March  2011

fetish,  scopophilia  &  perpetual  liminality

Secret Snow: TV juvenescence

HOME          ARCHIVES         PREFACE        OAQ          BACKSTORY          BIBLIOGRAPHY           COMMENT


CLICK IMAGE ABOVE TO VIEW MONTAGEhttp://www.hollandwilde.com/theory/Secret%20Snow.movhttp://www.hollandwilde.com/theory/Secret%20Snow.movshapeimage_1_link_0

Silent Snow, Secret Snow   (full text)

by Conrad Aiken (1934)

“Just why it should have happened, or why it should have happened just when it did, he could not, of course, possibly have said; nor could it even have occurred to him to ask.  The thing was above all a secret, something to be preciously concealed from Mother and Father; and to that very fact it owed an enormous part of its deliciousness.  It was like a peculiarly beautiful trinket to be carried unmentioned in one's trouser-pocket -- a rare stamp, an old coin, a few tiny gold links found trodden out of shape on the path in the park, a pebble of carnelian, a sea shell distinguishable from all others by an unusual spot or stripe -- and, as if it were anyone of these, he carried around with him everywhere a warm and persistent and increasingly beautiful sense of possession.  Nor was it only a sense of possession -- it was also a sense of protection.  It was as if, in some delightful way, his secret gave him a fortress, a wall behind which he could retreat into heavenly seclusion.”

      This appropriation and critical-montage video project takes a strange new tact for me in that it draws inwards toward my own liminality, which began far-away in thin fleeting shadows of a twilight boyhood moment, standing naked at the threshold of betwixt and between.  But that alone does not make this video remix unusual, for liminality (here being stasis between real life and image life) eventually presents itself to us all. 

     Conrad Aiken (1889 –1973), of course, most likely confronted his liminal threshold at the age of twelve... upon his sudden discovery of his parents (blood cousins to each other) both lying dead on the floor in their home, done in by his father’s own hand.  This very real image, this scene of Oedipal Interruptus, must have helped partially flatten Aiken’s reality into image, thus launching his normative progression into the mystical quotidian realm of watching.  How could it not?  For we are not born with a love to watch the world pruriently flattened into pictures, rather we are seduced to love through them because of their thingness and commodity.  And once so easily seduced, with our gaze congealed in specularity, can there be any turning back... or any advancement?  Hard telling.  Liminal seduction appears uniquely.

     Here in this video I attempt to locate a personal unique threshold using Aiken’s short story.  I attempt to identify this liminal transom, so heavily weighted towards visual materialism and commodity.  I parallel this passageway to the place of some mystical nonpareil flash of pubescence, a vicarious and shimmering portal where all the world convulses into pictures, retracting and reappearing as if through gauze-scrim (perpetual snow).  My video appropriates both Aiken and this boy’s passage for considering this liminal flash: when fetish inspirits the false law of equivalence, when equivalence itself conjoins in fetish... when all is tricked into pictures. 

     I too negotiate this threshold -- this fetish-image reality where subject blurs with object.  For it is at that moment we conjure a new vividness of optical tactility, plunging us into a plane where the object itself and its visual copy merge.   This liminality resides where all my projects do.

     As Walter Benjamin wrote in his Arcades Project, “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.”  Indeed, Benjamin called this the “sex appeal of the inorganic”... “I can no longer think what I want to think.  My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.”  But this video montage is more about the instant before epiphany, floating weightless before transitional puberty, before our recognition and embrace of non-somatic surrogates... at the very portal of voyeurism that “offers itself to the eye as fleetingly and transitorily as a constellation of stars”. 

     And so, this video appropriates not to build an interpretation of Aiken, but to proffer a glimpse of what could be a last moment of visual innocence -- through Aiken -- as a reminder of guilt, loss and tragic transgression which only become imaginable when pictures enter into the family romance of human consequence.  As WJT Mitchell asks, “Do we get pictures, or do pictures get us?”  What young boy could ever answer?


All Lovely Things

by Conrad Aiken (1916)

All lovely things will have an ending,

All lovely things will fade and die,

And youth, that’s now so bravely spending,

Will beg a penny by and by.

Fine ladies all are soon forgotten,

And goldenrod is dust when dead,

The sweetest flesh and flowers rotten

And cobwebs tent the brightest head.

Come back, true love!  Sweet youth return! --

But time goes on, and will, unheeding.

Though hands will reach, and eyes will yearn,

And the wild days set true hearts bleeding.

Come back, true love!  Sweet youth remain! --

But goldenrod and daisies wither,

And over them blows autumn rain,

They pass, they pass, and know not whither.

Over the Darkened City

excerpt, by Conrad Aiken (1917)

I bound her to me in all soft ways,

I bound her to me in a net of days,

Yet now she has gone in silence and said no word.

How can we face these dazzling things, I ask you?

There is no use: we cry: and are not heard.

