In Conversation

David Levi Strauss with Joan Waltemath

Joan Waltemath (Rail): There’s a sense I get when I’m reading your new book, Between The Eyes, that the process of writing about art for you has to do with opening things up. It’s very expansive to read through your reflections on another artist’s work.

David Levi Strauss at Brooklyn Rail headquarters. Photo by Joan Waltemath.

David Levi Strauss: What I’ve always tried to do in relation to an artist’s work is to write something that can sit next to the work and not do violence to it, first of all, which is very difficult, and then to try to make something happen between them, between the visual work and the written, that is a third thing. That’s what I like doing the most: trying to write something that will sit next to a work of art, vibrate and rise. That’s what keeps me doing it. I understand the need for critical judgment, and I do see criticism as the practice of making finer and finer distinctions among like things. I think that’s a useful process and I do that too, but it’s not the part that keeps me in it. The part that keeps me in it is looking at these things and trying to account for my experience of them, and trying to make writing next to them. I never tire of that. And I never tire of looking at photographs and thinking about them. The relation between photography and writing has always been mysterious to me. I don’t understand it. In fact, I’ve never really understood photography at all: what these things are and how they operate and why we believe them the way we do. The next book I’m going to write is on photography and belief, and it will be as much about belief as about photography. But it will try to get inside this question of why we believe these things that are just silver particles or ink dots on a sheet. Why do we believe them the way we do?

Rail: It struck me that at our particular moment, the essay “Photography and Propaganda” may be the most relevant of all the essays in the book. In it, you’re talking about the relationship between some images that were created of the war in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and the advertisements that appeared on the opposite pages in the media, and you’re implicating both the featured photographs and the advertisements in creating a kind of super context which you call the propaganda context, which contributes to a kind of numbing of our senses. Do you see this as an intended effect? Is there some mastermind behind it, or does this just occur in the mise en scène of late capitalism, or…?

Levi Strauss: It is intended and it just occurs. As in looking at art, I’m not much interested in the intent, but in the effect. The principle effect of propaganda is the perversion of the significance of events. If you put these photographs of war next to ads for consumer products, this has an effect, and the first part of that effect is a leveling. When you put images together, they will speak with each other. After this piece was published, I heard from picture editors who had worked for these publications claiming that this is all accidental. They said, “We don’t even think about these spreads.” In the first place, I can’t believe that they don’t think about the spreads. But more importantly, I know that we (the receivers of these messages) think about them.

Rail: And we don’t only think with our conscious minds.

Levi Strauss: Yes, and we don’t mark or articulate each and every effect images have on us. We couldn’t possibly, since there are too many, coming too fast. That piece on photography and propaganda was a chance for me to slow the machine down and look closely at this process. These two photographers who worked in Nicaragua and El Salvador, John Hoagland and Richard Cross, were conscious photographers. They knew what these images were and how they operated in different contexts. But for me as an observer, seeing the photographs separately, and then seeing them as they appeared in all the major news magazines and newspapers, and recognizing how they were changed, opened things up. I think this could be done with any number of photographers, although photojournalism has changed completely at this point, mainly because of digital. But at that time, this was a way to separate the individual image (and image-maker) from the apparatus, and to try to describe the effects of these images in some detail. They were certainly affecting me too. I don’t separate myself as a reader from these effects, because I’m in it as much as anyone else.

Rail: At this point I don’t think any of us in this culture can step outside of it. As I was reading through this essay, I started to visualize a kind of triangle between image, speed, and propaganda, where each of them engenders the other in a kind of snowball effect: The more images we have, the faster they go, and the more they function as propaganda. Do you see a possibility of release from this toxic overload of images?

Levi Strauss: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” you know. I mean, yes, you can break out of it personally, individually, and in small groups you certainly can take another way and step outside of the flow, but you can’t be entirely outside of it and remain social. We are right now [late March 2003] in the awful position of watching a war happen, live. It’s an unbelievably alienating experience, and it has real physical and psychic effects. Right now, my overwhelming response to it is shame. I’m ashamed of us. We’re watching this happen. It’s a real war and it’s being presented to us as entertainment. CNN is now an entertainment channel. Even if you turn the TV off and stop reading the papers, you’re not outside of it. None of us can be outside of it.

Rail: Could you characterize the coverage of the last Gulf War and this war in terms of how it will really effect people?

