Sunday, August 23, 2009

Turns of phrase

In my dispersed and fragmented reading lately (am I becoming guilty of the micro-attention span?), I've been noticing how various authors use rhetoric. I'm referring here to language which works as a subtle manipulation in the favor of sound or persuasion. Since I've been involving myself with so many texts that develop arguments as a mode of writing, I've become very aware of attempts to use words as a means of creating meta-narratives or expressions of interpretive authority.
Even when texts recognize and give lip service to the postmodern ideas of plurality and the imposition of narrative, they often seem to engage linear ways of speaking, embedded in the very language. I realize that writing is meant, in part, to be seductive - to produce pleasure through the spinning of ideas and the rhythm of words. But am I asking too much for writers to give attention to accuracy and the implications of phrase?
I'll choose a few examples from diverse sources that I've come across recently. This isn't meant as an attack on these particular texts, but more as a question about a pervasive use of language. Seth Kim-Cohen was kind enough to send me his new book In the Blink of an Ear - Toward a Non-cochlear Sonic Art. I'm only 70 pages in, so I'm still not sure what is meant by a "non-chochlear sonic art", but I've been noticing a heavy use of rhetorical language throughout. It's been unclear when he is describing notions of art history, and when he is making use of them himself. One brief quote: "Duchamp siphoned off the power of modernism's original combustions, energizing first Jasper Johns and later, more securely and more incontrovertibly, the conceptual artists of the 1960s and '70s." This probably seems like a minuscule example, but in light of the book’s examination of Greenberg, Fried, et al, I can’t help but think about the ways in which art theory has been so often the attempt to construct a more authoritative story about who did what “first” and what kind of doing is “best”… These stories reinstate progressive notions of artistic activity which lie somewhere deep in the very basis of our thinking. I think these notions sneak into the language, often without notice, subtly shaping our overall “map” of a complicated, conflicted and infinitely detailed terrain.

The meaning is clear enough - Duchamp's work early in the 20th century was rediscovered by artists 30 and 40 years later, who felt a resonance with his appeal to the "grey matter" rather than the retina. But notice how the construction of the sentence places Duchamp as active, giving him a kind of magical (energetic) power over those who came later, giving Duchamp metaphorical access to the “gasoline” which drives the “engine” of modernism. By implication, this metaphor creates a direct line through history, reinforcing the idea of history as direct lines, even in opposition to the paragraph's surface idea.

In a local example, Calvin Ross Carl posted a response to a review of The Manor of Art, a 110 artist show: “Shows like this are poisoning the well and help in maintaining Portland's appearance as a haven for scrappy amateurs, and we are much more (and better) than this.” The comment has sparked a firestorm of responses, and rightfully so. The metaphor has descriptive power and one can agree or disagree, but I am so (yawn) tired of this manner of speaking. “Portland Art is such and such…” “The Portland scene is doing such and such…” So many of the stories we tell seem wrapped up in essentialist notions – these polemical ideas which emphasize linearity, unity and cohesion. Is there really a “well” of Portland art? Can Portland appear any one way to this imaginary “Viewer”? Are “we” really any one way? Who are “we” anyway? Not only is this kind of linguistic construction tedious, it just seems plain inaccurate. Which is not to say that Calvin is committing some kind of linguistic crime… as I’ve said, these constructions are pervasive, insinuating and practically inescapable.

Other times, I think authors simply become carried away with the flow of words. From David Cox The Lens of Images: "As we move toward a database culture in which all texts are made available to all others, the empire of signs starts to crack as surely as the Berlin wall." Really? Is a collage-based aesthetic and a mouse-clicker’s leveling of all information as a potential download really going to deconstruct the semiotic nature of things? Does the availability of a text really give it more importance or power? It sounds great… It helps to build a polemic in support of a coined term - “database culture” – by indirectly referring to recognized authority (Barthes’ Empire of Signs) and important historical events, but does it accurately and specifically observe?

It’s my belief that specific observation is the antidote to these problems. In Calvin’s comment mentioned above, and in the 40+ responses, there are various heated declarations, vague generalities and blanketing statements, but no close attention to individual artists or works, no use of critical observation to analyze the apparent issue. The more we can look closely at specifics, the less tempted we might be to make broad gestures. The more we can think about individual people and the more we can engage subtle, distinct particularities, the less we’ll have to rely on oppressive essentialisms.

As David Bordwell says in the introduction to Theorizing the Moving Image by Noel Carroll: “Much of contemporary theory in literature, art and film consists of assembling received doctrines of vast generality, recasting them to fit one’s interests, yoking them to other (often incommensurate) doctrines, and then applying the result to the task at hand (typically interpreting a particular artwork). If the theorist undertakes analysis of a theory, the process usually focuses on rhetorical argument rather than logical inference.” Carroll’s writing (what little of it I’ve read so far) is refreshingly careful, thoughtful and precise. Just using the title as an example, he chooses the verb form “theorizing” to stress the active process, and to avoid the singular term “theory”. And then he uses “moving image” instead of “motion pictures” to allow an open definition of the subject, one which makes room for non-pictorial films, as well as television, video, computer animation, etc. I’m looking forward to delving into this text.

Words have power. Even single words can carry deep meanings. Metaphors create powerful mental images which affect our models of the world. I believe it’s worth thinking about how we use language.