The Agony of Recollection, the Miracle of Repetition

 “But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life. How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere neverending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is!--so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory. My sense of estrangement is becoming more and more dreadful.” — WG Sebald

I went home recently. But the moment I write that, I immediately start qualifying — in my head and for you. I went to New York City where I was born and lived the first six years of my life. Except I was in Brooklyn, mostly, which I never went to growing up. And I was in Manhattan, which I also briefly lived in as an adult, but it sure isn't my Manhattan. My Gramps is long dead; my brother moved to Thailand ages ago; my sister moved to Jersey (egad!) and then, well, she died. The Manhattan of my youth is no longer there.

How could it be? Life is flux and that includes place. (Over the past 25 years, I've watched San Francisco morph into a beast slouching towards Bethlehem.) And yet it wasn't as though I was visiting some place for the first time, all awe and confusion and curiosity. As I made my way about town, I was struck by the fact that I was not really there at all. I wasn't revisiting my past as that was long gone. But nor was I seeing the city for the first time. There was a filter over my eyes, over my experience, that refused to let me see what was happening right in front of me. I didn't have the openness of a tourist or the memories of a city I knew and loved. I had neither; I had nothing. Between my experience of New York and me was an impenetrable wall, or perhaps an abyss, a nothing, a no place. As I walked around, I was not just blind or even dead. I was zombie, neither alive nor dead, neither here nor there, the horror of purgatory.

This was, needless to say, disorienting. And so I headed 15 miles north, to the town and house in which I spent most of my childhood. It's a small town — a Hudson river town — green and lush and a mere 1.5 miles across with around 8,500 people. Here was where I came of age; here was where my great family dramas and violences and pleasures played out; here was where I discovered sex and drugs and love and rock and roll and radical politics.

But as the train huffed up the river, I felt myself disintegrating. I wasn't going home, finding myself, grounding myself. On the contrary, I was entering a world where this me now couldn't find footing at all. The ghosts kept accumulating, gathering, my visit a séance. But I was no medium, conjuring the dead with my gift. I was evacuated by them (pace Gus in "The Wire").

This was not just nostalgia. This was not just a longing for the past. This was the present of the past, the air itself thick with ghosts, with images and sounds of events gone by all swirling through each other. There were few particular memories. It was a flood, a flooding, a drowning.

But how can the past be present? On the other hand, how can the past not be present? Derrida might say, with Hamlet, that time is out of joint, unhinged. But that's to assume that time was hinged in the first place, that we proceed linearly through life. The past is always present, necessarily, to greater and lesser degrees of intensity. This intensity may be visual, affective, sonic, or some combination of all three.

After all, what are the limits of an event? How discrete could it possibly be? When I experience something, that something happens to me, with me, and as me. Which means the event continues to me, with me, and as me. I carry my experiences in my comportment, continuously.  “It seems to me," writes WG Sebald, "then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space....”

This is explicit when it comes to, say, scars. An event decades ago leaves an impression in my skin until I die. We also know the present of the past through taste and behavior — how we know how to tie our shoes, that we like chicken salad but never with raisins, that we know the train station is this way not that, that sunlight has a certain duration, that Kierkegaard wrote Repetition. The very possibility of knowledge is the presence of the past.

But things get murkier when we talk about other aspects of events other than knowledge. All those feelings, all those images, all those sounds: they ricochet and reverberate through out until we die, scars of greater or lesser depth. How could it be otherwise? Where else would these experiences, these images, these sounds reside other than in us and around us?

As I strolled about my hometown with an old friend, I was wading through the density of the past. Here, I wasn't blind but I certainly could not see. If in Manhattan I was no place, here I was someplace but that place was at once spectral and viscous. With each step, I was animated by forces and images and an intensity from long ago. The sensation was not joyous per se; I was not giddy. I wept nearly without stopping.

But why? Well, there was no doubt the sadness of my sister's death, the memories of our childhood, seeing and hearing her as a young girl galavanting around, so vital and beautiful, coupled with images of her decaying in her deathbed, that sickening sweet smell of cancer thick in the air.

