Footnotes: On St. Ives, Education, and Death by Andrew Woods

St. Ives?

Too many books are printed in St. Ives. I came to this conclusion as I harvested publication details for the bibliography of my latest paper. Students and scholars alike dread the tedious duty of transcribing this information—from the name of publishers to the year of publication—into the footnotes and reference lists of their essays. And, according to academic procedures, one must mention where the book was printed. That’s how I noticed that my paperback editions of Nietzsche, Weil, Foucault, Burke, and others all seem to originate from St. Ives. I wonder why publishers seem so keen to print their books in this small Cornish resort. I remember that the band Another Sunny Day recorded a B-side called “A Boy from St. Ives,” but that’s all I know about this seaside town.

Once I completed my bibliography, I took to Google to learn how St. Ives had become a printing hub. The results embarrassed me. St. Ives was not the geographical location of the printers, but, rather, the name of the printing company. For several years, I have written “Printed in St. Ives” in countless bibliographies for college assignments. As misunderstandings go, it is minor. In the aftermath of this discovery, I wonder why including the location of the printers is necessary. Surely, the name of the publisher and the year of publication suffices. I doubt any professor feels the need to call up printing companies—whether they operate in St. Ives or not—to check that they printed a certain book in a certain year.

There are a few theories about why books declare where they were printed. An expert on book dealing suggests that mentioning the location of the printers was intended to prove the authenticity of a book to customs officials. Geographical discrepancies between the publishers’ headquarters and the printers’ offices would raise an eyebrow of suspicion and justify seizure of the contraband. Yet, the image of a customs officer inspecting one’s books seems to belong to a quaint and bygone era. I say, spare oneself the stress and download the PDF. Additionally, the joys and woes of global trade mean that a publisher and a printer can strike a deal despite national barriers. For instance, my copy of Eva Illouz’s illuminating and invigorating Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism was published by Polity Press—based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and Malden, Massachusetts—typeset in Hong Kong, and printed and bound in Malaysia.

Despite these changes, the spirit of the inquisitive customs officer still pervades the task of writing a bibliography:

“What are you reading? Who wrote it? Where’s it from? What year was it written?”

Listing citations is like answering a swift stream of questions in an interrogation room.

St. Ives?

The tedious and persnickety ordeal of writing footnotes is one of the humbler tasks of critical thought, because it pushes you to reconsider whether you trust your chosen sources. Not only should you judge the veracity and trustworthiness of your own references, you should take the effort to examine the references of your references. Carefully reading the footnotes of other authors tests your trust in the written word. Not everything printed on a page is an authentic expression of a writer’s thoughts. They might cite a study and contort the interpretations of the findings to suit their argument. Theory can precede data, rather than the other (and right) way around. We live in a time when everyone is urged to check the facts of everything they see and read. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves and others, we might admit that we are not always as attentive and skeptical as we should be. Sometimes, we can be eagerly credulous when someone says something that suits our sensibility and convictions. Writing footnotes forces one to check the basic facts—who wrote this, who published it, when was it published, etc.—and start to build a case for why a source should be trusted or doubted.

Taking the credibility or dishonesty of a source seriously is the sign of a sincere scholar. Questioning the smallest fact—Why are all these books printed in St. Ives?—and seeking an answer—St. Ives is just the name of the company—are two of those intellectual chores that help to cultivate a tidy and meticulous mind. Scrutinizing the words of others teaches you to look at your own work in a more critical light. As soon as one completes a paragraph, one should re-read it and ask oneself, “is this what I honestly think and believe?” I know that struggling to meet one’s deadlines at the end of the semester means that most students do not have the time for this type of intellectual sincerity. Conclusions are often reached for the sake of expedience. Maybe we should train ourselves to think about the task of writing as a more significant endeavor than merely finishing a paper by a certain date. Truly, reading and writing admits you into a long conversation that started before you even learnt to pick up a pen.

In an interview with The Atlantic, the linguist N. J. Enfield attempts to explain why we make small oral sounds—from “ummm” to “mmhmm”—to fill gaps in conversations. Most of these noises are social cues that we are paying attention to the speaker and agreeing with what they are saying. They are the unspoken substance of most human conversation. Enfield talks to the interviewer about transcribing interviews from the recording to the page, and ponders why all these seemingly inconsequential noises are edited out as the conversation is converted into an article. Enfield observes that “conversation is all draft;” books and articles are finished products.

