Wednesday, September 10
this seeming lack has bothered me more and more recently – as I look around and see my friends involved, in many cases passionately and at least with conviction, in their various academic projects and pursuits, but more affectingly as I look at myself and see my once uninhibited intellectual curiosity and ambition falter and fade in the face of ambivalence and directionlessness. superficially intrigued by all manner of academic endeavors, but unable to identify a profound sustainable resonance in any one, I begin to wonder about my capacity for intellectual undertakings of any real relevance or rigor. the distinct pleasure I can derive from grappling with ideas hasn’t lost its appeal, but the ideas themselves sometimes feel pointedly isolated from one another, as difficult to pin down as the fleeting moments of clarity that accompany them.
I have tended to regard my academic career in college reductionistically, as an eclectic conglomeration of courses, not without their interrelatednesses, but generally characterized by breadth rather than depth. as the disheartening lack of focus I described above is certainly linked to this perception, part of what I’m interested in accomplishing with this writing is to explore the possibility of more holistic understanding of the classes I’ve taken. To that end, and just to see what comes of it, I want to conduct a brief discussion of each of the courses I’ve taken here that have had any kind of lasting significance.
I remember my first art history class at swarthmore, critical study in the visual arts, as greatly appealing for its speculative, philosophical approach to the issues at stake in studying artworks, but more specifically for the opportunities it presented to consider specific individual works at some length, and analyze the ways they make their significances and act as vessels for communication between creator and viewer.
I lobbied hard to get into the second course I took in the department, the relatively ‘upper level’ everyday things, on the basis of a highly recommended professor and an intriguingly offbeat subject. as a second-semester freshmen, I was not yet accustomed enough to the undergraduate way of doing things to take in the full breadth of what the course had to offer, but I still found much to appreciate in professor kitao’s multifarious, often wildly divergent approaches (theoretical, historical, visual-analytical, socio-cultural) to our subject, in what served for me as a primer of oft-rehashed semiotic theory, and in the application of academic methods to aspects of everyday reality. furthermore, the class gave me the chance to write a fairly in-depth paper about something about which I already had strongly developed opinions: compact disc packaging design.
though both are legitimately relevant to the field, neither of these courses much involved the practice of art history in a traditional sense. dada and surrealism, my next class in the department (which I didn’t take until my junior spring) was in contrast focused on a particular bunch of artists and artworks, but it likewise lacked a significant component of "conventional" art history (looking at paintings and sculptures, analyzing them formally, etc.) since the art under consideration tended to be more interesting for its intellectual and ideological implications than its aesthetic attributes, much of the class revolved around discussion of critical social theory and historical and cultural context. while one of the seminar papers I wrote for the class was a detailed exploration of a work of art (duchamp’s "large glass") and in fact argued for it as crucially both aesthetic and intellectual, another was wholly concerned with a work of literature (breton’s nadja.)
considering that these few courses constitute the whole of my art history studies at swarthmore (I’ve also had a western art survey course in high school, counting as a credit towards my major, which was what inspired me to write down arth as a possible major and led to m. cothren becoming my first advisor and perhaps by means of inertia to my current situation, and which provides a stark contrast to every art history class I’ve had since), it’s not surprising that I feel woefully deficient in good, solid, art historical knowledge. considering that it’s such a small number of classes (it feels pathetically few, even though the requirements I have left to fulfill as a senior are not remarkably many), it’s also not surprising that I don’t feel any sense of connection to a community of students (I haven’t shared multiple classes with many if any) that are all versed and involved in a similar area. neither, for similar reasons but also due to the series of upheavals in the department itself during my time here, do I feel much sense of a community in the department as a whole, even one of which I’m only a peripheral member. in short, despite having lived with the label for a considerable time now, it still feels awkward and even disingenuous to call myself an art history major.
my interest in actual pieces of art (which is what prompted my initial inclination towards art history, not any kind of highflown theory fetish) is clearly connected to my longerstanding and better-integrated (into my life in general) loves of literature and music, in terms of pure enjoyment as well as the curious effects of the relationship that exists between artist and audience. although I have been involved to different extents with creation in all of these arts (music by far the most prominently and currently; literature purely but also through exploration of writerly aspects of nonfiction, journalistic and even academic writing), though that hasn’t been a strong focus of my academic career since high school (with the exceptions of piano lessons, this semester’s visual art foundations class, and numerous dance classes, few of which were truly creative/artistic in any straightforward sense.) I have, however, devoted a significant amount of time at swarthmore to the academic development of my audiencemembership.
