Volume Six, Number Seven............October 1982

Children of Perez

WE were sitting around minding our own business, thinking of bilingual education and the perpetual preservation of absolutely everyone's cultural heritage, however loathsome, when the New York Times suddenly told us about Demetrio Perez, Jr., a Cuban émigré who has become a City Commissioner in Miami.

Perez is mad as hell because Martin Bregman, who produced Serpico, intends to make a movie about a Cuban émigré who makes it big in Miami as a drug peddler. From one side of his mouth, Perez says that this will "reflect badly" on Cubans, but the other side is not interested in Cubanity; it says that the movie would be dandy if the drug peddler were a communist Cuban. (Perez would also settle for a Jewish drug peddler, since he makes no objection to the fact that there are many such in the same movie.) And furthermore, Perez didn't like Serpico either. He says that "it tried to affect the credibility of the New York City Police Department." Accordingly, he has drawn up a draft resolution that would keep Bregman from filming his movie in sun-drenched Miami.

This is what we wonder: Does the political philosophy of Demetrio Perez, Jr., flow from the values inherent in a "cultural heritage" that our own government is busily doing all that it can to preserve in the schools, or is the man just some kind of a fool who has not thought about what he said? We had better hope the latter; the former promises the death of the Republic.

In either case, we'd like to send a message to Perez. Here it is:

Remember always, Perez, that it was from that land to this that you fled, whatever your reasons. And that you found this land worth fleeing to tells us something about that cultural heritage and this one. Few flee from this to that, Perez. Few flee into societies built on long ages of obedience to traditional orthodoxy and humble respect for authority, societies where some factions are not subject to being "badly reflected" upon, where no one would even try--for it is the very trying, successful or not, that you have condemned--to fool around with the credibility of the police, and where movie-makers do exactly as they are told by City Commissioners.

In the cultural heritage that you chose not to leave behind at the border, it has indeed always been true that some people are protected, and by law as well as by custom, not only from injury but even offense. So it is that you seek for some people, policemen and non-communist Cubans, special protection, which must place special restrictions on all other people. That arrangement is abhorrent to our cultural heritage, in which "it is our Right, it is our Duty" to oppose with measures far sterner than offense any who would institute it among us.

And that means you.

The founders of this Republic, one of whom wrote the words you didn't recognize, were not ignorant of the political theories implicit in your cultural heritage. They knew them well, all too well. And they despised them and rejected them utterly. And they gave us, confirmed us in, a heritage that flows not, like yours, from Canossa, but from Runnymede. And that was damned lucky for you, Perez.

You are probably not vicious, but only ignorant, to propose for us the very political principles by which one gang of tyrants came to oust another in Cuba. The perpetual recurrence of usurpation and counter-usurpation does seem embedded in that cultural heritage of yours, doesn't it? And if it is not embedded in ours, if we have not suffered the bloody grand right-and-left of princes, priests, and proles panting after privilege, there must be a reason. You could come to know and understand that reason, Perez, and you should. It is your Duty.

We welcome you to this land, but you can't bring Cuba, neither your Cuba nor anyone else's. Now that you are one of us, and by choice, it is our cultural heritage, in which the preservation of a movie-maker's Right is a city commissioner's Duty, that you must struggle to defend.

Frankly, Perez, we do not expect you to understand this message. But we hope you'll try, if only for the sake of your children, and their children. For the day may well come, through the sheer force of numbers combined with the corrosive labors of our sycophantic educationists, when your cultural heritage will outweigh ours. In that happy day, your dreams will be fulfilled. No one will try to "affect the credibility" of the police. Movie-makers will obey city commissioners.

And in that day, Perez, to what new land will your children flee?

Camera Obscura

My photographs establish the iconic, dramatic and psychological roles of contemporary high fashion photography. In other words, my intent is to identify the signifier, while eliminating the signified, simultaneously creating an independent "work."

