Sunday, December 21, 2008
The far less famous image of God, seen directly below the act of creation, details God's departure. I couldn't for the life of me find it individually via Google, this is as close as I could get:
The image in question is on the far left. For some reason, God's robe is quite immodest and covers none of his gigantic baboon-like ass. Talk about your inversions of the sacred! Seeing as how Michelangelo was forced to paint this thing against his will, I like to think of His Butt-Cheeks as a kind of middle finger to the Pope, sort of a "Hey look! I'm painting the Father of Creation with a big, fat, pasty ass and there's nothing you can do about it!"
Another thing I wonder about Michelangelo is, did this man ever see a naked woman in his life? I do not ask this in jest, check out this heavily color-corrected-in-Photoshop Last Judgement:
Now, we know from Michelangelo's biography that he was gayer than Mardi Gras. But for an artist who strove to bring into being the ideal human form, he seems to have forgotten that half of all human forms are a good deal curvier than the other half. Check out the women in that painting. In this low-res version, can you even tell which ones are female? Did Michelangelo have any idea of what a woman looked like? Did he care?
Friday, December 19, 2008
TAMPA, Fla. – It really must have been a special item. According to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, two men entered a man's home early Sunday and demanded his eggbeater. One suspect was holding a pistol while the other brandished a knife to the resident's neck.
Police caught the men outside the home and they are being held in Orient Road Jail. One suspect also faces a charge of aggravated assault.
Police found the eggbeater in the man's left pocket.
The first line sums it up. To us, this story just sounds odd, stupid even. But nobody breaks into a house just to be odd.
Somehow this eggbeater had powerful symbolic value to one or both of the robbers. The hardboiled detectives on the case have yet to figure out why, but it stood out to the criminals as an object of very special significance. It was sacred--worth risking their freedom over, even though it means nothing to the world at large. Perhaps the judge will go over easy if one of the robbers proves a Benedict Arnold.
They have seen a hierophany, the revelation of the sacred. We have not. The sacred is relative. What to us is scrambled to them is crystal clear.
No word from the victim on whether he's steamed that they almost poached something from him. I hope he looks at the sunny side of the situation: at least he got it back!
This story is so much better than it would be if the eggbeater had been made out of gold, or if it had belonged to Khrushchev. That sort of symbolism would be far too obvious.
No word on a possible sentence, but I don't think they'll fry.
Why do you think the eggbeater was special? Whip up your best story below!
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
NASA, the government's great symbolic vestige of the cold war,is once again under scrutiny. Thanks to the shuttle program's impending conclusion and the psychological consequences of the financial crisis, the future of manned space flight is increasingly uncertain. Mix in the fact that the Obama administration is looking to check books across the federal budget while NASA's leadership is working overtime to ensure hefty cuts and it is hard to have any faith in what was once the premiere example of the American can-do attitude and the power of collective action.
The symbolic weight of NASA has been waning for generations; what was once an agency that inspired pride and held the fascination of an entire nation is today the stand-in for wasteful government spending. Libertarians and progressives alike are quick to pounce on NASA as a emonstration of federal largesse, but when you break down the budget numbers, it seems that NASA garners an undue amount of attention:
Perhaps instead of representing the dream of exploration, NASA has come into its own as the federal agency that is the easiest to understand. Try to level a critique at the treasury department and you soon find that even they aren't sure about the limits of their power or where all the TARP money goes. Point to NASA and you see a gigantic, money-burning rocket.