 

St. Ives?

I disagree with that judgement. Final drafts and completed works rarely represent an ending. At the same time, a first draft is nothing like the real beginning of a work. No moment of education or stage of composition embodies a start or end. Properly speaking, I think that lessons and essays “come to fruition.” Nothing illustrates the joyful and intense undertakings of learning and writing more than the word “fruition.” Nowadays, the word refers to the realization of a plan or project, or the period when a tree or vine bears fruit. Etymologically, fruition comes from the Late Latin fruitionem, which means “enjoyment.” The fruition of a letter or poem or treatise represents a cadence—perfect or imperfect—in the long, lustful tune of life. Writing is the act of taking pleasure in something beyond your comprehension, in a language that precedes and outlasts us all.

My former professor Anne-Marie Oliver once observed that chalk is the perfect metaphor for the enterprise of education and the transmission of knowledge. She remarks that “true chalk is something marked by an extreme fragility, friability, dustability, temporality . . . These attributes signified that it was once alive and that it possessed still the power of thingness, that is, something susceptible to damage, destruction, death, and accordingly, something human or humanlike. And this stuff was used to form words, dead things that live on and are constantly reanimated in the brains of other beings.” Chalk is formed of prehistoric and fossilized matter that leaves dust all over your fingers and makes marks—equations, illustrations, and quotations—on the blackboard. Coincidentally, the contents of books are printed onto the pulped remains of dead trees. Every page serves as a reminder of death.

St. Ives?

Education and death are more intimately linked than most people think. I thumb through my copy of Vilem Flusser’s Writings (published by University of Minnesota Press in 2002, printed in the United States of America—somewhere—on acid-free paper) in search of his moving definition of human communication. According to this idiosyncratic philosopher and polygot, “human communication is an artistic technique whose intention it is to make us forget the brutal meaninglessness of a life condemned to death.” Writing is the art of making meaning out of meaninglessness. Death—that final moment of becoming nothingness—fuels our desperate need to leave something behind. Oddly enough, there is a striking resemblance between the format of footnotes and inscriptions on gravestones: the name of the author, the title of the work, the year of publication, etc.

Another former professor of mine encouraged me to always conclude with the “thinking answer,” rather than the absolute one. To be honest and ironic, it seems that the only truly absolute answer is death. You cannot argue or disagree with that inevitability. So, what are answers? There are exact answers (printed in Great Britain by the St. Ives Group), elusive answers (“well, it depends on what you mean by ‘advance’…”), and honest answers (“I don’t know yet”). What exactly is the “thinking answer”? Answering a question thoughtfully means that one’s work comes to fruition, rather than to an end. Thinking answers should show the enjoyment of thought, just as writing should convey the enjoyment of words. Although typing up references is the least enjoyable part of the writing process, it is a mark of gratitude. Taking the time to write footnotes represents humility and honesty. Footnotes reveal that you are indebted to those who came before you, and express the hope that you might be able to serve future scholars in a similar way. The old and witty philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once quipped that Western Philosophy is just a bunch of footnotes to Plato. I disagree and claim that philosophy—and thought in general—is just a long line of footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to footnotes. The history of thought is more like the Talmud than the Bible, more like a first draft than a final copy. The footnote protects us from forgetting the origin of originality, and reminds us that no one ever comes up with the absolute answer. More importantly, the footnote is invitation to think with others—from our predecessors to our descendants—and enjoy every thought as it unfolds.

 

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Devotion: Patti Smith by James Carraghan

I started this review at three in the morning. I woke up with a pain in my side; probably the result of poor cooking decisions on my part. I sat in a large chair, covered myself in blankets, and wrapped a heavy scarf around me for a shawl. The pains subsided with the writing, and the act carried them away.

