Content though blind, had I no better guide

In the Library of Congress’s William A. Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, the carte de visite print is labeled on the reverse in what looks like twentieth-century penmanship:

At the time when this image was formed, “contraband” was the ordinary colloquial term for a slave who had escaped through the lines to the Union forces and at least a hope of freedom. Lexicographically considered, it’s a nonce-word. Everywhere else in the dictionary, “contraband” refers to a thing, not a person, so the penciled markings you’re reading now on a slip of light-sensitized paper amount to a one-word history of American slavery considered as a mercantile institution. Whatever image may be visible when you turn the slip over, it will have no recorded name. It will not be a human image; it will be an image of a thing.

What that thing-named-contraband is, what it has, is something that a photographer somewhere, some time between 1862 and 1865, considered worth his while to transport into a studio for posterity to look at. Perhaps it was the looped and windowed raggedness. At any rate, the looped and windowed raggedness is almost the only trace of content that survives in the faded and discolored albumen on the card’s obverse.

But after all there are new ways to see this superannuated image. A single pass through Photoshop restores some of the contrast between the man and his impassive architectural setting, for example. The splendor of his image’s gilded double margin shines again as well. On our side of the image, at least, some of the light that once transited through a lens on its way to the past seems to have been returned.

It still has no name, but now it seems to promise us the chance to look at it with decent duteous human love. To see it might be a step — perhaps a first step that can’t be followed by a second step, but at least a step — toward perceiving and taking into ourselves an idea of sorrow. Emboldened by that idea, emboldened too by our distance in time from the unquestionably dead-now and copyright-free contraband, we carry his image once again into a photostudio.

Then we close the door on it. Then we feed it into an apparatus running Photoshop, Topaz Adjust, Topaz Detail, Topaz In Focus, Lucis, and a battery of superimposed Nik filters. Then we look.


Once the contraband was led out the door of a studio on a no longer recorded day in the 1860s, his name was lost to history. But a century and a half later, we can at least recover one historical datum that wasn’t recorded then: the contraband had to be led out because he was blind. Once upon a time people could see that. Once upon a time people dressed him in their rags and perhaps spoke his name to him. Now we know again.

Once too, perhaps, people could also read the look on the man’s face. But the lexicon on the back of his image doesn’t seem to be written in that dead language.

Source: Library of Congress, item https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010647919/. The quotation in the subject line is from Milton’s “To Mr. Cyriack Skinner upon His Blindness.”

Actor; sound barrier

Once, this is what some men did just before they took action. For a moment they stopped playing and stood still for the record. At their side, their musicians were silent. One day in the second decade of the twentieth century, some of the light that fell on New York was allotted to shadowing the face of a sousaphone player and making his horn glint and his ringed playing hand glow.

But the illumination wasn’t completed. At the edge of its history, a horn slides away behind the dark.

Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006003982/. Photoshopped.

Lesson plan in another alphabet

As early as the 1940s, when the New Criticism was beginning to take hold, the caption under Berenice Abbott’s photograph of a bakery window must have begun to seem ludicrous. In 1939 it had been published in Abbott’s book Changing New York with a caption that noncommittally began, “BREAD STORE, 259 Bleecker Street, Manhattan; February 3, 1937.” Those modest factual words were in the same register as the simple rectilinear form in glazed brick with wicker embellishments that filled the image’s lower third: the bakery’s foundation, with a coal chute and some breadbaskets. None of those were anything but utilitarian. But then above the practical forms there abruptly appeared a vitrine window-dressed in the style of Abbott’s mentor Man Ray: a simultaneous reflection and refraction, displaying both a delivery truck’s curved roof and, through steamy glass, loafy shape, loafy shape, loafy shape, loafy shape, soft loafy hard-crusted shape, woman’s loafy face.

In the presence of that onslaught by the syntax of the surreal, the caption’s prose reacted with a spasm and went dark. Squeezing its eyes shut, it sat down on its bottom, swelled itself from a title to a treatise, and gabbled:

Although food chemists believe that bread baked on its own bottom instead of in tins is the healthier food, one now finds only a few bakeshops such as A. Zito’s, where the old-fashioned methods are still in use.