Despite the grandeur of space, even the most exuberant Trekkie can see how flat the dream of exploring space can seem in the modern day:
The plan, based on President Bush's 2004 "Vision for Space Exploration" and authorized by Congress, has been vigorously promoted by Griffin. The key elements include the completion of the international space station, the retirement of the shuttle, and the construction of a spaceflight system featuring two new rockets and a new crew vehicle that would be capable of journeys to the space station, the moon and beyond. -WaPoThe "Vision" read more like defeat with vague promises of future exploration as the only silver lining. Hot on the heels of the Iraq war, few saw Bush's proposal as anything more than a rhetorical swing for the fences. Commonly enough, Obama eloquently defined the underlying sentiment throughout the United States:
“NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration,” he said. “I don’t think our kids are watching the space shuttle launches. It used to be a remarkable thing. It doesn’t even pass for news anymore.”All this from a man who ran his campaign on the words "Hope, "Change," and "Yes We Can." As the new president, his solution seems to be delaying the Constellation program (an uninspiring shuttle replacement aimed at taking us into earth orbit on the cheap) -undoubtedly a savvy financial move in the short-run, but where is the inspiration candidate on turning the program around?
All this bad news has neatly coincided with the final demise of the plucky but still inspiring Phoenix Lander (40k+ twitter followers), a firm demonstration of NASA's ability to run a successful research mission and PR campaign at the same time.
If there truly is a new mission to focus on public works, create hi-tech jobs and reinstill trust in the power of the federal government, what could be an easier demonstration than building up NASA? People love space, people love competition and nothing could be more exciting than crushing Chinese plans to go to the moon with an infinitely more ostenatious launch to Mars. Few things scream power like a bigger rocket.
At least consider doing it as a Mad Men tie-in!:
Listen to those drums beating for progress!:
Sunday, December 14, 2008
The wild banana belongs on Axis Monday for a very simple reason: it is wondrous!
Rather, the wild banana tastes and looks really gross. But it is wondrous that man has wrought the spirit of nature into a form so much more suitable for him. Without icky seeds.
If that was confusing, fear not, it is all handily explained in the following cartoon:
Saturday, December 13, 2008
It is unusual in two respects. First of all, its simplicity; few flags except the maddeningly confusing and uninteresting tricolors are so unadorned. Second, it is square. Only two sovereign nations have square flags; the other is the Holy See.
You would think that the square, as a more perfect geometrical shape than the rectangle, would be predominant. Nations naturally wish to portray themselves as enduring (sometimes as immutable). The rectangle is not the shape that best portrays that. Note the perfect symmetry of the Swiss flag; rectangular flags lack such perfection.
I have found only one plausible answer to why nations do not use square flags, and even that is just a guess: square flags do not blow as well in the wind. Is this important for purely aesthetic reasons--the majesty of a waving flag--or for symbolic ones as well?
A barren flagpole in itself means nothing; however, a flagpole with a flag waving at the top of it becomes a localized Axis Mundi. Thus, a nation's waving flag asserts its control over the heavens. It lays official claim to the realm of the symbolic (and no nation shall long endure without vesting itself in symbolism, which builds loyalty).
I won't go into the symbolism of the Swiss flag (it should be obvious), but consider that the earliest known precursor to the current flag featured Jesus himself suffering on the cross. It is also worthy of note that although the dimensions of the current cross relative to itself are established by statute, the exact red hue is not so prescribed, so different flags vary.
It is extremely curious that the Swiss allow any variance in this matter. Flags are probably the single most visible symbol of a nation, both at home and abroad, and their symbolism or historical significance usually is very strong. The Swiss flag embodies not only its Christian roots but its origins as a federation of cantons; the flag is the nation's history. But you can fool around with the color a bit. A strange levity to grant; I will discuss it in more detail with regard to the American flag in a future post.
One group fooled around with the color a bit more than usual. The globally known and aptly named Red Cross:
This seems somewhat controversial. Wouldn't the inversion of a flag's colors imply the inversion of the symbols that flag stands for? And Switzerland stands for peace. Of course, the Red Cross does not concern itself with peace but with war (or rather of helping people who suffer because of it). Likewise, Switzerland is a nation of peace with one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world. Perhaps then the Red Cross (based in Switzerland) is onto something: the nation sponsors peace with militarization; the organization inverts it by accepting the reality of war and bringing peace into it.