This Image or Another

excerpt, by Conrad Aiken (1932)

Walk with me world, upon my right hand walk,

speak to me Babel, that I may strive to assemble

of all these syllables a single word

before the purpose of speech is gone.


excerpt, by Conrad Aiken (nd)

A dangerous red flame fierce as smoke,
And his young voice trembled when he spoke.
Meanwhile his eyes, with hungry stare,
Fed at the miracle of her hair;
And her white hand that moved so slow,
Combing the long hair to and fro,
Drew to a rhythmical delight
His young blood innocent till that night.
Behind her head a lantern hung,
A small red flame, where from were flung
Goblin shadows to spin and sprawl
On canvas roof and canvas wall;
And while she combed these shadows went
Dizzily, silently, blurred and bent,
Came out, shrank back, and swiftly fled,
A lift of her arm or toss of head.
She laughed, to watch his bashful stare:
Had he seen no woman comb her hair?--
She drew it out and coiled it then
To heap up on her head again;
Between her lips she held each pin
Till place was found to push it in,
Yet, holding them, could every while,
Manage, in spite of them, to smile.
And when she smiled her sweetness came
Through all his flesh like gusty flame,
Rich dissolution, sharp and sweet,
Making his full heart pause, to beat,
Before it hurried to keep in time
With measured rain, a delicate chime.
Backward, it seemed, on all his days
She shed from her heart a windy blaze,
And all that once had pained him so,
Somehow, in that bewitching glow,
Grew beautiful and far and strange;
He felt his buried childhood change
And blossom in him and grow fair
As if it fed on magic air...

“Listen,” it said. “We’ll tell you the last most beautiful and secret story. A story that gets smaller and smaller, that comes inward, instead of opening like a flower. It is a flower that becomes a seed, a little cold seed.  Do you hear?  We are leaning closer to you…”  The hiss was now becoming a roar -- the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow -- but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.


      Television is where I learnt my place in scopophilia, but perfected not just in TV alone.  For learning the preference to watch is on-going everywhere at every age.  I see myself mesmerized wet and clean before the bathroom mirror; or elsewhere fantasizing and fetishizing the young girl sitting before me in junior high school; or gazing through department store catalogues to hesitate at representations of translucent flawless skin posing especially for me, begging: “Gee, I hope you like me.”  All becomes irresistible visuality, like shiny secret objects in a pocket.  Any willing image will do... even Roland Barthes’ mother, even my mother.   

     At this liminal threshold, the world shimmers with whispering televisual seduction and promise (perpetual snow).  It beckons and offers itself to me as an immediate object for desire.  Luckily, the liminal world is always safer, a phantom between the places of somewhere else.  So should I cross this transom to conjoin the infantile fray of image-making-being?   Or should I remain in static pre-pubescence, forsaking the ever-aggressive magic of voracious imagistic realities?  The death of innocence is a requirement on either side.  

     Facing this choice between antediluvian worlds before interminable representation, or passing through toward the necessary ascendancy of spectacle, most of us remain in stasis, near mid-point, to remain suckled at this threshold.  For liminality is the sweet-spot of endless seduction, the private reward of the soundless, voyeuristic weight of melancholia.  To pass through this sparkling and into the realm of image-death we must kill what is left behind, and we must assume responsibility.  Better maybe to maintain this somnambulism of perpetual liminality as long as possible, where we need only watch, infantilized at the proscenium, ever-entertained in TV juvenescence.  After all, isn’t it enough just to watch these unspeakable, unnameable secret image worlds?  What young boy could ever answer?

      I choose to pass through liminality -- to another side.  Indeed, today I make this montage, mixing Kearney’s 1966 production with a 1951 “Miss U.S. Television Contest” broadcast (plus static-hiss snow).  In the spirit of Sergei Eisenstein’s “intellectual montage”, this montage is a critical collision of two ideas in hopes of eliciting a third.  And as with all the projects I now make, it is but a tool here to wrestle and write the ambiguous gape of perpetual liminal fetish, to provoke and unbridle the fixity of human scopophila.  And with every video, I again build this threshold for myself in order to reclaim... in order to pass though the hypnotic rush of representation on my own terms with (C)ritical, distanced perspective.  It is the strategy of good watching over bad watching.

      For good and for bad we all eventually find ourselves at the doorstep of liminality.  Here we must come to terms with imagistic reality and its “heavenly seclusion”.  Only sometimes is it on our own terms; most times choosing simply happens to us.  But be sure, disregarding our own liminal moments leave us monocled and impotent.  Indeed, lingering at the threshold offers little more than juvenescent fetish.  If we pass through it, however, we may discover for ourselves an acknowledged power to negotiate the magical seduction inside image-worlds.


"Ah, but just wait!  Wait till we are alone together!  Then I will begin to tell you something new!  Something white! something cold! something sleepy! something of cease, and peace, and the long bright curve of space!  tell them to go away.  Banish them.  Refuse to speak.  Leave them, go upstairs to your room, turn out the light and get into bed -- I will go with you, I will be waiting for you, I will tell you a better story than Little Kay of the Skates, or The Snow Ghost -- I will surround your bed, I will close the windows, pile a deep drift against the door, so that none will ever again be able to enter,  Speak to them!..."  It seemed as if the little hissing voice came from a slow white spiral of falling flakes in the corner by the front window -- but he could not be sure.”

