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Of images and likenesses

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- a storm in a tea-kettle, various resemblances to Hitler, how Pudovkin perceived and practiced montage, what happened when the talkies came along, and four faces of Christ ]
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It begins with something as innocent ad a tea kettle:

Does this otherwise innocuous tea kettle resemble Hitler? Does it look enough like Hitler to merit JC Penney withdrawing it from sale?

**

Let’s take a look at a couple of other “resemblances to Hitler”:

Who most resembles Hitler — Chaplin, or Stalin?

On the face of it, that’s an easy question. If I were to just ask you the question “who is most like Hitler” in words, you might very well say Stalin, or Pol Pot perhaps — or, I suppose, if you were very focused on World War II and the Axis leaders, Mussolini.

And if I asked you “who looks most like Hitler?” you might well say Charlie Chaplin — but you’d be “thinking visually” in terms of appearances, rather than “verbally” in terms of meanings.

So there are at least two different ways someone can resemble Hitler — in terms of appearance, and in terms of behavior.

**

We don’t notice our own noses most of the time, even though they’re within our field of vision — and it’s a bit like that with likeness. We don’t have a grammar of resemblance, and that’s part of what I want to explore here, in drawing your attention to these two ways (at least) in which we can think of someone resembling Hitler.

Placing two pictures side by side — Charlie Chaplin and Hitler, Hitler and Joseph Stalin — gets us to think a bit about the parallelisms and oppositions. And that’s a large part of what my DoubleQuotes format is good for. I am interested in what the mind does with juxtapositions, and I’m interested in getting us able to hold two contrasting thoughts in mind at the same time. As F Scott Fitzgerald said:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

I’m in two minds as to whether he’s right, of course.

**

So montage. So the beginnings of Russian cinema, and the great directors of the silent era in film, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein.

Pudovkin wrote quite a bit about montage, about what he called relational editing, telling us:

editing is not merely a method of the junction of separate scenes or pieces, but is a method that controls the “psychological guidance” of the spectator.

He talked about five modes of editing, getting close to the foundations of a grammar of resemblance of the kind I mentioned above — contrast, paralleliem, symbolism, simultaneity and leit-motif. He said, for instance:

Suppose it be our task to tell of the miserable situation of a starving man; the story will impress the more vividly if associated with mention of the senseless gluttony of a well-to-do man.

and went on:

it is possible not only to relate the starving sequence to the gluttony sequence, but also to relate separate scenes and even separate shots of the scenes to one another, thus, as it were, forcing the spectator to compare the two actions all the time, one strengthening the other.

Under the heading of Symbolism, he noted:

In the final scenes of the film Strike the shooting down of workmen is punctuated by shots of the slaughter of a bull in a stockyard. The scenarist, as it were, desires to say: just as a butcher fells a bull with the swing of a pole-axe, so, cruelly and in cold blood, were shot down the workers.

I don’t suppose I’m alone in thinking here of the ending of Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now — and I doubt Coppola would have been unaware of the tribute he was paying to one of the early masters of cinematography, either. And what doe Pudovkin say about the symbolic editing together of the shooting of workmen punctuated by the slaughter of a bull?

This method is especially interesting because, by means of editing, it introduces an abstract concept into the consciousness of the spectator without use of a title.

**

All this, of course, during the silent era. And when the talkies begin…

After the advent of the talking pictures, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Alexandrov and Vertov issue a statement, attempting to salvage the emotional impact of montage which is in danger of being capsized by the oh so new and glittery charm of verbals — of people talking:

Only a contrapuntal use of sound in relation to the visual montage piece will afford a new potentiality of montage development and perfection.

The first experimental work with sound must be directed along the line of its distinct nonsynchronization with the visual images. And only such an attack will give the necessary palpability which will later lead to the creation- of an orchestral counterpoint of visual and aural images

You see what’s going on here? Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov want the mind to be working on two tracks of ideation at once — a visual track, full of emotional impact, and a verbal track, in counterpoint to the visual.