Yet it was more than that. It was the pain of the past being gone — which is strange, as here I am saying the past was present. That pain is the fold, tearing my tissues, fracturing my bones. That pain is a certain weakness, an inability to stand strong, to be present to the folding of the here and now. But that pain is beautiful, too, letting it tear me asunder, flooding me, feeling too much: the sublimity of time, of life (which is to say the same thing).

This density I experienced owes something to the terrain. Those old trees, that lush vegetation, holds time more closely. This is why I loved The Blair Witch Project: it captured, and performed, the way old forest groves keep ghosts alive, memories caught on branches, the brown leaves so much deathly affect.

And yet it was the terrain that offered me a glimpse of a now. The sky and that Hudson river, both flowing, clear the cobwebs. They offer a now that is forever now — a strange and exhilarating affect. They erase the banality of the ego and its memories, its pains and weakness. They offer respite from the fray and fold of time.

But I don't want to be free of my past. I don't want the cleanliness of the now. I want that sky, yes; I want that river, for sure; but I want my sister alive, too; I want the Jewfro of my youth, my relentless hard ons, my drug induced euphorias, my epiphanies, my fucked up household. I want all that, too. That is so much of what makes us, what makes us interesting, what makes this whole thing difficult and beautiful.

I just don't want to be subsumed by it, devastated by it, blinded by it. I want to live with my past and be present. I want to take all that up — all those images, sounds, and affects — and roll them into me, with me, as me. And then hurl myself forward. This is what Kierkegaard calls repetition as distinct from recollection. If recollection lives backward, repetition lives forward.

And as Kierkegaard notes, this is impossible — and yet actual (to paraphrase Catherine MacKinnon, of all people). It is the call of life: to take all this and move it forward, into the new, as the new. I have yet to summon the strength to repeat in, with, as my hometown; to repeat my past with all its pleasures and pains. The backwards still dominates me. Or else I deflect and parry, wax nostalgic, make the past an object to be looked at, not something lived through. As Tony Soprano says, "'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation." To make the past an object is to avoid it by trying to master it.

Repetition is something else entirely; it lives the past anew. For Kierkegaard, this is the promise of the modern, its miracle: to live again anew. Alas, repetition doesn't come easily.



If I had to create a cosmology — well, I did actually create one a few years ago — so if I had to create a new cosmology — something, in a way, that I am always doing in some way to some degree — anyway, were I write a cosmology akin to, say, Leibniz's Monadology, I think I'd begin with this: Everything is a metabolism. What I mean by that is that everything is a function of taking in, taking up, pieces of the world, processing and distributing said pieces in more or less complex ways, and then making something of it all, namely, itself.

Everything makes itself. But this making doesn't begin from scratch. I'll listen to Lear on this one or, better, Lucretius — Nothing from nothing ever yet was born. There is only so much stuff in the world. There's a lot, sure, but there's only so much — so many atoms and particles, words, images, ideas, colors, bugs. Which is all to say: the amount of stuff in our world — and even in the cosmos — is enormous, yes, but it's still finite (even if if each thing, and the universe itself, is infinite). Which means that everything is made of some or other of this stuff. In other words, something else always comes from something else.

Yes, the difference between things comes from which things this or that takes up. I take up air, gin cocktails that are dry and spicy (just a hint of sweetness), baseball, blood, English words and, on a rare day, a few French and German ones, too. Meanwhile, this keyboard takes up plastic and electricity and some kinds of metal. I suppose I have some metals in me (my cavity fillings; some zinc; some colloidal silver). And I certainly have electricity, too, but it might be of a different sort than this keyboard. But the amount differs drastically, for sure.

Perhaps comparing myself to a computer keyboard is silly. So I'll consider  friends of mine. All take up blood and air, electricity (in differing amounts), hair (in differing amounts), fingernails, food. But some take up wine (oy!) or beer (I don't take up either, or very rarely); Kate Atkinson; Burning Man; soccer. Different like things take up different like things, or at least in differing quantities.

