Friday, January 16, 2015


Saint-Cybard at Plassac-Rouffiac,
12th-century (Charente)
I'm getting ready to re-read a book written by my advisor, Linda Seidel that I've taught but haven't read since graduate school. I'll be reading Songs of Glory to think about scale and the movement (that her book negotiates so beautifully and provocatively) between small and large scales. What do we do when we make mountains out of molehills? What is going when he's got the whole world in his hands? Our language dances around this through imagistic phrases but scale (and the ability to shift scale) is one of those human habits/inclinations that we do without quite understanding. Dear us, we lose perspective all the time. And I mean really lose it: not just ignore it for something near or far, but lose our bearings. It's one of the most unnerving and glorious things we do: unfix our viewpoint, dislocate our point of view. The minute you engage in metaphor (that linguistic trick that carries us from one place to another), you're starting to shift scale. Clearly, our nightly screenings of Cosmos (and yes, last night was black holes and the bending of space and time and spacetime) are having their effect.

Today is the first day that I am able to look up from Charlie Hebdo covers, to think about other horizons of France. I've always been keenly aware of my distance from events in Paris and how that is shaping my perception of what they might mean or signify. Conversations with friends near and far have added layers (the protests by children of immigrants in the1980s for full inclusion in French society, the betrayal of the political left, the long tradition of caricature in French society, the difference between a caricature and a racist caricature). Those layers in turn are having a double effect of discovery and uncovering. Here, again, I marvel at the English language and its two distinct words (in French, there is only "découvrir" for both). Discovery here, would be the presence of something new in the public sphere (the Isaiah/Jesus/Mohammad image, the Charlie Hebdo images, for examples); uncovering would be the revelation of something that has been there all along but has been hidden from the majority public sphere (the exclusion and racism that, now, generations of immigrants experience in the suburbs of Paris and cities in France; a questioning (at least) of who has the freedom to ridicule whom and on what terms; the impossibility of a racist caricature of a white person in a white-dominant society, racist caricature relying as it does on an exaggeration (a shift in scale) of ethnic traits that are held up for ridicule). Both discovery and uncovering are happening in France and on the global media stage, I would imagine in scales ranging from new security measures at your local Monoprix store to a re-evaluation of the operations of poverty and exclusion to re-affirmations of the very best of French humanist principles.

Plassac-Rouffiac on a different scale
And so today I'm going to give myself over to thinking through professor Seidel's statements and explorations of Romanesque façades throughout the Aquitaine and, in looking at the images first as I always do, I'm enticed to think of the discovery or the uncovering of a small town like Plassac-Rouffiac, a village in the Charente that has seldom boasted more than 500 souls since census-takers started counting in 1793. Positioned on the ancient Roman road, it existed in the constant potential of scale-shift that being part of an empire entails - no matter how small and distant the village, Rome (and whatever it meant to be Roman or a subject of the Romans) was never farther than the invitation of the road to "lead to Rome."  The Roman(esque) arches on the façade of the parish church of Saint-Cybald attest to the pull of the imperial center and its ability to shift the scale of the margin. France is its own center now, with the pull of Paris felt in both Plassac-Rouffiac and Clichy-sous-Bois - it's our ability to understand differences and shifts in scale, and what these uncover, that will matter so much now.

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