Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Personae and Voice at the Smithsonian

Last Friday I took the Metro from Maryland into D.C. to visit some spaceships and dinosaurs. We don't have free museums in Chicago, so I wanted to get my fill of gratis peeks into the past and the future before heading home to the land of the $12 admission charge. I wish I had thought to bring a notepad. But I was only in the market for some gazing at gnarly bivalve shells, nasty-looking trilobites, and graceful crinoids. I didn't expect to find a museum wing full of little illustrated texts, or rather, one big text. An installation text, if you will! (You don't have to.)

The paleobiology wing was divided into not ages or epochs, but acts, like a play. The personae dramatis were introduced as if they were taking the stage, and at the end of each act we said goodbye to the extinct heroes of the previous epoch. The little plaques flowed together nicely across the millions of years, all keeping with the "play" package, but never stooping to cheesy references to the structure itself.

Even more impressive than the clever format was the clarity, surety, and overall voice of the prose. The first longer plaque I read gave me a tingly feeling, like it was something I would try to write if I knew anything about ancient coral species. Not that my prose is worthy of being preserved at the Smithsonian, but my point is this science writer (perhaps a scientist, perhaps a writer, maybe both) could write unlike a scientist, and unlike a museum collections manager. He or she wrote like a writer.

So seldom does one find a real "voice" behind those plastic descriptive squares that I was quite taken aback. Someone was telling me the story of how oysters learned to cling to their shells, and how nautilus formations evolved to prevent snails from being washed across the sea floor. The writer even used simple literary devices like repetition and alliteration to keep the descriptions fresh and readable. Bivalves burgeoned, grazers were greeted, and snails refused to become "backsliders."

I was charmed and enthralled by this little drama, and I found myself looking at those empty shells, saddened by their pending doom in the tale, and trying to imagine what it was like to be a snail 100 million years ago. Then I realized that sea animals don't know when they're living, and I tried to imagine being an animal without time. So well written did I find this semi-creative text, that exhibits which would normally only hold my interest for a few moments, and which I would look at in no particular order, had me riveted and engaged in the story, wanting to know what happens next.

The voice was speaking scientific facts. I took this into consideration. Can a voice speaking conjectures, emotions, or ideas have the same kind of quiet conviction? The descriptions at the art museums seem to point to "no." Every one of them attempts a criticism of the art it is describing, almost always unsuccessfully. (See, I keep talking about the description as doing the work, because it doesn't even seem like a human wrote it!) Perhaps if the art writers stuck to the closest things they have to facts (materials, dates, schools, contemporary issues), they could weave a better tale about the blobby Twombly painting or the Jeff Koons bathtub monstrosity. Or maybe not. Art begs criticism. Whereas the science writers only need to talk about what they know to overwhelm the visitor with true information, the art writers have to add some widely held critical views to fill up their plastic squares.

I have always found museum descriptions of paintings, specimens, dioramas, whatever, to be tedious. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History's Paleobiological wing was an amazing departure from mediocre writing and a creative way to present a huge volume of specimens that span unthinkable time periods.

Now if only the "description writers" at the art museums would take a cue from this kind of museum work, and make their collections more approachable and intelligible to a skeptical public by weaving a tale, or at least writing a little better and refraining from bad criticism. They like art -- you'd think they would have thought of a creative way to put a collection into a text before the scientists could! But I'm confusing art and literature again. Leave it to the art curators to sort the paintings. Perhaps, once that's done, they should call in a writer to describe them. (Wait -- is the description even necessary?)


  1. Art begs criticism, as you say. But it also does beg description: I totally agree. In literary studies, we're often too quick to think that description will end up in paraphrase--which, by the way, isn't probably as much of a heresy as Cleanth Brooks thought it was. Description used to be a part of rhetoric in general: you would introduce your topic, set up your argument, make your point, and then describe what your point involved in order to get to your conclusion (look at Sidney's Defense of Poetry, for example, which proceeds rigorously under this classical rhetorical rubric). The problem, according to the traditional understanding of the phenomenon, is that description gained autonomy once empiricism started... and the Enlightenment therefore killed the unity of rhetoric. But this narrative is, I think, suspect... and I'd think you would agree with me. 1) Because it says that rhetoric was unified to begin with, when only at a particular point (around the time of Sidney) did it gain the particular character that people attribute to it, and 2) this history to begin with is being told from the humanities' perspective. For science, description is everywhere! For us, it's too much of a particular mode--both carrying the weight of its rhetorical use as well as the weight of its subsequent use chiefly in the sciences... I don't know... I just had been looking at the merits of description for a while (there is a great Yale French Studies all on it from the 70s which you would like), and trying to figure out why we need to impose criticism, as you say, instead of letting it do its work (perhaps the reason is indeed our fear of the non-human... we begin talking about "it," as I have here... but then again what's so wrong about letting something function? and is it really so mechanical to begin with? the narrative I gave above was some attempt to say no to this latter thought...). But I think one thing follows from all this... aren't you just a bit angry at the museum's ability to just use the vocabulary of art whenever it wants? In other words, while we art (and literary) critics are perhaps too suspicious of the scientists and their facts, I think many people in the humanities feel the scientists also lack a certain similar suspicion about art--something that would make them recoil a bit more when encroaching on our territory... Again, that might be totally misguided... I think your post is an attempt to try and get past this resentment, and I'm all for it... I just wonder if you've seen the same causes of the problem I have...

