On the Value of Modernism: A Repost/Riposte for Jeanne-Claude

The piece below first appeared in April 2005 on One Blog Two Blog, a concept blog that featured Jay Fanelli and me each responding to a prompt in 600 words or less. The prompt for this piece was “Best 86ed Idea in 86 Years,” a response to the Red Sox first World Series win in—you guessed it—86 years.

At the end of the piece, I discuss “The Gates,” by Jeanne-Claude and Christo; I repost the piece today in honor of Jeanne-Claude, recently deceased.

You don’t see a lot of uninhabitable $8-million houses anymore. It’s also been a while since anybody went very far towards getting a 900-page stream-of-consciousness novel published (and it was no picnic the first time around).

Today, many of the artistic projects that constitute historical modernism inspire little more than discomfort, if they inspire at all. Understandably so: A perceived irrelevance of modern art, architecture, literature and music was a desirable effect for some of the great moderns, who took an elitist position in which the masses weren’t meant to grasp the deeper meaning of their works at all.

Modernism’s growing emphasis on individual freedom of expression after the Second World War led to an eventual unravelling and commercializing of the category, perhaps by way of noted celebrity stalker Andy Warhol. Such postmodern disarray certainly benefits me as I weigh the delicate balance between my pocketbook and my decorative tastes, but still I long for a time when artists challenged themselves instead of following any whimsical impulse that floated their way, as many seem to now. I’d rather live naked for a year in the Farnsworth House than walk through another masturbatory Venturi exhibit, for example, or hear another word about the “friendliness” or “exuberance” of the Las Vegas Strip. I’ve been there, and I don’t mind telling you the “friendliness” costs at least $200 and comes with a circus of crab lice.

More to the point, the assumption that pastiche itself is an art form, though not entirely objectionable, belies a deeper cultural conviction that places the consumer at the center of all art. After all, what is the promise of Vegas if not to see Paris, Egypt, and Times Square for $79 round-trip, plus the cost of getting shitfaced and whatever you lose at the slots? The consumer-as-Id model does little but infantilize the public, stuffing a neon pacifier in our mouths as soon as we open them to object.

To be sure, there are also objections to be made to modernism’s severity and exclusivity, but if we can’t have a wholesale return to the artistic rigor of modernism, let’s at least find some middle ground, some artistic space that is both challenging and inclusive, that encourages not consumption but enjoyment. Let’s take pleasure in the art itself, not in how little (or how much) we paid to see it.

As a closing note, I’d like to offer one last, late defense of The Gates, Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s recent installation in Central Park. Like modern art, The Gates took a simple concept (tall, rectangular archways draped with bright orange fabric) and followed it to an extreme (7,608 of those gates along the 23 miles of walkway in Central Park).

The duo’s project, though, unlike high modernism or postmodernism, sought to challenge their audience without mystifying us, or, from the other side, to embrace the public without coddling us. “Here are these gates,” they seemed to say. “We don’t care what you think of them but We’re glad you think it.”

The Interrolimb?: A New Punctuation Mark

I see a new combination of punctuation emerging, and demanding formal recognition. Consider an example in which the writer of an email, say, asks the recipient about possible meeting times. Some options for punctuation:

  1. Can we meet at any of these times: 12:30, 3:00, 4:30.
  2. Can we meet at any of these times? 12:30, 3:00, 4:30.
  3. Can we meet at any of these times: 12:30, 3:00, 4:30?
  4. Can we meet at any of these times?: 12:30, 3:00, 4:30.

Options 1 and 2 won’t work, as each one requires breaking grammatical form. In option 1, the writer abandons the requisite question mark; in option 2, no colon introduces the list of times, which thus becomes an incomplete sentence. Option 3 is more plausible, but the deferred question mark makes the opening interrogative clause “feel” wrong until one arrives at the end of the sentence.

Option 4, which I use often and hope will spread, accomplishes the goal of the sentence while keeping both question mark and colon in close proximity to the clauses to which they’re meant to apply.

I propose combining the two characters, ? and :, and naming the new mark the “interrolimb.”

