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On the history of the selfie

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — on self representation, avatars, and what we may be missing ]
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Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen, aka The Conversion of the Magdalen

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Where to begin?

The Washington Post doesn’t like selfies much, according to Galen Guengerich in the Religion, yes, the Religion section — in a post titled ‘Selfie’ culture promotes a degraded worldview he writes:

The 2013 word of the year, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, was “selfie,” which Oxford defines as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” The first use of the term, according to Oxford, occurred when a young Australian got drunk at a friend’s 21st birthday party and fell down the stairs. He hit lip-first and his front teeth punched a hole in his bottom lip. His response was to take a photo of himself and post it online for his friends to see. “Sorry about the focus,” he wrote, “It was a selfie.”

Okayyyyy…

As usual, the Kierkegaard / Kardashian combo that tweets as @KimKierkegaard manages to straddle the worlds material (in the Madonna sense) and spiritual (in the sense of the Madonna):

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I wanted to dig deeper — the WashPost Religion section, Kierkegaard, how could I not? I often want to dig deeper, and today I was driven to do so because today — not or the first time — I ran across a terrorism analyst and blogger named Cristina Caravaggio Giancchini, who uses a detail from her namesake Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio‘s Martha and Mary Magdalen (above) as her avatar…

Avatars are a kind of selfie, aren’t they?

In any case, I found myself looking for the particular Caravaggio that contains that detail, discovering it was the Martha and Mary Magdalen, which you see that the top of this post — then kept on digging via Google to learn a little more.

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Here’s what I found in a blog post titled Fingers and Mirrors: Caravaggio and the Conversion of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance Rome:

The inclusion of the mirror asks viewers to enter into a dynamic conversation about their own delight in the rich textures of the picture; alongside a powder puff and comb, it points us to Mary’s vanity, and her concern with the things of this world. Rather than showing Mary to herself, however, the mirror captures a diamond of light — a visual representation of the divine grace that inspires Mary to look beyond her earthly passions. The flower that Mary clutches to her chest is an orange blossom: symbol of purity.

As Debora Shuger realises, in a stimulating essay on early modern mirrors, for Renaissance viewers ‘the object viewed in the mirror is almost never the self’ (22). Such mirrors are, Shuger suggests, if not totally Platonic (reflected an absolute ideal), at least ‘platonically angled, titled upwards in order to reflect paradigms rather than the perceiving eye’ (26). Renaissance mirrors, she concludes, ask us to think differently about the mental worlds and self-awareness of people living in this period: ‘they reflect a selfhood that … is beheld, and beholds itself, in relation to God’ (38).

Pilgrims who travelled to Aachen in the fifteenth-century appear to have purchased small convex mirrors as souvenirs: as relics were carried through the thronging crowds, travellers held up the mirrors to catch a glimpse of them, and then preserved the mirrors as objects which, according to Rayna Kalas, ‘betokened that moment when the pilgrim had a vision of and was visible before the sacred relic. … Every subsequent glance at this mirror memento might serve to remind the believer of that glimpse of sacred divinity’. In Caravaggio’s painting, though, Mary looks away from the mirror which might capture her reflection (the ‘dark glass’ of Corinthians?), and towards her shadowed but persuasive sister.

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We began this post with the idea that our 21st century ‘Selfie’ culture “promotes a degraded worldview” — and here by way of contrast, in the use of hand-held mirrors in 15th century Aachen, we see what we are missing…

… a glimpse of the sacred, in which the sacred glimpses us in transcendent return.

In good, really good company

Friday, January 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameronmildly NSFW if your office can’t handle Leonardo, which IMNSHO we should be able to manage now in this 21st century CE — and besides, it’s the weekend ]
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Well, we here at Zenpundit have a particular interest in creative thinking, and this last evening I unexpectedly found myself in excellent creative company…

…in a months-old blog-post by an old friend, an astrophysicist by profession who goes by the name Cygnus on the web — presumably after the constellation that harbors Deneb, and also Kepler-22b, the “first known transiting planet to orbit within the habitable zone of a Sun-like star” (WikiP, since I know no better). Cygnus means “swan” in Greek, and Zeus became a swan for his own imperious purposes when he saw LedaHelen of Troy being one of their offspring (see eggs in Da Vinci‘s image below), with the Trojan War ensuing.