But the difference between this and that or me and you is not only what we take up but how we take it up. After all, we are not three-dimensional figures, bodies with a list of ingredients. We are four dimensional (at least). That is to say, we are temporal; we extend across or, better, as time. You and I may take up the same things, even in the same quantities, but that doesn't make us the same precisely because we do different things with the same things. We are, each of us, a how. And not just a how but a particular how, a distinctive and adjusting algorithm of desire, fear, lust, love as well as Yo La Tengo, gin, and Nietzsche.

I remember in grad school, I was coming up with my bibliographies for my exams (before you start writing your dissertation, you have to take an oral and written exam in three fields you've determined with three different professors; together, or not, the books that define those fields are, uh, defined). One field of mine was called, 20th Century French Literary Theory; my examiner and advisor was the inimitable Charlie Altieri (I really liked, and miss seeing, Charlie). He suggested, among other things, one essay by someone I'd never read: Maurice Merleau-Ponty's great essay on Cézanne . So I read it and, well, it did something to me. I went on to read thousands of pages by Merleau-Ponty; it felt like necessity of the best kind.

Anyway, I go back to see Charlie a few weeks later (when I'd knock on his office door, he was inevitably asleep on the floor, behind his desk; he's wake up disheveled and grumpy. This enamored him of me enormously). I tell him: Whoa! Merleau-Ponty! I've read nearly everything now! He hesitated, furrowed his brow, leaned back in his chair and said, Really? That's not what I told you to do. Don't you find him....priestly? (or something to that effect).

A similar thing happened once when my good friend played me Broken Social Scene's "You Forgot It in People." I went nuts. I bought everything they made; I bought everything everyone in the band made. I did the same thing when my big brother played me Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" when I was, like, 10. I went on to buy every album and see the band live over 30 times.

Charlie Altieri, my friend, and my brother: we all shared certain things — Merleau-Ponty, Broken Social Scene, Jethro Tull. But what I did with those things and they did with those things was very different.

There are many ways to explain that difference. I like to think of it as a matter of vibration, of harmonic convergence. I vibrate at just the right speed and intensity as Merleau-Ponty, Broken Social Scene, and Jethro Tull; they turn the bridge I am to mush.

Which is to say, there are a series of other concepts, figures, and functions that come into play when we discuss style and differentiation — speed, shape, intensity, convergence, health. But there is another figure, another function, that in some sense supersedes them or, better, accompanies them: metabolism. The system I am knows how to make sense of those things; and, even more, wants to make sense of those things. They fuel this local system of input, process and distribution, and output (me!).

As a philosophic figure, if that makes sense, metabolism does a lot of things for me. It provides a function of differentiation, a way that this body differentiates itself from that body when they take up quite similar things. It provides a distinctive how within the uniformity of what.

But it also makes sense of the differences in the what. My metabolism doesn't like — can't process — very cheesy things (at least in food; it does enjoy some cheesy images such as Michael Bay's Armageddon; I cry every time when Bruce Willis says goodbye to his daughter, Liv Tyler).

Which is to say, metabolism is a great figure in that it is situated at the juncture of this and that, of inside and outside. To say everything is a metabolism is to say everything is a productive consumption: it is at once a taking in of other things and a mode of self creation. It always already breaks down any rigid distinction between self and other, between inside and outside, without erasing it all together. If a thing is a metabolism, it is a process of making itself by taking up these things, at once inside and out.

And it works at every level. Galaxies are a metabolism, taking up stars and gasses and asteroids and assembling them so. But a star is a metabolism, too, taking up heat and gas and whathaveyou (that's the scientific term for it, mind you). A cloud is a metabolism as is a single water droplet in that cloud as is the hydrogen in that water were you to extricate it. The universe, then, is a system of systems — all these systems operating at different scales, systems intermingling within other systems to greater and lesser degrees, all of them relentlessly, ceaselessly, making the world.


What is Therapy? or, What if Nietzsche Were Your Therapist

I've been asked to participate in a symposium dedicated to Nietzsche and psychoanalysis which has me, alas, thinking about therapy. What does it want? What are its various and possible mechanisms? What are its goals? We bandy about this word — "I'm in therapy," "Have you considered therapy?," "He really needs therapy" — but what the heck do we mean? What are we asking for?

