Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Summer 2005

Volume 31 Issue 4
    • 755Thomas Streeter
    • In the case of the 1990s internet enthusiasms, it could be said that computers did not so much shape culture as the other way around. Computer networks did not create the rhetorical constructions of originary genius, of spontaneous creation‐from‐nowhere that functioned to promote both individuals like Andreessen and the internet itself as Promethean sources of wealth and knowledge, outside of history and social determination. The images made available by Mosaic and Netscape clearly were inspirational to many, not so much because they departed from conventional forms of representation, but to a large degree because they created a sense of anticipatory projection. The role of the web browser at first was more like that of a Rorschach‐like object with which to explore fantasy. And for that fantasy to take wing, conventional, written romantic tropes were required, like the studied use of informal everyday language to construct authenticity, the dissemination of narratives that constructed the internet as a place for thrilling exploration, and the crafting of rebel‐artist personas like Barlow and Andreessen. These tropes were often as not disseminated in conventional print, like Wired and Neuromancer. And that which was disseminated online was still largely made of traditional letters and words; what was important about the technology at first may not have been that it was digital but that it was narrowly accessible to the particular communities of those who did a lot of their own word processing. It was this historical accident of a shared sense of secret access, of being in the know by virtue of being fluent with a computer modem, that allowed the early online users to experience in the internet a sense of something radically new, of a break with the past. And that experience, in turn, helped distract from the sober economic and global realities that American culture spent the 1990s so energetically avoiding.

      See also: Wendy Hui Kyong  Chun, The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory  ·  Alan Liu, Transcendental Data: Toward a Cultural History and Aesthetics of the New Encoded Discourse

      Thomas Streeter is the author of Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States (1996). He is currently working on a book on the cultural politics of internet structure, called The Net Effect.

    • 780Alexander Nemerov
    • Pieter Bruegel made Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in 1938—or so W. H. Auden helps us see. Auden wrote his famous poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” that year, with its last stanza devoted to Bruegel’s picture, and under the poem’s pressure The Fall of Icarus becomes a commentary about events in the months leading up to inevitable world conflict. More precisely, the poem transforms Bruegel’s painting into a surrealist diagram concerning the place of the intellectual in violent times. What do artists and poets and critics do in the face of catastrophe? How do they register it in their work, or should they even try to do so? Auden makes Bruegel’s painting address these questions with a special urgency, indeed with enough power that this picture painted around 1560 becomes a template for understanding literature and visual art at the end of the 1930s and into the 1940s. In particular the motivations and underlying energies of American abstract painting of that era—that of Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, for example—become unexpectedly clearer in light of The Fall of Icarus. What did it mean for the artist to turn away from the world? Bruegel suggests some answers.

      See also: Charles Harrison, On the Surface of Painting

      Alexander Nemerov is professor of the history of art at Yale University. His most recent book is Icons of Grief: Val Lewton’s Home Front Pictures (2005).

    • 811Sianne Ngai
    • From here it is only a short step to see how the formal properties associated with cuteness — smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy — call forth specific affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency. There is thus a sense in which the minor taste concept of cuteness might be said to get at the process by which all taste concepts are formed and thus at the aesthetic relation all of them capture. For in addition to being a minor aesthetic concept that is fundamentally about minorness (in a way that, for instance, the concept of the glamorous is not), it is crucial to cuteness that its diminutive object has some sort of imposed‐upon aspect or mien—that is, that it bears the look of an object not only formed but all too easily de‐formed under the pressure of the subject’s feeling or attitude towards it. Though a glamorous object must not have this mien at all (in fact, the meta‐aspect of looking as if its aspect were subjectively imposed would immediately break the Schein of glamour), the subject’s awareness, as she gazes at her little object, that she may be willfully imposing its cuteness upon it, is more likely to augment rather than detract from the aesthetic illusion, calling attention to an unusual degree of synonymy between objectification and cutification.

      See also: Sianne Ngai, Merely Interesting

      Sianne Ngai is assistant professor of English at Stanford University and the author of Ugly Feelings (2005). Her current work examines American poetry from 1945 to the present through the lens of minor aesthetic concepts.