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

WITTGENSTEIN probably had something much subtler in mind when he came up with that famous line, but the only translation we can manage just now is: If you don't know what the hell you're talking about, maybe you ought to keep your trap shut.

Not bad for a logical positivist, eh? But there is another and far zippier school of, well, not exactly "thought," but of something, surely, in which the counterpart of W's Proposition Seven reads: You got to I-DEN--tify the Signifier, E-LIM--inate the Signified, don't mess with Mr. Inbetween.

In schools, this persuasion has provided us Intrapersonal Appreciation through Holistic Writing, a form of Primal Screed Therapy in which the student lets it all hang out and the teacher pronounces it all peachy. In art, it has brought us what is so insignificantly expressed (which is the way to do it) in the passage above: that nouvelle vague of Gaga, Son of Dada.

That utterance is the "work" (and we joyfully endorse the iconic role of her quotation marks) of one Vikky Alexander, a photographer, some of whose "works" were among those to be seen last May at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont. One of our agents was there, of course, and sent in copies of the artists' statements of--well, of something, no doubt, but of what, it's hard to say. Mostly they identified the signifiers as practiced eliminators of the signified.

The most practiced is probably a certain James Welling. He is serious. He doesn't even put quotation marks around "work." He doesn't do works anyway. He seeks productions. Here is part of a production he found:

My work challenges the photographic ethos wherein the camera witnesses mundane details of appearance. I seek a photographic production which evokes as much as it reveals, and which resists the intelligence as long as possible. To shear the photograph of representational references produces an image of multivalent significances.

That, at least, settles an old controversy in one special case. One picture that resists the intelligence is worth forty-eight words that do likewise. So art does instruct and delight after all!

And furthermore

HERE's another thought-provoking, but intelligence-resisting example of Artspeak, always anxious for to shine in the high esthetic line. This is from a drama review, the deed of a David E. Jarnes, in a recent Artweek:

The need to introduce explicit political commentary into the reflexive systems of postmodern performance has been very powerful for the past few years. Yet when this extreme form of content is incorporated into a structure of formal relations, there is a constant danger that it itself will be reduced to the mere form of a content. In similar fashion, the authentic "expressiveness" of recent neoexpressionisms, with whatever social commentary this may be thought to imply, tends to seep away--contextualized by the marketing and critical systems of the art world and leaving the radical impulse beached on its own self-consciousness as recycling, an ironic reinstallation of a mode whose possibilities of expressing anything other than its own situation in art history have disappeared.

Those who talk like that have influence; while we know that they speak nonsense, we know not with exactly what sense to contradict them. After all, we can hardly take an opposing stand when a man asserts that an extreme form of content can be reduced to the mere form of a content. That is not false or wrong, but simply unintelligible. There is no righting it.

How can a human mind rest in such utterance? Nature, or nurture?

That you may brood the better on the puzzle, we send you the passage below, with its cheerful assumption as to "the mind's endless endeavor."

SO FAR from verbal language being a "compromise for a language of intuition"--a thin, but better-than-nothing substitute for real experience--language, well used, is a completion and does what the intuitions of sensation by themselves cannot do. Words are the meeting points at which regions of experience which can never combine in sensation or intuition, come together. They are the occasion and the means of that growth which is the mind's endless endeavor to order itself. That is why we have language. It is no mere signalling system. It is the instrument of all our distinctively human development, of everything in which we go beyond the other animals. I. A. Richards--The Philosophy of Rhetoric

[ED. NOTE: This is a half-size edition. We had to keep it small so that we could send you the enclosed supplement without incurring the 85 percent surcharge levied on any portion of the second ounce.]

Page Five

An Occasional Supplement to
The Underground Grammarian

Guarding the Guardians of the Guards

WE have been hearing both from and about groups of citizens who have organized themselves as guardians of education and monitors of texts and techniques. Those who have written to us have praised our efforts, claiming a common cause and expecting that we will praise, and promote, their efforts. We will not. They are decent and well-meaning people disturbed about the obvious disorders of education, no doubt, but their understanding of "education" is as thoughtless and self-serving as that of the self-styled professionals of education who brought those disorders upon us.