The word follows the pattern established by the interrobang (a single character that can be used in place of !? or ?!), with a nod to the Greek roots of the word “colon”—which meant “limb” and so was also used in rhetoric to refer to clauses within sentences (just as we sometimes use “limb” to do).

As a first stab—and I’m no typographer—what do you think of these, set in Times?:

interrolimb 1Interrolimbs

(Thanks to Christian Schwartz for inspiring the second version.)

Reality TV and Parasocial Bonding

In a post at The Frontal Cortex on television’s ability to stave off loneliness, Jonah Lehrer writes:

I imagine we’re even more likely to form attachments to characters on reality TV shows, since the characters are purportedly “real.”

It’s a minor point in his post, but prompted a lengthy comment from me, which I repost here, slightly edited:

Against what was then a common thread in media studies, I’d argue that the real allure of reality TV is not voyeurism, as the old guard of the discipline would have had it, but parasocial relationships [which, as Lehrer notes, are “the kind of one sided pseudo-relationships we develop over time with people or characters we might see on TV or in the movies”].

The problem with the voyeurism account is that it doesn’t require narrative to function; it can work even without sound (as in hidden camera footage on all the shows that feature a bunch of housemates).

However, every “docusoap” from The Real World forward has focused on narrative and conflict above all, with moments of voyeuristic appeal merely intruding before commercial breaks, or appearing only in order to heighten narrative tension. (“I can’t believe those two hooked up!”)

The parasocial model, though, does require narrative to function. We don’t get to know people without understanding how they make choices in tough situations; any writer of fiction or screenplay would tell you as much. So, the ways that reality shows construct narratives serve to heighten our knowledge of and attachment to certain “characters” or personae.

(And the narratives are heavily constructed, as indicated by industry terms like “frankenbiting”—faking sound bites out of a hodge-podge of shorter phrases.)

In short, from a paper I wrote addressing the topic:

Social actors in the shows are not (or not primarily) objects of a distant, pathological gaze emanating from the viewer, but instead are involved in a perceived friendship bond, one which on an experiential level contains moderated versions of the highs and lows of normal, two-sided social relationships.

Intuitive Interfaces? No Such Thing

The way interface designers use the word “intuitive” has never set well with me. It’s a good way to get people to know why an interface works well, but it’s inaccurate. Over on Johnny Holland, Vicky Tenacki writes:

Digital devices can never be inherently ‘intuitive’, as the fact that they deal in abstraction automatically means that actions must be arbitrary. (An aside: for those who argue that much of gestural and time based interactions are intuitive, remember that this assumes a Western way of looking at space and time. Anthropologists would tell you that there are other ways.) In other words, interfaces aren’t ‘intuitive’, they’re ‘intuited’: before that, there’s nothing ‘intuitive’ about them at all.

Agreed. I don’t think we should stop using the word, but it’s worth pausing once in a while to recognize that the most “intuitive” interfaces only seem so because they adhere to (or successfully predict) a set of conventions and expectations and behaviors.

When you get as close to cognitive psychology as interface designers should, “intuition” takes on a technical meaning: immediate knowledge that comes from someplace besides conscious reasoning, however much the process might seem conscious to the subject. (That conscious / unconscious contradiction helps explain, among other things, the most effective American politics of the last half-century and the human compulsion to believe in the supernatural.)

When we call an interface “intuitive,” though, we really mean that it’s easy to figure out. That’s a very different claim about the brains and bodies we’re discussing.


In written fiction, if a story, novel, etc., is narrated in the third person, then the story has no narrator—only a narration, composed by an author and read by a reader.

More precisely, unless a character in the diegesis narrates, there is no narrator—only narration.

This also alleviates a trouble of those who try to analogize fictional and cinematic narrators. It turns out that, in the latter, as the former, there is no narrator—only narration—unless a character in the diegesis narrates.

And then, in film, there must still be a narration, since the character’s narrating represents only a part of the storytelling; there remain editing, performance, music, composition of the shot, and all the other extra-linguistic devices.