May 31, 2012

It’s a Fractal World

– for Helen

These patterns quickly learned to copy themselves (this was part of what was so extraordinary about the patterns) and went on to cause massive trouble on every planet they drifted on to. That was how life began in the Universe.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 

I’ll try and keep this short since I’m writing on something I know nothing about. (Not that this has stopped me before.) I’ve only read the first of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books (as I’m not big on science fiction, I’d never read it before) and what I’m about to compare the book to is something I really know nothing about.

The structure of the book is fractal. From what I gather, two things are important for fractals: near identical repetition and scale shift. (A coast line viewed from a satellite looks straight, but when viewed close up could conceivably have as man ridges as a seemingly perfectly round grain of sand magnified.) We get both of this at the beginning of the book. Arthur Dent’s house is being demolished to make way for a throughway; the only reason this matters not one iota is that the Earth itself will soon be destroyed to make way for an inter-stellar highway. The same bureaucratic reasons are given and the same disregard for those living in the relevant spots is shown.

This idea of repetition carries the book. The characters’ several near-death escapes carry us through the plot of the book, and what makes them fractal in addition to their similarity with each other, is the reader’s familiarity with the way they play out. The improbable escapes are different from, say, those of Indiana Jones only in the details. Of course, in fractals as in everything else, the Devil’s in the details. Hence the near in near-identical repetition.

Not that any of this is any consolation to Arthur Dent, whose home was doubly destroyed, and whose mind is stuck in this specific world and this specific time. Near-identical is still different enough, I’m afraid. “No, thank you,” said Arthur [when offered a walk on the surface of New Earth] “it wouldn’t be quite the same.”

May 29, 2012

Salieri’s Confession

The LA Review of Books published an article May 14th called Envy, or, The Last Infirmity. It is by (a) Sven Birkerts and is a review/analysis/interpretation of the film Amadeus. The article is not bad. It’s a bit long, and essentially claims that the film is not so much a biopic of Mozart, as much as it is a study of envy. Says Birkerts: Who knew that envy had so many expressions, that it was such a great subject? And he goes on to make a good case for his viewing/reading of the film.

Now, I think that this is a decent reading of the film, and if that is how Birkerts sees the film, that’s his experience, and who am I to argue. Except that I have seen that film at least a dozen times and feel slightly protective of it. So I dare say, the film is not about envy. That is, there is no doubt that F. Murray Abraham’s character of Antonio Salieri is envious of the young Mozart, but this is not the central theme of the film.

[I have wanted to write about this film for so long, so if the tone strikes you as overly self-indulgent, it is because Birkerts’ article only provided the impetus for me to tell you what I think.]

The central theme of the film, as indicated by the title, Amadeus, is God’s love, or rather, its distribution. How and why does God love some of his human creations a little more than others? Remember, the whole film, the story of the film, the story Salieri tells, is told as a confession. (Or rather, as an anti-confession, but I’ll get to that.) The young priest comes to see him, and asks Salieri to offer him his confession. When Salieri refuses, the priest insists. Insulted at having to deal with a nobody, Salieri vainly asks, Do you know who I am? To which the priest gives the most diplomatic of answers All men are equal in God’s eyes. Oh, are they?! answers Salieri, at which point he turns his chair and decides to actually speak to the young priest. The confession begins.

The rest of the movie is dedicated to Salieri proving to the young priest (and the audience, for we are in the position of the priest not only because we are listening, but because Salieri’s tale will go from being the priest’s problem to being our problem) that something is not right with the view of a just God.

Why would God, asks Salieri, choose that dirty-minded little creature (as Salieri calls him), a silly little grasshopper, a buffoon (as Birkerts calls him) for his instrument, and not the illustrious Antonio Salieri? Make no mistake, it is God who places each of them in their roles. Mozart is almost explicitly talked about as God’s hand, simply writing down divine music. That scene when Constance comes to visit Salieri and shows him the originals of Mozart’s work is instructive. Salieri tells the priest (and us): I was staring through a cage of meticulous strokes at an absolute beauty. Absolute beauty? No prizes for guessing what theological concept this refers to.

