|Writing Art Cinema 1988-2010
A collection of essays by Stephen Lapthisophon
Green Lantern Press, 2011
Reviewed by Barbara E. Ladner
More than ever this spring, we’ve seen the world convulse with dislocations, ever-accelerating technological and economic shifts, and transformations that seem simultaneously to bring chaos and a promise of rebirth. How can we express experience that sometimes outstrips our capacity to comprehend it?
Stephen Lapthisophon’s Writing Art Cinema 1988-2010 courageously and vigorously joins the project—begun in the twentieth century with Dada and Surrealism, and continued in the cultural criticism of Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord—of finding words and images to grapple with, and shift our perspective on our current corporate existence, (i.e. Global Society, Inc). I want to say emphatically NOT culture; the layers of experience reflected here have too little coherence, grounding, or meaning to be either “culture” or “ideology.” Lapthisophon drives home the idea that destroying, deconstructing the corpse of this received commercial culture to bring it new life:
Recalling at times Surrealist poetry and Dadaist defamiliarization, Lapthisophon’s writing and images force readers/viewers to question the very foundations of received knowledge and values.
Unfamiliarity creates a living force, a thirst for surprise.
In Writing Art Cinema 1988-2010, Lapthisophon confronts us with startling juxtapositions and shifts of context with fragmentary snatches of text from a dizzying array of contemporary experience. Remember—or should we forget?—Tristan Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto”: “Dada is the bitterness which opens its laugh on all that which has been made consecrated forgotten in our language in our brain in our habits.”
Lapthisophon’s frequent use of juxtaposition allows the reader/viewer time/space to ponder multiplied layers of startling juxtapositions (“exit Goethe and avoid the heavy smoke exhaust fumes”), allusions (to Lee Marvin; to Robert Musil’s fictional murderer, Moosbrugger; to Buster Keaton; to “Okie from Muskogee; to Heinrich Heine), apparent ravings on the character of modern experience (“Fix and Finks have joined the Muddites because of the attraction that the low initiation fee brings. Across the road the metaphor for translation has been brought over by our friend Laura riding a horse and speaking about the times we spent in cages wearing shoes made of rabbit and mud”), “the same cast of characters” (from “Morpho” and “Binx” to Lee Marvin and Johnny Cool), poetry, photographs (and descriptions of photographs), as well as essayistic passages.
Many of these layers serve as Mythologies—as in Barthes’ most iconic work—for our “information” age, but are much more violent in the deconstructive force applied to the unexamined texture of our “reality.” Where Barthes points out the cynical manipulation through “photography [that] is an ellipse of language and a condensation of an ‘ineffable’ social whole, it constitutes an anti-intellectual weapon and tends to spirit away ‘politics’ (that is to say a body of problems and solutions) to the advantage of a ‘manner of being’, a socio-moral status.” Lapthisophon writes: “In the darkness, crimes will continue to be committed. Guilt will continue to be a function memory and future investigations of the procedures that determine this procedure will be doubled. The following steps will follow the political: loss, cover, clear, and follow.” The readable, analyzable PR of Barthes’ age has become the nearly invisible propaganda of our own. These passages read like “notes from an underground” where multinationals function as a much more efficient “Big Brother”—they don’t need to watch us if they control our language and imagery.
Most powerful are the sections entitled “Notes on Instrumental Reason” and “Prosopopeia.” The first section of Writing Art Cinema 1988-2010, “Notes on Instrumental Reason,” explores the fragmenting, alienating impact of contemporary society’s obsession with numbering, quantifying, and dividing/classifying that goes all the way back (perhaps) to the invention of movable, interchangeable type. Though divided into numbered sections, “Notes” undercuts the accounting/accountability mentality by changing what is being numbered/counted with each subsection: “PART ONE” is followed by “EDIT TWO,” “PAGE THREE (A), (B), AND (C),” all the way through “FRAME THIRTY.”
From the symptoms Lapthisophon collects, a diagnosis?
“Prosopopeia,” which is a figure of speech that presents an imaginary or dead person as speaking, offers Lapthisophon’s most essayistic writing. In part a meditation on the nature of artistic activity, it also portrays our society’s enthrallment to mechanically reproduced images. Paradoxically dead, removed from the artist’s hand, photographs also testify to the actual (living/real-“life”?) presence (then) and absence (now) of the photographed subject.
The photograph is both a record of, and cancellation of, presence.
A refrain through “Prosopopeia,” Lapthisophon’s plaint that “it is hard to ask for help” reminds us of our contemporary dependence on technologies that limits our imaginations.
We are so unknown to ourselves that any attempt to control this release of corporeal power is futile.
Lapthisophon closes this section with an anthem of sorts.
And on the book’s final pages, he echoes this challenge to ubiquitous distortion, illusion, and lie.
Multiplicity and speed heighten the manipulative power that McLuhan warned of in electronic media, making it fitting that Writing Art Cinema 1988-2010 comes to us from Green Lantern Press, a nonprofit paperback press “dedicated to the ‘slow media’ approach.” Green Lantern Press partners with a bookstore (for-profit) and a nonprofit performance space called “The [New] Corpse,” celebrating the integration of artistic mediums and exploring alternative models for supporting artists, writers and community and for distributing noncommercial contemporary art.
Lapthisophon is a multimedia artist, so a book might seem an odd venue for his work. But the words and photographs here—some his own, some drawn from popular culture—effectively draw linear text (McLuhan’s bugaboo) into a multisensory nexus. They simultaneously challenge “normal” reason and propose instead an ir-rational logic of actions as diverse as achieving “firm footing in black socks,” lining “up next to your neighbor shoulder to shoulder,” and attempting “direct political action [that] becomes a matter of trying to pick poison out of a boiling stew.”
Writing Art Cinema 1988-2010 startles and provokes on a first examination, and promises to continue to do so on many subsequent readings. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the integration of art and criticism.
Barbara E. Ladner is Professor of English and Media Studies, West Virginia State University.