Xmas Thoughts

It being Christmas, and the fact of my being further north….with limited internet, this is a sort of abridged posting, or intro to further posting on the topic. That’s assuming I actually know what the posting is about.

So allow me to approach many disparate ideas by linking them to theories I have about theatre.

Photography has always seemed to have a meaningful active relationship with theatre. With the poetics of theatre. With theatre space. Last post I had a photo by Atget at the top. For me, this is a mini play all by itself. You are heading to that darkness. It is a particular kind of darkness; for it possesses depth. It is not a black wall. It is also not an empty void.

I suspect the modern concept of void is linked to *space*, to NASA and even before that to Flash Gordon or a plethora of 50s sci fi films. It is not the same void that looked back at those standing at Khajuraho, in the fifth century. Or those early astronomers in Egypt and Greece. It is not the blacknes of Zen robes or the face of Kali.

The modern anti-mythic isnt even Kubrick. It is the airless digital mush of any recent CGI epic. It is also somehow part of that militarized death machine now in hyper drive. There is an idea lurking in this set of thoughts that might suggest that military murder and carnage stares back with the wrong kind of blackness, and the soldier’s face, the general’s face, the politician’s face, all become enraged, as well as terrified by what looks back at them. I feel this when I look at R.Crumb’s drawings. I often wonder at what it is in Crumb that haunts me. It is beautiful because it registers a certain white man’s terror.

As soon as I say these things, I have invited a number of questions. Perhaps the most important question being how this *reading* of the photo is narrated to ourselves. For the purposes of this post, I am asking about the possibility that such *space* — the darkness at the end of the street — can be read almost mythically. Without calculus. Without measurement. Does this mean additionally without a certain kind of anticipation? Is this idea of a mythic reading something akin to a pre-historical reading? All such questions demand much fuller elaboration, but for the sake of this posting I wanted to simply lay out a few thoughts about what I see as a forgetting of the mythic. I think the myriad screen tecnhologies are in the service of something almost anti-mythic. It’s not an inherent quality of the screen, but simply that they are part of a corporate manufacturing of a specific sort of image and narrative. The do not just erase the past, but they destroy any imagining of the future. For the future is dreaming, and dreaming is being murdered.

Photography — and even saying that is not specific enough — photography operates, in some contexts, the same way a poem does. The idea is hidden. It is hidden, usually, because the photograph has just missed something. Something else is about to happen. Both are forever hidden from us. Lost to us. It is this isolation of the moment that provides the sense of dreamwork we experience. Barthes, of course, in Camera Lucida made the photograph a meditation on death. I think this is mostly true, even if I don’t completely agree with Barthes. What he defined as the *punctum* is really the sense of uncanniness that has been erased for the most part by ever advancing capital. The marketed image is one without depth, without the capacity to injure us psychically.

There are a host of questions linked to theatre, here, and I am only really introducing them at this point. What is it that changes in photographs of people? What of the biography we cannot know? All historical archival photos haunt us to a degree because we cannot narrate them properly. Who was that standing there? What did he or she do five minutes later? But it is, or should be, these same questions that haunt us when the lights come up on a stage. I think Pinter knew this very well. I think Pinter knew that language, the alphabet, was counter mythic. It was a tool of calculation and of cataloguing. Pinter instinctively distanced himself from this tendency in speech by entering conversations at unexpected moments, and by just generally writing in highly elliptical ways. For not only were the scenes arranged elliptically, but the sentences resisted unification. They resisted the audience need to find a point of view.

We live in an era of normalizing the unnatural. Of creating a naturalizing of the artificial — this is what advertising does, among many other things. It is also what politics does.

The atrocity of Sandy Hook becomes trivialized by a constant yammering away at the event by trivial voices, in a language of triviality. I read someone the other day, who posted on facebook about the tragedy, with some sentimentalized meme advocating gun control. In the next minute the same person noted he was on his way to see the new Tarrentino film. The belief is that we know the difference, that our responses are proportionate, that our feelings are delegated to the right place in our emotional warehouse. The sentimentalizing of tragedy is one of the most effective ways to neutralize the organic grief that remains the human beings first response. But before the blood is dry people are carrying candles and laying wreaths, and every other sentimentalized empty ceremony now enshrined to render the reality of the event as remote as possible. Remote by virtue of the familiarity of the grief rituals. The artistic response to political events has also levelled off, and found itself in the world of sociolgical bromides and truisms.