Of course, even though the Red Cross denies that it has Christian roots, it still bears a cross on its flag, adopted from a country which itself bears a cross which in its earliest forms featured a dying Christ emblazoned. Symbolism, even buried and denied, never perishes. If it did, we would not have a Red Crescent (which could be argued to basically invert the flag of the Ottomans). Why not make a Red Star of David as a similar near-inversion of the flag of Israel (which does officially recognize the symbol)?
The Red Cross states that doing so would dilute the internationalism of their symbols, and that is certainly true. Perhaps the protests by certain nations, including Syria, against the Red Star had something to do with it. Why did they protest? Because nations know that symbols have power, and a symbol's meanings, whatever an organization may claim, never lose their original meaning. The Red Cross and the Red Crescent are both implicitly religious symbols and always will be. For that reason alone, the logical third member of the trio cannot join them, despite the very practical and beneficial nature of the organization in question. The sacred trumps the profane as nations fight wars solely over symbolism.
Never think those wars are not important.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
It is hard to imagine a group of people more inclined to pick up the latest hip, typographically-nuanced and limited-release polemic against the bourgeoisie. Certainly the rest of us aren't getting the daily press releases.
On the other hand, it's not hard to imagine the perverse thrills they must get from slipping self-aware gems like these into national ad campaigns:
Oh, my baby don't be so distressed
We're done with politesse
It's time to be so brutally honest about
The way we know we long for something fine
When we pine for higher ceilings
And bourgeois happy feelings
And here we are in the center of the first world
It's laid out before us, who are we to break down?
[Chorus]Everyday we wake up, we choose love, we choose light
And we try, it's too easy just to fall apart
While the instrumental has been playing across the country for months, the ad producers clearly felt as if the the irony was lost on the general population (but in our defense, we didn't know we liked this song until they showed us). In this commercial, they decided to rub their cleverness in our faces.
The song goes on to list the casual liberal's litany of vices: "Plastic bottles, imported water/ Cars we drive wherever we want to/ Clothes we buy, it's sweatshop labor/ Drugs from corporate enablers." Apple, who rebranded themselves as a consumer products company, should be more cautious about garnering too much inquiry into their eco-bourgeois credentials: despite pledges to 'green' their product line-up, Apple still regularly lags in the environmental rankings:
But still, breaking down the Apple commercial is just tongue-in-cheek fun. For some other companies, it is harder to see what is done out of sincerity and what is done out of jest:
But maybe buying cellphones is the greatest humanitarian act of all:
It may sound like corporate jingoism, but this sort of economic promise has also caught the eye of development specialists and business scholars around the world. Robert Jensen, an economics professor at Harvard University, tracked fishermen off the coast of Kerala in southern India, finding that when they invested in cellphones and started using them to call around to prospective buyers before they’d even got their catch to shore, their profits went up by an average of 8 percent while consumer prices in the local marketplace went down by 4 percent. A 2005 London Business School study extrapolated the effect even further, concluding that for every additional 10 mobile phones per 100 people, a country’s G.D.P. rises 0.5 percent.
Text messaging, or S.M.S. (short message service), turns out to be a particularly cost-effective way to connect with otherwise unreachable people privately and across great distances. Public health workers in South Africa now send text messages to tuberculosis patients with reminders to take their medication. In Kenya, people can use S.M.S. to ask anonymous questions about culturally taboo subjects like AIDS, breast cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, receiving prompt answers from health experts for no charge.
But in practice Netherland colonizes all space by way of voracious image. This results in many beauties ("a static turnstile like a monster's unearthed skeleton") and some oddities (a cricket ball arrives "like a gigantic meteoritic cranberry"), though in both cases, there is an anxiety of excess. Everything must be made literary. Nothing escapes. On TV "dark Baghdad glitter[s] with American bombs." Even the mini traumas of a middle-class life are given the high lyrical treatment, in what feels, at its best, like a grim satire on the profound fatuity of twenty-first-century bourgeois existence. The surprise discovery of his wife's lactose intolerance becomes "an unknown hinterland to our marriage"; a slightly unpleasant experience of American bureaucracy at the DMV brings Hans (metaphorically) close to the war on terror:And so I was in a state of fuming helplessness when I stepped out into the inverted obscurity of the afternoon.... I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to the pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.