    • 848Andrew Lakoff
    • In 1903 the young criminal psychiatrist José Ingenieros published La simulación de la locura (The Simulation of Madness), a work of criminal psychiatry based on the author’s observations of inmates in a Buenos Aires penitentiary. The book was a catalogue of the variety of forms simulated madness could take, as well as a treatise of neo‐Lamarckian sociology. Its basic premise was a simple one: that sane people sometimes simulated madness as part of the evolutionary “struggle for life.” The task of criminological expertise was to distinguish such simulators from the truly mad. The book was an immediate sensation, winning the National Academy of Medicine prize and going through eight editions by 1918 as well as getting translated into several languages, including Italian and Russian. Soon after its publication, Ingenieros was appointed director of the Observation Room of the Buenos Aires police prefect, where he remained until 1913.

      See also: Ruth Leys, Traumatic Cures: Shell Shock, Janet, and the Question of Memory

      Andrew Lakoff is assistant professor of sociology and science studies at the University of California, San Diego. His forthcoming book is entitled Pharmaceutical Reason: Technology and the Human at the Modern Periphery.

    • 874Jennifer Bajorek
    • What must be preserved, if we follow Hölderlin’s text to the letter, is not a treasure that has been saved up, nor a reserve that will someday be disclosed (and in so being overcome), but a kind of rootedness in exposure—less a Schatz than a Landschaft, riven by its own lack with respect to all that could be securely grounded. If there is a “treasure” here, it is one of erosion and of dissipation, shored up by nothing.

      What must be preserved is this structure (really it is an event or operation) yoking nearness and distance, that which threatens and that which beckons, ensuring that the identity of any group, be it a nation, a people, or some other collectivity, will only ever be “secured” in the most (anti)radical “proximity” to alterity.

      What must be preserved is this event or operation, for which the names are indeed lacking, and the “homeland” is one of them. This is why, if the poet brings anything back from his migration, a remembrance or a souvenir, it is not the lacking names, nor even any knowledge (not even knowledge of this lack), but only this experience of kinship. It is also an experience of difference, in which nothing (no difference) is held back.

      See also: Geoffrey Galt Harpham, Symbolic Terror

      Jennifer Bajorek is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.

    • 903Hannah Landecker
    • What Kracauer’s analogy between scientific and cinematic procedures points to is that his and others’ analogies and metaphors are not based on comparisons of film and scientific objects, that is, artistic film and molecule, but are comparisons within the same medium—of artistic film and scientific film. The original energy of this comparison comes not from putting film on one side of the metaphor and the abstract concept of cells or particles on the other but from looking at actual moving images of cells, at the living cell made visible by film. Kracauer, Epstein, and other theorists were looking at the physiological reality of another dimension made accessible by biological films.

      See also: Sophia Roosth, Screaming Yeast: Sonocytology, Cytoplasmic Milieus, and Cellular Subjectivities  ·  Stefan Helmreich, What Was Life? Answers from Three Limit Biologies

      Hannah Landecker is assistant professor of anthropology at Rice University. She is currently completing a manuscript about the manipulation of life in vitro entitled Technologies of Living Substance: Cells and Biotechnology in the Twentieth Century.

    • 938James Ekins
    • Fried mentions the subject I have in mind when he says digital photographs undermine the conditions of the punctum by making it possible that “a partial object in the photograph that might otherwise prick or wound me may never have been part of a total object, which itself may be a digital construction” (p. 563). In the sentence just preceding that, Fried notes that digitalization “threatens to dissolve the ‘adherence’ of the referent to the photograph,” thus eroding the fundamental claim that “the photographer could not not photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object.” There are two claims here: first, that digitalization makes it possible (or easier, since darkroom manipulations can generate the same result) to detach the referent from the photograph; second, that this detachment can also work within the object, detaching the part object from the full object. I am not convinced that the punctum, or the image’s antitheatricality, are necessarily threatened by either possibility.

      James Elkins teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University College Cork, Ireland. His recent books include What Happened to Art Criticism? and The Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art.