    Regardless, I won't hesitate to describe this as a beautiful post!

  2. Thanks Mike, you put this into more of a theoretical (and historical!) perspective than I've been capable of this summer. I only touched on the "speaking facts" as the difference between what the Smithsonian folks and the art folks are doing. Leave it to the Empiricists to ruin everything! Even rhetoric.

    I do love old Cleanth, and perhaps that's one place my art description fears come from. To tell you the truth I was so excited by the museum that I didn't detect any resentment at the scientists burning within, but after the fact I can see what you mean about being angry at "their" access to "our" vocabulary.

    Something in my gut just makes me recoil from those art museum descriptions, and I think I'm working at putting my finger on what it is that's so repugnant about that particular kind of description. The actual description of that Koons "sculpture" at The Art Institute in Chicago is what set me off! Gag!

    As for this "it" on the little plaques, I don't suppose I fear the non-human in most texts, but in some situations being spoken to by a ghost voice is unsatisfying. The scientist's voice, whether it should have hesitated to use literary devices or not, brought those little spiny shelled guys to life! The non-voice at the Art Institute just makes me want to keep walking with shielded eyes right past the piece it's describing, as if it has robbed the piece of its voice as well, and nothing but plaster lumps and blotched canvas fills those drafty, Bauhaus-y rooms.

    This might get me into a whole new line of thought about whether criticism really needs to be so voiceless and "it"-like. I've never been able to pull that off myself, so naturally I'm a defender of the persona behind the criticism. We do all kinds of violent things to "primary" texts with great human presence in them, and we also allow them to do things to themselves. I think criticism can do its work through a person -- most of the dudes we read and enjoy definitely have a personality that keeps us reading! It might me that their criticism functions just fine, and non-mechanically, without it (like if someone paraphrased their ideas and the ideas still came across as insightful and elegant), but I've found myself cleaving to the critics who've got a kind of page charisma that seems to come from their writer's voice and nowhere else.

    Been looking at Heideggerian sorts of hermeneutics (haha) and trying to feel out the kind of interpretation it is that I do when I read. I'm lately confusing myself and waffling on things, and I think it has much to do with being a writerly type as well as a critical type. You're right to call me out on fearing the mechanical. I blame Heidegger, Schlegel, the whole lot of philosopher poets!

  3. Oh I didn't mean to call anybody out! You seem quite open to "it," here, and seemed to get at that odd thing where the description does not just describe, but peels away from our effort to control it as it concerns itself more and more with thoroughness or factuality... doing the the work by itself... so I brought it up.

    But that's all too complex and I don't want to bog things down. I'll just make some quick remarks: The task of reading yourself reading is amazing, no? Outreading yourself... it's primarily what I think I do now, I think! It's what is certainly leading me to think about method, or what really makes us want to use theory in literature, or adopting a way of looking at a text to get at what that text is saying...

    Also, I think persona is important... there are very few in our business, yes... probably because we are mostly horrible writers. All the more reason we need writer critics!

    And on that note, I'll just select a few gems: "But in some situations being spoken to by a ghost voice is unsatisfying," which is just hilarious understatement, and "blobby Twombly," which I won't forget the next time I go to MoMa.

    PS, have you read Samuel Johnson? There's a writer critic. He might make your predicament seem more like a virtue--which I think it is. I went to a meeting this year on publishing articles. The one thing that faculty concluded we needed more of was skillful, fresh word choice. If you can talk critically about something, but also creatively, as long as you keep sustaining your argument, or rather, as long as your creativity enlightens your argument (and it can do that), there's no conflict between criticism and writing here: it will only be rewarded. Johnson, having done his dictionary (but also just being a genius), seems to me to be the best at this, creating distinctions that are helpful ultimately by just being creatively precise, if I can put it that way... Critics get stuck in a horrible vocabulary--I know I do--even if they are trying to write better. Someone who can create argument as they right, multiply distinctions and then control their proliferation... ah, it's like a breath of fresh air!


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