Presumably, one goes to therapy or into therapy — we are not clear on the proper preposition — because one is not feeling so good. But that not feeling so good is apparently not related to one's stomach, the pervasive radiant pain in one's neck, or that weird itch inside one's whatever. Those things are for other doctors. No, we go to therapy or into therapy because we feel blue. Or because we feel uncomfortable in our lives. Or because we have rushes of anxiety. Or because we just don't want to get out of bed, ever, and feel the universe is done with us and perhaps, just perhaps, we might simply be disappeared by the cosmic powers that be, disintegrated or crushed or somehow or other annihilated into extinction. Then we go to therapy.

This distinction between stomach pain and existential pain is already a bit unclear, even odd, as that pain or itch or digestive distress could very well leave one feeling blue or uncomfortable in one's skin or having rushes of anxiety. But never mind that as the causal relations will always be unclear: Does your stomach hurt because you're anxious or are you anxious because your stomach hurts? Or is there no direct causal link? There must be some correlation, necessarily, as it's all happening to or in or with or as you.

Anyway, the point is I get why we see someone else for that other kind of pain, that other kind of distress — that distinctive existential dyspepsia or malaise or ill constitution. Should this separation of professional duties exist? I get why it exists, even if it seems counterproductive all too often. But that's another question for another time.

So we seek some kind of professional help when we feel existentially ill. That makes sense. But whom do we see? What do we believe this person will do for us? To us? With us? What is our desired outcome? What is that professional's desired outcome?

We can view therapy as a little engine: it takes things in, processes them, produces a result. But what counts as input to this system? Is it your childhood? Your dreams? Your day to day experiences? How about your comportment? Your gait? Your smell? And what about your mood? And then: What does one do with that information? What is the role of this professional you've paid? Are they the wise one offering sage wisdom? A doctor offering a diagnosis? A fellow lunatic along for the ride with you? And, I suppose finally, what counts as success? What do you want to have happen in this therapy?

When we think of therapy, we usually think of words: the patient speaks, the analyst listens and, presumably, interprets. It seems almost silly to point out; of course therapy turns on words. But this reliance on words makes certain assumptions about words, for instance, that words convey internal meaning. Feelings and thoughts burble up inside us, invisible to the world. And so we give them words so this professional can use other words to calm or rearrange this internal teem. 

But that's not how I think words work. And it's not how Nietzsche thinks words work. In fact, I'm not sure there's an inside and an outside; as Nietzsche argues, we reveal ourselves in everything we do. How do we recognize a well turned out person? he asks. A well turned out person smells good! He walks well. And the problem with Socrates? He was ugly! And, for the Greeks, that was a refutation in and of itself. No need, then, to pour over someone's words. Everything we need to know about each other is right there on the surface for all to see. I believe one reason we rely on words in therapy is that it's not proper, in the bourgeois sense, to size someone up, to smell them, gaze at their tics and mannerisms. Words are so much cleaner.

And what of this analyst? What's his or her role in all this? Well, in the world of words, there are different possibilities. The most banal version has the therapist as doctor, mapping proclaimed symptom to predetermined diseases: Oh, you suffer from Anxiety Disorder or Depression — and then we get a script for some soul numbing med (hopefully!). Of course, this all assumes a) that patients say what they mean rather than performing their meaning in actions; and b) that psychological disorders are like viruses and bacteria and cancers — pre-known entities. Me, I believe we are more complex than that. But I could be crazy.

The Freudian model is no doubt more interesting as it has the analyst interpreting the words of the analysand. Here, words don't always mean what they say; it's the analyst's job to analyze, to interpret what those words mean. This tends to involve a kind of semiotic mapping, a set of metaphoric transferences in which one thing is said to mean another — the smell of burnt toast means you love your boss; a foot fetish means you spent time at your mother's feet as a child. The Freudian machine is too complex for me to reduce here. So I'll just say, at the very least, that it's an engine that relies on metaphor and interpretation. (Its reliance on childhood, for instance, also seems misguided and odd to me, relying too much on the metaphor of something being formed — the formative years — rather than something always becoming.)