A book that bears the subtitle (if only on the cover) “Why I Write” offers a starting point for interpretation before the work is even begun. There is a whole genre of writing given to the subject, ranging from musings and memoirs of the writing experience (The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard), to review collections as guides to identifying “good prose” (The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis), or the technical guides for usage (The Elements of Style by Strunk and White). Smith’s book is none of these things—not really. Smith has practiced devotion both as a writer and reader since adolescence. Reading her previous work—Just Kids and M Train in particular—informs me of her pilgrimages, her loves, her elemental respect for art that is capable of expressing the best humanity can offer. She has given her life to artists, even if they could not always give it back.

Patti Smith Pirelli Annie Leibovitz
Patti Smith photographed by Annie Leibovitz, 2016

The world Patti Smith inhabits, as well as the world she crafts throughout her work, is one where the past is still resting on the ground around her. It is the same world we inhabit. Smith has the gift to bring this past into focus like a camera lens moving from background to foreground. Leaving a café is not just leaving—Smith passes a bust of Apollinaire crafted by Picasso—the same bust she saw in 1969 when she visited Paris with her sister. 1969 brings her memories of the existentialists and their cafés. Later, Smith will go to her French publisher and follow the trail of Albert Camus, the existentialist/absurdist whose early death at the height of his power added yet more hauntings to his work. Before leaving for Paris, Smith grabbed du Plessix Gray’s monograph on Simone Weil, the atheist mystic whose room Camus meditated in before he went to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the layers of memory we see Smith’s influences on her writing, and the influences on her influences, and the way connection spreads out between artists across decades, languages, continents.

Patti Smith Performing “Land” and “Gloria” in Paris, 2015

Writing begins with transcribing, interpreting; collecting. There is no blank space where ideas come from. Instead, Smith sifts through the worlds in front of her, building from the pieces that come together. This gives voice to the work as well as the ghosts that helped create it.

I have stacks around me as I write at five in the morning. Because of the stomach pain, I will forgo early morning coffee. Because of the stomach pain, I will ignore the fact that I started a sentence with “Because,” a fragmentary move I have always disliked. I have read du Plessix Gray on Weil at least four times in the last seven years—a life of self-denial was never so interesting or so genuine. There are texts next to me I should be working on—class readings, research materials, overdue library books. I scratch on with my black pencil, making notes on the paper, beginning a new sheet after filling both sides, making notes on the margin. Putting a finished sheet next to the new, I’m struck by the rate at which words turn into sentences, which turn to pages; which turn into a book. Smith’s notebook looks open-faced on the cover photograph. Is this a part of the first incarnation whose preserved product sits in my lap?

Devotion handwritten

These connections between names, dates, works, and experience form a mystical way of engaging with the world for Smith.

At St. Pancras International I took yet another train to Ashford, the last length of my journey, to find Simone Weil’s grave. We passed row houses, a lifeless landscape. I noticed the date on my ticket was June 15, the birthday of my late brother Todd. His only child a daughter called Simone. I immediately brightened. Only good could happen today (24).

Smith’s notes become the trail that forms this book, the pieces of which have been built up before us. “Looking back on these fragments, I am struck with the thought that if Devotion was a crime, I had inadvertently produced evidence, annotating as I went along” (27). Samuel R. Delany once wrote in his critical study, The American Shore, about the material that builds and goes into a work

The preparation [of fictional creation] is only partially retrievable from an examination of the text; such retrieval may occur only through more or less informed supposition. (29)

The body of Devotion shifts on page 35, becoming the story Smith has been gathering material for throughout the first section. This represents Smith’s first sustained work of fiction. (She has, we are told in whispers, been writing a detective novel for some time.) A story of comings and goings, the attentive reader will see how the images—both those Smith singled out for us and those we find on our own—relate to the first section A skater viewed sleepily on television becomes the heroine—a skater whose sport becomes a perfected performance art piece, documented by the viewer—the voyeur—instead of the camera.

Stop-start. Begin again with toast. Making toast, I remember Smith’s descriptions of her life in and out of coffee shops in M Train, and the various meals of coffee and toast she describes. Bread is calming and filling, but not ultimately satisfying—man does not live by bread alone. Time passes. I take these notes with me to work in a folder, and slip the folder into the center of Devotion.

