John Roman

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Metaphysical Anguish Is a Laugh

"You make me laugh, with your metaphysical anguish. It’s just that you’re scared silly, frightened of life, of men of action, of action itself, of lack of order. But everything is disorder, dear boy. Vegetable, mineral, and animal: all disorder. And so is the multitude of human races, the life of man, thought, history, wars, inventions, business and the arts, and all theories, passions, and systems. It’s always been that way. Why are you trying to make something out of it? And what will you make? What are you looking for? There is no Truth. There’s only action - action obeying a million different impulses: ephemeral action, action subjected to every possible and imaginable contingency and contradiction. Life. Life is crime, theft, jealousy, hunger, lies, disgust, stupidity, sickness, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, piles of corpses. What can you do about it, my poor friend?"

- Blaise Cendrars, selection from Moravagine

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The Indecisive Moment & Stream of Consciousness Photography

"In the United States during the mid-1950s, two photographers were each making the works that would eventually form two of the most renowned photobooks of the twentieth century – William Klein’s New York (1955) and Robert Frank’s Les Americains (1958). Both were expatriates of a kind, one returning for a brief period to his homeland after living in Europe, the other an immigrant to the United States from Switzerland. Though very different from each other, these two books introduced a new kind of attitude into photography. The work was rough, raw, and gestural. It was spontaneous and immediate, highly personal, echoing both the uncertain mood of the era and the characteristics that marked much of the art – especially the American art – of the 1950s.

Half the time the photographers seemed not to have even looked through the camera. Far from seeking the perfect composition, the ‘decisive moment’, their work seemed curiously unfinished. It captured ‘indecisive’ rather than decisive moments. It was exciting, expressive, flying in the face of accepted photographic good taste. Importantly, this was a style whose informality was far better suited to the book form than to display as individual prints on a wall.

The stream-of-consciousness style was related to an era, and, as we have seen, gradually transformed itself at the end of the 1960s into the personal documentary, or snapshot mode. Its influence, however, remains - for it is related to a fundamental impulse in photography – to make a visual diary of one’s life. As stated before, Walker Evans wrote that at the heart of Atget’s photography was ‘the projection of Atget’s person’. Atget’s formal style may have disguised this to an extent, but the diaristic impulse became more marked with the advent of small cameras…

At its best, stream-of-consciousness photography represented a political as much as a formal gesture. The politics were perhaps turned inwards, but were nevertheless very much a part of the rhetoric. The gestural spontaneity of the mode, its energy and irony, tended to mask the anxiety and dismay beneath. This potent combination of exuberance and despair is of course highly romantic, and this has made the stream-of-consciousness photobooks amongst the most popular in photographic literature. But at the core of many of them is a truly dark heart, an elemental dismay, perhaps voiced most clearly by Garry Winogrand in 1963:

“I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books. I look at the magazines (our press). They all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn’t matter, we have not loved life.”“

- Gerry Badger, selections taken from his essay 'The Indecisive Moment: Frank, Klein, and Stream of Consciousness Photography' as featured in The Photobook: A History, Volume I (2004)

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Turn Off Your Television!

"Edward George Ruddy died today! Edward George Ruddy was the Chairman of the Board of the Union Broadcasting Systems, and he died at eleven o’clock this morning of a heart condition, and woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble!

So. A rich little man with white hair died. What has that got to do with the price of rice, right? And *why* is that woe to us? Because you people, and sixty-two million other Americans, are listening to me right now. Because less than three percent of you people read books! Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers! Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube! This tube is the Gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers… This tube is the most awesome God-damned force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls in to the hands of the wrong people, and that’s why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. Because this company is now in the hands of CCA - the Communication Corporation of America. There’s a new Chairman of the Board, a man called Frank Hackett, sitting in Mr. Ruddy’s office on the twentieth floor. And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome God-damned propoganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network? 

So, you listen to me. Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business! So if you want the truth… Go to God! Go to your gurus! Go to yourselves! Because that’s the only place you’re ever going to find any real truth.

But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. We’ll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in *illusions*, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds… We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even *think* like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! *WE* are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF…

What is finished…is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It’s the individual that’s finished. It’s the single, solitary human being that’s finished. It’s every single one of you out there that’s finished, because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It’s a nation of some 200-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-that-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston rods… Well, the time has come to say, is dehumanization such a bad word. Because good or bad, that’s what is so. The whole world is becoming humanoid - creatures that look human but aren’t. The whole world not just us. We’re just the most advanced country, so we’re getting there first. The whole world’s people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, numbered, insensate things…”

- Peter Finch as Howard Beale, from Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for NETWORK (1976)

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Shame & The Cherished Other

“When we are ashamed, what is it that we are afraid that other people will know about? It is not simply that we feel like a failure since we did not in fact perform in accordance with some social expectation or did not fulfill some symbolic role. Shame also confronts us with the acknowledgment that we are never, by definition, able to fulfill these expectations or roles. What we do not want others to know about is that we are in essence always a fraud. We might temporarily take on some symbolic role and bask in the fantasy of its consistence, but sooner or latter we will be exposed in our nakedness, and our identity, marked by a constitutive lack, 
will be shown to be a shame.