In the dark of the not seen, a simulacrum of something not there had been talked into something that would have looked (if it could have been seen) like being. It wasn’t actually present in the image, but in well-meaning intention it was meant to be. Trying to intend, it made its speaker sick with desire. Laugh at that feebleness of imagination, instruct the New Critics Wimsatt and Beardsley. They would have diagnosed the failed desperate maternal effort to create a nutrient force as a case of the intentional fallacy. As of 2017, we might call it fake news.

But the unfake history of the diagnosis makes the laugh unfunny. From Bonnie Yochelson’s 1997 study, for instance, we’ll learn that to read Changing New York in accordance with the artist’s explicitly voiced intentions is actually to read it dimly, as a subfusc artifact of New Deal social engineering. With the smile withering on our lips, we’ll learn then that what Yochelson calls “the caption catastrophe” (n.p.; page containing figure 14) refers not to the captions’ grim didacticism but to something grimly didactic about Abbott herself. In this collection, Abbott — Abbott, the woman who singlehanded saved from oblivion Eugène Atget’s diffident archive of not quite readable fragments! — seemed to have considered herself first a social educator trying to convince people of what was good for them and only thereafter a formalist artist with a formalist’s concern for making sure not to see what isn’t there.

And so her words failed her when the time came to use her mouth for something in addition to eating.

Two days before Abbott set up her sixty pounds of photographic apparatus on Bleecker Street, she had gone through the same ritual on Hester Street. There was a shop there, too, with, likewise, a person behind the window. But on the window the language shapes were different. “Yiddish,” says the caption about that difference, and then it begins executing the task of explaining, at a final length of six lines: “A complex dietary logic underlies the Jewish insistence that chickens must be newly killed before they are eaten. . . .”

But that opening word “Yiddish” isn’t capacious enough to hold the thought. On its own in Berenice Abbott’s edition, separated from Hester Street, it lacks etymology, which means that it lacks history. Etymologically, for instance, the three lines in the Hebrew alphabet under the number 55 are neither Hebrew nor Yiddish but transliterated English. Letter for letter, in English, those three lines read “Strictly kosher chicken market,” with the Hebrew loan-word “kosher” isolated from the rest of the phrase within a Jewish star. “Chicken market,” repeats the English once more at the bottom of the sign, this time undisguised. As of February 1, 1937, R. Cohen and his Hester Street culture seemed well on their way to American assimilation. On Cohen’s window, the one remnant line of his or his parents’ primal Yiddish is buried in the middle, in fine print. It also happens to map exactly, phoneme for phoneme and trochee for trochee, onto another language of the majority culture, German. Frisch geschlachten jede Stunde, reads this transliteration: “Freshly slaughtered every hour.”

No irony attached to that line in that language in 1937, and it would be an anachronism to read irony in now. Still, if you try to think of this image in 2017 without irony — formally, undidactically, as if these words painted on a window were just, well, words, painted — the image will lose an unseen but not unsensed remnant of prior meaning. It will be like a Jacob Riis photograph no longer able to access Riis’s photographically mediated understanding of the word “tenement,” or a Lewis Hine photograph no longer able to access Hine’s photographically mediated understanding of the phrase “child labor.” Go ahead and delete the caption printed alongside the image; Bonnie Yochelson does, even though her edition of Changing New York is much longer than the original. But the words that remain despite that, the ones painted on glass in three languages, probably aren’t erasable. It may be that that window never will be transparent again.

Sources:

Berenice Abbott, Changing New York, with text by Elizabeth McCausland. E. P. Dutton, 1939. Reprint (Dover, 1973) published as New York in the Thirties.

Bonnie Yochelson, Berenice Abbott: Changing New York. New Press / The Museum of the City of New York, 1997.