Salieri’s life too, is (ehem, sorry) conducted by God. He tells us that as a young boy all he wanted was to create music. It is his merchant father who would have none of it. So Salieri prays to God. God obliges, Salieri tells us by producing a miracle, his father’s death, and removal of the main obstacle in young Antonio’s path. (The word miracle there is also a flag. The event is not called a coincidence, not a tragedy, but a miracle. An indication that Salieri’s offer to God has been accepted, and a covenant made.) And then from a mere nobody, Salieri rises to the highest position a musician can have in the known world, which is court composer to King Leopold, at his court in Vienna, the capital of music. Deal made, and from Salieri’s side, goods delivered.

Aye, but there’s the rub. Here, God reneges. Enter Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. That it is this shrill, annoying, vulgar little brat that God chooses for his instrument, is, in Salieri’s words, not to be believed.

I again refer you to the fact that we, the audience are in the position of the (anti-)confessing priest. The reason the film is not about envy, is not that Salieri’s is not envious, but that his problem, the problem of why God would choose Wolfgang and not Antonio, is only Salieri’s problem. It is ours. I am not, we are not envious of Mozart. We couldn’t even begin to approach Mozart’s talent, there is nothing to be envious of on our part. And yet, the injustice (Salieri calls God unfair and unkind) is obvious. How cruel, how egotistical, of God to have created Salieri only to have someone who could properly admire his creation. What kind of God could do this, could be this way?

This is why at the end, before Salieri’s is taken through the hallways to bless mediocrities, we catch a glimpse of the priest, head in hands, crushed by Salieri’s story. The priest understood what Birkerts does not: the problem is not one of envy.

Envy, one of the seven deadly sins, is something that can be confessed to, and something that can be confessed. ‘Confessed to’ meaning to admit being envious. But to ‘confess’ envy is to ask of God to be forgiven for committing the sin. Salieri confesses to killing Mozart, in the sense that he acknowledges having done it. But he is not confessing the murder, in the sense that he wants absolution for it. In that sense Salieri’s confession is an accusal, an anti-confession.

PS I, on the other hand, am envious that Sven Birkerts got to publish his reading of the film in the LA Review of Books, while I am left by fate to peddle my own opinions on this silly blog.

May 9, 2012

[Orwell Removed]

At some point last year I wrote a short text entitled [comment removed] (complete with brackets). It grew out of an exchange on Facebook between myself and a couple of friends. I had (rather crudely) made fun of something that one posted to the other. So my friend deleted my comment and posted the aforementioned comment in brackets. What I found interesting about his intervention is that it did not completely obliterate my mockery. Someone who didn’t know what had happened could see, by the fact that the words [comment removed] stood there, that a number of things had happened. It made me think of the subversive nature of these words. One could, after the fact, just as easily assume that the moderator (my friend) was unjust in removing my comments, and therefore the phrase [comment removed] indicated an injustice done. One that cannot be named, but is present.

(Can you tell that I am currently reading Derrida?)

Anyway, the text that I ended up writing about this was not in fact about the subversive nature of the phrase. It was about my inability to shut up and let things go. In discussing the text that actually got written, someone asked me if I was now going to write something about the original idea: the subversive nature of [comment removed]? It had slipped my mind since then.

And then I ran across this passage in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

There was a new rule that censored portions of a newspaper must not be left blank but filled up with other matter; as a result it was often impossible to tell when something had been cut out.

This is what I had been thinking about with the phrase [comment removed]. Orwell is talking about the his last days in Barcelona, just before he is driven out by the Stalinists for his association with the POUM (considered Trotskyist). It’s almost as if he’s complaining that this new form of censorship is somehow dishonest, hiding the very fact of censorship. Implying that there is a better, a fair, a friendly form of censorship (indeed in my case, one done by a friend). A censorship which erases, but leaves evidence of its own activity, one where the blank space tells the reader that there has been some heavy-handed editing. Orwell is indicating an increase in repression, an undercutting of subversion.

