Friday, March 14, 2014

"To Go in Close Means Forgetting Convention, Reputation, Reasoning, Hierarchies and Self"

So I'm still playing with the idea of "likenesses" in John Berger's The Shape of a Pocket.  Briefly, and no doubt in distortion of what Berger was getting at, I am extracting the following ideas from the book, heavily inflected by what I want to make of his work (the beauty of life after tenure, I suppose, is that there are moments when you can simply bypass questions of whether you got the source material "right"):

1.  Photos are (more or less) direct representations (this can be argued with trivially;  it's a foil point to help make the claim about painting);  paintings are "likenesses."
2.  Paintings, as likenesses, try less to capture the other person, and try more to capture some kind of energetic collaboration between the painter and the subject.
3.  What the painter captures, then, is not the person, but rather the experience of the person as absent -- the traces that the other leaves behind in the mind and heart of the painter.
4.  As a result, what a painting captures, as opposed to a photo, is the experience of the other as absent.  A painting of a loved one does not bring the loved one closer, the way a photo might;  it creates both intimacy and longing, as the painting is presence and absence simultaneously.

I am way off the rails in that last bit, pushing Berger further than he would go.

Constructing the experience of presence and absence, simultaneously.

This all makes sense to me on two dimensions, one relevant to notions of "collaboration" and one relevant to notions of "presence and absence in a likeness."

Collaboration:  As a person and as a scholar, I derive the most pleasure from collaborating, from the process of working with someone to build something.  It could be a writing project, it could be a relationship.  The idea of a painting as a collaboration between the artist and the subject is so energizing to me, so much an inversion of what one might expect, I find it amazing.  I want to keep pushing it as I keep thinking about this.

Likenesses, Presence and Absence: when we talk about how a son shares a likeness with their father, we are both seeing the father present and absent.  I suppose if we say that the Judeo-Christian god made humanity "in his likeness," we can see how that might signify the presence and the absence of that God.  So I like the idea that some arts don't just produce representations;  they produce likenesses, and in that likeness, there is the simultaneous experience of absence and presence.

...

I am thinking, especially, of interactions I have had lately.  I am meeting new and different people, and there can be a moment of sparkling intensity at the beginning -- those moments when you are comparing notes on each others' lives to be able to see:  How are we the same?  How are we different?  How do the stories I have constructed to make sense of my life work for making sense of your life?  Will the palette of colors I have brought to our relationship capture your likeness?  (What is "umber" and why is it always "burnt" anyway?)

I can offer an example.  In an exchange with a recent colleague-friend, I heard what I thought were the traditional anxieties of the untenured -- the stresses about whether you will be "good enough" to be retained, sometimes heavily inflected with the "impostor syndrome" (the anxiety that someone will discover that you do not belong, you are an impostor).  And that narrative worked for a while, but as we kept talking, as we kept exchanging stories, I began to hear echoes of what I now recognize as the experiences of first-generation academics.  I experience the sense of dislocation that comes from being the first one in my family to finish college, the third one to finish high school, even... The palette was changing, the colors I was using to paint her, to paint our relationship and the ways we interact with each other, were changing.

I still write about listening, once in a while.  Attentive, active listening sometimes mean saying to the other person:  this is what I hear you saying.  this is where I think you are, this is who I think you are becoming, as we speak.  In doing that, I am sharing what-we-are-building with my conversational partner.  Sometimes, the sharing only makes clear the disconnect between partners in a conversation. Sometimes, the sharing becomes intense;  the back and forth, the collaboration, becomes a series of bellstrikes, more and more resonant.

Berger talks about this as a dangerous moment:  "To go in close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self."  There is the possibility that the artist will "dissolve into the model" or be "trample[d] into the ground" by the subject.  (The cacophonous vibrations of the bells, ringing and ringing, threaten to dissolve me.)  That happens to me, sometimes, with some people, people with personalities that are bright and magnificent and sometimes troubled (because inevitably, to be bright and magnificent is to be troubled in the mundane world we share).  The other person shines and shimmers and I am mute.

But when a conversation works, when it works well, there is a real sense that we are making something together.  What we are making is the structure from which a friendship is possible, though admittedly, it may take days or weeks for that structure to be visible;  it may take weeks before one can be sure that the structure is viable.  Collaboration.

...

The conversation has to end, though.  Time grows short, work calls, or sleep beckons.  The bells cannot continue indefinitely;  the enervating and energizing presence of the other becomes absence.

More later...  on Presence and Absence.



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