The two Abbott images have been photoshopped for contrast from prints in the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4e64-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 and http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4fb7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

Music and laughter and lectures and sports — day after day — week after week

Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is a Lives of the Poets in the mode of magical realism: thirty short biographies of imagined Fascist writers living far from the power centers of Fascism, followed by two imagined bibliographies. In the bibliographies, one descriptive term that recurs is mimeographed. When Nazi Literature in the Americas was a new book, that word connoted a pathetic struggle against indifferent history. Literally, to mimeograph a book was (in the interpretation accepted at the time, Bolaño’s time) to communicate something insignificant. But insignificance in our time, Facebook’s and Twitter’s time, isn’t what it was then. At least one of the terms of its unmeaning, the word mimeograph, has vanished, carrying its own meaning into oblivion.

You can understand what happened by surveying some of its associated dates. Nazi Literature in the Americas was first published in Spanish in 1996, and Bolaño died at the age of 50 in 2003. An English translation of his book followed in 2008, but by then there remained almost no anglophone readers under the age of 50 who could interpret the word mimeograph in its 1996 sense. For a dwindling number of the old, mimeograph evoked the coarse softness of a thick spongy paper, the warm motherly smell of an oily ink, and possibly a culturally mediated memory like the one in John Updike’s mid-twentieth-century short story “A Sense of Shelter” that forms within a high school boy dreaming of himself as a future man of letters while he cuts a school newspaper cartoon into a waxen stencil made soft and impressible by the warmth of a light bulb. In the time of the mimeograph, all of these phenomena — feel, smell, sentimental New Yorker symbol — came together in a complex of meanings. But for readers of Bolaño experiencing the word mimeograph without having lived through its body of evocations, no significance.

But experience never stops desiring to communicate itself, and some of its desire has always been redirected from dead memory to living creative form, mimeographed or other. In Canada in 2015, a hack of the online dating service Ashley Madison revealed that the great majority of subscribers were men, and the “women” who messaged to them about love were cyberbots, both as dead and unreal and as real and living as Bolaño’s imaginary writers. At the same time in the United States, hundreds of employees in Walmart’s distribution centers were filling carts with stock at the direction of a bot named (or “named”) Jennifer VoicePlus which (or “who”) spoke in an individual woman’s voice with each of them, one on (so to speak) one. Jesse LeCavalier listened in on a few of the conversations and reported:

Voice-directed picking’s actual hardware includes standard communications equipment. Workers receive instructions and vocalize confirmations through headsets. But they are not speaking to a human at the other end of the communications channel. Rather, their confirmations are part of a feedback process in which their voice signals are translated to signals understandable to the voice recognition software, the responses are processed, and in turn they are translated back into signals comprehensible to humans. In this sense, operators are not “talking” to “The Voice” but are entering data into a set of algorithms that provide responses. Managers praise voice-directed picking systems for the ease with which operators can learn to use them. Workers can be trained in a matter of hours rather than the days or even weeks required for other systems. Thus there is little incentive for companies to invest in their employees. Since fewer resources are necessary to bring new employees to a satisfactory performance level, voice-directed systems significantly diminish the consequences of high turnover. Workers, like the software that commands them, can be replaced quickly, with only limited and temporary reductions in productivity. The new forms of literacy demanded of [distribution center] workers are impossible to achieve without the aid of some kind of augmenting technology to mediate between computers and humans.  (168)

The augmenting technologies evolve from year to year, but the desire for mediation has always been with us. One new form of literacy or another is always everybody’s first language: the primal reaching out for a hand to keep us from falling into mute solitude. We don’t need training to grasp at that.

For the solstitial festival of 1924, for example, an artist imagined a black-suited old man stretching his arms into newly populated air as if his body were remembering what it and music had once done with each other. Behind him, two laughing children in sleepwear glowed white. Light had returned to their morning. “It reaches out and out,” cried ecstatic language in its io Paean to the augmenting technology. Those who cried the words and he who painted the picture understood that the old man was as far beyond knowing what was happening to him as a baby is from knowing why his first step has filled everyone around him with joy, but both the baby and the old man understand without having to know.

