Concini and the Squirrel

Peter Campbell

  • Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos
    135 pp, £12.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 670 83008 9
  • The Culture of Print edited by Roger Chartier
    351 pp, £35.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 7456 0575 3
  • Symbols of Ideal Life by Maren Stange
    Cambridge, 190 pp, £25.00, June 1989, ISBN 0 521 32441 6
  • The Lines of My Hand by Robert Frank
    £30.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 436 16256 3

In Innumeracy, a sane, amusing, unintimidating introduction to the consequences of mathematical illiteracy, John Allen Paulos shows how a little arithmetic can cast light on the cohesiveness of cultures. He quotes an experiment in which the psychologist Stanley Milgrim gave each member of a randomly-selected group of people a document and a ‘target individual’ to whom the document was to be transmitted:

The directions were that each individual was to send the document to the person he knew who was most likely to know the target individual and that he was to direct that person to do the same, until the target individual was reached. Milgrim found that the number of intermediate links ranged from two to ten, with five being the most common number .... This study goes some way toward explaining how confidential information, rumours and jokes percolate so rapidly through a population.

It also goes some way towards suggesting how a large group can change its collective mind like a flock of starlings turning on the wing. On this model one would expect the members of human communities to have much in common, and each brain, like a fragment of a shattered hologram plate, to be capable of generating blurred but essentially complete pictures of a whole society.

If change does take place by the rapid diffusion of fragmentary ideas, the study of how people’s heads come to be filled might be as important as the analysis of the things which fill them. Headlines and illustrations may determine what is understood, and the cast of mind of a community may be better known through its response to ephemera than by the close investigation of its accepted classics. Bibliographers have been led by such considerations to add habits of reading, and the messages the cost, format, design and illustration of texts may have carried, to their traditional concerns – which centre on the emendation of corrupt versions, and the study of how those corruptions come about.

The essays in The Culture of Print are contributions to this new bibliography. Roger Chartier has assembled detailed studies of print culture in the ‘narrower sense’ of the ‘set of new acts arising out of the production of writing and pictures in a new form’. Even the chapters which deal with printed material make connections both with pre-typographic traditions and with modern – sometimes post-typographic – ways of reading, writing and publishing. Printing, in this perspective, takes its place as a technology through which existing forms of writing multiplied and diversified, and by which it was possible to manipulate or exploit ancient appetites – for tales, news, gossip or truth.

Among the essays is one on Books of Hours by Paul Saenger, who discusses the effect of the ancient discovery of silent reading and the later development of the portable, personal book. He looks at the history of oral versus silent prayer and the consequences of the privacy the silently-read page offers – one was that, in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period, margins could show erotic scenes ‘unimaginable in public art or publicly displayed liturgical texts’.

Alain Bourea traces the various uses of hagiography. The book of a saint’s life could be a magical charm as well as a service book and a subject for meditation. Printing allowed such adjuncts of piety to be used as weapons in power struggles, something contemporary readers may not have realised – just as children today are unaware of the social bias of the primers they learn to read from.

Christian Jouhard examines 17th-century French political ephemera and shows how broadsides, which we tend to think of as tools of subversion, were used by those in authority to explain and control political events. An example is the combination of text and emblematic illustration in a 17th-century placard recording the execution, exhumation and dismemberment by the mob of Concini, Louis XIII’s prime minister, which uses the same kind of symbolism as a modern political cartoon, and to similar purpose. ‘When the viewer saw ... a squirrel in Concini and Concini in the squirrel, it meant that he or she had already been caught in the trammels of an implicit line of argumentation addressed to the eye of the imagination.’

Catherine Velay-Valentin examines the metamorphosis of Perrault’s fairy-tales from folk origins through polite literature and, by way of popular reprintings and adaptations, back into a popular tradition in which ‘the authentic authorial text had been abolished and (in the late 18th century) lost its status as a classic.’ Marie-Elizabeth Ducreux suggests that the Counter-Reformation’s imposition of Roman Catholicism on the Czech population failed to expunge a book-directed cultural bias. Her examination of the interrogations of those suspected of heresy – in which the possession of books was the usual evidence – shows the lasting importance books had, and how difficult it was for the authorities to eradicate the virus of nonconformity when it was passed on by the vector of print. One Jiri Janda, a peasant, when asked where he obtained the libels he was spreading about the priesthood, said:

in the book of a Saxon soldier. He [the parish priest] answered me: That isn’t possible, one cannot understand those books immediately! And me, I proposed to him to give me whatever book he wanted. I would read it to him one time only, and then I would recite it right away from memory! ... His word is not for some only but for all. Me I possess the holy Spirit, and I speak by the holy Spirit. I have read more than a hundred Bibles and many books. Someone came to look for them in my house, in the well, everywhere. They didn’t find anything: me, I have it all in my head. No one can take anything from me.