To which one wants to say, isn't it hard to see the dark when it's so lyrically presented? And also: grapefruits?
-Zadie Smith, NYRB
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
America, the nation that has been the world's leading superpower for most of living memory, the nation that has not had ground warfare on its territory since the 19th century, and, the nation that compared to Europe, suffered very little during the World Wars of the 20th century, continues to fantasize about its own destruction like no other on Earth. Countless films like Independence Day, Transformers, War of the Worlds, etc. revel in orgies of destruction at the hands of singly evil-minded invaders.
These fantasies aren't recent. They see their origins in a subgenre of fiction, "future war", that developed in the late 19th century. These frequently racist stories taking took place usually 20 or so years into in the future, featured hordes of foreigners seeking to conquer the United States and Europe only to be driven back by white superiority and heroism. These stories frequently featured extensive descriptions of the catastrophic destruction of major landmarks of the time, most commonly the Brooklyn Bridge. (This is covered far more extensively in Howard Bruce Franklin's War Stars if you're interested.) Though thankfully stripped of their racist elements, modern-day incarnations of these nationalist apocalypse narratives retain a common essence: invading force cripples the world (ie the US) but is defeated in the end by the pluck, grit, and determination of a few valiant Americans.
The most famous of these future-war stories, War of the Worlds, is the one that most thoroughly subverts the genre. But wait, you say, I saw that movie, isn't it about Tom Cruise learning how to be a good father? Yes, the movie is about that, but the original story isn't. The original story has never been faithfully adapted. It is a bleak tale of humanity's humiliation and subjugation at the hands of merciless, faceless invaders that ends with humanity winning by a fluke. The rah-rah heroism of Spielberg's adaptation is one of the many flaws of that film. But even the role-reversal imperialism of War of the Worlds fails to address the ultimate problem with these stories, with far more problematic implications than nationalism.
When the enemies are aliens or otherworldly creatures, it is easy to overlook the fact that these stories tend to end with genocide. It is a relief to see that our future enemies in today's incarnations of these stories are no longer Chinese, Africans, and other ethnic minorities. The 19th-century future war are a terrifying display of the ubiquity of the racism of the era. In the same way the aliens/invaders are subjugated or even out-and-out exterminated (WotW, ID4) in the modern versions of these stories, the original versions frequently advocate actual genocide against non-white ethnicities. The most famous of these would have to be "The Unparalleled Invasion" by Jack London (yes, the Jack London) where, in the climax of the story, the entire Asian race is exterminated via bacteriological warfare. This depicted as a good thing.
To my knowledge, only one story, Ender's Game for all its flaws, addresses the inherent genocide of these stories, but not explicitly. In Ender's Game the genocide is the ultimate expression of the novel's underlying philosophy, that morality is dependent entirely upon intention (more on that argument here).
We conceive of ourselves as good and inviolably sacred. We must eradicate evil, or those that would threaten us. Even someone as revered as Saint Obama holds this opinion: during the presidential debates he said, verbatim, "We will crush Al-Qaeda and kill bin Laden." Crush and kill. Opposing ways of life cannot coexist. This is why the natives of the continent were so brutally driven from their land. Their way of life could not be made compatible with ours. We were the ones with the numbers and the guns, so we prevailed.
This is why September 11 shook us so badly, the catastrophic destruction of a national landmark exactly in the manner of our fantasies. "It's like something out of a movie," any number of bystanders were heard to have said that day. This is why a single terrorist attack could yield so much political leverage.
The stories of future wars are the secret fear we have that someday we won't have the numbers and guns. That someday the might of another nation or people (even if they are alien) will prove our way of life will be the wrong one, and that we may no longer continue existing. We always win in the end in these stories, and that is why we love them. They validate us.