These guardians of education, while they differ in some ways, all seem proponents of the back-to-basics frenzy, in which we find no merit. We champion mastery, and we mean mastery, not minimum competence, in language and number not because it is the goal of education but because it is absurd to imagine an educated person who lacks it. Having that mastery, we can make of knowledge the raw material of thoughtfulness and judgment. Lacking it, we can make of knowledge nothing more than the substance of training and the content of indoctrination.

The back-to-basics enthusiasts, who never fail to note the paramount importance of being able to read want-ads and to write letters of application, treat the skills of number and language as subdivisions of vocational training to be imparted and done with, as though reading a micrometer and reading a paragraph were acts of the same nature. In one sense, literacy is a trivial skill, easily acquired and neither more nor less valuable than those darlings of the schools, the "life skills," things like shoe tying and crossing at the corner. In another sense it is an endless and demanding enterprise that is also the ground of our knowledge and understanding, but an enterprise little likely to entice the minds of those taught literacy as a life skill.

All unwittingly, therefore, the guardians preach the same degradation of literacy that the educationists have so long practiced, and, strange as it might seem at first, for the same reason. The greatest mischief done in the schools is the attempt to inculcate certain presumed "values," but the guardians understand that less than perfectly. They fancy that the mischief lies not in the inculcation of values but in the inculcation of the educationists' values rather than the guardians' values. All would be well, they imagine, if only the school would foster the "right" values. And that is why they must make of literacy a "basic" life skill rather than a way of life. If you want to foster in children certain values and preclude others, you must take care that they do not develop an appetite for knowledge and the skill to make of it the raw material of thoughtfulness and judgment. Jefferson's words are an assertion of faith, not fact; fact may be "self-evident," but "truth" is not. If it were, earth would be fair, and all men glad and wise.

There is a momentous difference between coming to believe what we have often been told and deciding, as Jefferson did, out of knowledge and thoughtful judgment, to "hold" something true. The former is a kind of slavery and easy to achieve; the latter is difficult, for it requires knowledge and governed intellect, in other words, an education, but it is freedom.

Freedom is, to be sure, frightening. There is no telling what values free people will choose to hold. Decent and well-meaning guardians of values were horrified by the monstrous principles of the Declaration of Independence. It is, of course, out of fear that the guardians preach the inculcation of values, fear of knowledge and thought.

Most of the guardians urge things like the study of history and economics "emphasizing the benefits of the free enterprise system." We wholeheartedly share the guardians' devotion to the free enterprise system, but they obviously don't share our equal devotion to the study of history and economics, which will inevitably bring the knowledge of some facts, events, and ideas that are not at all conducive to our wholehearted devotion to the free enterprise system. When we study history from a certain point of view, we do not study history. If our students some day discover, as in fact they will, that we were sometimes mistaken in our knowledge of history, they will probably forgive us. But if they discover as in fact they do, that we have misrepresented or omitted knowledge in the service of some values, they will learn to distrust both us and those values, as indeed they should--and apparently do.

If our values are grounded, as we usually imagine they are, in evidence and reason, then those who can see the evidence and who know the ways of reason are likely to adopt them. However, if we find ourselves tampering with the evidence and tempering the power of language, the medium of reason, then perhaps we ought to re-evaluate our values. Should that prove unacceptable, we should at least be able to see that our interest would be best served not by asking the state to promulgate our values but by forbidding the state to promulgate any values at all. If the state can espouse some value that we love in spite of evidence and reason, it can, with equal justice, espouse others that we do not love.

The guardians do differ in one important way from the educationists. The guardians have lost their nerve, while the educationists still have plenty. The guardians, although they often wave the flag, do not truly hold the most basic value of a free society: the belief that, given the choice, knowing and thoughtful people will choose to continue in a free society. Those who do hold that value must guard against the guardians. But not in the classroom.

Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre; nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.

The Underground

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