Of course we adults who will realize the understanding by buying the Radiola have undertaken the mediating chore of bringing the music and laughter and lectures and sports into a world that (we know, even if the baby and the old man don’t) can never be filled enough with music, can never be made fully happy. Soon enough the music will grow fungible, and the musicians. Soon enough even love and its enclosing bodies will go virtual and be outsourced to a purely notional Canada. But for now the gesture of stretching away is a dance that is different for the first time from other dances. For the first time, the elderly dancer brings music down from the ether to himself as he dons his fawnskin — aged Tiresias, he who knows the secret of what it is to be a man! — and prepares to sing io Paean in chorus with Radiola.

Sources:

Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas, trans. Chris Andrews. New Directions, 2008.

Jesse LeCavalier, The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

John Updike, “A Sense of Shelter.” The New Yorker 16 January 1960, pp. 28-34.

The Radiola advertisement, from The Literary Digest 20 December 1924, is reprinted at http://blog.vintascope.com/post/154641194549/radiola-19241220-literary-digest. I have restored it in Photoshop.

That remains to be unseen

The photograph in the New York Public Library no longer gives up much to the eye. It has faded year by year for more than ninety years now, and most of its remaining significance has been transferred for preservation to a catalog text housed in a database.

nypl-digitalcollections-510d47d9-3d61-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99-001-wThere, offsite, words written about this gray blur say that it represents the maiden flight of the British dirigible R38 on June 23, 1921. Exactly two months after that beginning (the words go on to say) R38 broke in half in the air and exploded, killing 44 of the 49 men on board. That was the first of the twentieth century’s great zeppelin disasters. But the photograph can’t teach you the story of the disaster, because a picture represents a moment before the story began. To see it as a picture, in pictorial terms of light and volume, is to experience it as if perception were still waiting for a knowledge yet to come.

On June 23, 1921, for example, someone without words saw a floating body in the pictorial act of being huge and beautiful and took a camera to it. After that, someone with words took a grease pencil to the photograph of the huge and beautiful and made a decision about what portion of it should remain on the page and be designated historical record.” The historical record, it turned out, was reserved solely for the portion of the image devoted to the light and air that clothed the moment of huge and beautiful. On the ground far below, in a zone designated by the grease pencil for erasure from the page, there happened to be two women wearing the not yet short skirts of the early 1920s. With them all along in that part of the image has been a dark smudge on the grass which conceivably could be a historical trace of R38’s shadow. Considering how few shadows destiny allotted to R38, that might be worth at least a sentimental thought from history. However, the grease pencil hasn’t marked any dark on this corpus. In here, exterior to R38’s demarcating rectangle, the only dark lies in the erasure zone. There, excluded from the part of the image that will be written up in the language called history, the dark evokes only questions that language can’t answer. (How did the air of June 23, 1921, feel in the moment when a moving shadow passed through it?) By demarcating R38 from the rest of its image field, the grease pencil made a distinction between significance and insignificance definable by fiat. It’s the distinction between what remains to be seen and what remains to be unseen.

But this particular photograph, marked for cutting but not cut, hasn’t yet excluded the part that remains to be unseen. Still present in their margin despite the fiat against them, two women in hats and skirts have kept looking toward a part of the sky from which the written story of huge and beautiful hasn’t yet barred their gaze. Bound for the history books, the fading image cut off within its rectangle proceeds toward unfading immortality under the power of words. Meanwhile, outside the rectangle, a possible shadow has been cut free from history to play on the grass.

You will never see the women’s faces. Ever after, the women will be turned away from you, rapt by the history passing them by up there. They won’t look down at the possible shadow before them, either. But something dark is close to them, and you are looking.

Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “The first trail [sic] of the dirigible ZR2 at Cardington England.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-3d61-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Photoshopped.

R38 was built for the U.S. Navy, where it was to be designated ZR2, and its crash occurred during what was to have been the last of its test flights before commissioning. You can see the American markings on its hull and tail.