The blank space is subversive. And rather than prove it positively, here is negative proof (a proof by absence, one might say) that it is so. If it were not subversive, the government would not have instituted this new rule.

Perhaps in a year’s time, when I get around to it, I’ll write something about Georgie Orwell.

April 16, 2012

In Praise of Transitional Technology

I got a Kindle. When this happened, some of my friends raised their eyebrows. They like books, and they know I like books, so why would I add nails to that coffin. Of course, as I am fond of pointing out here (and anywhere), this is both equivocation and unnecessary panic. Books are doing fine in their hard format. Also, and more importantly here, books will still exist, they will just be in a different format. Conceivably, they will be in digital, e-book form.
Before any such complete switch happens, however, methinks the book will have had its revenge on the Kindle. Even if the Kindle turns out to be a soldier in the destruction of the book citadel, it is itself unlikely to be the one standing on the top of the hill victoriously waving a flag. Why? Because, despite what my friend, Miloš Luković wrote here about the elegance of single-function devices (and the Kindle is largely one such), they tend to get incorporated into more complicated digital devices. The iPod lasted a generation or two as a music device only, before it added video, and then with the iPhone transforming completely. Most phones have a music playing function, and nearly all of them have a camera. And the Kindle has its single-function up against the tablet’s complete set of computer functions. Tablets are probably now to lap tops what lap tops were to desktops fifteen years ago. Give the tablet a few more years and it might become the standard computer device for a person or household. Won’t the tablet incorporate the Kindle function?
Perhaps. Around the same time the transience of the Kindle occurred to me, I read that the e-mail attachment turned twenty. The Guardian had an article talking about the man who invented it, Nathaniel Borenstein, how it came about, and where it is today. Now that we have the cloud and social media, how much will the attachment be used? Mr. Borenstein himself makes a decent case that the attachment is still quite useful, but who’s to say that it will not go the way of the PalmPilot?
Which raises another interesting question. How many examples of transitional technology have existed in (let’s say) the last one hundred years (technology-obsessed as they have been)? Music is here the obvious example. Although the radio was not killed by TV, the victrola and the cassette deck are pretty much gone, and the CD is on its way out. Typewriters are another example. In a combination of the two, and a great piece of transitional technology, I found these images over at Colt + Rane.

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I have one more before I leave you without having said anything. I have no idea how scientific or true this is, but

It appears from this that WordPress is still climbing, but for how much longer? Word? Press? In a digital world of images? It just can’t last. Enjoy it while you can.

Post Scriptum
If you follow the above link to the Guardian article about the e-mail attachment, you may notice that the photo of Nathaniel Borenstein was taken, no doubt digitally, and e-mailed to the editor as an attachment, by a Christian Sinibaldi. Where have I heard that last name, Sinibaldi? Ah yes, Antonio Sinibaldi, about whom I wrote this last year: “Antonio Sinibaldi, scribe to the Medicis, who had “an elegant, gracile hand,” was the first major scribe to be put out of work by the Gutenberg machine in 1480.” I wonder if they’re related.

Post Scriptorum
Since it is now the way of the world (or will soon be), I have a tumblr.

April 8, 2012

Lila Dit Quoi?!

Quelle putain de bon livre!

Where to start with this? I could write about the idea of masculinity in this book; or about the warped conception of sex we’ve been sold and how easily the book calls it into question; or about the dispossessed Arab youth in Parisian suburbs in the mid nineties (about the time La Haine came out); or the limits of idealization; or perhaps the role of writing in a person’s life; or the relation writing and literature have to real life; or the emerging (and hence threatening) female subject in male literature…

But I won’t. I feel it would just ruin the magic, the pure joy, the sheer pleasure, the immanent delight, the elating and surprising wonder I felt reading this book.