in music this took the form of two music history classes: one on j.s. bach (which I audited), and one on contemporary american composers. sometimes thematically conversant with the dada and surrealism class I was taking simultaneously, this course found an almost fortuitous focus, beyond the aesthetic experiences of the music itself, in the complexities of the composer-audience relationship, particularly in the ideologically and politically charged milieu of contemporary "classical" music, centered as it was around discussions with the composers whose work we studied. in the most memorable of the papers I wrote for the class, I explored the peculiar implications of recordings versus live performances for the experience of listening to the music of george crumb.
music shares with visual art the tendency towards highly systematized modes of production and consumption (and many accompanying philosophical issues) and, especially in the context of the many avant-gardes of the twentieth century, an intriguing interplay between aesthetic and intellectual considerations, and art has perhaps even more (including the latter if less so the former) in common with literature, particularly the politics of (at least potentially) representational media.
my english class called reading and writing the body used theoretical texts and examination of a wide range of literature to explore the relationships between physical bodies and bodies as represented in writing, the corporeal nature of text and the use of bodies as metaphors. as brought out especially in the last paper I wrote for the class, using a quote from the theorists stallybrass and white to elucidate the work of virginia woolf and david wojnarowicz, the class involved a questioning of the awareness on the parts of the authors of the myriad ways bodies can function, physically, metaphorically, and contextually, in their work, and the implications this has for approaching literature analytically.
another class in the english department, and one of the most enjoyable I’ve taken in all my time at swarthmore, was focused more unambiguously on literature itself as its content: this was peter schmidt’s class on the "encyclopedic," mannipean, massive novels of melville and pynchon (actually, this is also true of the class on victorian poetry that I audited.) in addition to falling in love with these two authors and three wonderful maddening books, I also had the chance, in my final paper to delve into some questions of the constructed nature of narrative and the dizzyingly intricate relationship between factual history and storytelling in mason & dixon.
I found in this class, especially in this last paper, unanticipated connections with another course I was taking at the time, in the history department. entitled murder in a mill town, this class used the specific case of an incident in that happened in new england in the 1830s as a jumping-off point for studying how history is produced, and particularly the relationship between written history and literature. the other history course I have taken at swarthmore, was a first-year seminar about russia under lenin in stalin in my first semester at swarthmore, which was a fabulous introduction to that style of college course, and also happened to incorporate a considerable amount of film and literature into the syllabus. many of the papers I wrote for this class involved considering music (in one case the influence of western jazz, in another the patriotic symphonic music of shostakovich) in a historical and social context.
although many classes (especially the fabulous course in anthropological theory, history of the culture concept, which I audited as a sophomore) had exposed me to many of the basic concepts of structuralist and postmodern literary and cultural theory, it wasn’t until my junior spring, when I took french critical theory with jean-vincent blanchard, that I firmed up my grasp of many of these notions. not all of the countless ideas we broached in this class were originally developed to apply to the apprehension of artistic works, but we discussed many of them in that context, making particular use of films by fellini, resnais, and argenti. I spent a good deal of time grappling with the post-modernist writings of baudrillard and his theory of simulation and simulacra, which problematizes the relationship between reality and its representation. in my last paper for the course, I set his ideas in conversation with the work of one of my favorite writers, jorge luis borges, for a discussion of how simulation functions in his short stories.
I’ve also taken a large number of courses in which I’ve studied more "pragmatic" kinds of knowledge, generalizable as formal systems, all of which constituted sequences of three or more semesters. these classes had a flavor distinct from any of those I’ve discussed above, and they are in general less immediately involved with questions about artistic production and reception, although they do each have some relevance for notions of representation.
I took four semesters (and five credits – a full semester’s worth of courseload) of french language classes. part of my initial purpose for doing this was to gain greater access to artistic works (literature in particular) and to those occasional facets of my cultural milieu, especially in this academic setting, that seemed to presuppose a basic familiarity with the language. while I certainly know much more about french than I did when I began taking these classes, they served as a constant reminder of how massive an undertaking it truly is to learn another language.
