Dress for vitesse

St. Julien’s face is all animated agony. As an image, it could have been conceived by Cowper or Blake, passionately tender men of the late eighteenth century whose ways of thinking about animals were contemporary with Beethoven’s first analyses of the bonds between chord structure and emotion. As St. Julien runs the track of this 1880 Currier & Ives lithograph, his tail spills like an arpeggio into the lap of Orrin A. Hikok, and if Orrin A. Hikok hadn’t been signing his name in 1880 with a late-nineteenth-century middle initial he might have noticed the many fingerings of the blowing hair.

But by the time Currier & Ives got around to portraying St. Julien, the late nineteenth century had arrived and chord progressions had been scaled up into industrial sentimentality. For P. I. Tchaikovsky, 1880 was the year for both the sobbing strings of the Romeo and Juliet fantasy and the cannons-and-all practicalities of the 1812 overture, and Currier & Ives’s 1880 lithograph is another example of that rationalized division of labor. On the right of the image is the horse: naked yet bound by his harness, with open agonized mouth and desperate eyes. On the left is Orrin A. Hikok: not merely dressed but bound by his dress in way that seems focused on keeping passion under rein. Mr. Hickok’s legs are open as if to embrace St. Julien, but they remain covered, with every ankle-button buttoned. His jacket is buttoned too, and behind its buttons are enclosed a vest and then a hard-starched shirt and then a knotted necktie. Lip is shut tight within lip within lip. At Mr. Hikok’s breast there will be no opening.

And Mr. Hikok’s cap is on, and in his mustache not a hair is out of place, and the grandeur of his grand horse has been rigorously quantified by his century’s progress in chronometry. “Record,” Currier & Ives told themselves as they sat down in 1880 before a lithographer’s stone, and the record that they set down in response to that imperative translated an artist’s word into a technologist’s number. After translation, it had become both precise and (in physics’ strict sense of the term) undimensioned. With words no longer attached, it had ceased to be even a number. It was now number as such, pure and absolute and as completely unified into a general idea as the multiple lines on a lithographer’s stone which coalesced into a single picture of St. Julien.

As of 1880, Currier & Ives hadn’t yet understood this process all the way to its completion, and that innocence on the brink of knowing is a part of what now gives their work its antique charm. What they didn’t understand in 1880 was that at the moment of St. Julien’s transit across their visual field, their chronometric word “2:11¼” was becoming idiomatic in a language changing under the technological influence of Eadweard Muybridge. As Muybridge’s multiple-camera array began showing the world for the first time the fine details of what the word “run” can mean, the world began learning, in flashes of revelation experienced one by one but only fractions of a second apart, that both verbs like “run” and nouns like “St. Julien” are meanings running along a continuum. Currier & Ives’s artist John Cameron may have intuited this, but only a Muybridgian understanding of the term “2:11¼” can articulate it. Articulated for now in a post-1880 vocabulary, it says: because the grand horses of words running at the rate of 2:11¼ never stop changing in every pulse-charged muscle, they never come to rest in the known.

Source: Popular Graphic Arts Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001702108/. Photoshopped.

Miss Pegleg dances the danse macabre

From a distance, the Tumblr of somebody who claimed to be following my photoblog looked typical of Tumblr’s teen-girl genre: a digital collage of fashion shots and perky notes, all against a pastel background. The images within the frame, likewise, communicated only normal feminine narcissism. Think of yourself when you look at me, said every picture. Think of yourself as if you were me, dancing with yourself in every step you take. Be aware at the ending of every nerve that your living body and the beauty of the clothes it wears are extensions of each other, each making its other half complete.

But within the clothes, briefly illuminated by the studio lights but unreadable, was a corpus of body language that left me unable to understand my own word for “myself.” I can at least try to imagine what it would be to be, say, George Eliot, but that’s because I have some idea of how I might write a caption for a steel engraving of George Eliot. But about the girls in these digital photographs, whatever I might have said would have been swallowed up and silenced by an incomprehensible something extended along the zone where clothes touch the surface of the body. Looking, unable to follow my vanished thought into the zone, I couldn’t understand what these pictures were communicating. None of the young women they depicted could have weighed more than eighty pounds, but affixed to the front of every skull was what Blake called the lineaments of gratified desire. Like so many Emily Dickinsons, these girls were sated with their hunger. Next to a photograph of one of them a little text block praised the beauty of legs that don’t touch but separately stick straight down from opposing corners of the pelvis. For legs like those, image’s creative force had brought the dead metaphor “leg of a chair” back to life. It was now a poem once again, albeit a poem that couldn’t communicate in any language except mute gesture. Reconceived within the zone of silence as an idea of unupholstered furniture, the skeletons of busy young Dickinsons were now filling with animated silence a fantasy picture as beautifully real as any by Blake or Bosch or Grünewald. All there was there was silence, and words can’t move through a vacuum.

Of course I understood, looking, that the picture’s silent intimations were merely results of a strategy. The life I seemed to sense within the glow coming from my monitor wasn’t the biology of any woman’s body; it was a consciously created illusion originating in a business plan written out in words. Every anorexic fashion shot in this Tumblr was captioned with a link (in words) to an advertisement (in words) for a weight-loss product. In my own unaided words, I can understand that the images which initiate and record this communication actually depict a mass murder inflicted by monetization of the body. But the images, having once been created, are now independent both of their creators’ motives and of their consumers’ morals. Unthinkable on any terms but their own, proof against the legal language of the Food and Drug Administration, they now obey only the laws of art. A lipstick wielded by Ayn Rand has scored through my naïve word “actually” and transformed the images on my monitor into works of disinterested beauty, to be bought and sold sous rature alongside Damien Hirst’s works of decorated carrion. All that is solid melts into air, as an old book once put it.

As she melts away, then, the girl in the picture approaches ever closer to a mode of being that’s purely transactional, like money. She becomes all medium: a psychic agency existing only to mediate a physical transfer of currencies from one wallet to another. Touching our own wallets in homage as we look into a monitor filled with beautiful intimations of the transaction, we see each human model’s depicted motion change first to a depicted idea of motion, then change again (as the process of abstraction goes to completion) to an idea of stillness, then cease changing in a final dark stillness beyond idea. Finally there is no self left to dance with or be the dance. Wealth in its final equilibrium, with all the purchaser’s money transferred to the source of the image and the purchaser herself erased from the account, is a half-rhyme for death.

And then it has happened, just as Barthesian theory predicts: a body has been been transformed from the living to the photographed.