Monday, December 8, 2008
The most obvious symbols, in a very literal sense, are the letters of the alphabet. They are arbitrary drawings which our culture has imbued with meaning. This is no revelation to you, nor should it be. Naturally, we are so used to these symbols that they hold no great wonder for us anymore. See? Check it out:
Every one of you knows that these two letters, written in this way, mean "prescription." I dare say most of you would make the same association (with less certainty) if I merely wrote
Or more so for
But I also bet that none of you could tell me why 'RX' means 'prescription.' Of course, this has no effect on your actual understanding of the symbol.
[For those interested: nobody seems to know exactly where RX acquired this connotation. In the absence of truth, I shall accept the most whimsical theory: that the symbol somehow looks like the Eye of Horus.
I enjoy such a spirit of imagination. Other theories involve Latin mumbo-jumbo and are much less interesting. All are dubious.]
Although the origins of the symbol are lost, it retains its meaning.
That covers the profane.
Onto the sacred.
Reverse the letters again. Superimpose them upon each other. And two mere letters, images which bring particular phonemes to mind, transmute into the most powerful image of Orthodox Christianity.
In hoc signo vinces. En touto nika. In this sign you shall conquer.
Constantine the Great reputedly saw this sign in a dream before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. And, so the story goes, he adopted that very sign as his personal standard. And won the battle against Maxentius, and became Emperor, and ended Roman oppression of Christianity. Years later, on his deathbed, he converted.
Thus, the first two letters of Christ's name became the de facto battle standard of the late Roman and Byzantine Empire, and a powerful religious symbol as well. The symbol has two names: the labarum (etymology unclear), and more simply the Chi-Rho (the two letters; basically, the XR).
We could talk about semantics and semiotics and how symbols acquire meaning, and perhaps we shall in the comments, but my point is simpler.
Some of the symbols we often see are abstract, e.g. the American flag or the crescent moon and star(s) emblazoned on many Islamic flags. Others are more literal: the other great Christian symbol, the cross. A stylized picture of a man, indicating a men's restroom. The elements that compose these symbols are fairly obvious to those who know them.
But the fusion of two letters, symbols in themselves but related in an indirect or forgotten way to the new symbol, can merge to form a greater whole. From a convenient scribble to save ten letters, to a triumphant sigil embodying one of Christianity's greatest epiphanies.
But the internet has long been at the vanguard of this new culture: the earliest and most successful blogs like BoingBoing.net and Kottke.org have long dedicated themselves to curating the best new niches of heartfelt, bite-sized webtainment. To start another such blog in this day and age is becoming cliché.
BoingBoing describes itself as "a directory of wonderful things," while Kottke coopts the nostalgic language of cottage capitalism at his "home of fine hypertext products." It is no longer surprising to see BoingBoing hoisting the banners and raising its army of emotion-heavy but content-light readers to fight the latest in technological injustice: the rally against DRM or the rally for closing the digital divide! While many of the causes seem weak in comparison with real social-ills, the emotional power invested in them is strong.
Meanwhile Kottke documents the incestuous constellation of wonder-lovers. He regularly regularly points to Gladwell, the TED conference, This American Life, McSweeney's, Wired (all that it entails) and back to BoingBoing; before long a reader is surrounded by twitter feeds, unrealized intellectual ambitions, the comedy of the quotidian or the latest quick technological fix that will change the world. An individual wearing thick glasses (just like ours!), toiling in obscurity to document every appearance of the axis mundi in Czech movie posters (1960-1985) on their flickr account is hailed as the great artiste of the Long Tail economy.
But where are we left with all this conviction? Political correctness (or "liberal dreams as rules, not feelings") led to the intellectual policing of a properly tolerant society. It failed in its mission to lead us toward Barney the Dinosaur's utopia of diverse harmony. Instead it became rotten and gave way to hardened, fearful realists and the snide commentary of South Park.
Irony quickly stepped in to help us maintain emotional distance from the farce of "correct liberal thought," but clutching to the comfort of sardonic wit like a well-worn comfort blanket has gone out of vogue.