‘They took his life, though’, Ducreux points out, grimly. Janda’s voice, of all those quoted in the book, is the most telling. It seems to confirm one’s instinct that no matter what early printed material may look like (and on the whole it does not look very strange), the responses it elicited are entirely recognisable: here it is the fundamentalist’s infatuation with the language of his holy text.

Chartier stresses the importance of illustration – in particular, as a way of setting up an intended line of reading. New studies of photography pick on contextual effects very like those Chartier’s contributors identify in Early Modern printing. American documentary photographers provided icons which give visual substance to the generalities – tragic or uplifting – of American history. Maren Stange considers the original context of some of these icons and the circumstances of their making and editing. The photographers whose work she deals with are in the American social-documentary tradition: Jacob Riis, who took pictures of New York slums in the last decades of the 19th century; Lewis Hine, who recorded the conditions of workers (most memorably, child workers) in turn-of-the century mills and factories; Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans and others who worked for the Farm Security Administration in the Thirties.

The documentary ideal suggests that photographs have single interpretations. From Brady’s Civil War pictures to Eugene Smith’s essays for Life, American photographs in this tradition are without the frivolity, irony, formalism or obliquity of Europeans like Kertez, Cartier Bresson or Sander. By putting the American work in its context, however, Stange is able to show that, however direct they may seem, they were as integral a part of the manipulation of the political will as the lampoon on Concini had been.

Riis’s newspaper articles and illustrated lectures had titles like ‘Flashes from the Slums’ and ‘Pictures of Police Life’. Stange tells how his lectures imposed ‘a reassuring order on content whose “crime and misery” might otherwise overwhelm’ by mixing it with ‘humorous and adventuresome anecdotes’, and suggests that the final result ‘confirmed the privileged position of the viewer by implying that he or she had a right to be entertained by an encounter with such material even while absorbing Riis’s moral strictures.’ She makes a good case for questioning Riis’s role as the initiator of the documentary tradition. It is in the uses of photography for social control – which photographers at scenes of political protest now find themselves too easily enmeshed in – that one must look for his affinities. A true beginning for the tradition can, however, be found in Lewis Hine’s work for the Charity Organisation Society – above all, its survey of Pittsburg, made in the first decade of this century. Hine, Stange says, ‘created documentary that included in its revelation of social fact an acknowledgment not only of its own constructed rather than transparent nature, but also of multiple meanings of reform’ – thus exhibiting the flawed nature of the genre even as he perfected it. His pictures of steel workers and their families are so clearly responses to individuals that the demographic and statistical generalities they illustrate – poor wages, sickness, overcrowding and so on – can only be loosely connected with them. They are works of art open to multiple interpretation. This was even more true of pictures taken in the Thirties for the FSA.

This most famous of all publicly-funded documentary enterprises was run by Roy Stryker, who went on to run a publicity project for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. The need to adapt the material gathered in the field to the needs of the picture magazines ‘mandated a new graphic rhetoric. Familiar documentary elements were used in the Thirties to create realistic, yet visually appealing images ... formal complexity as well as radical content was suppressed in the pictures that became popular.’

By identifying aspects of the language of signs and forms which articulate the flow of printed and illustrated texts scholars like Chartier and Stange give weight to the thesis that the formating of a text is part of its meaning. The clearest examples come from Stange. She quotes a description of the way Edward Steichen, head of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in the Forties, put together his exhibitions: ‘It was his speciality to prise photographs from their original contexts, to discard or alter their captions, to recrop their borders in the enforcement of unitary meaning, to reprint them for dramatic impact, to redistribute them in new narrative chains consistent with a predetermined thesis.’ In a recent television history of Magnum, the photographic agency, Steichen’s exhibition ‘The Family of Man’ (to which most of Magnum’s members had contributed) was described as the tombstone of photojournalism. (Television, it was suggested, had delivered the coup de grâce.) But the impossibility of sustaining the myth that photography was unambiguous and true in the face of such successful manipulations as Steichen’s was also part of its undoing.

Stange puts the work of the Swiss photographer Robert Frank at the end, and outside the narrative, of her story. He started on the travels which resulted in his bleak, grainy picture essay in book form, The Americans, in the late Fifties, at about the time ‘The Family of Man’ was touring the world. Now that Frank is part of the photographic canon it is surprising to find how much anger The Americans caused. Bruce Downes, editor of a magazine addressed to amateur photographers, and thus a natural custodian of conservative professional wisdom, protested that Frank was ‘a liar, perversely basking in the kind of world and the kind of misery he is perpetually seeking and persistently creating’.