Meanwhile, Nietzsche's engine relies on neither. His engine is metonymic: we are continuous, ourselves through and through. There is no need to jump from here to there, from inside to outside, from symptom to disease precisely because everything reveals itself. We are always already inside out; if your smell is keen enough, you can discern someone else's intestines, their metabolism, their constitution. Nietzsche's therapeutic model does not begin with words and does not involve interpretation; it begins with phenomena and involves discernment — taste — not interpretation.

What of this analyst, then? In the commonplace model, the analyst is a trained doctor of a sort, mapping symptom to disease, a cog in a medical establishment engine. In the Freudian model, the analyst is a keen interpreter who is not directly implicated within said interpretations. Thanks to Freud's metaphoric transference, the analyst often ends up functioning as an ideal ego or super ego.  In any case, it's the analyst's job to explain to the analysand what's wrong with him or her. And this explanation somehow does....what?

If we imagine Nietzsche as therapist, we can ask what makes him so wise and clever. Well, he's already dead as his father and growing old as his mother; he has suffered intense sickness while experiencing profound joy; he is his own doppelganger — in fact, there might even be a third. Which is all to say, the Nietzschean therapist is multiple (we might even say schizo).

And all this to what end? What are the end states of these different therapeutic engines? I'll go out on a limb and say most people want therapy to feel better in their everyday lives — feel confident in love, at work, with friends and family. And by better they mean what they used to feel or sometimes have felt. Therapy, then, functions as a return to a self — as if the self were one thing, not multiple, not schizo, not always becoming other to itself. We are "better," we think, when we feel o.k. about our jobs, our significant others, our place in this world. Which is to say, we believe better means being a productive member of bourgeois society.

But that's surely not Nietzsche's therapeutic goal. If we view his writing as his therapeutic intervention, the end state is not a return to bourgeois society but an overcoming of your very humanity — an absolute evacuation of your entire bourgeois being. He seeks to transform you, not return you. He doesn't seek better workers, husbands, and wives. He seeks ubermensch. And he does this not through explication but through engagement which may very well be confounding, not clarifying, which may very well be violent, not nurturing. After all, his therapy seeks to remake you, to have you overcome yourself, constantly.

I wrote a few years ago about my experiences with therapy. And so I'll send this a bit abruptly with how I ended that piece: In any case, what makes my shrink so awesome is that he doesn't offer me therapy per se. He refuses to engage me in the demented conversations in my head. He refuses to indulge my fear with more fear. Instead, he offers me a reminder that all my anxieties are based on nonsense, namely, a fear of death. How can you fear death when death is part of life?!? It's stupid! Rather than engage me in the sick mechanics of my mind, he points elsewhere, to something much more beautiful, much more powerful: a fearless life.


Joy as Tactic: On the Art of Michael Gillette

One image from Michael Gillette's incredible series, Little Angels. I highly recommend his monograph, "Drawn in Stereo."

As Guy Debord argues, the contemporary has insinuated itself into the very fabric of our being. We are inundated with images that lay claim to our most intimate selves — how we cry, love, feel, interact. We are occupied by the myths and desires propagated by capitalism, by the corporate will to profit: we believe, deep down, that the new gadget will set us free, make us whole, bring us joy.

But within this occupation lie moments, opportunities, spaces of dissent. There are what Deleuze and Guattari might call lines of flight, passages out of the occupied spaces of identity, a deterritorialization of self and world. Rock & roll has played a particularly poignant role in the spectacle and the constitution of selves and society. It has forged and fomented a variety of postures and possibilities — not all lines of flight, mind you — from angry revolt to masculine and particularly phallic bravado to the cloying nostalgia of classic rock radio.