The iconography of shamed individuals often shows them with their heads hanging and eyes downcast. On the one hand, they are avoiding the gaze emanating from others, but they are also trying not to look at the others. For example, in many cultures, one looks down when approaching a figure of authority. What is it that ought not to be seen when confronted with authority? Here we can say that shame also concerns the fact that we are not supposed to see others in their nakedness. To show respect to someone is to avert the gaze, to not look at what lies behind his or her symbolic insignia, and not see the lack that lies behind all authority.

Shame is, therefore, related to the inconsistency of the subject; to the inconsistency of the specific authorities that we deal with in our lives; and to the inconsistency of the Other. Here…we have the problem of visibility. When I feel ashamed, it is not simply that I am trying to avoid the disapproving gaze of the Other in front of whom I feel humiliated. By averting my own gaze, I am also trying not to see the fact that the Other is itself also inconsistent, or, better, that the Other, in the final analysis, does not exist. As Joan Copjec points out: “Shame is awakened not when one looks at oneself, or those whom one cherishes, through another’s eyes, but when one suddenly perceives a lack in the Other. At this moment the subject no longer experiences herself as a fulfillment of the Other’s desire, as the center of the world, which now shifts away from her slightly, causing a distance to open within the subject herself. This distance is not that “superegoic” one which produces a feeling of guilt and burdens one with an uncancelable debt to the Other, but is, on the contrary, that which wipes out the debt. In shame, unlike guilt, one experiences one’s visibility, but there is no external Other who sees, since shame is proof that the Other does not exist.”

When societies try to invent new rituals of shaming, it looks as if they are desperately trying to hold on to the fiction of a consistent Other, while in fact they are doing nothing else but exposing its inconsistency. This is often most visible in how shame is used in judicial systems. In China, for example, when a criminal is to be executed, his or her family is asked to pay for the bullet. This demand in part relies on the shame that the family feels to have a criminal in its midst. Paying for the bullet thus functions as symbolic compensation for the criminal’s deeds. However, this act can also be understood to mean that the judicial system cannot act like a full authority and needs the family’s “help” in meting out punishment.

- Reneta Salecl, citing Joan Copjec, on the shame and otherness

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I Is Another

"Romanticism has never been properly judged. Who could judge it? The Critics! The Romantics! Who prove so clearly that the singer is so seldom the work, that’s to say the idea sung and intended by the singer. For I is another. If the brass wakes the trumpet, it’s not its fault. That’s obvious to me: I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I hear it: I make a stroke with the bow: the symphony begins in the depths, or springs with a bound onto the stage.
If the old imbeciles hadn’t discovered only the false significance of Self, we wouldn’t have to now sweep away those millions of skeletons which have been piling up the products of their one-eyed intellect since time immemorial, and claiming themselves to be their authors!

In Greece, as I say, verse and lyre took rhythm from action. Afterwards, music and rhyme are a game, a pastime. The study of the past charms the curious: many of them delight in reviving these antiquities - that’s up to them. The universal intelligence has always thrown out its ideas naturally: men gathered a part of these fruits of the mind: they acted them out, they wrote books by means of them: so it progressed, men not working on themselves, either not being awake, or not yet in the fullness of the great dream. Civil-servants – writers: author; creator, poet: that man has never existed!

The first study for the man that wants to be a poet is true, complete knowledge of himself: he looks for his soul; examines it, tests it, learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must develop it! That seems simple: a natural development takes place in every brain: so many egoists proclaim themselves authors: there are plenty of others who attribute their intellectual progress to themselves! But the soul must be made monstrous: after the fashion of the comprachicos, yes! Imagine a man planting and cultivating warts on his face.

I say one must be a seer (voyant), make oneself a seer. The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, rational and immense disordering of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, madness: he searches himself; he consumes all the poisons in himself, to keep only their quintessence. Unspeakable torture, where he needs all his faith, every superhuman strength, during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the supreme Knower among men! Because he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than others! He arrives at the unknown, and when, maddened, he ends up by losing the knowledge of his visions: he has still seen them! Let him die charging among those unutterable, unnameable things: other fearful workers will come: they’ll start from the horizons where the first have fallen!

I’ll go on:

So the poet is truly the thief of fire, then. He is responsible for humanity, even for the animals: he must make his inventions smelt, felt, heard: if what he brings back from down there has form, he grants form: if it’s formless he grants formlessness. To find a language for that matter, all words being ideas, the age of a universal language will come! It is necessary to be an academic – deader than a fossil – to perfect a dictionary of any language at all. The weak-minded thinking about the first letter of the alphabet would soon rush into madness!

This language will be of the soul for the soul, containing everything, scents, sounds, colours, thought attaching to thought and pulling. The poet would define the quantity of the unknown, awakening in the universal soul in his time: he would give more than the formulation of his thought, the measurement of his march towards progress! An enormity become the norm, absorbed by all, he would truly be an enhancer of progress!”

- Arthur Rimbaud, selection from Lettres du Voyant: A Letter to Paul Demeny