I’m currently taking the third class in the music department’s harmony and counterpoint sequence. this is a subject area that I enjoy for the rigor of its mathematical precision and the beauty of its intellectual simplicity at least as much as for its connection to music. it has offered me occasional outlets for my own creative expression (through composition – I greatly enjoyed the experience of writing a short contrapuntal trio for winds as a concluding project last semester) as well as many opportunities to reflect on the odd juxtaposition of expressive concerns and purely technical demands that characterize this particular artistic endeavor.
lastly, I’ve also taken several classes in theoretical linguistics – syntax, semantics, and advanced syntax & semantics – which set out to develop a mathematical codification of language. while I was deeply intrigued by the thought of understanding the underlying processes of language in such precise, formal terms, I found myself increasingly intellectually frustrated with these classes, as it became more and more evident how unsuccessful this attempt at codification turns out to be.
all of these classes (even the french, to a lesser degree) deal with systems of representation; they endeavor to analyze and understand aspects of everyday life (western tonal music and spoken language) by translating them into systematic terms. although none of the classes focused overtly on the nature of this representational process, its varying degrees of success and usefulness as means of accurate representation was always a subtext of learning about these systems.
I have taken other classes as well – in mathematics, biology, physics, philosophy, literature, religion, and spanish – but the ones that I have described are the most pertinent to the most substantial theme that I can recognize within my college academic career. they all in some way involved, for me, an investigation into issues surrounding works of art, literature, and music, with specific respect to two kinds of relationships: between artist and audience (as mediated through the work itself) and between reality and its representation (as mediated through an artist or interpreter.)
these issues seem to be continually present in my academic experience. for instance, discussions of the implications of the act of representation – of taking something that exists in one form (as reality) and presenting it in another (as art) – were present in all three of the classes I took today. in music theory, we discussed the carefully codified ways that western harmony functions as a medium for effective emotional expression despite its being purely a construction. in my film class we talked about the employment of constantly improving technology to create simulations of reality (more accurately, the myth of "mimetic" realism which does not in fact attempt to depict reality as it actually is.) in my art class, we talked about the various ways to represent the depth of three-dimensional reality when translating it onto a flat piece of paper.
these are widely investigated, inescapable kinds of relationships, and this theme is a broad and in many ways general one. it is harder for me to say whether the predominance of these ideas in my life, academic and otherwise, is more indicative of their predominance in the world generally or of some particular predisposition on my own part to perceive and interpret the world in such terms. in either case, it does seem to emerge as a distinct focus of my experience.
specifically, it feels far more accurate and appropriate a way to think about what my education at swarthmore has been ‘about,’ – what I’ve actually been doing here – than the more easily and precisely defined, but therefore more connotation-laden, category ‘art history.’ it would be useful to spend more time formulating a more exact way to describe this set of concerns and ideas (there seem to be two general components, one of representational theory and one of production/reception theory), if only because that could strengthen my fledgling conception of them as a major mode of thought for me.
I didn’t start out with these ideas. I have only recently begun to recognize their coherence and relevance, most fully through this present exercise which is in some ways a converse of the method I initially used to choose my major. I have generally been leery of the thought of constructing a special major out of classes I didn’t take for that purpose, to replace my happy-enough-compromise of a major, because of the seemingly probable danger of forcing connections between classes where they don’t genuinely and naturally exist, for the sake of making them work. but I’m beginning, through the process of writing this reflection and in talking and thinking about it over the last few days, to realize that there are genuine connections among the courses I have taken in different departments, and to recognize the possible boons of creating a special major that takes these connections into account, for my own intellectual self-conception and to enable further exploration of these connections in a more explicit fashion.
what it would mean in practical terms to create such a special major (whether it is pragmatically worth actually following through on) is harder to say. it’s easy to think of courses that could sensibly have constituted parts of a more systematic approach to these ideas – the film class I’m taking currently (which is possibly even more relevant than any of the classes mentioned above); the aesthetics class offered by the philosophy department (which I sat in on during shopping period last semester, and now realize I probably ought to have taken rather than semantics, which I chose in part to count towards a minor that I am now less committed to); possibly some psychology or cognitive science classes (more to do with the audience reception component than the representational theory component); further literary and critical theory; and certainly even several art history courses (for instance, the seminar on narrative in medieval art) – and more difficult to figure out what would make sense to serve as a sort of retroactive culmination to my unwitting exploration of these ideas.
the point, after all, ought to be to actually do something with all of this – a project, a product, something tangible. and I don’t yet know what that should be. it might involve a more considered explication of what exactly it is that I’m concerned with here. and, presumably, it should involve consideration of several specific pieces of music, or art, or literature, even if the overarching conception is theoretical rather than practical. so, there’s plenty more thinking to do. but it’s nice to have a start.