Writings and Letters

A blog oeuvre… a "bloeuvre"

Tag: past

Where is The Point?

I was walking through Trafalgar Square, listening to a little Billy Shears. It was a mild day. The sun blasted me with radiation and I felt the tinge on my skin. After a long winter, it was nice to feel something on my face other than a hollowing chill. Stunted cars passed along the periphery and occasionally squawked back and forth to each other in their abrupt shrieks as they drifted on. I walked in the opposite direction, silent, high. I was thinking about what I usually do: the past.

Out ahead, I noticed some chalk graffiti. The crude calligraphy acted like a type of timestamp. Not in world-time, but human. The curves and dashes of the individual letters were larger than necessary and left too much space between. The fast and loose execution implied hesitation, lack of assurance and practice. I thought of a child. A little boy with his pink/red chalk crouched over and writing these words and symbols. Just two words over and over again: “The Point” and above it was an arrow pointing in the direction I walked, north.

What was the child trying to tell me? I wondered. The Point was just ahead. As I continued on and the cars passed I came upon another message. It was The Point again, but it was upside-down and the arrow suggested the other direction. Had I passed it? Had I, indeed, missed The Point?

I continued on and was soon greeted by another sign. This time I was informed The Point was actually across the street, or perhaps was the street itself. Are you trying to kill me? I asked the imaginary kid in my head. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders and I kept going on my way.

Then the messages grew more cryptic, frantic, irrational. Arrows large and small, pointing in all different directions, The Point appeared everywhere, ending with a large bullseye with “THE POINT” at the center. Was this The True Point?

I was reminded of the games I used to play as a child. We used to gain such pleasure out of our absurdist forms of play. Children are quite good at it. Even if they cannot provide an entire conceptual apparatus, their little brains do make note of the irrationalisms around them and the frantic effect this perceived nature carries out. It is quite silly, isn’t it?

After a little while longer the graffiti failed to reappear and I was alone again with my thoughts. I realized I hadn’t seen any of these drawings when I walked south only a few minutes earlier. Or at least I didn’t remember them. How could I have missed it? What would have been my interpretation of The Point had I come across the bullseye first? What if I had witnessed the boy? Was it even a boy? Was it a child? What made me think of it as such? Who will know any of this once these rain clouds overhead unleash their payload and wash away any record of the intellectual footprint?

I suppose my word is the best we’ll have to go with then. But it was there. Just over there. The Point.

Quotidian Relics

Just the other yesterday, I finished Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street. It’s a wonderful collection of the man’s kaleidoscopic analyses of modern life in 1920s Berlin. He bounces from one subject to the next with all the grace and flow of an eclectic dancer. And like all good dancers, through his movements you recognize and cherish his brilliance.

Many sections of the work stand out to me, but I couldn’t help but dwell on his reflections on stamps, postmarks, and postage by and large. As he puts it: “To someone looking through piles of old letters, a stamp that has long been out of circulation on a torn envelope often says more than a reading of dozens of pages.”

For Benjamin, it’s not just the brunt of obvious historical linkage, holding a piece of the past in your hand, but the whole social and historical contexts interweaving in the moment. What’s on the stamp? A country, a castle, a king? Who created it? Who sanctioned it? What does the image convey in itself to the viewer? What is its significance in the system of postage? What do these links to the past tell us about ourselves? How do they affect our social imaginary?

Even the trivial postmark holds some weight to him. The variety of postmarks, the way they alter the image “[placing] a halo about the head of Queen Victoria” or “[giving] Humbert a martyr’s crown.” Or just the way they messy up the once pristine stamp with their sinuous lines, covering faces and bifurcating lands like earthquakes. Think of the lowly artists who were commissioned to create these works, what must they think of it now? Is the work tarnished after the black marking, or was it tarnished the day its creator signed the contract?

Just briefly interacting with these simple pieces of paper, conjuring up all these wonderful thoughts, creating this “stamp-language,” it is no wonder Benjamin concludes this section of One-Way Street with a lamentation. He sees the coming future of telecommunications: telegraphs, telephones, radio, etc.: as the great destroyer of stamps, postmarks, postage, like winter to flowers. “It will not survive the twentieth [century],” he closes the essay.

Benjamin got me thinking about this account I follow on Twitter. (Now that’s a helluva sentence!) Postcard from the Past (@PastPostcard), provides images of postcards sent over the years (mostly the 50s – 70s) from (mostly) British travelers and a brief out-of-context sentence the messenger wrote. The comedy or quaintness of each post is often spot on, but what attracts me to these posts is something similar to Benjamin and his stamps. I get to thinking: Who were the photographers who took these images? What about the people/locations trapped in their images? Who commissioned these postcards? What was the purpose? What does one make of postcards of abandoned English castles, sweeping landscapes, locals dressed in traditional ethnic attire? What did the manufacturers want the consumer to think about these images? What was it about these postcards that the senders felt compelled to buy and send along? These questions persist, but they tend to circle the drain of commerce. Capital tends to behave like an undercurrent at each modular point, interweaving the subject/land to the artist/photographer to the stamp/postcard to the consumer/sender, on and on.

Benjamin recognized this with the stamps. It was why he foretold of its demise at the hands of the more efficient telephone, et al. Capital does not care for the well-articulated illustration on the stamp or the essentially captured moment through the lens. Accumulation is king. Craftsmanship be damned!

And so, in the great empty time of modernity, these objects of the past are in direct threat of being discarded and forgotten precisely because of their perceived uselessness. In the world of capital, if a market-based value cannot be extracted from it, what use is it?

But it is important to remember that the accumulation of wealth did not produce these small works of art, neither did it create the wit or beauty of the words written on them, or the thoughts conjured up by the likes of minds like Benjamin’s. We must not accept the ground offered before us in these circumstances. The stamps, the postcards can be of great use to us still for whatever reason works for us in the moment. Because in these moments with these artifacts, as banal as they may be, they still contain great depths of our humanity.

And so it’s important to hold onto these items. Because we need to be constantly reminding ourselves of this simple fact: Humanity presses on. Not because of capitalism, but despite it.