Instead, I will sell you on it the way the book was sold in manuscript form to its publishers. (In my own translation) this is what it says when you open the cover:

Note from the editor
The story of the manuscript of this book deserves to be told.
It was delivered directly into our hands by a lawyer. Its author, Chimo, whose name is found in the text, wanted to stay anonymous. We have never met him and know nothing about him.
The manuscript was made up of two red Clairefontaine notebooks, with squared lines on its pages. It did not have a title. We found the phrase “Lila Says” written in capital letters in the margin, atop of page 7. It seemed to us to fit the need.
Chimo’s handwriting, for which he used Bic pens, was difficult to decipher. We settled for correcting spelling errors for the final manuscript. In places, we thought it necessary to retouch the punctuation, which was rather spotty. We have left unchanged one or two passages even though we were unsure of their meaning.
Despite the claims to sincerity in the text, we have come up with our own hypothesis of mystification. We were split in the office on this question. Was it the work of an established writer or the first novel of a talented young writer (in the text, Chimo says he is nineteen and a half)?
Whatever the case, the surprising literary quality of the story, whether or not a ruse, made us publish it.

And indeed made me read it!

They also offer an image of the first page of the manuscript:

April 2, 2012

Character of Gold

If you don’t know about it, Tristram Shandy is a famous 18th century novel. Academics call it the postmodern novel two centuries before the postmodern. What’s more, it’s a great read.

One of the things I remember from the novel, which appeared in nine installments from 1759 to 1767, was part of the author’s dedication before volume IX. The sentence in it I really liked goes like this.
Honours, like impressions upon coin, may give an ideal and local value to a bit of base metal ; but Gold and Silver will pass all the world over without any other recommendation than their own weight.
Laurence Sterne is talking about character, of course. The title of Lord or Duke can be confer importance even upon the most vile man, but true quality of character will shine through anywhere regardless of the approval of powerful people. It is a noble sentiment.

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I am reading David Graeber’s book Debt, which talks about the history of money and credit. I may decide to write something about it when I’m done with it, but I came across this passage and remembered Sterne’s dedication. (The passage is a bit long, so I have chopped it up a little to shorten it, but the thread, I believe is there.)
“Yet the great public debate of the time [1690s], a debate about the very nature of money, was about not paper but metal. […] Something had to be done. A war of pamphlets ensued, which came to a head in 1695, one year after the founding of the bank. Charles Davenant’s essay on credit, which I’ve already cited, was actually part of this particular pamphlet-war: he proposed that Britain move to a pure credit money based on public trust, and he was ignored. […] The man who won the argument, however, was John Locke, the Liberal philosopher, at that time acting as advisor to Sir Isaac Newton, the Warden of the Mint. Locke insisted that one can no more make a small piece of silver worth more by relabeling it a “shilling” than one can make a short man taller by declaring there are now fifteen inches in a foot. Gold and silver had a value recognized by everyone on earth; the government stamp simply attested to the weight and purity of a coin, and – as he added in words veritably shivering with indignation – for governments to tamper with this for their own advantage was just as criminal as the coin-clippers themselves:
“The use and end of the public stamp is only to be a guard and voucher of the quality of silver which men contract for; and the injury done to the public faith, in this point, is that which in clipping and false coining heightens the robbery into treason.”
Therefore, he argued, the only recourse was to recall the currency and restrike it at exactly the same value that it had before. This was done, and the results were disastrous.”
(I added the emphasis, as well as the hyper link, obviously.)

Something interesting is going on here. As far as I know, most countries do not tie their monetary units to the gold standard. Britain went off it in 1931, and the US in 1971. I know that Marx argued against the concept that money ultimately derived its value from gold. Which means that Charles Davenenat was right, and John Locke was wrong. (Doesn’t it?)

But then, where does the value of gold come from? It’s not like Locke invented the idea of precious metals being valuable in themselves. Ancient civilizations already valued gold and silver, and we still do today. What makes them able to “pass the world over without any other recommendation than their own weight,” as Sterne wrote?