A conspicuous aspect to rock & roll is that it was never only a sonic movement. It was, from the beginning, a visual movement. We can literally picture rock & roll — from Elvis to Stanley "Mouse" Miller and beyond. We see The Beatles in that crosswalk, Mick Jagger gyrating, Stevie Nicks swirling. Like all kids from a certain era, I'd put the record on and then sit with the album cover, studying every last detail. Two in particular scared me with their promise and possibility. One was the cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" which, with its idiotic sexual innuendo and complex psychosexual politics, titillated and confused me and let me know an entire universe awaited me with pain and pleasure (I was, like, seven).

The other was the back of The Grateful Dead's "Aoxomoxoa" with its pastoral scene of hippie families. Oh, man that one still haunts me! Were they free of the bourgeois world I lived in? What did that entail? Did they have beds and showers? Did they go to school? That image lingers in the periphery of my consciousness, a possibility of freedom and a possibility of stinky horror.

I am not saying much when I say that the intensity and affect of the music worked with the intensity and affect of the image to create many possible modes of self. To a lot of people, it was — and remains — a literal line of flight out of the mundanity, and often violence, of their closed worlds. Michael Gillette was one such person.

And while rock & roll was creating new — and reviving old — myths of self and society, the art world was playing a particular role in fomenting different kinds of lines of flight. Warhol, Lichtenstein, Richard Prince, Marc Lafia, John Baldessari: all these artists grab images of the capitalist engine as they pass through the ether and ourselves and redistribute them, forging cracks, folds, and territories. They jam the system, revealing its mechanics — its environment, as Marshall McLuhan would say. But they do other things, as well, each in their own way. Warhol reveled in the freedom the endless imagistic production of self affords. Lichtenstein denuded the myths, allowing us a certain distance from their affect. Baldessari, Prince, and Lafia — each in their own distinctive manner — give us the engine of image production as a plaything.

Michael Gillette does something else entirely. He doesn't jam the system. Nor does he merely perpetuate it. While his work seems familiar — there is no doubt a whiff of nostalgia for the promise of punk — he breaks cliché through one of the most difficult tactics: joy. He takes up the images of rock & roll that surround us — the elaborate mythology of the psychedelic, of Woodstock, of "Rolling Stone" and "Spin" — and inhabits them, lending the mythology a pathos evacuated by the the profit motive and cock rock disc jockeys.

Look at his Little Angels series. Here, he paints portaits of dead rock and pop stars — Biggie, Amy Whinehouse, Whitney, Jimi and Janis, Kurt — but as children. The pathos is achingly poignant, almost unbearable. In these faces, painted with just their their name, we see and feel lives lived and lives lost, all at once. The fact that it's just their first name echoes twice: it is how children designate themselves — you can see Amy as child, "Hi, I'm Amy!" — and it's how they are mythologized by the spectacle: you hear Amy and you know to whom it refers (it's the title of her postmortem documentary: the one name suffices, amplifying the mythos). But by mixing these two — the innocence of youth with the spectacle of image — we live the life of the myth in its beauty, its pain, its horror, its exploitation, its longing, its aspiration, its villainy, its promise.


Gillette is in perhaps a unique position. While Warhol played at labor with his Factory — although I feel his best paintings were his corporate illustrations — Gillette's art is often literally labor, the product of a corporate commission, illustrating for the likes of Levi's and "Spin" and Penguin Books, (although not exclusively). While the art world proper might frown on such things, it is what gives Gillette's art its power, posture, and particular poignance. (And isn't all art a commodity? Isn't the distinction specious at best? Don't we all know this by now?) He is poised at the the very juncture where the spectacle is produced. And while some artists might ironically sneer, Gillette takes it as an opportunity to lend pathos where there is too often none.

There is no doubt an implicit critique that runs through Gillette's work. By taking up images of what we know, by taking up the myths of rock & roll as artifice, he is exposing the machinery of myth-making, revealing the environment of spectacle production. We create these myths, he tells us. And by revealing, and reveling in, the pathos cliché and nostalgia eliminate, he points to the dehumanization inherent in capitalist production.

