Image Heavy: Tumblr and Form

This was originally posted on Yum Yum Union.

Vivre Se Vie, Jean-Luc Godard

“More beautiful than a beautiful thing is the ruin of a beautiful thing.”

Iris Apfel, quoting Rodin.

“As a girl, you are a delicate glass vase, waiting to be broken. You are a sweet-smelling flower, waiting for life’s hobnailed boots to trample you. That built-in suspense is part of your appeal.”

“Some Girls Are Better Than Others,” Hannah Havrilesky,
quoted in “Pop Quiz: Edith Wharton or Girls,” by Ali Pechman.

Maybe I spend too much time talking about the time I spend on tumblr, and it’s hard to tell how far one’s own insight extends — is this cultural paydirt, or pyrite insight, true of only the small circle of blogs I find and follow? Let’s hope for the former. These bloggers, they love uncredited photography. It seems like I see the same photo in fifty variations. Clean white thighs, and skimp skirts, and daisy chains, hands linked; or some juxtaposition of lazy opposites, biker boots and primroses, say; or bodily metanyms, a frame consisting of a hand, or a face, or a breast, or a foot, the face excised through clever framing, or hidden, or blurred.

The thing about these bodies in these photographs is that if corporeal virtue might look like an archer’s target, they’re bulls-eyes, or nearby. Ought a perfect thing be a memorable thing? These bodies are not, for sure, and their encapsulating photographs follow suit. Is it the inundation? Tumblr has done no favors to my already mean sense of aesthetics, and there is something about scrolling through these pictures that feels like consumption without nutrition — or excretion, so that you’re never really getting it, but you’re never really letting any of it go. A bellyful of ghosts. Here and there a lopsy blonde braid, and a girl in front of a sunset, a kid in a leather jacket with arms akimbo, and always that upper-right-hand look of introspection, and maybe these images are earnest but they’re bad, too, nothing special, nothing but low saturation and things I have seen so many times before. But these bodies are beautiful, even when configured in same-old-ways, and that ought to cut, draw some blood from the viewer, because that’s what beauty does, yeah? Isn’t that what an aesthetic experience ought to do to us, some cousin of Peircean agapism, the unfamiliar netting up with the familiar, the subject seized by the other? The material point is that they donot, but they all look like textbook human beings pried off the page. They are well-formed, so much so that they have inherited the categorical quality of a form and foregone individuality. These bodies are not bodies lowercase, with dimpled backfat and a medical history writ in dental idiosyncrasies, but Bodies.

But imagine being one of the women or men so photographed. (They are not all models. A cool 30% look like attractive West Coast college students, another 15% like randomly exceptional normals, likely with the misfortune to befriend An Artist.) Excluding cases of blesséd genes, these are Bodies that have taken work, and diets, and sacrificing something. But to no avail! They’re slimming themselves into beige, and man, what good is that? Quoth P’Trique: “It was like visual klonopin: snore.” By becoming Bodies they become unobtrusive, elements, atoms, never the whole point of the picture, still part of the architecture but not resiliently individual enough to garner attention. A Body means that this is not a portrait.

Click on any of the above to find their tumblr source.

In contrast, consider one of the more singular entries in Giles Revell’s Photofit project:

He is not forgettable, not in the way that the slim white girls I am forever seeing are — Xanadu girls, Californian apotheoses. He is closer to being an art form, precisely because he seems a little less close to those forms (those Bodies). Perhaps one of history’s worst letter writers could be of use:

“By an epiphany he meant ‘ a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments. He told Cranly that the clock of the Ballast Office was capable of an epiphany. Cranly questioned the inscrutable dial of the Ballast Office with his no less inscrutable countenance:

-Yes, said Stephen. I will pass it time after time, allude to it, refer to it, catch a glimpse of it. It is only an item in the catalogue of Dublin’s street furniture. Then all at once I see it and I know at once what it is: epiphany.


-Imagine my glimpses at that clock as the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanised. It is just in this epiphany that I find the third, the supreme quality of beauty.

-Yes? said Cranly absently.

-No esthetic theory, pursued Stephen relentlessly, is of any value which investigates with the aid of the lantern of tradition. What we symbolise in black the Chinaman may symbolise in yellow: each has his own tradition. Greek beauty laughs at Coptic beauty and the American Indian derides them both. It is almost impossible to reconcile all tradition whereas it is by no means impossible to find the justification of every form of beauty which has ever been adored on the earth by an examination into the mechanism of esthetic apprehension whether it be dressed in red, white, yellow or black. We have no reason for thinking that the Chinaman has a different system of digestion from that which we have though our diets are quite dissimilar. The apprehensive faculty must be scrutinised in action.