The new task before us is twofold: we must go forward with our hearts on our sleeves; finding examples of virtue and beauty for show and tell. But we also have to address the limits of idealism without complete dismissal -believing in ideas while holding them to the fire and embracing the most embarrassing criticisms.
The need is to overcome the pride inherent in cynicism without succumbing to the coddling, fuzzy warmth of Panglossian feeling.
We ultimately need a new definition of wonder in this new mold; one that loves the profane as much as the sacred --the grime as much as the sheen. We will no longer have to catalogue the wonderful and the mundane because they will be the same.
The low hanging fruit is gone; the blunderers who have come before may have been misguided and unfocused, but they have already scoured the commons. We will have to aspire to greater heights because the wonderful and the mundane is ultimately profound --and it is here our predecessors have all stumbled.
So be warned, for:
A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true. -Demosthenes
Saturday, December 6, 2008
The following line sums up the mythologization of any president, and captures the spirit of what Obama has been doing:
Presidents must simultaneously deify and humanify themselves. JFK and Obama have succeeded on both counts, and this film takes that to its logical extreme.
I don't need to say anything else, except that if you haven't seen this video before, shame on you, and go watch the one about George Washington.
Out of all the things one could talk with President-Elect Obama, someone apparently brought up this: "All your base are belong to us." That's right, the funny English phrase from Zero Wing turned internet meme. In a one-of-us-one-of-us thread over at Scifi site Tor.com in which Obama's geekatude is being discussed, one commenter recounted a story from a friend who claims to have interned for the Obama presidential campaign:
The job involves getting him something to eat, maybe playing a little basketball with him, and basically chatting and getting whatever he needs between important things. During the conversation, apparently Zero Wing came up.
You know, the Sega Genesis video game. I don't know how.
And apparently, my friend made the off-hand comment of "All your base are belong to us".
And Obama leaned forward in his chair, quirked his eyebrow a bit, and responded "What you say?"
Presidents are not normal people. You do not meet them on the street; you do not have anything significant in common with them. They are utterly beyond the reach of normal men.
Even Obama, who presented himself as an everyman, and in many ways is one, is still the instrument of a vast political machine; he has his 'handlers,' though he may resent them; he is a Democrat, the chosen son of the vast and faceless apparatus of government. The transformation of a man from a long-shot candidate to the world's most powerful human being cannot leave him untouched; by being elected, he has left his mortal vestiges behind.
Like the Greek gods, presidents are beyond approach. They are very like humans, but of a higher order, with vastly greater power. Therefore, just like the Greeks did with their gods, we mythologize Obama. Every subculture seeks to make him their own (Except the Republicans).
The story from Kotaku shows exactly how this is done. The rumor establishes Obama firmly as part of the nerd culture--along with the better supported stories that he is a Trekkie. The veracity of the rumor does not matter. This is how subcultures identify with the unapproachable divine--they create a myth and thus make the divine a patron of their particular beliefs, and thus more accessible.
Apollo, god of reason, light, wisdom, music, the cave, wolves; Athena, wisdom, olives, war, the eponymous city. Each god's domains relate, but not closely. Study the evolution of the myths of these gods and you will see how greatly they vary over time and from place to place, as each era and culture makes a deity their own.
It is our natural instinct to make Obama the president of whatever group we most identify with, whether or not it's true.
Obama, patron god of change, the American Dream, African Americans, post-racialism, internationalism, basketball, grassrootsism, and geek chic.
We make him not the country's president, but our president.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Behold the Freedom Tower!
(Artist's conception, obviously)
9/11 destroyed a powerful symbol of America's dominance, even as the events that followed destroyed America's actual dominance.
The Freedom Tower, originally intended to be completed and dedicated on September 11, 2011 (Anniversaries hold power), has been delayed; its current height above ground is 13 feet. So it won't be done quite on time. Nor will it be the tallest building in the world. That honor goes to the still uncompleted Burj Dubai, a triumph of the same architectural firm.