They want us to be able “to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time” — not in synchrony but in counterpoint.

So this business of juxtaposition, of contrapuntal thinking, goes quite deep, and it’s my contention that it’s a skill we need both to develop and to understand — hence my interest in building a grammar of resemblance, of rhyme, of fugue, of graphic match, of equation.

**

One final example. If the “likeness of Hitler” example confronted us with the “nature of likeness” as between facial resemblance and similarities of behavior, this next instance will deal more with “evidence of likeness”:

Here’s the question: are these “real” likenesses?

**

The two likenesses above are both of interest as possible “likenesses of Christ” — the top one taken from the Shroud of Turin, the lower one allegedly photographed in the snow, perhaps in China. The image on the Shroud might be a sort of “photographic negative” of the actual face of man a crucified two thousand years ago — and scientific techniques may or may not offer us evidence as to that likelihood. The other image — supposedly of the face of the same Christ, this time seen and recognized by a photographer in shadows on snow — how does one check the provenance of an image like that?

We don’t have a photographic record of what Christ looked like to compare our own images with — unless the Shroud turns out to offer us just that — so it’s likely we’re back at the distinction first drawn by theologians over a century ago, between “the Jesus of History” and “the Christ of Faith”.

Consider the two images below, neither one perhaps what a camera might have seen if a photographer could time-travel back two thousand years, but each suited to the people for whom it was produced — in China, in Africa:

The Christs these two images evoke come from a different mode of seeing to the images captured in biometric scans and on ID cards — yet they are well-suited for devotion and inspiration…

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Sixty Years after Stalin

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Sixty years ago one of the greatest monsters in history, a mass-murderer of tens of millions many times over, the yellow-eyed, “Kremlin mountaineer”  breathed his last.

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders -
fawning half-men for him to play with.
They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, to the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.
- Osip Mandelstam

So great was the terror he had inflicted that many of his victims, dazed and bloodied by decades of fear, savage oppression and war, openly wept. The greatest fear of the late dictator’s closest henchmen and accomplices, who had more than likely escaped the conveyor belt of torture, gulag and execution only by their master’s death, was that the people would think that they had murdered their dear vozhd and would storm the Kremlin and tear them to pieces.

The former Georgian seminarian and bank robber Joseph Djugashvilli Stalin did more to shape Russia than any man in history except Peter the Great and Genghis Khan. Ivan the Terrible, the tsar whom Stalin much admired and imitated in killing off his own “boyars”, could not hold a candle to his Bolshevik successor in either cruelty or statesmanship. Stalin entered power as Lenin’s chief clerk in a failed state wracked by civil war and ended it as master of the Communist world, possessor of the atomic bomb and the implacable victor of Berlin.

Stalin sent thirty million of his countrymen to their deaths at the hands of buffoons, sexual sadists and deranged dwarfs, yet was a sensitive and gifted poet of no mean talent who could discuss Clausewitz, the intricacies of Marxist theory or the classics when he chose. Stalin was an avid writer of marginalia in books, making comments one scholar termed “insightful” as well brutal.

An artist of the vendetta, Stalin personally lingered over lengthy death lists, making annotations, sparing one here and drawing out the torment of others there. Some estimates are that he signed some thirty thousand such death lists of prominent Soviet and pre-Revolutionary figures, often consigning their families to arrest, torture and exile. Endless ordinary Soviets accused of “wrecking” or “trotskyite counter-revolutionary activity” or “espionage” went to the Gulag or the grave by quota. Not merely in the terrible year of 1937, but throughout Stalin’s long, grim reign; and after the war, it was the turn of the Eastern Europeans, especially suspected “cosmopolitan” Communists, like Ana Pauker and Rudolf Slansky and the usual litany of “class enemies” and “fascists”.

Stalin’s archenemy in both fact and fevered imagination, Leon Trotsky, received an icepick in his brain from Stalin’s messenger, Ramon Mercader. Then for good measure, Stalin killed Trotsky’s son.