Levi Strauss: It’s very different. I wrote about the first Gulf War in Between Dog and Wolf. That war was presented to us as a video game, as an abstract process of target acquisition. And that’s really all we saw. It was the industry on parade. There really weren’t any images of bodies. It was a war without bodies. This time they decided to do it completely differently. The images we’re seeing are familiar because the style is recovered from an earlier time. They, the people who believe in this war, believe we’re going back to the time of World War II. We are fighting the axis of evil. They thought the coverage should reflect this, so they had journalists embedded with the troops. We’re getting a lot more personal stories of soldiers, and “you are there” kind of coverage. I half expect them to bring back Walter Cronkite (except that he wouldn’t do it, the old radical).

Rail: One of the enlightening moments in Between Dog and Wolf is your essay on aesthetics and anaesthetics. In Between The Eyes you develop the relationship a bit further in terms of looking at images of poverty and war. I’m curious what lead you to start thinking about the uncanny relationship of these two words stemming from the 19th century.

Levi Strauss: The relation was first opened up for me by Susan Buck-Mors, in a brilliant essay on Walter Benjamin’s Artwork essay first published in October in 1992. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of medicine, so the parallel track of these two words was irresistible to me. But after that I started looking back at the shift that happened in this country among people writing about the relation between aesthetics and politics, and especially at those beginning to turn away from aesthetics, and to question the idea that aesthetics was or could be a radical force, or that it could have a political effect, and this has a continuing legacy.

Rail: What time period are we talking about here?

Levi Strauss: The late seventies and early eighties. Hal Foster’s anthology, The Anti-Aesthetic, in 1983 really gave impetus to this tendency. He said that the criticality and subversiveness of the aesthetic was illusory. It cut the feet out from under cultural resistance. Aesthetics begins and ends in the body. It’s about perception, and I think it has become more and more useful to look at how there could be something that wasn’t anti-aesthetic, although that exists, but it could be anaesthetic, where the desire would be to limit perception, to damp down perception and limit the imagination, and I have begun to see that as the real counter to aesthetics, and much more dangerous than anti-aesthetics in the long run.

Rail: Or ugliness, which seems pretty harmless.

Levi Strauss: Ugliness can’t win. Norbert Weiner used to talk about how beauty is always an improbable exception, and that it occurs only as a local and temporary fight against the avalanche of increasing entropy, which is always against it. But it will survive as long as human beings put up any resistance at all to entropy.

Rail: In your book you ask, can beauty be a call to action? I would always highlight the importance of beauty in our lives, yet the more I thought about your question, the more I asked myself, what is action? Maybe beauty might actually be the thing that makes us stop and slow down and actually see.

Levi Strauss: It does all those things. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a call to action, but it can be. It certainly has been for me. I’m really reacting against this idea that had at one point gained a lot of currency on the left, that beauty is a decadent bourgeois plot, and that beauty and social justice are somehow opposed. This is wrong. For me, beauty has always been part of the resistance. It’s what’s left after they take everything else away from you. I’m not about to give it up without a fight.

Rail: What kind of position do you see beauty as possibly having in art? Or is there a position for beauty in art?

Levi Strauss: Sure there is, but I think it’s a mistake to say that beauty has to be either a comfortable retreat or a radical call to action. It can be both of those things and more. That phrase that’s on the back of the only Leonardo in North America, his portrait of Ginevra in the National Gallery in Washington, reads Virtutem forma decorat, “Beauty adorns virtue,” and I say that’s true as far as it goes, but beauty adorns everything, not just virtue—it can adorn evil as well.

Rail: One of the things that really inspired me about your book is when you brought up the notion of photography and negotiation together, focusing on the complex relationship between photographer and subject. Could you articulate what you see as actually being negotiated?

Levi Strauss: Representation is what’s being negotiated. One of the things photographs do is to trace a relation between the person behind the camera and the person in front of the camera, and at its best that can be a highly evocative split, a revelatory reflection. I think it’s operating any time there’s a photograph of people, and it’s in play even if the actors are not conscious of it. There’s an example in “Photography & Propaganda,” in that picture that Richard Cross took of the government troops in El Salvador. This image was used around the world to illustrate their brutality and fascist tendencies, and was printed under the headline “With Friends Like These…” But Cross said he was almost forced to take the picture by the soldiers, who got all dressed up and posed themselves. The photograph read completely differently to them. They loved it, thought that it showed strength, rightness, virtue, and power. So I guess those negotiations always run up against the other negotiation, which is between the person looking at that photograph and how they see it and how the photograph is presented. In this culture, we seldom receive photographs that are alone; they’re always surrounded by words, at least a caption, and this makes a construct. They’re not autonomous.