Could it be that gold is valuable in the way Davenant claimed money should be, that is, it simply has public trust? Is it valuable for no other reason than that somehow all of humanity (or a large portion of it, anyway) thinks it is valuable? Would that make both Davenant and Locke right, since it is a value based on trust, but is also recognized by everyone on earth?

And what of Sterne’s metaphor? If gold and silver have no intrinsic value, does that debase the metaphor? Should the sentence read “Gold and silver will pas the world over without any other recommendation than that which they already have from everyone, but that’s only because nobody has thought about it?” In which case they are not that different from base metal rendered important with honors. Somehow, this makes me unhappy…

March 29, 2012

Silent Confirmation

Some of my friends loved it, some were indifferent, but I liked it.

I tried coming up with something intelligent and coherent to say about L’Artiste, but couldn’t do so without giving away too much of the film. Instead, I’ll just say this. Since the time when sound and color came into cinema, there have been plenty of black and white films, eschewing color for effect. But to my knowledge, this is the only silent film outside the silent film era. That ought to be interesting enough for one to go see it, no?

March 17, 2012

Mapping the World

A year ago today, I posted a short entry on world maps. More specifically, it was about alternative world map projections. (A projection is the way in which the globe or any portion of it is represented on a flat surface.) Mostly, when people think of the map of the world, they have the Mercator projection in mind. It looks like this.

The Mercator projection was created by Gerardus Mercator, a 16th century Flemish cartographer. Its strength was that it was useful for European maritime navigators. Remember, this is the dawn of colonialism. In a good example of how science and politics can be married, Mercator provided the Europeans with a tool for navigation, and in turn, they disseminated his map all over the world and made it the dominant mode of representation of the globe. Which is one of the reasons I said that when the words ‘world map’ pop up, people think of the Mercator projection.

The strengths of the projection are also its weaknesses. From a cartography standpoint, it gets one too many things wrong: it places the equator too low (it’s not in the middle), it distorts the northern parts of the globe too much (giving a false sense of size to small northern countries), it is Eurocentric, and it places the northern hemisphere on top, encouraging thinking of the northern hemisphere as dominant. (I should say that these are the most common criticisms leveled at the map. There are probably more, and not everyone would accept all of them as valid. But that’s not the point here.)

The Gall-Peters projection fixes some of these problems. This, we are told, is more ‘accurate’.

Then there are other, more whacky projections that further fix some of the Mercator map problems. In the last entry I gave two of these. The Peirce projection, also known as the Quincuncial projection

and the Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion Map projection

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(Bear with me here, I’m not just recycling old material.)

A week or so ago, a university professor named Gene Keyes, commented on my original entry. He offered a link to his own article of criticism of the Dymaxion map in favor of the Cahill-Keyes projection. You can read all his arguments in detail here and here. I have myself only skimmed through the linked articles and I think I got the gist of the criticism. Apparently, decades before Buckminster Fuller created his Dymaxion map, Bernard J.S. Cahill was solving the same problems and came up with his own solution to the projection problems of the Mercator map. His solution is remarkably similar to Fuller’s later solution, and according to Keyes, Cahill’s is better.

According to Mr. Keyes, there are seven ways in which the Dymaxion Maps is deficient. They are:
1) Asymmetry of layout

2) Irregularity of graticule

3) Bad distortion of Korea and vicinity; also Norway

4) Poor scalability: the larger a Dymaxion map, the worse it looks

5) Anti-metric measurements; triangle edges have unstated irrational metric length of 7,048.89 km

6) Poor to zero comparison with any equivalent globe

7) Poor synoptic globe-and-map learnability

The Cahill projection (which Mr. Keyes would later amend to make the Cahill-Keyes projection) suffers from none of these problems. (I should add that this is all according to Mr. Keyes; not that I necessarily have any problems with his criticisms.)

The Cahill 1909 projection.

The Cahill-Keyes 1975 projection.