But Gillette does this all through a surprising technique: through an abundance of love! An abundance of joy! He finds life where there was none! I see him closer to Jeff Koons than, say, Roy Lichtenstein or Richard Prince. If Lichtenstein affords us a certain critical remove and Prince a critique of art production both through a certain delirium of image appropriation, Koons loves the glitter and shine of the pop image. But he takes images of Michael Jackson and moves them into a posthuman affect: his Michael Jackson and Bubbles is not of this world, the pop image elevated to pure adorned glitter. There is no human pathos there, only a toothy sheen. Gillette, on the other hand, discovers a transcendence within the human-all-too-human, within the mythologies that we create. We feel the love but also the pain. And that, alas, is the affirmation of this life. That is joy.

We see it in his line which I want to call voluptuous, generous, adoring. Look at his illustrations for "American Hustle" (one of the great American movies of the past few decades). Look at the glimmering love. There is no irony. Nor is there capitulation to the spectacle, selling for the sake of profit. Rather, there is a love of it all, a generous eye and line, emanating pathos. His line, his gesture, is so effusive, so voluminous, so palpable that we feel the humanity within the myth.

At times, there is a wit that is joyous and affirmative, as well. Look at his Elvis. It's funny. It's true, somehow. There seems at first to be some snark, Elvis love as Americana. But take a second look. There is no snark. Yes, Elvis love embodies a certain Americana. And vice versa. And that is how we make myths, yes. And it's glorious and strange and fun and funny. Gillette sees and enjoys it all — and let's us do the same.

And then look: it's Michael Cera, all sweet nerdy innocence. How are we to stand towards this? How are we to feel? There is a nod of recognition, sure. But then something else happens. In its glaring analogness — an unseemly word but conceptually apropos as Gillette is relentlessly non-digital — a personal aside I happen to know: he doesn't have a cell phone —  in this human touch, we see so much: myth making but also the power of myth to forge possibilities, of Cera's distinctive promise of unpretentious humanity. What Gillette gives us is the most difficult mode of critique — critique not through alienation, not through No-saying, but through an abundance of love: through joy.


The Monumental Within the Everyday: On the Images of Raoul Ollman

The images are of familiar things — faces, streets, buildings, his family (in full disclosure, he's even taken a picture of me). But something is different; things are still — too still, conspicuously still, as if cemented in place.

At first glance, this may not seem surprising. After all, we like to say that photography captures the world. The presumption is that life is fleeting; the camera freezes it in place. This, we imagine, is the promise of photography: the world moves, the photograph stays put.

But Ollman is up to something else, creating a different architecture between photography, world, and photograph. Yes, his camera seems to freeze the world around us. But his images are not just still; it's as if they've always already been still. Viewing image after image, I feel like I'm moving through Pompeii. But that's not quite right. It's more like moving through some kind of sculpture park.

It's not, then, that Ollman is stopping something in motion. It's that he sees a different world, one in which the everyday is pervaded, down to its very molecular structure, with a certain transcendent stillness: with the monumental.

As the photographer, Ollman doesn't see a world in progress and try to capture the moment. I want to suggest, rather, that when he sees the everyday world, he sees something else: he sees the monumental already there, running through the world. He doesn't just proffer the beauty, the grotesque, or sublimity of the world around us. He's not Weegee. Nor is he Stieglitz or Eisenstaedt, raising the everyday to the level of grandeur. He sees the elements of the everyday that persist across time and space. There's a transcendence, sure, but that word doesn't suffice. It's too immaterial, too vaporous. Ollman's images have weight, enormous weight, perhaps infinite weight: the weight of being itself.

In fact, I want to say that he's not as much a photographer as a sculptor who carves with a camera. That is what these images are: faces and scenes carved in stone, all the better to celebrate their grandness and stand the test of time. Only they're not sculptures per se; they are not made of stone. They're made of light and pixels.

This has the perhaps surprising effect of making them even more monumental. As we've seen with the great Greco-Roman artifacts, sculpture gives way to the elements. Noses lose their definition; limbs fall off (see the Venus de Milo). But the photograph, especially in the digital age, offers the true monument: the image that will never fade. I want to say, then, that Ollman is a digital sculptor of the modern urban moment.