Rail: Something I thought you articulated beautifully in your book that had tremendous impact on me is the way in which the inundation of images, which are taken in an instant and that represent only an instant, has so changed our consciousness. We are not primarily looking for information through drawings and paintings, as we were for hundreds of years before the invention of photography. A drawing or a painting has a very different sense of time; a line embodies the time it took to make it.

Levi Strauss: Paul Virilio has been very useful to me in thinking about this. Even though he’s not a systematic theorist or systematic philosopher, his observations throw off sparks. And he was the one who really theorized the effects of the instantaneous and the effects of speed of transmission. When you read what he wrote after the first bombing of the World Trade Center, he basically predicted that it would happen again and what would happen when it did. He predicted what we were going to see in the Gulf War, and I’m looking now to see if he predicted how this one would be presented, because he really has been prescient about how images are going to be used. The increasing speed of production and reception of images has physiological effects, toxic effects. At least for now we’re stuck with these bodies, so we’re stuck with the aesthetic because we have these bodies and these sense organs and this is how we read the world. Technical images have gone into this area where it’s possible to completely overwhelm us, to overwhelm our physical and neurological ability to process them. Virilio talks about this in real physical terms. He says excess speed equals war, and I say excess speed of image transmission equals a different kind of breakdown, of panic. Panic is a disease of the imagination.

Rail: There was a statement in your book I thought was really clear about the idea of speed: When you are overloaded, the photograph takes on an authority and that gives it a certain power.

Levi Strauss: Which you don’t have time to question or modulate; you just have to take it in, and that can have deleterious effects.

Rail: But then I’d like to believe that one always has the possibility of making the decision to take the time. On a certain level it’s also a matter of experience, of realizing that you can’t sit in front of the television and watch the Gulf War day in and day out for a week because you will get sick. In fact, I did that during the first Gulf War, I just stayed glued to the television and videotaped everything that came on. I collected those beautiful exploding images and put them together with a soundtrack as if it were an obsessive love affair. I found it to be a drug: You’re plugged in, you’re wired, you don’t have to think, you don’t have to breathe, you almost don’t have to eat or do anything else because there’s such an energetic relationship going on. It’s an electromagnetic field after all.

Levi Strauss: And it’s an anaesthetic one, certainly. To call it a drug is not inaccurate, but it’s an anaesthetic one. It works to dampen response because you don’t have time, you can only keep going, and taking more in. The algebra of need takes over. But there’s still (so far) the possibility to make a decision, to look elsewhere, to take time.

Rail: You wrote that you think that the imagination is “yoked to reality” differently in painting than in photography, but you didn’t elaborate on that too much. Painting gives you such a completely different kind of experience, an unmediated experience as opposed to photography being a mediated experience. Can we still have unmediated experiences?

Levi Strauss: Absolutely. Yes, I think it’s possible. I think it’s more necessary than ever, but it takes more effort. When you pull out the wires, it leaves wounds.

Rail: Do you know the work of Vilem Flusser?

Levi Strauss: I sure do. Great, great figure for me. I’m glad those books are finally being translated. I think Towards a Philosophy of Photography is one of the best things ever written on photography. And The Shape of Things, on the philosophy of design, really opened that area back up for me.

Rail: And now the University of Minnesota Press has done an anthology of his writings. What struck you most about his position?

Levi Strauss: Well, for one thing he writes about photography as magic. He says technical images came into being “to make texts comprehensible again, to put them under a magic spell—to overcome the crisis of history.” He’s really trying to figure out what photographs are and how they operate. And he says that the invention of technical images is as important a turning point in human culture as was the invention of linear writing in the second millennium BC.

Rail: Flusser is also deeply rooted in the etymology of the German language, which is very rich. In “Schrift” he takes the word “inform”, for example, all the way back to its roots in the notion of incising a mark and then to the footprint as the earliest form of incision as what stands at the beginning of written communication. In German these roots are still very much present in the compound words that form most nouns.

Levi Strauss: That makes it difficult to translate, but I think it’s done well in both of the English translations that Reaktion Books in London did. And that reliance on etymology, and thinking through etymology, is very attractive to me.

Rail: In John Berger’s introduction to your book, he makes a pretty clear position for himself, a position of resistance by really dissecting the vocabulary of tyranny and showing how the language is being used. This for me recalled Flusser right away.