The only man Stalin seemed to fear, was Hitler, near whom he had once briefly lived in 1913 in Vienna when Stalin was a young Bolshevik revolutionary and the future Fuhrer was a struggling “artist” living in a bum’s hostel. They both frequented the Schoenbrunn park and likely, the same cheap coffee hoses and cafes. Stalin’s efforts to appease Hitler the Warlord and mad visionary proved no more successful than had Neville Chamberlain’s; the USSR survived Operation Barbarossa in part because the tyrannical Stalin could force the Russian people to spill an ocean of blood in 1941 the way Tsar Nicholas II could not in 1914.

Twenty million, perhaps more, of the Red Army died on the road to Berlin and victory over Nazism, giving Stalin, who had curried favor with Hitler and allied himself with the Third Reich, mastery over half of Europe. His sycophants called him “Generalissimo” and tried to deify him on his 70th birthday and please him, assuring themselves of safety. It was no use; Stalin ostracized them or arrested their wives or toyed with them cruelly at late night drinking sessions as Stalin’s suspicious mind turned again toward the blackness as it had in the Thirties, when his closest collaborators became dead men talking, disappearing and then reappearing suddenly, gaunt and haunted, to grovel for death at show trials.

Roy Medvedev, Soviet era dissident and Marxist historian wrote of Stalin, “Let history judge“. The judgement it must be said, is in with Russia’s tragic post-Soviet decline. A degradation so severe that even the tough and crafty siloviki ,Vladimir Putin, has been unable to reverse it.

The wounds inflicted by Stalin run too deep.

The Heirs of Stalin

Mute was the marble. Mutely glimmered the glass.
Mute stood the sentries, bronzed by the breeze.
Thin wisps of smoke curled over the coffin.
And breath seeped through the chinks
as they bore him out the mausoleum doors.
Slowly the coffin floated, grazing the fized bayonets.
He also was mute- his embalmed fists, 
just pretending to be dead, he watched from inside.
He wished to fix each pallbearer in his memory: 
young recruits from Ryazan and Kursk, 
so that later he might collect enough strength for a sortie, 
rise from the grave, and reach these unreflecting youths.
He was scheming. Had merely dozed off.
And I, appealing to our government, petition them
to double, and treble, the sentries guarding this slab, 
and stop Stalin from ever rising again
and, with Stalin, the past.
I refer not to the past, so holy and glorious, 
of Turksib, and Magnitka, and the flag raised over Berlin.
By the past, in this case, I mean the neglect
of the people’s good, false charges, the jailing of innocent men.
We sowed our crops honestly.
Honestly we smelted metal, 
and honestly we marched, joining the ranks.
But he feared us. Believing in the great goal, 
he judged all means justified to that great end.
He was far-sighted. Adept in the art of political warfare, 
he left many heirs behind on this globe.
I fancy there’s a telephone in that coffin: 
Stalin instructs Enver Hoxha.
From that coffin where else does the cable go! 
No, Stalin has not given up. He thinks he can cheat death.
We carried him from the mausoleum.
But how remove Stalin’s heirs from Stalin! 
Some of his heirs tend roses in retirement, 
thinking in secret their enforced leisure will not last.
Others, from platforms, even heap abuse on Stalin
but, at night, yearn for the good old days.
No wonder Stalin’s heirs seem to suffer
these days from heart trouble. They, the former henchmen, 
hate this era of emptied prison camps
and auditoriums full of people listening to poets.
The Party discourages me from being smug.
‘Why care? ‘ some say, but I can’t remain inactive.
While Stalin’s heirs walk this earth, 
Stalin, I fancy, still lurks in the mausoleum.

 -Yevgeny Yevtushenko

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The Last Lion, Winston Spenser Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 — finally released!