Now, I am not a cartographer, nor even a geographer. I don’t know what some of the words in those seven criticisms mean, and the only understanding I have of the concepts is through a superficial reading of Keyes’ article. I am ignorant of the issue, to say the least.

But there is something else. (And this is what this entry is really about.) I have no problem with criticizing the Mercator map or indeed the Dymaxion map. They might be more or less accurate, relative to other maps, they might be more or less suitable depending on the need. However, the claim from Cahill and Keyes is stronger (and Fuller probably fits this ideological criterion as well). Says Keyes:
Map-design-seekers are often asked: for what purpose do you want to use it? The conventional wisdom is that you must go with many different projections. Cahill begged to differ, and I concur:
I want a single, general purpose, world map projection, with high fidelity to a globe, suitable at all scales from smallest to largest, good for one country or the whole planet. I want a world map and globe as a synoptic pair, comparable to each other at a glance, or in detail. I want geography learners at any age to be able to grasp the globe and world map as readily as do-re-mi.

One map, one purpose. This is where my amateurish admiration for various projections and Cahill and Keyes’ project diverge.

This, I dare say, is not possible. For one, it just doesn’t seem likely that humanity will give up on the Mercator map. Somehow, for some reason or another, we seem to be invested in it. It is a convention that has been around long enough that it just might stick with humanity, even through massive civilizational changes. There is a decent argument to be made that we are currently going through one such civilizational shift, like the Middle Ages giving way to the Renaissance, or the Persian empire giving way to the Greek civilization. And if the Mercator map survives the change, and is able to transfer itself into the new age, it might be around for a very long time. Not as the only projection, but as the dominant one, the one people have in their heads when the words ‘world map’ are uttered.

(And if your conception of the civilization shift is tied to the change from analog to digital, then the fact that Google uses Mercator’s map – a fact that Keyes himself points out – has to be a strong argument for the projection surviving the jump.)

Nor would this be unusual for the human race. Just think of our concept of the day, the seasons, the year. Why would the day be divided into two twelve unit parts? It is a convention the Babylonians came up with 3000 (?) years ago, and it’s still with us (in a slightly changed form). Why should there be four seasons, and why should they be in the order they are in? If the Indian model of seasons had become dominant, we would perhaps only have two: wet and dry. If you exclude crop growing, we city dwellers (and of late we have become the majority, didn’t you know) could easily divide the year into more than four seasons: heating season, rainy season, falling in love season (for all I care), cooling season, melancholy season, shopping and partying season (to give an outrageous example). Why should the year have twelve months, and why should they have the number of days they have? (And don’t get me started on leap years.) Why would the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th months of the year be called the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth (September comes from the Latin for seven, October from eighth) … ?

In fact, after seizing power, the French revolutionaries made up a new “rational” calendar, whereby the year had ten months. (The Russian revolutionaries were more modest in their attempts: they only switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.) Why ten? Because we live in a world that uses the decimal system. Something that Keyes himself mentions as a strength of the Cahill projection over the Fuller projection. But why should this be better? What if future generations abandon the decimal system? (Perhaps in favor of the binary?) (Needless to say, the revolutionary calendar did not take.) And why should a sphere have 360 degrees? Why not 400? (In fact, I heard from someone once that the Russians had cannons during WWII that used a 400 degree circle, making a right angle 100, not 90 degrees.)

While these measurements sound arbitrary and irrational, they are vestiges of a time when their use was actually the most effective way of solving a specific problem. They have far outlived their usefulness, and are now simply convention. (Some have survived, and others have not, e.g. Roman numbers.) The Mercator projection falls neatly into this category, and there is little reason to think that it will not be just another in a long line of examples of this human phenomenon.

And this might be fine. Is there really a problem with the idea of a minute having sixty seconds? Or does anyone in America feel angst about the idea that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit? Or do those using Celsius really have a problem with their system of measurement being tied to physical properties of water (and not oxygen for example, or lead)?