The brief story that makes up the center of Devotion reads like a fairy tale. It is dark, a love story between unbalanced partners—a young woman named Eugenia and an older man named Alexander. Eugenia, a skater, intrigues Alexander, who takes it upon himself to become her provider and controller. They begin a relationship in which each exerts a certain amount of control. Eugenia finds her interest primarily in skating. Their relationship twists like the four—then five—axles she performs on a private arena. The two are oddities who meet but never seem to come together, except in elliptical violence. The notes of the first section again help a reader determine the underlying themes—history, myth, Estonia, migration and refuge from that snip of Europe, the archaic, the poetic, the haunted, and the tragedy of spiritual self-sacrifice.

Patti Smith performs “My Blakean Year” at NYPL, 2010

The third section of the book finds Smith on a different pilgrimage, to the home of Camus this time, at the invitation of his daughter to view his final manuscript, incomplete and pulled from his suitcase after the car crash that ended his life. Like Weil, he is a thread through it all—the inspiration and connection that becomes material in the story of writing. Viewing the manuscript, Smith becomes distracted, wanting to create something of her own, to enter into the dialogue of artists.

That compulsion that prohibits me from completely surrendering to a work of art, drawing me from the halls of a favored museum to my own drafting table. Pressing me to close Songs of Innocence in order to experience, as Blake, a glimpse of the divine that may also become a poem. (93)

 We see here pre-text and post-text—the creation and (brief) analysis, the scaffold and the unveiling. Recurrence allow details to stand out; specks of light to bleed through. Great work can often inspire others to response—affection and devotion. The ability to connect these things allows for an answer to the question that sent the muse running off at the start:

Why do we write? A chorus erupts.

Because we cannot simply live (94).

I come home late into the evening. There is little I can find to do—food doesn’t appeal but neither does rest. Internet images fill cheaper desires. A shower offers an open warmth different from the heat of my room. My wrists no longer hurt. Silence. Meditation hinging on deep sleep and the dream state. I reach out to my notebook and my pen. Living is not enough in itself—we must make something out of it. It is in this making that we find devotion enough to keep us for our days.

devotion cover
The Author’s Copy of Devotion, 2017

The Performance of Contemporary Art [Part 1] by Adam MacHose

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What is a professional artist? That sort of word game can sometimes be trivial semantics. Or at best, a predictable Socratic inquiry that ends in “who can say?” But this question informs the way teachers advise students to enter the world as artists, so it’s important to form a basic answer, even if it is incomplete.

The commonsense answer in American capitalist culture is something like ‘someone who earns an income from the sale of their art.’ In other words, an artist is a person running a small business who produces art objects marketed as such. By this definition, anyone else posing as a professional artist is a fraud.

That excludes a huge community of people with advanced degrees, passion, talent, and success in being exhibited in museums and galleries, who just happen to be getting paid little or nothing for their contributions.

There are some who would say “Too bad. They’re still frauds. The art world contains a network of fraudulence.”

Although that may be literally accurate, since the term ‘profession’ means a paid occupation, it is unproductive in terms of rating artists, since not all artwork is made for money. The alternative is to be an ‘amateur’, a person who engages in art for the emotional reward of it rather than for income. The problem with the word ‘amateur’ is that it is used in common speech and listed in dictionaries as also meaning unskillful. The expression “amateur hour” is used as an insult.

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I encourage artists to reject that stance and learn the usefulness of the amateur model in life. Charles Darwin was famously an amateur scientist; Socrates criticized the sophists for charging for knowledge, making him an advocate for amateur teaching; the Chinese literati school of painting was an amateur tradition; so what’s the shame in being an amateur? If income is the goal, that’s a different story. But there’s no reason to condemn someone as unsuccessful just because their expression doesn’t link to a revenue stream.

However, if skills designed for the amateur model are being taught by a school, that should be explained up front. A criticism I have of art programs is that their marketing often implies direct training for a paid career, but fails to actually deliver any marketable skills. That’s not to say artistic skills need to be marketable, but schools should not be deceptive about it; it’s dishonest to the students.

I think it’s possible to teach skills that are both enlightening to the amateur and practical to the professional, which is how I (at least attempt to) design my classes.

But here’s the puzzle. If there are people contributing to the art world who are not professional, who are doing it for the love of it, and there is no objective way to rate or measure artwork, then how do individuals and institutions sort out what has quality to it? What should be collected and exhibited?