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Here’s then, is the A-Z of creative folk, as Cygnus pulled it together last April as part of an “A-Z- Challenge” — I’m honored and awed to be named in the company of such as Andre Breton, Donald Knuth, George Carlin, Octavia Butler, Samuel R Delany, Dame Frances Yates and the rest:

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For April 2013, my theme for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge was “An A to Z of Masters of the Imagination that You Oughtta Know About.”  In other words, on each day I profiled a person whose brains were just overflowing with weirdness and creativity.  Here’s a list of the posts:

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So that’s Cygnus’ list — quite a dinner party! You’ll recognise some members of your own constellation of creatives here, perhaps — feast on some of those you’re not yet familar with! Cygnus blogs about games and such at Servitor Ludi.

As for me, I’ll simply offer you William Bulter Yeats‘ great poem Leda and the Swan, to celebrate the company I just found myself in, and close out a memorable evening:

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                 Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Most intriguing game-theoretic comment of the year thus far

Friday, September 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — at the intersection of zero-sum and non-zero sum games ]
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And the hands-down winner is — opening today’s Washington Post to the op-ed page — President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, who says:

The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.

I think he’s right, though I’ll leave the question of whether he means it TBD — but if he does, that’s a.. that’s a.. that’s a Major Game Changer — and verra interesting in any case:

  • What’s the non-zero-sum strategy when there may be one or more zero-sum players in the game?
  • **

    For your further edification, here’s what a genuine game-changer, in both literal and metaphoric sense of the phrase, looks like:
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    The court is a tennis court, the game in play is revolutionary politics, the event is the Tennis Court Oath, where the members of the National Assembly gathered to swear “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established” — the drawing is by Jacques-Louis David.

    Apocalyptic Fire in Azan #2

    Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — on end-times rhetoric and having no need of sun or moon ]
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    Detail from a Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liebana

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    On the whole, the “signs of the end times” described in the installment of Maulana Asim Umar‘s Third World War and Dajjal, pp. 23-31, and now posted in the second issue of Azan on pp 83-89 are standard fare of the “wars and rumors of wars” type that could fit pretty much any time n history, including our own — “When the most despicable person of a nation would be its leader” would fit an astounding number of rulers across recorded history, depending on your point of view, including Nero and Diocletian, George III and Abe Lincoln, and a slew of Saddams, Mubaraks and Assads

    There was one section, however, that struck me as a powerful piece of visionary apocalyptic, and I wanted to bring it to the attention of those interested in such things.

    The Maulana writes [I’ve omitted the Arabic honorifics since I lack Arabic, and corrected one typo in Enlish]:

    “Hazrat Abu Hurayrah narrates that the Prophet of Allah said that the Day of Judgment would not occur before a fire erupts from Hijaz and lights up the necks of the camels of Basra.” [Bukhari, Muslim]

    The incident mentioned in this Hadith has already occurred according to Hafiz Ibn Kathir (RA) and other historians. This fire appeared in 650 H on the Day of Jumu’ah in some valleys of Madinah Munawwarah and remained for about a month. The narrators have said that the fire suddenly erupted from the direction of Hijaz. The scene looked like a whole city of fire – containing a whole castle, tower or battlement etc. Its height was 4 “farsakh” (around 12 miles) and its width was 4 miles. The fire would melt any mountain it reached as if the mountain was made out of wax or glass. Its flames had the sound of thunder and the energy of river waves. Blue and red-colored rivers looked to be coming out of the fire. In such a (horrible) state, the fire reached Madinah Munawwarah. But the curious thing was that the wind that was emanating from the direction of the flames felt cool in Madinah. The scholars have written that the fire had encompassed all the jungles of Madinah such that in the Haram-e-Nabwi and in Madinah, all the houses were lit up as if from the sun. The people would do all their work in the night from the light (of the fire); in fact, the light of the sun and the moon would became faded because of the light of the fire.

    Some people of Makkah (at the time of the fire) bore witness that they saw the fire while they were in Yamama and Basra.

    A strange quality of the fire was that it used to burn the stones to coal but it would not have any effect on the trees. It is said that there was a large stone in a jungle – half of it was in the limits of Haram-e-Madina and half of it was outside the limits. The fire burnt to coal the half of the stone that was outside the limits of the Haram-e-Madina. However, it cooled when it reached to the other half and hence, this half remained safe.

    The people of Basrah bore witness that they saw the necks of camels light up from the light of the fire…

    [The Beginning and the End: Ibn Kathir (RA)]

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    You know my interest in semblances and parallelisms. Compare:

    in fact, the light of the sun and the moon would became faded because of the light of the fire

    in that narrative with:

    the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God did lighten it

    in Revelation 21:23.

    I am not arguing that there is an echo between the two accounts, nor that they describe the same phenomenon — simply that the rhetoric of each has a similar poetic intensity. This just happens to be one of those occasions when there are more things in heaven than are dreamed of in your natural sciences.

    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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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