This is not to say that Mercator map doesn’t have its problems. As I mentioned before, it does. Its problems can be discussed and other projections used to solve them. But the idea of a “better” map replacing and completely suppressing the use of Mercator’s map, just seems unlikely to me.

There are further reasons why I don’t think the Cahill-Keyes projection could become “the one” map.

I can think of one aspect according to which the Mercator (and the Peters) projection might best (I have to be careful here) the Peirce, Fuller, and Cahill. And that’s time. For someone who has a sister six time zones away, and friends two, three, four time zones before and after him, the passage of time seems mapped better on a cylindrical projection rather than the Quincuncial one or an unfolded icosahedron.

Further, it needs to be said that all these projections are heavily biased towards landmasses. That makes sense given that we think of ourselves as land creatures. But what if we once again become a civilization of maritime navigators? And I don’t mean like in Mercator’s time. I mean like the Polynesian civilization which used stick charts as maps of ocean swells and currents. The charts also map islands, but more to show how they interrupt ocean swells rather than give any significant detail of the landmass.

And what of potential space travel? This might sound like science fiction, but I am not convinced that space travel now is that dissimilar from what sailing around the world was in 1480, the year Ferdinand Magellan was born. In a hundred years, the attempt to make “the one” projection of Earth might turn out to be the equivalent of trying to clearly divide arable land in England at the end of the 15th century – a parochial endeavor that will ultimately have no place in the larger map.

March 8, 2012

Dead in the Centre…Ough!

“There was a vast amount of red — good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn’t going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there — fascinating — deadly — like a snake. Ough!”

This is Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describing a colonial map of Africa towards the end of the 19th century. The colors correspond to territories in control of various European powers. I’m not sure about all of them, but I think red are the British, blue the French, and the purple refers to Germans.

So I found this map.

The colors on this map are not the same as Marlow describes them, since his yellow, into which he is going, is here black – the Belgian Congo. Still a vivid illustration of how European colonialists carved up Africa at the time.

January 30, 2012

Voir Paris

 

The only thing I’m not impressed by on Marion Blank’s Tumblr are the photos by the old masters like André Kertesz. Which is not to say that I dislike Kertesz’s photos. On the contrary. But they have no place among Marion Blank’s black and white photos of contemporary Paris.

Generally when I see photos of Paris, although they may be beautiful photos, I have a sense of looking into the past. The photos are looking backwards, to past glories and supposedly better times. We are already saturated with images of Paris from the 1920s, ’30s, ’50s, that when we look through a camera lens, this is what we’re looking for. Nor is this entirely the fault of the nostalgic masses of tourists that swarm the City of Light. Paris itself, as a city harkens back to previous times. This is what Adam Gopnik referred to as the “museumification of Paris.”

It is hard to see Paris as anything else than a parody of its former self. Looking at photos of contemporary Paris, I generally see a photo that is self-consciously trying to be a past Paris. Like a pose, the photo knows what Paris is supposed to look like and imitates that.

This is not true of Marion Blank’s photos. (I don’t know Marion Blank, not even if it’s a person or persons, and the name sounds suspiciously like a pseudonym, but I’m here assuming it is indeed one person with that name and that she is a woman.)

When I look at them, I see a living, breathing, un-self-conscious city, with its dwellers and structures being nothing other than what they are at that very moment.

Look at the photos. On the surface, black and white, one could almost confuse them with the old masters’ photos of Paris. But then you see that they are all taken in 2012. These are photos not one month old! (Marion Blank’s Tumblr contains many photos from before 2012, but I selected for my post ten out of seventy-seven photos that were marked 2012.) Instead of looking at a contemporary photo and seeing a previous Paris, as is the case with most photos of the great city, these are photos that look old but reveal a Paris that is present, imminent, our peer.

I see in these photos a city surprisingly vibrant, not ready to be thrown into the bin of “been there, done that.” Not ready for museumification. A city which still wants to be photographed. Not for what it used to be, but for the way it is. Paris isn’t over, we’ve just been photographing it wrong. Until now.

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