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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Questions Stemming from a Reading of Steve Tomasula

Who are you? 

"Dr. Pashvani, Dr. Woo and thousands like them asking if all plants, animals, cells — all nature — could be used as rearrangable packets of information"

26 pages of genetic code pertaining to chromosome 12, for instance ...ACTAGCTCGAATTACAGGT...

"its data had been allowed to spill everywhere"

" just by clicking his mouse"

"With so many women passing under  [the digital retoucher's] cursor, how could he not begin to think of women as infinitely rearrangeable, highly tweakable"

Advertisements: "At $2.80 per base, Operon's DNA makes anything possible"

egg  & sperm auction: come up to beauty / come up to ron's angels, starting bods: $15,000 - 150,000 US"

Are we the mere victims of science, technology, and information run amock?

"I contain multitudes"

Our insides are known better by radiologists than by ourselves, the money we spend on medicine is known better by our insurance company than ourselves, our DNA is 'read' to us by people literate in that 'language'.

Is there a way to fight back?

How does one of Tomasula's characters, a model whose pictures were always retouched, "get her body back"? Is it by telling "a thousand stories from the same details, like Scheherazade"? To what extent is power and control in the hands of the storyteller, the interpreter, rather than the visual manipulator?

The model also claims that "the ads she now posed for showed photos of her as she was, her face her eye shape, her skin one, not those digitally manipulated ones." Are we to suppose the modeling and marketing companies she works for allow her to veto any efforts to manipulate her photos? Unlikely. What does she mean, "as she was"? Is she getting at how, in the very act of discarding the urge to fully control images of ourselves, we free ourselves to spin the yarns of our details, to allow us to make a self of our own?

Is this sufficient to offer hope?

"the world he had been writing into existence"

"History being written by the victor ...  In this case?"

Why does Tomasula add the "in this case"? The writing of history never ends, reinterpretations abound, the losers may at some other point even things up or even become winners: For instance, to what extent has feminism allowed women to recuperate a lost history? [This does not entail that I believe there is a political or economic balance between the sexes.]

What else about history? Have we always been digitalized, broken into pieces, 'read' by other people?

"I implore travelers to bag bodies whenever they observe a battle involving savages. Boil the bones in a solution of soda or caustic potash to rid them of their flesh. This process takes several hours, but it will provide material that is needed to complete anthropological collections.                                                                                                                                                                                    — Georges Cuvier, Father of Anthropology [qtd in Tomasula]."

An ancient man invents a wholly original, crude form of writing: "Once, in the market of Akkad, he had witnessed a hand being cut from each of two farmers who had tried to forge a clay tablet that bore their debt, and the hairs on the back of his neck tingled. That is, if he could set his speech in stone, could not that stone carry him to the bottom of the sea? Was this what the vision meant?"


 Is it that being in control of cataloguing and digitizing leads to power, or the threat of power? What are other historical examples?

"What is the king's majesty, I ask myself, indeed what is all civilization if not illusion? — a soap bubble borne upon the wind — an appearance created through the cut of our clothes, the movements Felipe taught his body till, like paint on canvas, these signs became a second nature. An image, I knew, because it was an image that I help'd nurture ... I now understood that paintings of royalty are not intend'd to reveal the character of the sitters but rather their status as rulers." [said by Diego, a court painter in Portraiture...]

In what ways does the portraitist control the king?

The Inquisition questioning Diego: What do your illusions of light and color say about the nature of the world? Or our ability to know it? What are you telling us with your unresolved spaces when other living artists order the haphazard world of appearance into the harmonious world of Art by a use of linear perspective?

What he could not tell the inquisition: "every portrait tells more of its creator than its subject; every portrait is and can only be a self-portrait; a portrait of its viewer, its author, a portrait of the I (nosotros)."

Since Tomasula, through the character of the court painter, suggests that the self-portrait is of the viewer and the painter, the authors, not the sitter, is he pointing toward a formative role for the various arts, whereby art (considered in the broad sense, not in the high-brow sense) in many ways forms and controls the political world through what we would now call propaganda?

If this is true, then can art also deform, expose, and subvert political forms (this is what seems to bring this painter to the attention of the repressive inquisition)? If it can't subvert political forms, can it at least create pockets of freedom, moments when we, through images and words, call our own bodies into the social world as we choose, thereby creating room and resources for others to do the same?

So, does propaganda help to create a form of what we take as given reality, and does art insist that this constructed reality is, in fact, created, and not natural? Should the distinction between high-brow, middle-brow, and low-brow culture give way to a distinction between propaganda and art? 

That said, is any artistic act wholly free of some sort of propaganda? To do so, would the work have to be impossibly pure, wholly without artistic, intellectual, and experiential assumptions? 

Is any work of propaganda wholly free of some sort of art?

Does Tomasula offer some hope?

Pages Lost

Unintelligible erasures

Vandalized in 1985

Pages Destroyed

The Inquisition

Text cut off

From a different historical period:                                                                                                     From my position of superior advantage [as a psychoanalyst], I was able to observe her freely, mark my own impressions, and create a gloss upon her words much as a painter might ... Her reclining body offered vistas of femininity that were most distracting despite my efforts to stay on task.

My record of [Miss P.'s] affliction is a portrait that contains no brushstrokes, the hand of a portraitist as invisible as the photography that has made the painter irrelevant.

She confessed that she had fabricated the entire story my analysis was based upon!

 Is this psychoanalyst displaying the unfounded, over weaning confidence in science that conveniently forgets its inherent instability, its always looking to prove itself wrong? Is a feeling of complete certain always dangerous?

The young woman neutralizes the male "superior advantage" of the psychoanalyst through the telling of believable "fabrications": Is Tomasula once again displaying the hope that can reside in art?

Collaged in — The unexamined life is not worth living.                                                                      — Socrates. and, the site that lets you see inside 1,024 private homes

 If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide.


 Everything in italics comes from two of Tomasula's novels, The Book of Portraiture (FC2, 2006) and VAS: An Opera In Flatland (U of Chicago P, 2003).  The quotations do not adhere to any order that appears in the books. Rather, I use quotations from various places in both books to explore the issues and ideas in Tomasula's work.

The art and design of VAS is the work of Stephen Farrell. It is quite astounding. I encourage you to see for yourself. The Book of Portraiture is also a fascinating hybrid of the visual and textual. Since I didn't feel that I could go into this aspect of Tomasula's work without displaying the graphics, I decided to stick only to the verbal side of his work. I hope that the resulting distortion is not too great.


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