Archive for November, 2008


After having inhabited the Land of Narnia for about two years of my childhood, it seems I cannot pass a lamp post by without framing it in my camera lens.  Street lights are one thing, ever-present in their monotony, like gray-clad sentinels positioned by regimen at precise intervals.  There is an aesthetic in that, to be sure.  But lamp posts are something else altogether.

Appearing as they do in park spaces and along forested trails, lamp posts are suggestive of human presence, as if the world of men and women lies just beyond the next evergreen.  They exude a warmth not found in all the white haze of light pollution.  The lamp post is an antique, a relic of the past, a bearer of contemplative nostalgia.  Unlike street lights, you can’t be lost beside them.  Regardless of your direction, the lamp post signals home.  It is an electrified equivalent of the candle-in-the-window.

In the wilderness, where electrical lines have not yet run, there is abandonment.  In the city, where orange, conical light illuminates the limitless stretch of asphalt and concrete, there is alienation.  In the park, where the wilderness meets the city, there is tranquility.  And where there is tranquility, there is usually a lamp post close by to safeguard such peace of mind.

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Jeff Wall, a Vancouver-based artist who specializes in cinematographic photography, imaginatively captures the invisible man's high wattage, underground apartment.

After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue Jeff Wall, a Vancouver-based artist who specializes in cinematographic photography, imaginatively captures the invisible man's high wattage, underground apartment in this 1999-2000 photograph.

A few weeks ago, I turned the final page on Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s 1947 American novel about the coming-of-age of a nameless, black orator and activist.  Needless to say, it made for interesting reading alongside YouTube clips of Barak Obama’s campaign and speeches.

In Ellison’s novel, the protagonist pens his story from a forgotten, concrete cavern beneath New York City under the glow of 1,369 light bulbs he has strung from the ceiling.  While stealing electricity from the power grid above, the protagonist charts his journey through varying gradations of racism: his childhood in the explicitly racist South; the groveling, white-dependency of his all-black university; the subtle colour hierarchy of his white allies in “The Brotherhood.”  Along the way, he unconsciously collects the cultural artifacts of racism in his leather briefcase: a slave-era chain link, a black dancing doll, a fetishized “love-letter” from a white woman.  In the final unraveling of his public life and as Harlem riots above ground, the bloodied protagonist strews his baggage throughout the sewer system—an offloading of the symbolism of racial oppression—and stumbles into the forgotten cavern by the burning light of his high school diploma.

Until the concluding chapter, Ellison’s protagonist has only ever been, at worst, a “nigger” to someone’s hatred, and at best, a black pawn to someone else.  Both ends of this racist spectrum are utterly degrading, so he responds by making himself actually invisible, by becoming a recluse beneath the city.  And it is by this withdrawal from society that he finally acquires a powerful, personal agency.  Free from the racial gaze of everyone else, the protagonist is able to finally see himself for who he is and to write his personal story—a story that he suggests in his own epilogue may “speak for you.”

Barak Obama’s presidential win one week ago was certainly a magnificent achievement against the back-story of racism in America.  That his own personal story was so much a part of his victory suggests just how powerful his narrative is.  With two best-selling autobiographies, Obama appears to be a man who knows himself, or at least has considered deeply who he is and what he is trying to do.  Like the protagonist in Ellison’s novel, who emerges from the underground predicting a “socially responsible role to play,” Obama has surfaced with the confidence of a man, seemingly, aware of his own trajectory.  But Obama’s story is no longer only his own.  Obama is, in actual fact, speaking for a whole cross-section of Americans.  He is, now, the most visible of Americans.  Yet, there may be a cruel twist to all this.  His visibility depends upon the projection of a whole range of hopes and dreams.  He is, apparently, the embodiment of change-to-come, but this means that his “real self” remains invisible behind the projected desires of what exactly this change is and what it actually should look like.  Ellison’s novel ends with the promise of re-emergence, but we never learn how the invisible man’s new-found agency copes with public life.  For Obama, public life in the Oval Office, will be as much a test of his policies as it will be a test of his myth.

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