[Look at that picture and tell me that it won't be the new Axis Mundi for the secular Arab world (the non-secular Arab world will keep the same Axis Mundi it has always had). Also, crazy Brits have BASE jumped off it (Man triumphing over nature? Over the sacred? Over rent-a-cops? You decide).]
To the point: The Freedom Tower does not seek the ephemeral title of world's tallest building. Only three structures held onto that title for more than a hundred years: Lincoln Cathedral, Strasbourg Cathedral, and the Great Pyramid (which held the title for a rounding error short of four thousand years).
Who knows how long the Freedom Tower will be the tallest building in NYC and America? But even after it is surpassed, it shall bear a more powerful symbolism than "I used to be the biggest kid on the block." It's The Freedom Tower. And it will be 1776 feet tall.
Funny how that works.
P.S. The Empire State Building was a profound sign that the Depression would not destroy America. Perhaps this Freedom Tower shall say the same thing in 2013.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
This poster has so many levels to it, I don't even know where to begin.
It is a prime example of the sacred revealing itself in the mundane. Not much more mundane than a movie poster.
What strikes you about the poster? Aliens—creatures from the sky, the incomprehensible sacred vault of the heavens, attack America!
Where do the aliens arrive?
At the Empire State Building, the highest single point in America's largest city, widely perceived as its greatest, its true capital, one of the world's capitals people worldwide consider the greatest city in America, or even the world. At the least, it is the tallest building in America's largest city—a record New York has held uninterrupted since it first claimed it in 1790.
But what about the Twin Towers? Those were taller than the Empire State Building! They don't count simply because they were twinned. Tall, yes--but as a symbol of man reaching toward the heavens, only a single spire has the full effect.
The Empire State Building is that spire. And it has been a symbol of New York City and America since it was built, a symbol of hope constructed during the Great Depression. When it was built, it was the tallest building in the world.
New York State and the Building share the same moniker—the Empire State (The State had it first).
The ESB was and is much more than a mere symbol of America's power. It is the most powerful of all symbols—the AXIS MUNDI!
The spire, tower, needle which connects mortal man to the Heavens above.
Thus, the ESB is a fully realized Tower of Babel. It is the very heart of New York City, and of America.
And when man tries to show that he is good enough to reach God, Heaven gets ticked off.
In this case, Aliens get ticked off (as they are wont to do).
That's why the poster features a massive beam of light connecting the axis mundi of America, its proudest monument, with the alien warship—foreign, incomprehensible, beyond anything we know. The blast of light symbolizes the portal that the axis mundi creates between the profane and the sacred. In this case as in all cases, the sacred is beyond our power to control or understand.
Of course, it is no coincidence that the film was released on and is named for Independence Day. July 4th is a sacred day in America—secular, but sacred. But this is obvious and played a prominent role in the film's marketing.
Anyway. That's why the aliens chose that particular building on that particular day to kick our ass!
Not much needs to be said about the next image, except that it is awesome, and most of the same principles apply, but note that the White House is not an Axis Mundi. It is, however, in the realm of differentiated space. But that's a topic for another day.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Since this blagadingalong will feature Ekphrasis in a variety of forms, let's begin with the single most famous example of it. If you don't know what Ekphrasis is, that's okay. That's not important just yet.
Look at the following image of the shield of Achilles.
It's pretty, isn't it? But this shield is an interpretation of another work, and a reference to it. I'm not so postmodern as to call this shield a text. Nevertheless, it shares a similarity with postmodern texts in that it exists not as a thing in itself but as a comment on another text.
That text, of course, is The Iliad.
More specifically, the text is:
[Hephaestus] wrought also two cities, fair to see and busy with the hum of men. In the one were weddings and wedding-feasts, and they were going about the city with brides whom they were escorting by torchlight from their chambers. Loud rose the cry of Hymen, and the youths danced to the music of flute and lyre, while the women stood each at her house door to see them. Meanwhile the people were gathered in assembly, for there was a quarrel, and two men were wrangling about the blood-money for a man who had been killed, the one saying before the people that he had paid damages in full, and the other that he had not been paid.
