Archive for November, 2010

Nov 16 2010


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Edward Hopper uses, most obviously, the techniques of lighting and shadowing in Nighthawks to illuminate the figures sitting inside Phillies in Manhattan one evening. As the viewer, we are supposed to understand that the place of light and warmth in the early 20th century was on a barstool, whiling away the evening in the company of your fellow barstool inhabitants, shooting the breeze and talking about them Yankees. However, there is an added element at work in Hopper’s art that, although it may not be spelled out in the same manner that the lighting is, truly informs the reader of the painting’s mood. The combination of the fact that there are only four people in Phillies, that there is no one on the streets, and (most importantly) that the people in the bar are dressed in the finest upper crust attire creates a pervasive sense of desperation and strain in the painting’s periphery. They’re Nighthawks, you see, because they perch on their supposedly cushioned top shelf, pretending to be satisfied and utterly at ease, while they secretly and anxiously watch for even the slightest stirring of those beneath them. The two individuals in the painting facing us are leaning forward expectantly, because although their posh lives are ostensibly pleasant, they are always on the lookout for snippets from those lower on the totem pole that will validate their place at the top.

The artistic elements at play in this work speak of straight lines, order, and sense. However, the emotional elements of Hopper’s painting tell of a time of severe anxiety and desperation, of strain and the need to stay awake at night, dressed in your finest, to listen for signs of real life emanating from the emotionally dead around you, and to mingle with the few who have come out to do the same.

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Nov 09 2010

The Great Gatsby and a New American East

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Although I expected to find it difficult to interpret The Great Gastby from a techno-critical standpoint (because of how the assignment was phrased), I’ve found that it has been a very elucidating aid in understanding the book as a whole (granted, that might just be because it was our assignment). At the very end of this utterly fantastic novel, while Nick Carraway is brooding over the strange events that have transpired in his recent past, he conclusively states, “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessy into the past” (180).  This comment sums up Carraway’s opinion both of Gatsby’s foolish actions and of the tendency of man to “run faster [and], stretch out [his] arms farther” in pursuit of the ever elusive ‘new’ (180). We will forever seek to conquer, understand, and enjoy the new simply because we are unfamiliar with it and because it holds so much potential. This, according to the narrator, was Gatsby’s fatal flaw, but one for which he cannot be blamed because the narrator can empathize with it himself. From a techno-critical perspective, this novel identifies with the inevitable ennui that sets in when the new is no longer new, or at least when is ceases to bedazzle.

In the last chapter, Carraway describes his fond memory of going back West for Christmas when he was younger. True to his propensity for honing in on a universal feeling by describing a highly specific and personalized anecdote, Fitzgerald makes the reader feel what Carraway feels about his entire life by telling this one story and the impact it has on Carraway. From the fur coats of the “girls returning from Miss This-or-That’s” to the “long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands” (175), Fitzgerald paints the scene more vividly than the realist painters ever could. In one of my favorite sentences, he writes, “we drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again” (176). This sentence is so poignant because in it Fitzgerald puts his finger on that just-out-of-your-grasp yet oh-so-omnipresent feeling of rising above the physical situation and glimpsing the utter reality inherent in the banality of a moment.  Techno-critically speaking, Fitzgerald is sentimentalizing the action of going backwards in time in America. During the 1920’s, as is evident both from this novel and from the historical goings-on of the time, the East was the epicenter of progress and newness while the West was still stuck in the ways of houses that remained in the family for hundreds of years.

“I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life,” Carraway reflects. This is surprising in light of the fact that the story seems to exclusively celebrate the East, in all its ashen, corrupt, and jaded glory. However, this rumination gets at the heart of the characters and of their experiences in this novel—they tried to be like the glamorous forward-thinkers of their time, but they just couldn’t fit in with the fast pace of the blossoming East.

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Nov 02 2010

Labor for the Lower Classes- In Every Century

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File:Chicago stockyards cattle pens men 1909.jpg

In William Turner’s 19th century landscape, Ploughing up Turnips near Slough, a combination of male and female workers toil to gather turnips at harvest time. These simple laborers work in tandem with their horses and cows. Their sole aim, with which they somehow seem at peace, is to utilize and procure the fruits that nature, portrayed beautifully though Turner’s use of light, colors and detailed trees, has so lovingly bestowed upon them.

At first glance, the picture of the Chicago stockyards in 1909 could not be more disparate from Turner’s painting if it tried. One’s lighting scheme tells of potential, openness, and possibility, the other’s of confinement, pain, and utter powerlessness. One painting includes natural beauty while the other shuns it. One tells of humans’ trust in animals and the other of total dominion of one over the other. And one acknowledges the role of women in providing for the family while the other does not. Clearly, the advent of big business and the systems of production introduced into the cities of the 20th century had quite a negative effect on people’s sense of harmony, family, and security.

Upon closer inspection of these two representational images, though, there are some subliminal similarities that speak to what appear to be universal truths about labor in general. Firstly, the stooped posture of the characters in the Turner landscape indicate an attitude towards labor that is strikingly reminiscent of the one depicted in the packinghouse picture and in The Jungle. It is something to be borne and endured despite the pain and suffering it brings. They will grin and bear it, as much as it hurts.

The second similarity between the two canvasses above requires a bit more interpretation. In Turner’s piece, Windsor Castle is visible in the barely discernible background, signifying that the workers are toiling for the benefit of the higher-ups who are probably playing bridge and sipping lemonade while their field hands sweat away. The picture is no longer so rosy when you see that the open expanse (which initially screamed freedom) actually belongs to the boss, who will reap the rewards for all or most of the effort the figures are expending.

Armed with this piece of information, then, it is not difficult to compare the first visual with the second. Like the peasantry of the early 19th century, Jurgis and his fellow victims of the Chicago slaughterhouses are at the mercy of a wealthier higher power who had the good luck of being born into a (much) higher class. So although I think I’d prefer to spend a day in the first picture than in the second (especially because the risk of being trampled seems significantly higher in the latter), I’m not sure which promises the better life overall.

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