Foucault in the seat of power

For years I couldn’t find this artifact because it turned out to have migrated to another stratum: my wife’s office. It has surfaced there now, however, so

to the memory of Michel Foucault, look, fill, and drink.

It was a present from an ex-student who was then working as a Senate aide: a young woman, Asian-American like many students at my university. And it came with an anecdote attached.

Every time my student was on the Senate floor, she told me, liberal cynosure Edward Kennedy would stop whatever he was doing, freeze, and stare.

Yes, Kennedy died many years ago, and he was alive then.

No, the Trump era is neither unique nor new.

Palace

“What the hell is this,” he snarled, “a Tom show?”

— Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust, chapter 11

When the posters for this Tom show came out of their lithograph press in 1898 they were stacked face to face. The damage to this surviving example has been permanent. It is still marked with the ghost of another face, in reverse. So far, however, damage has made this piece of printed matter more readable, not less. The ghostly countertext makes us work more productively at seeing the survivor, and as the paper has turned brown it has contributed shading after shading of new complexity to the survivor’s spectral record. The parade is more intelligent now.

In 1898, on the street, it was some horses, some mules, some dogs, and a model house made portable on a wagon. In the mind, it was a communication from a text off-poster — a text whose full title was Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. There, off-poster, the on-poster word “sumptuous” seemed not to refer to anything. But in 2017, with all sense of what “sumptuous” might have meant in 1898 obliterated by what’s called progress, the palace cars can be seen as such, only as elements within a picture. And there, now, solely within the picture, at last! the palace cars have become one with the classical architecture of their mounting: in an ideal approximation of color, their shading completed by the passage of time, no longer on a mere overpass but on a plinth, no longer cramped smelly boring as they would have been in 1898 but, as the poster’s words promise, regal. In 1898 the pageant was a crudely literal play within a play and Al. W. Martin’s employees with their mule-propelled cabin were only rude mechanicals like Bottom and the boys in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 2017, surviving through time as a provisionally immortal snapshot, the pageant is seen at last as snapshot sees: mules and dogs and little black actress, stilled in transit toward us, passing just now and forever beneath a palace in the air.

Having become a fossil, the mammoth production invites us to enter its matrix and see it within lithograph stone.

Source: Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014636392/. Photoshopped.

 

 

Nature morte: the view from the faculty lounge

David Brooks’s New York Times column for May 23, 2017 (print edition page A25) begins with a medley of David’s Greatest Hits, harmonized so beautifully that it brought back a beautiful memory. Reader, stroll with me down Fifth Avenue that summer day in 1996 as my wife and I find ourselves passing the Mother Store of Tiffany’s.

* * *

“I HAVE! to go in here!” cried my wife, and in we went. My wife looked at the jewels in the front of the store and I walked on back and looked at the watches. One in particular caught my eye: a gold watch with a brown leather strap, a little larger than most watches but plain and simple and not at all ostentatious. What it was, though, was beautifully proportioned: a really handsome accessory. The brand was one that, in those days, meant nothing to me: Patek Philippe. So I asked the clerk how much it was.

“Seventy-eight thousand five hundred,” replied the clerk.

And my wife and I left Tiffany’s and continued on down the avenue.

But every once in a while, even now, somebody or something reminds me of M. Philippe and the relationship I never established with his métier. Today, for instance, the somebody was Mr. Brooks and the something was his magnanimously inclusive word we, as in

We have a college educated elite that has found ingenious ways to make everybody else feel invisible, that has managed to transfer wealth upward to itself, that crashes the hammer of political correctness down on anybody who does not have faculty lounge views.

Thank you for that, Mr. Brooks. You’ve made me feel Tiffany-worthy at last. As a token of my gratitude, what you see below is small and not nearly adequate to express what I feel, but here anyway is an authentic view from within the faculty lounge. Think of it as an allegorical still life illustrating the sound old saying “Time is money.” The watch is the one I actually wear when I leave the lounge and go forth to propagate its unsound new views.

Can you make out the brand? Here’s a hint: it’s a brand that a lot of us professors wear. Here’s another hint: it contains the word time and a suffix meaning quondam.

 

 

 

청자

Pronounced chung ja, that Korean word translates as “celadon,” the term for a pale gray-green family of ceramics originating in China but flourishing in Korea. This is a celadon dragon turtle teakettle from Korea’s Koryo dynasty (918 – 1392).

(National Museum of Korea, National Treasure no. 96. File no. 청자 거북이 모양 주자.jpg. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Another translation might be