Each was trying to make his own case good, and the people took sides, each man backing the side that he had taken; but the heralds kept them back, and the elders sate on their seats of stone in a solemn circle, holding the staves which the heralds had put into their hands. Then they rose and each in his turn gave judgement, and there were two talents laid down, to be given to him whose judgement should be deemed the fairest.
About the other city there lay encamped two hosts in gleaming armour, and they were divided whether to sack it, or to spare it and accept the half of what it contained. But the men of the city would not yet consent, and armed themselves for a surprise; their wives and little children kept guard upon the walls, and with them were the men who were past fighting through age; but the others sallied forth with Mars and Pallas Minerva at their head- both of them wrought in gold and clad in golden raiment, great and fair with their armour as befitting gods, while they that followed were smaller. - Iliad, Book XVIIII grabbed this version straight from Wikipedia. You can see it in the original Greek, or in English, on Perseus Project. I was going to paste you the excerpt from there but it was much longer and I am dreadfully worried about being too verbose.
This famous passage takes place after (spoiler alert!) the death of Patroclus, who wore Achilles' armor. Thus, Achilles needed new armor, and Hephaestus made a new shield just for him even though it wasn't even Christmas! (Not for another 1100 years, no less!)
Notice how the text describes the shield in such vivid detail that you could duplicate it yourself. That's exactly what the shield above is. It is not a shield, but an ekphrasis. That is, it is a work of art that describes another work of art.
Technically, it is an ekphrasis of an ekphrasis! A work of art--this piece of ceremonial/decorative armor--describes another work of art in a different medium, that famous passage from The Iliad, which itself describes another work of art--the real Shield of Achilles! But I suppose that makes the shield an ekphrasis of an ekphrasis on a work of art that does not exist. How very twisty-turny! I love it!
Anyway, I'd like to provide you with another ekphrasis on the text describing the Shield of Achilles. That is, I will present a work of art--in this case a photo--that embodies in a different form another work of art--a poem.
Here's my interpretation of the Shield of Achilles:
Before you get all huffy about how clever I must think I am... don't! I am hardly the only one to interpret the Shield of Achilles in this fashion. Many 4th-century Athenians whose names you know subscribed to this same interpretation, so we're in good company!
That's all for now. We will revisit the potent image of the Shield of Achilles again in the near future but from a different angle. Let me know what you think about the Shield of Achilles, the most famous example of ekphrasis in literature... and a potent passage of wonder which describes the System of the World (foreshadowing...)!
Monday, November 17, 2008
That's right. This blagadingalong is about many things. But it is not about irony or in-jokes. Axis Monday will feature stories about Wonder. I hope that what that means shall become clear in time. What now is muddled--from your conception of these concepts, to these jumbled words on a screen--shall come into clearer focus with time and experience, both yours and mine.
To business. My purpose (if I may be so bold as to declare that I have one!) is to draw out the mundane from the wonderful, and occasionally vice-versa. The latter is triter and hence I shall avoid it as much as I can.
I intend for this blagadingalong to be quite illustrative. Thus it will include many illustrations.
A brief note about identity and the distinction between what things seem, and what things are:
Axis Monday seems to be a blog. However, Axis Monday is NOT a blog. It is a blagadingalong. How are they different? The word 'blog' is extremely unpleasant sounding. Euphony is the single most important characteristic of a word. Since the world 'blog' is neither pretty nor particularly descriptive (It's short for 'weblog', a term which no one in the world has ever used except to define the word 'blog'), I shall not use it, and instead defiantly use a word that is even less descriptive and nonsensical. Blagadingalong has a great advantage over blog. It is whimsical. I suspect the subject of whimsy shall surface later on whether I like it or not, but for now content yourself with this: 'Blagadingalong' sounds silly. 'Blog' makes me frown, but 'blagadingalong' makes me smile. That's all you need!