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

The Last Lion, Winston Spenser Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, by William Manchester and Paul Reid

In the 1980′s, William Manchester wrote two of three planned volumes on the life of Winston Churchill. He had notes for the final volume but illness prevented him from completing. Instead, he brought in Paul Reid to finish his masterpiece. While it took 25 years, the wait was well worth it; Reid thus far (I’m halfway through) has channelled Manchester’s style and presenting a seamless connection to the first two volumes.

Strongest recommendation.

Cross posted at To Be or To Do.

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On Eric Hobsbawm

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

I was going to comment on the death of the famed historian who was the Soviet Union’s most venerable and shameless apologist, but I was beaten to it in a brilliant piece by British blogger and fellow Chicago Boyz member, Helen Szamuely:

A great Communist crime denier dies

On my way to and from Manchester yesterday and today I read Anne Applebaum’s latest book Iron Curtain about the subjugation of Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1956. Ms Applebaum’s knowledge and understanding of the European Union is not quite what it ought to be, given that she usually appears in the guise of one of our leading political commentators but she does know the history of Communism and what it did to the countries and peoples who, for various reasons, found themselves under its rule. The first few chapters describe in some detail the brutality, violence, whole scale looting and widespread rapine that marked the Red Army’s route across Eastern and Central Europe, regardless of whether they were in enemy or friendly countries, with soldiers or civilians, men or women, adults or children, friend or foe. And then came the NKVD and the organized violence and looting. How many people know, for instance, that several of the Nazi camps, Auschwitz and Buchenwald included, were reopened by the Soviets for their own purposes? Not a few of the people they imprisoned there had been liberated only a few weeks previously.

As I was reading this horrible tale I got a text message from somebody who saw on the news that Professor Eric Hobsbawm, the best known apologist for Stalin and denier of Communist crimes, has died. We are entering a period of unrestrained mourning for this man who has on various occasions been described as the greatest living historian and one of the most influential ones. Sadly, the last part of it is true. He has been influential.

While Holocaust deniers are rightly excoriated Professor Hobsbawm has been treated in life and will be in death with the greatest adulation. Channel 4 lists some of the misguided souls who are pronouncing sorrowfully on the demise of this supposedly great man and asks rather disingenuously whether he was an apologist for tyranny.

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, he was….

Read the rest here.

 

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Announcement: “Legacies of the Manhattan Project” May 12-13

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

From blogfriend Cheryl Rofer as well as Molly Cernicek and Susan Voss at Nuclear Diner, – an event for those interested in nuclear weapons, science, Cold War diplomatic history, national security, strategic theory and American strategists:

Nuclear Diner Teams With Santa Fe Institute To Bring You Legacies of the Manhattan Project 

Next weekend, May 12-13, at the Santa Fe Institute, a hand-picked group of physicists, historians, social scientists, systems theorists, and writers will examine the long-term legacies of the Manhattan Project in a timely discussion of an important event in world history that still influences science and society today. Harold Agnew, who was part of the historic effort to develop the first atomic bomb, will participate in the discussion.

SFI is collaborating with the Nuclear Diner to bring the discussion to you live on Twitter. You can participate before, during, and after by searching for the hashtag #bomblegacy or following @nucleardiner. Before the event, you can also leave questions at Nuclear Diner and the Facebook event page. If you “like” the Facebook page, you will get updates throughout the week and continuing information after the workshop.

The group will discuss new information, review original records, and mine the memories of project participants to present a case study in conflict from an important period in scientific history.

More about the Santa Fe Institute working group, including biographies of the participants and discussion topics, here.

Many of SFI’s founders were senior fellows at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As the Institute has emerged as a leader in complexity science, particularly in working toward a theory of conflict in human and animal societies, the Manhattan Project has become an important case study for understanding conflict. The project’s history also illustrates the occasional tension between pure theoretical research and applied science.

Photo: Harold Agnew holding the core of the Nagasaki bomb.

An excellent opportunity for students, grad students, historians and practitioners in various fields to participate here via twitter.

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