      Undoubtedly, Gene Kearney (1930-1979) willfully confronted this liminality at some point as well.  For Kearney not only chose to adapt Aiken’s short story classic for screen, he also produced, directed, photographed and edited this 1966 TV version of Silent Snow, Secret Snow.  Kearney’s film production of the short story is quite respectful to Aiken with its haunting ethereal fidelity and elegant simplicity.  Indeed, Kearney and Aiken are ‘kinsmen’; both were schooled at Harvard.  But while Kearney graduated with honors and Aiken barely receiving his AB, it was Aiken who when on to carouse with the likes of T.S. Elliot, eventually becoming one of America’s preeminent poets. 

     Kearney, in contrast, is best known as a frequent script writer for Kojak, the forgettable 1970‘s American TV series starring Telly Savalas.  Yet Kearney, like Aiken, worked for many years in many styles and roles, for instance: Lou GrantNight Gallery (an extension of the ever-popular Twilight Zone), and garnering writing credits for the cult favorite Night of the Lepus.  But it should be noted that these works came well after Kearney’s TV version of  Silent Snow, Secret Snow.

    Moreover in 1964, two years before making Silent Snow, Secret Snow, Kearney wrote the script (and possibly directed under the pseudonym: Ferenc Leroget) for yet another cult classic, The Monster of Camp Sunshine or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nature (excerpt linked left).  But this too, I suppose, is neither here nor there for this pedigree is rather unexceptional, which is more to the point of this project.  But it may also suggest that Silent Snow, Secret Snow was expressive acknowledgment of Kearney’s own boyhood liminal moment.  For every image maker, with their heightened sensibilities, must at some point broach this passage, one which unrelentingly conspires to seduce anew at the threshold of mimesis and alterity. 

    Indeed, images at every turn today are increasingly made by an increasing number of people in increasing permutation with increasing consequences -- consequences which un-sanely transmography everything in-frame in ever-higher definition... for all to see.  And where images rush in, each of us begins to inhabit the point-for-point correspondence of the body to the body part... of a truth to its liminality... to its picture.  It is a place of correspondence that cripples the conjugal relationship between body and reality, and cleaves judicious blending of two distinct realities.

    Often unbeknownst to the viewer, it is here in our rush to embrace the false promise of representation that the marvelous fidelity of reality is violently masked -- crushing and miniaturizing a world too grand to contemplate into a breathless exhilaration that entire worlds could be copied in this way.  It is this sensuous erasure through vicarious surrogates that creep in the night to both terrorize and entice a boy in his bed.  Ultimately each of us, standing at this threshold, must choose adaptation without acculturation, for every occurrence has no precedent. 

     Jet-black hair on white-fleshed nakedness, the voluptuous female making mockery of, yet heightening, strange desires coming together in flickering moments of clear elusive image.  IT...open-mouthed with heaving breasts in little multicolored performances of civilized magic ejaculated against the dark backdrop of jungled pixilation.  Who exactly is seen and who is looking inside this world of undisciplined pageantry newly proffered as: Image?  What young boy could ever answer?

      Like alternating electrical current, the eye must also grasp what the hand cannot touch.  But even so, must we cross this epiphanic passageway into some other world of Image-Other mastery?  Not everyone does.  For it is safer to remain alone, impuissant, in this darkened liminal doorway and simply allow graven images to wash over us.  This is where I attempt to locate young Paul Hasleman in Secret Snow -- and myself auto-ethnographically.  Because it is familiar.  It summons exactly the yet-unrequited instant of Nanook before the phonograph; of Damoure, Lam and Illo before their Jaguar; of Gilligan before his Ginger.  And it sums exactly what happened to me -- through broadcast television.  (Only to be reclaimed yet again through critical media ethnography.)


NOTE:  As I write this text, I sit again in a kind of fulsome liminality, for it is exactly equinox.  And true to form, it has indeed been snowing heavily outside my window all day long, silently and secretly muffling my entire world.  Do we make projects, or do projects make us?

Books on my desk during this project:

Barthes, Rolland. (1980). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

Baudrillard, J. & Guillaume, M. (2008). Radical Alterity. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Brauchler, B & Postill, J. (eds.). (2010). Theorizing Media and Practice. New York: Berghahn Books.

Brill, Dorothee. (2010). Shock and the Senseless in Dada and Fluxus. Hanover: Dartmouth University Press.

Elkins, James. (Ed.). (2008). Photography Theory. New York: Routledge.

Emerson, Caryl. (1997). The First One Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jones, Amelia. (2003). The Feminist and Visual Culture Reader. New York: Routledge.

Madison, D. Soyini. (2005). Critical Ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Mitchell, W. J. T. (2005). What Do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mulvey, Laura. (1996). Fetishism and Curiosity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Schechner, Richard. (2003). Performance Theory. New York: Routledge

Taussig, Michael. (1993). Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge.




An American

resident of Canada, experimenting with new forms of critical media ethnography in Cultural Farming.