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 Lucy Audubon c. 1870 (Wikipedia image)


Watching a film on The Criterion Channel some months ago, it occurred to me that there may be something lurking, some connection between the reading I'd been doing, which I might explicate through the lens of the film. The film in question is from an Iranian director. Here's the basic description, lifted from The Criterion Channel website:


Close-up Directed by Abbas Kiarostami • 1990 • Iran. 
Starring Hossein Sabzian, Abolfazi Ahankhah, Mahrokh Ahankhah. Internationally revered Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has created some of the most inventive and transcendent cinema of the past thirty years, and CLOSE-UP is his most radical, brilliant work. This fiction-documentary hybrid uses a sensational real-life event—the arrest of a young man on charges that he fraudulently impersonated the well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf—as the basis for a stunning, multilayered investigation into movies, identity, artistic creation, and existence, in which the real people from the case play themselves. With its universal themes and fascinating narrative knots, CLOSE-UP has resonated with viewers around the world.


I'll describe my impressions of this film in more detail at another time; at the moment, however, it offers a potentially useful jumping-off point. But first, some readings that I feel may connect with this film in an interesting way, and perhaps also touch on my series of Eupalinos posts, ongoing.


In their June 2, 2022 issue, The New York Review of Books published a review of a book by Axel Honneth, longtime member of the Frankfurt School, former student, and later, close associate of Jürgen Habermas. My understanding is that the two frequently co-taught seminars in philosophy at Frankfurt or Hamburg. With that, I have in mind Habermas's writing on the development of the public sphere, his Theory of Communicative Action in particular, which corresponds, if obliquely -- somewhat at an angle perhaps -- with Honneth's version of same. As Habermas's biographer Stefan Müller-Doohm notes,


Axel Honneth criticizes the concept of communicative reason from a different angle, pointing out that inclusion, in the sense of belonging to a society, does not result primarily from the experience of processes of opinion- and will-formation. Rather, according to Honneth, the precondition of communicative action is the experience of social recognition.


That book, by the way, is Recognitions, based on the Seeley Lectures given by Honneth at Oxford in May 2017; which calls to mind, across the span of many years, the work of Martin Buber and other thinkers who have outlined a theory of social identity based on the multifaceted relations between self and other. But here I'll pause to ask, Would the movie I've alluded to, Close-up, be more strongly related to the Pierre Janet-themed blog post I published recently, rather than to Honneth and his work?


I've gotten hold of a copy of the Honneth book and have begun reading through it. I've also been reading a book of interconnected poems called Audubon's Sparrow by Juditha Dowd. The book is subtitled A Biography — in Poems and is written in the voice mainly of Audubon's wife, Lucy, detailing her struggles with life, and with that relationship — her husband opting to follow his star, often leaving her behind as he rambled through various countrysides, observing, capturing, and painting birds, and later traveling to London to promote publication of his book with a London printer. The poetic sequence eventuates in their reuniting, setting up together again in a big house on the Hudson River, with Audubon succumbing to a stroke sometime later and Lucy carrying on alone once again, eking out a living as a music instructor.


Therein lies the crux of the story; as located in the ambiguities associated with togetherness and separation, characterized by Dowd in terms of Audubon's personal struggle with his identity — Storekeeper? Artist? It's not clear whether Audubon's more mundane agon correlates in some way with Honneth's argument, though I believe the latter is fundamentally and profoundly significant. I'll get to that in a moment (possibly a long moment from this writing); but Dowd explores a version of this, whether the high or the low version, in her book. The Audubon couple eventually decided to establish a store at Henderson, Kentucky, seeking to secure a more stable livelihood and wherewithal. But there may be some foreshadowing with Dowd setting the closing line of the following stanza in italics:


This sturdy cabin is our first real home  

My husband writes in his journal  

As better could not be had we were pleased


"As better could not be had"... This is Lucy quoting her husband (his words set in italics); which convey a subtle emphasis, offering a window into Audubon's mind, a window that will open wider later in the book. Meanwhile, her husband sets up as shopkeeper, and entertains or rather explores the idea of establishing a sawmill. But the picture is clouded. A poem titled "Audubon, at the Window":


I do not dissemble when I say that I'm a happy man  

though something weak within me says I'm not.