-Yes …

-You know what Aquinas says: The three things requisite for beauty are, integrity, a wholeness, symmetry and radiance. Some day I will expand that sentence into a treatise. Consider the performance of your own mind when confronted with any object, hypothetically beautiful. Your mind to apprehend that object divides the entire universe into two parts, the object, and the void which is not the object. To apprehend it you must lift it away from everything else: and then you perceive that it is one integral thing, that is a thing. You recognise its integrity. Isn’t that so?

-And then?

-That is the first quality of beauty: it is declared in a simple sudden synthesis of the faculty which apprehends. What then? Analysis then. The mind considers the object in whole and in part, in relation to itself and to other objects, examines the balance of its parts, contemplates the form of the object, traverses every cranny of the structure. So the mind receives the impression of the symmetry of the object. The mind recognises that the object is in the strict sense of the word, a thing, a definitely constituted entity. You see?

-Let us turn back, said Cranly.

They had reached the corner of Grafton St and as the footpath was overcrowded they turned back northwards. Cranly had an inclination to watch the antics of a drunkard who had been ejected from a bar in Suffolk St but Stephen took his arm summarily and led him away.

-Now for the third quality. For a long time I couldn’t make out what Aquinas meant. He uses a figurative word (a very unusual thing for him) but I have solved it. Claritas is quidditas. After the analysis which discovers the second quality the mind makes the only logically possible synthesis and discovers the third quality. This is the moment which I call epiphany. First we recognise that the object is one integral thing, then we recognise that it is an organised composite stru ‘ cture, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognise that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.

Having finished his argument Stephen walked on in silence. He felt Cranly’s hostility and he accused himself of having cheapened the eternal images of beauty. For the first time, too, he felt slightly awkward in his friend’s company and to restore a mood of flippant familiarity he glanced up at the clock of the Ballast Office and smiled:

-It has not epiphanised yet, he said.”

Except from Stephen Hero, by James Joyce,
quoted at The Literary Link.

There is a way you might expect achievement of a form to render wholeness. A Body would be radiant, in this case, but it seems to be the other way around. If we might borrow Stephen Hero’s epiphany process, it seems like something is being gunked up in the first stage. I feel an absence of image-integrity; they look like too much else, and so are not One Thing, but instead a grain in a larger heap, a reference to a reference. (A quote of a quote, but more about that later.) You can’t parse out its parts because it seems like nothing but parts, and their Bodies are guilty of this, too, being just more smooth glassy components. Is it a statistical failing? When I see, every now and then, someone handsome with a megawatt smile, I melt. I am cut, to reuse that earlier verb choice. Is it just seeing them framed-off, like they’re supposed to add up to something special and falling flat, the culprit? After all, small-time beauty, in the aisles of my retail job, still guts me.

I don’t know what to think about all this.



Part of the reason I haven’t been posting is because I don’t have any full-formed thoughts to offer anybody. This essay is another example of diary-philosophy, the kind of half-cocked wondering that I’d be ashamed to put into a paper for peers to view. (God, I even used an artificial capitalization. Gross.) As the site’s received recent modest advertisement, it makes me even shyer, to put something down for public viewing. Will I ever live down “Do you mean, like, trees?” Plath puts it better, naturally.

God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of “parties” with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship – but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.
Sylvia Plath

The reason I’ve been quoting quotes in this little ditty is a self-conscious sourcing, but an aspect of it did have a purpose. When I am looking at other people — particularly pictures of people — it seems impossible that I am doing so out of quotations. The photos are references of references, yes, beige and blah and so frequently like Lana del Rey album cover rejects, but as a woman looking at women — as a woman looking at men — sometimes I feel like it’s not just big Greek forms that are fucking things up, it’s a basic inability to get outside quotation. (And there’s Oscar Wilde, beating me to the punch again.) I laughed really hard at an article about hipsters being the first counter culture to have their revolution fed back to them through consumerism — do you watch MadMen? Have you seen sixties advertisements? It talked about a present inability to take a stand amongst us millennials as a consumer’s existential crisis without the hintings of advertisment. (“And your thoughts have been stolen by the boys who took you out and bought you everything you want now.” — ‘You’re Pretty Good Looking,’ White Stripes.) I think our collective indecisiveness is less a buyer’s pusillanimity, and more a product of de-centering, of a plurality of perspectives and no enticement in any one direction. Flannery O’Conner says, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I have a bad case of the opposite. I write because I don’t know what I don’t mean until I try to put it down and find that, yet again, I get wrong. There’s no clear cut through anything, and being a twenty-three-year-old young buck, and putting my thoughts down in some semi-permanent way, just feels like a request to get bitten in the ass later with my own stupidity. Hence the endless quotations, and disclaimer addendum. Maybe heaping on layers will make things clearer. (Insert Inception joke here.) Breadcrumbs to meaning, yeah?

But one hopes that one can get better, with practice. A little right-er, with each writing. This was all just to say: I know what I have to say is small and overly long given the pay-out.

Girl’s got to try, though.

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