Levi Strauss: Berger has been a mainstay for me. I can’t remember the first time I read something of his, but when I did, I was determined to read everything he ever wrote. His essays have always been a model for me of a kind of writing that is addressed to a broad public and deals with highly complex subjects in a remarkably direct and expressive way, without resorting to a specialized language. This approach has a politics as well as a poetics. It’s also important to me that he writes in many different forms, as a novelist, poet, playwright, and screenwriter as well as an essayist. He is a writer. I think that’s what he means in his introduction when he says he rejects the designation “critic.” To him, one is a writer, and whatever form you’re working in, if it’s not good writing, there’s no point in doing it. What you get in Berger is a particular mixture of acute political analysis and lyric voice, where the two are never seen as being in opposition. That’s one of the things that drew me to the work.

Rail: It really goes against the grain of American culture, where there is often an underlying assumption that beauty is without content or without substance.

Levi Strauss: That’s right, like it’s emptied out. And along with this comes the idea that art is finally frivolous, not serious.

Rail: You know what my favorite quote in your whole book is? That quote from Jean Genet about beauty.

Levi Strauss: That’s from his Giacometti essay.

Rail: “Beauty has no other origin than the singular wound, different in every case, hidden or visible, which each man bears within himself, which he preserves, and into which he withdraws when he would quit the world for a temporary but authentic solitude.” When I read that, in your essay on Miguel Rio Branco, it gave me great hope, because it opens up both the possibility and the necessity of art.

Levi Strauss: You know, Genet wrote that while he was sitting for his portrait by Giacometti. While Giacometti was scrutinizing Genet, Genet was scrutinizing him. A number of great writers have written well about Giacometti, but Genet’s essay gets closer to the heart of it than anyone, and it’s breathtaking. Even in translation. He’s one of those founts I go back to just to get some juice. He’s really out of this world.

Rail: How would you position yourself in relation to art’s autonomy?

Levi Strauss: Outside of it. What makes things happen is the relation between art and everything else, and if you cut off that relation, I’m not interested anymore. I’m always interested in what happens between things. Certainly many artists have lived inside an imagined autonomy, and operated quite magnificently there, but it’s not for me.

Rail: I see autonomy as being that which doesn’t serve any other end than its own. In that sense, the autonomy of art is very important; that it doesn’t serve the ends of propaganda, that it doesn’t serve the ends of marketing, and so on. That it serves only its own end. Do you think art could ever be in and of itself significant?

Levi Strauss: It’s significant in relation. If one thinks that the only way art can operate in the world is as a consumer product, then I can understand wanting to break off all relations and become autonomous, but I don’t think those are the only choices. I do admit to a perverse fascination with the autonomy of art. I mean, I always say I’d love it if art were autonomous. Part of me is a hanky-sniffing aesthete, too, and I’d love to live in a world where art could be autonomous. But that’s not this world, now.

Rail: You ask some rhetorical questions in your book which I thought were very appropriate to the moment now, one of which was: “Is art a subcategory of mass market consumer culture or something different? What is the difference between commercial messages and art? Should there be anything other than a global mass market culture?” I think these are very important questions because we’re at a point where the singular vision of a singular artist, which has been the mainstay of art for so many centuries, is something that’s being almost eradicated through our mass market society.

Levi Strauss: I think that’s true. I think it’s in real danger of going away (which is why it’s become an image). I don’t think it will ever disappear entirely, but I’ve been wrong before. I never thought we would get to this point. Did you? Ten years ago, 20 years ago, could you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that it would get to this point?

Rail: No, I really couldn’t. And the thing is the change is escalating. I feel like its almost a generation now between the students I had five or six years ago to the students I have now. I can see a generation gap in the time I’ve been teaching at Cooper Union, especially between what they’re able to perceive in painting, and that’s quite shocking.

Levi Strauss: I find the same thing. It’s accelerating. Generations are now down to five years. Image generations. It happens that fast.

Rail: One could always reflect and become nostalgic, but that’s not the point.

Levi Strauss: No, no, I think it’s important to remain clear about the real political differences, the political ramifications of these changes, and this is another place I find Virilio very useful, even though some of my students find him to be reactionary against technology. But I don’t think he is. I put him in that wonderful line of Catholic philosophers, including the man who wrote the best book about propaganda, Jacques Ellul, another one of those French Catholic philosophers who really saw through things. I don’t think it’s nostalgic to try to discern the ideology in what’s happening to us and to parse its political effects. But we also have to show that things can be different. The epigraph to my book has Wenders saying that “the most politically indoctrinating thing you can do to a human being is to show him or her, every day, that there can be no change.” We’re living in a time when that process is highly advanced. One of the functions of art, the main political function today, as Heiner Müller had it, is to mobilize the imagination. This is becoming more critical, and more necessary, every day.

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Joan Waltemath