To him Frank was a heretic. In being, as Stange puts it, one of a breed of photographers who ‘did not hesitate to put their own medium under indictment’, Frank seemed to Downes to be fouling the photographic nest. The Lines of My Hand, Frank’s photographic autobiography, includes pictures from The Americans, from early days in his native Switzerland, pictures of London, frames from the movies he made – including Cocksucker, a never-released film about the Rolling Stones – and drawn-over and collaged photographs, on which texts have been scrawled. For all its rejection of the mendacious clarity of the classic picture story, the form of this book is also of its time – most of the words in it were supplied by Jack Kerouac – and itself invites interpretation.

What is the importance of the analysis of habits and publishing practices which such interpretations deal in? According to one account, the work is formed by, and not strictly separable from, its matrix. A Riis picture of a slum child or an 18th-century portrait or a cartoon of Hitler or one of Frank’s written-over pictures, each of its time, is best understood in its historical setting. But the best examples in any of these categories are remarkable just because they have the power to renew themselves in new appropriations. Hine’s pictures of mill children lose their documentary purpose when shown in books of photography, but sloughing off the constraining skin of one way of reading or seeing reveals another – in this case, what was evidence becomes art.

One is tempted to see this power of renewal as something which lies within. The paradox for creators of protean works is that, Pygmalion-like, they see their work get up and walk away. The meanings others wish to attach may not be the ones the author wishes to endorse. Their inability to control what editors did with their pictures was a constant complaint among Magnum photographers: the better the work was, the more likely the photographer’s views were to be subverted. The executors of literary estates frustrate biographers more easily, but only by denying the right to quote. For photographers, too, the solution has been to issue books like Frank’s, where they can crop, sequence and caption as they please.

The Culture of Print, and other studies like it, have taken the investigation of the ‘sociology of texts’ which D.F. McKenzie adumbrated in his Panizzi Lectures not long ago to the point where the importance of the textual environment to the interpretation of canonical texts is being assessed. When Pope made detailed drawings of how pages should look, or when Congreve introduced the conventions of the French Classical theatre into the printing of his Collected Works, they may have been fiddling with accidentals, but these were accidentals which coloured contemporary perceptions. Authors (Hobbes was one) of the large family of 17th-century treatises which can be related to dichotomised logical structures – a method of analysis with roots in ancient and Medieval philosophy, which was developed and popularised as a tool for teaching in the 16th century by Peter Ramus – were using, as Walter Ong describes it, a remarkable new didactic tool: ‘When printed textbooks were introduced to the classroom, it became possible for the schoolmaster to focus the whole pedagogical economy on the spatial arrangement of material before his pupils. “Look at page seven, line three, the fourth word” – this kind of directive became a matter of daily routine in typographical culture.’ The details of the page, the words which are emphasised, the apparatus of headlines and notes which establishes your place in the text, and the importance of each element within it, identify the parts and particles of a Ramian structure.

Leviathan encourages this kind of reading. It contains a Ramian synopsis setting out the divisions of knowledge and establishing the place of politics and civil philosophy within it. Most modern readers watching living ideas chopped by the Ramian logic machine will agree with Walter Oakeshott that the structures it produces do not do justice to Hobbes’s thought: ‘Now it may be doubted whether any philosophical system can properly be represented in terms of architecture, but what is certain is that the analogy does violence to the system of Hobbes. The coherence of his philosophy, the system of it, lies not in architectonic structure but in a single “passionate thought” that pervades its parts.’

To Hobbes himself, though, the systematic scaffold was clearly important. It was also a model which educated contemporaries would have recognised. According to Ong, Hobbes’s Aristotelian primer, A Briefe of the Art of Rhetorique, is not so much a summary of Aristotle as a repudiation of Aristotle’s position in favour of Ramism. ‘How far Hobbes was aware of what he was doing here is problematical. Ramism and what it stood for – intellectual absolutism in terms of a simplistically conceived and popularly implemented scientism – had so establshed itself in Northern Europe by the end of the 17th century that it formed a kind of frame out of which a mind could view reality without being aware that it was using any special frame at all.’ Ong goes on to say that ‘in stubborn imposition of simplicity on involved matters Hobbes is a Ramist at heart.’ One reason for paying attention to the typography of Leviathan and other Ramist texts is to decide whether the differences between these books and later ones reflect Ramist and post-Ramist views of knowledge. Just as important, such attentions allow one to get closer to the experience of contemporary readers.

Hobbes’s contribution to our present diffused world picture may be only a handful of notions: that anarchy is to be feared, that the acceptance of a government’s authority is in the end a rational acquiescence in essentially arbitrary power. Notions of anarchy will be coloured by memories of photographs of riots and ruins. Such notions are constraints on our thought. To find out what, in turn, constrained Hobbes or the photographer is to move towards the independence of mind which comes from understanding the limitations of the tools of discourse.