Saturday, February 19, 2011

5 sentence close-read of SF Chronicle's review of Olmec exhibition

I have been ruminating all day on a review of the new Olmec exhibit at the deYoung Museum published today in the San Francisco Chronicle. I should say that the review was intended to be positive, to encourage the reading audience to go see the exhibit. In fact, it reads mostly as an innocuous, fairly favorable endorsement--both of which only serve to say that the author will not be my target here. Instead, having viewed the exhibit myself last night, I was struck by a variation in pathos read as "the grief we took away" from seeing the same thing. Vague and maybe even cryptic as that may sound, our (the reviewer's and mine) observing experiences were akin to two of the five blind men touching the elephant in the Indian parable. But let me stop being so dramatic...

There are really just five sentences in the piece that contain some triggering language. I've decided just to deal with those. It's just one of those things that I need to take apart if only to see what they create when reassembled. I don't intend to make any attempt to put a bow on this. I'm not trying to write an essay here, but just sharing my process with you.

Let me leave my introductory comments at that and get to it...


The five sentences below appeared in the sequence in which I have reproduced them here. For whatever editorial reason they were actually 4 separate paragraphs of 1, 2, 1 and 1 sentences each. I've numbered each paragraph and posted some notes for your consideration.


#1 "The museum has sensibly kept chat panels and label copy sparse, refraining from tendering scholarly speculation as fact.

#2 This leaves us largely free to experience "Olmec" through confrontation with the mystery and raw presence of ancient artifacts. It spurs us, in the age of cascading connectivity, to imagine just how alien to our own world picture many other civilizations have been.

#3 "Olmec" amplifies this realization by ending with a section showing how the Maya and other cultures that immediately succeeded the Olmec adapted something of their aesthetics and cultural practices, such as the ritual ballgame that the Olmec appear to may have invented.

#4 That slight edging forward in time still leaves the Olmec vastly and fascinatingly distant from us."


#1 tendering, i.e. offering as payment; derived from Fr. "tendre" as in "double entendre" read as "two meanings" generally as derived from some ambiguity in the word itself. Reviewer seeks to create binary between "scholarly speculation" and "fact"; maybe so, but infuses the discourse with complex set of equally oppositional terms. "tender" as with "money" (legal tender) vs sensitivity, gentleness, (etc.) and fact vs. scholarship. we may keep an eye on the reviewer's sensitivity to the places where things divide, and already a will to privilege one truth over another.

#2 confrontation - a hostile or argumentative meeting or situation between opposing parties; who or what is in opposition here? may be a question of mutual regard and some disconnect. could be interesting to investigate the reviewer's regard for the Olmec (i.e. Other?) which is nicely summarized as "raw" and "ancient". the confrontation does however establish presence (as in previously "absent"?) taken together: "raw presence of ancient artifacts". see how the "noble savage" never dies?

"cascading connectivity" indicates some perceived unifying tendency in the modern era; most likely referring to web 2.0 stuff, smartphones, etc. creating the look and feel of a connected society while remaining at a distance from one another as humans. contrast with "alien" (loaded term when discussing Olmecs and Mexico) to "our own world picture". another oppositional relationship noted, antithetical even i.e. the reviewer's "us" vs. the "many other civilizations" who are not "us". my personal "us" was finding common ancestry, willing my features out of the phenotypes of each monolithic head and never once thought of my "world picture"; so does cultural affiliation trump critical distance? is the reviewer's confrontational relationship with the ancient triggering defense mechanisms related to his whiteness (is the reviewer white?) revealing themselves through subtlety of rhetoric?

#3 now this just plain doesn't make sense. in the previous paragraph, the reviewer recognizes difference. his difference is multiple: modern vs. Olmec, I vs. Other, absent vs. present, and so on... all mostly problematic, but honest. not understanding how this kind of difference is "amplified" by the cultural and aesthetic commonalities the reviewer notes between Olmec and Maya. how is difference reinforced by commonality? reviewer must be referring to his own outsider status. how self-referential and boring if so...

#4 i don't want to go there, but there's something amiss about the line "vastly and fascinatingly distant". this isn't critical distance but cultural. the reviewer's experience is informed by distance. my cultural affiliation mediates the perceived distance and informs my fascination. there is a measure of lack to be found in both vantage points, and with lack comes a measure of sadness; that might be worth writing about at some point.

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