One can still look at the etchings of Goya on the Napoleonic Wars and feel the horror. There is much still resonant journalistic photography, but it is more and more subsumed by the simple magnitude of image in play at any given moment. In theatre, the sense of language as a tool for the obedient, for the expressing of platitude is the most acute sense an audience has once an actor speaks. I suspect this accounts for a general tendency and desire for silence in theatre artists. And for naps in audiences. The single wrong step toward that false voice, that register of pandering, and we know. We know the three card monte game at work. When Strindberg’s plays beging, when Beckett, or Genet, or Sarah Kane or Botho Strauss or Kroetz…..we sense the game has stopped. It is now naked and no longer a shell game.

The most haunting photographs are those without artifice. Those without anything to sell, and those without a determined message. If you can explain the photograph, then it is not a very good photograph. Is this not true to some degree for all artworks? I suspect so.

There is much speculation about the wave of mass shootings in the U.S. There is much discussion about a culture of militarism and authoritarianism. There is talk about Asperberger’s Syndrome and the crisis of white masculinity. Perhaps never before has the back-looking perspective for a history of capitalism been so clear. The sun has set, the colonial shadow hasn’t left but it can no longer be enforced without genuine resistance. The occupier is starting to unravel spiritually and materially. Armed SWAT teams at Penn Station —just standing there, like weird images from an amnesiac past. The Pope and the Queen, waddling around with gold and ermin, clunky gold rings, too loose, hanging from their knarled fingers, stare out at the masses, their faces already in rigor mortis. The vatican death trip. The Buckingham Palace death trip. The Penn Station death trip.

Or those Brooks Brothers suited Republican youth, the interns at the Capital, boys in longwing tips, executive socks, suspenders AND belts (executive confidence), hair parted on the side, often, and staring out at the world through those pale watery blue eyes of Empire. But the empire is gone.

Psychic necrophilia. Are the walking dead really among the Roman Curia? Are they in uniforms at checkpoints in Gaza? Are they at the Pentagon?

The screen. The addiction of image. The image that has been washed, been cleaned of unconscious residue….and sold to you. BUY THIS. Theatre links to photography. I intend to write more exhaustively on photography. I feel there is a return to these frozen moments, on an unconscious level, in western culture. The indestructable sense of our own childhood trauma finds it way into certain images. The endless circulation of image, however, runs directly counter to memory. It is the tool of forgetting.

Theatre space is found in certain photographs. The same space one finds in Egyptian or Indian temples; a space of pre-history, somehow. Pre alaphbet. It is not there as a tool. So much of what passes for teaching in creative writing is not just wrong, but exactly opposite the truth. Art is not about communication, it is not about selling anything or arguing anything. One of the virtues of Crumb’s work is that it’s not selling anything. Moral superiority is always selling something. Which is why criminals and the insane make better artists (usually). In the best photographs, we are writing out own traumatic memories.

Somehow we are doing that.

The rigid face of destruction, the SWAT team guard at Penn Station, the secret service creep talking into this lapel, the face of those billions of beefy arrogant cops around the planet…all of whom cry in private, silently, for their own imperfection —none of this can change what we see, pre-historically, in certain photographs.


  1. As a (guilty?) Crumb fan, surprised that you’ve mentioned him here. But “white man’s terror” is a great summary of what he’s about – and far more brutally, uncomfortably honest about that than David Lynch or Tarantino (he lacks their ‘irony’). The ‘handbook’ he brought out a few years ago discussed the full-spectrum, ‘colonial’ nature of American media too.

    But great post. It does appear that the US spectacle is converging into a kind of ‘singularity’, where everything from rom-com to MTV pop is quickly falling into line with its militarization. As though all the mainstream surfaces are synchronizing. Seems to be the case in the UK too.

  2. I agree with much of what you say here, John. And it’s a pleasure to read your thinking on photography. Loved seeming Sommer in among the photographs – his work always brings to mind the summers I spent outside of Tucson. Guy Debord also kept coming to mind, along with several others…but Debord needs another airing, I would say. Seems so relevant to the current state of things in our collapsing empire. I would need to ponder more before commenting at greater length, but a wonderful post…


  3. Maybe Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle could be most relevant now? His more ‘cloak and dagger’ sequel seems very pertinent to the current state of unreality.

  4. john steppling says:

    yeah…………..debord is probably worth a look……….and i agree there is almost a singularity. The level of worship to authority, the endless, truly endless military images and tropes…the authoritarian codes at work just never cease. I intend to write and think more on photography,…..and what that means anymore with the digitall age. With marketing and photoshopping……its a poisoned new paradigm of *looking* (as a friend said the other day). There is something about insincerity in here. Stan Goff the other day asked about manipulation and art. I think art, that one of its roles in fact, is to NOT manipulate. But we would have to define manipulation I think. But image….the marketed advertising manipulated photoshopped image is changing how people see the world. To search for the clever and hip and facile…the glossy surface…….and how this interacts with post modern thought is maybe worth considering.

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