Enter the myriad alchemies of The Performance of Contemporary Art.

The art world as it currently exists resembles a loosely organized religious system. The idea of ‘fine art’ somehow keeps surviving. By the in-group, art is revered as an imperative practice—something indispensable and valuable to everyone. To suggest otherwise is met with contempt—“How dare you question the merits of art and art education?” If backed into a corner, artists often turn to scientific studies to prove the universal worth of art in people’s lives.

I don’t presume to know exactly how to sort out which art is better “medicine for the soul,” if indeed art has a positive, measurable effect on the psyche beyond temporary pleasure. But I do think it’s productive to call the belief system of art into question. Because things change. I would love to see art education in the 21st century begin treating the Western grand narrative of artistic “progress” and the current dominant institutions as an anthropological and psychological curiosity.

For instance, let me laugh at myself by pointing out the trends among my artist friends and peers, who live mainly within the northeastern megalopolis with New York as the epicenter. Note: I fit much of this stereotype profile myself, so it’s not meant as a criticism:

  • Artists dress casually and/or eccentrically
  • They advertise that they live in a densely populated city, such as New York
  • They have had their work in large empty spaces with white walls and track lighting
  • They have a neatly designed and lengthy list of places their work has been: a “CV”
  • They generally reject pop culture as illegitimate culture except as irony
  • They are likely to be atheist or to construct their own spiritual system
  • They are deeply suspicious and often antagonistic toward authority figures
  • They value obscurity when selecting literature, movies, and music
  • They are less likely to conform to gender binary norms
  • They are more likely to be gay, bi, or have a fluid sexual preference

What’s notable about this list, and why I lay it out this way, is that it has nothing to do with the creation of art objects. For whatever reason, in my experience, this is the type of person who permeates this region’s art institutions. It bears repeating that this is not a criticism, but an observation.

To be continued…

Note: The photos in this post are of “Tiny Gallery,” a structure I built in 2010. From one perspective, such as the top image, it resembles a full-scale professional gallery. In reality, it’s about waist-height.

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Braving the Days: What a Culture. What a Conundrum. by Jordannah Elizabeth

Photo Credit: Breck Brunson

I don’t want to do anything right now. I was born into a culture of the work-a-holic, the indentured servant, the slave with no wages, the wage slave and more currently, the hustler. You want to eat in America?  You want to go to the beach, and eat avocados and play sold out shows, you have to push your body to the brink. It’s not like that everywhere. Mexico invented the pastime of the siesta and Jews don’t work on the Sabbath. People need to rest.

And I don’t have to buy in to any pressure, now that I’ve worked almost half my life. I can take half days on Fridays and pull all-nighters to pick up with my deadlines if I want to sleep in, but I paid a price: my teens and 20s. While kids were partying, I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell books on tapes, reading, studying, traveling and developing.

I couldn’t get by like other kids who went to art school and worked 10 hours a week. I wasn’t privileged and worked to compensate.

A Grade A hustler, I am.

But you know, after 13 years, I’ve learned that it all means nothing unless you have a relationship with the world as an environment, as an independent entity. I take long walks and look up at the moon, and lately, I’ve been taking afternoons off the hike and go the beach (it takes effort to do this on the East Coast) – but not in a privileged way, on the contrary, it is all still for survival.

Not only does America push you to the brink at work, but at the same time it forces you to be “nice”, easy to get along with and compromising, while you win, succeed and standout. If you’re not likable, doors close. If you’re too confident, you’re a threat, if you aren’t attractive, you’ll “never get far.”

What a culture. What a conundrum.

I won’t buy in…because I’ve already paid. My mother asked me after I was published in the Village Voice what will I do if I hit my bucket list goals early in life. I told her, I’d go swimming for a few years……

Stage fright

Depression

Exhaustion

Lost Years

Lost Time

Learning How to Love

Eating What Sustains

Vitamins for Health

Garlic for the Heart

Moisturizers to Stay Young

Pedicures to Heal the Effects of Miles

Flat Shoes for the Knees

Reading Glasses for the Aging Vision

Light Makeup to Cover Dark Little Circles

Dinner Parties to Figure Things Out

Responses to Questions Because It’s What I Do

I still have a long way to go.