In closing the poem, Dowd has Audubon reflect more pointedly,


I'm a provisioner of farmers, of travelers and families,  

while something in me sighs that I am not.


There's more -- embedded in the coursing verses of the extended poem -- too much poetry to quote here. But the question is pressing — is this Honneth's (and Valéry's Socrates) concern? Or is Audubon, as portrayed by Dowd, grappling with a more routine conundrum, rather than the deeply situated psychic struggle to establish (and project) a personal identity? Honneth's discussion probes more deeply, but I've gone far enough into this question for the moment.

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Negative Capability

Posthumous portrait of Keats by William Hilton, National Portrait Gallery, London (c. 1822)


This post has been in formation, along with two or three others, for several months as I've gradually reintegrated office time into my schedule. I can't recall the origins of this post, but I'd been thinking about past fieldwork projects and ways to write about them. And for some reason, the Baltimore project — conducted in 1994-95 in that city — came immediately to mind. I think that the connection was between my work in port communities and the experience of displacement and marginalization, which had been rising there as elsewhere, discussed these days under the category of houseless, but the condition can take other forms. While I don't equate the displaced with the unhoused (the former produces a psychic condition, the latter a material one), this problem got me thinking. And it got me thinking especially about someone named Girlie Hoffman, whom I met while doing fieldwork in East Baltimore, in the port communities strung along the harbor. I'll return to her in a moment.


Meanwhile, I was reading A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers, a book of interviews, conducted by Kyle Schlesinger, focusing on artisanal letterpress printing and associated crafts (such as letter carving); reading this book out of a personal interest in the relationship between setting type and establishing the appropriate verse form for a given poem; crafting the poetic line. (A number of these printers are also poets; shades of Charles Olson!) The book is co-published by Cuneiform Press and Ugly Duckling Presse.


As Johanna Drucker expounded in her contribution to Threads Talks Series, a collection of talks on book arts (co-published by Cuneiform Press and Granary Books):


What would a descriptive language of the techniques of production add to our understanding of poiesis? How would an understanding of the technical and formal conventions of the graphic means of production in which we experience written poetry shape our understanding of what a poem is and can be? Do the expressive limitations and/or affordances of various graphic means inform the aesthetic qualities of a work through features of its actual production?


This very interesting subject of the relation of setting type (or other graphic technologies) to writing and its effect on the experience of reading poetry may inform the basis of a subsequent post, but for now, I want to mention that one of the interviewees in that book on printers, an Australian poet (and printer) named Alan Loney, spoke of a book called Carving the Elements, with essays by the artisans involved in that bookmaking project. That book was a new edition of Parmenides' writings, the ancient Greek philosopher who formed the subject of one of Plato's dialogues, and who was Zeno's teacher. Readers may know that Zeno was famous — or infamous — for his paradox regarding movement, and especially for my purposes here, his paradox regarding place. Zeno's paradoxes, four in number, were likely efforts on Zeno's part to disrupt the hegemony of common knowledge as it was constituted at that time — common knowledge then as now the bane of philosophers (not to mention mathematicians and physicists).  Zeno's influence has been considerable, as André Laks and Glenn W. Most, editors of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Early Greek Philosophy, Western Greek Thinkers, explain:


…the influence of Zeno's arguments has been immense, if only by reason of the refutations that philosophers have been obliged to seek for them (beginning with Aristotle, in the exposition of his doctrine of the continuous n Books 4 and 6 of his Physics), but it is due less to the philosophical positions that he defended than to the logical challenges that his paradoxes posed. Modern theoreticians of mathematics and physics have continued to find these interesting.


