Indiscernibility has a literary value in its own right, of course. Anne Carson’s adaptation of Sophocles, Antigonick (New Directions, 2012), comes to us as a printed text with interspersed pictures. Some of these images are illustrations obviously related to the text; others seem to be primarily mood pieces. All of them are printed on translucent paper.

Which means (so to speak) that you can’t fully see the pictures because the text makes itself seen under them, and you can’t fully read the text because the pictures make themselves seen over it. The text itself, studied with the aid of a blank sheet of paper, is a facsimile of Anne Carson’s not particularly legible handwriting. It begins with Antigone and Ismene talking about Beckett and Hegel, but its presiding theoretical genius is clearly Brecht, he of the alienation effect. Don’t even try to read me, says this book. Or, if you must, if you’re an Antigone and not an Ismene, then read me in spite of myself.

But when Brecht thought of Verfremdung he had a textual consequence in mind: to get his readers out of their plush seats and march them on down to the nearest Revolution Books.

Drum links, zwei, drei! Drum links, zwei, drei!
Wo dein Platz, Genosse, ist!
Reih dich ein in die Arbeitereinheitsfront
Weil du auch ein Arbeiter bist.

So hup 2 3! So hup 2 3!
Comrade, this here’s the place for you!
Enlist your ass right now in the Workersunityfront
Cuz you know, like, you’re a worker too.


Beckett preferred to sing his songs to Anne Carson less scrutably.


The Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny,” beloved craft of the barnstormers who rode the skies of America in the years just after the Great War, was notoriously underpowered. The fat man in this picture probably wouldn’t have qualified to leave the ground in this airplane on that sunny day at the end of winter. But for his contemporaries in 1922, the great year of Ulysses and Babbitt, The Waste Land and Reader’s Digest, the fat man loaded an argosy with a vernal freight of literature.


“The city” in the caption is Washington, but the exact words of the fat man’s literature don’t seem to be mappably deducible from there. But that’s all right. After all, the Klan called itself the Invisible Empire. Here’s another view of the invisible men and their vessel, with insigne.


Ninety years after this picture, literature is still afloat in the aether, not yet aground on meaning. It’s indecipherable where it is, but haven’t conditions always been undecipherable up there? What could be the meaning of a page view staked out with a flag, or of a packet of literature being stowed for a bomb run, or of a painted symbol to which history hasn’t yet affixed words? The missing words mean that significance hasn’t yet completed its descent to us. For now, as one of its captions warns us at the outset of reading, we can only wrongly say.

Photographs of the Klan airplane by Herbert A. French. National Photo Company collection, Library of Congress. URLs:

Translation of the French caption about the Lafayette Escadrille, a unit of the French air force during World War I which was made up of American volunteers: “An airplane of the Lafayette Escadrille. It has wrongly been said that the Indian head [visible on the fuselage aft of the swastika] was the insigne of the Lafayette Escadrille. This designation was chosen by a pilot of the unit for his airplane.”

As of July 3, 2012, the Wikipedia article “Lafayette Escadrille” is illustrated with two images of the Indian-head insigne. One, on a banner in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, shows the headdress decorated with a swastika. The other, perhaps a post-1945 recension, shows the headdress decorated with a cross.