So, what does Zeno have to do with Girlie Hoffman? As I mentioned, I met Girlie while doing fieldwork in East Baltimore, in the Canton neighborhood (her bar and home were located at 1517 S. Canton Street). At that time Girlie had become something of a cause célèbre locally for refusing to sell her property — house and bar/lunch counter — to an oil company who were developing a tank field in that neighborhood. Girlie's bar was right next to the water, and from that place, she (and her mother before her) had served generations of merchant seamen who came ashore for food and drink as the longshore crews worked their ships. The site of the tank farm had at that time become the de facto preserve of the oil company, which wanted to expand and absorb Girlie's property into their tank farm. She refused, even as her business dwindled due to the shift in activity at the port (containerization was advancing at that time, and with it the dramatic shrinkage of turnaround time for visiting ships, leaving sailors with virtually no time ashore). When I met her Girlie was still tending bar, still preparing the homemade soups that she (and her mother) had become famous for. I visited her several times, whenever I was in the immediate area, and wrote a bit about her in my fieldwork report. Here's a brief excerpt (Girlie's friend Henry Erdman was present during this interview):


Girlie Hoffman has refused for many years to move from the site, despite repeated efforts by the oil company to induce her to sell. (Her sister has also refused to sell out. Ms. Hoffman owns the lunch counter and the property it's situated on, as well as another property nearby, and some empty lots and land off the alley that runs behind the store. According to Mr. Erdman, Ms. Hoffman "has tied them [Exxon] up" by refusing to sell her land to the corporation...Girlie Hoffman says that the oil company "didn't give much money" for the properties they purchased from local owners. "And all that money they got," she said. "People think you gotta sell but you don't have to sell." Ms. Hoffman refused to leave because she "grew up right here," at the lunch counter; the family's living quarters were at the rear of the store. "It (the store] feels just like home," she says.


The keyword here is "home", proposed against the powerful corporation's efforts to evict Girlie; she continuing to resist. I'd note that this process of dislocation was widening in Baltimore at the time, especially in the traditional port communities, along with the development of the Inner Harbor (Harbor Place) project, designed to attract tourists and tourist dollars. This development process would be consequential for the people living in those neighborhoods. At one point in our conversation, Girlie Hoffman told me that, "people say this place is like home, it's comfortable. Don't you think so?" I could only agree. Others, not so lucky (or as obstinate) had begun to experience dislocation and displacement from their ancestral port-side neighborhoods. As one resident told me:


I remember the port as always being very busy…You had the feeling that you were really living in a working port…being in the Inner Harbor was something you'd do every day…So today, the Inner Harbor isn't part of the port…and the kinds of people you see are very different. Everybody was there in the old days, for better or worse. Today you see a much more middle-class group of people. And the old working people are gone.


Another resident expanded on this sense of dislocation, locating it in the public domain. She recalled driving along Pratt Street and seeing the ships tied up at docks there:


You could almost reach out and touch them. It was an amazing sight…Harbor Place is okay, but the big ships were impressive.


In short, my fieldwork in East Baltimore at that time, encouraged the view that the people in those neighborhoods were increasingly being distanced from place, from the sites and locales where they'd lived and worked, and where they continued to live, then in the grip of "developers".


I'll conclude for the moment by appropriating Zeno's concept to my purpose here. Hermann Fränkel, writing of Zeno in Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy, notes that:


Of his [Parmenides'] immediate pupils there are two of whom we can form some notion, Melissus and Zeno of Elea. Zeno sought to prove the homogenous continuum postulated by Parmenides by presenting with much wit and ingenuity the difficulties that arise if one assumes, on the one hand, infinite divisibility, or on the other, elementary quanta which are incapable of further division. On the former assumption, Zeno's contemporary Anaxagoras built his original system, while the latter led to the atomic theory.


Is "place" an elementary quantum, or is it infinitely divisible? The historical experience of the people of East Baltimore may have embraced the quantum, but their more recent experience has been subsumed by the divisible. More later...


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