Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Crit Followup: Depravity's Rainbow

As sometimes happens, I am unable to let well enough alone.

I spent some time digging around and thinking about Bush's book, Depravity's Rainbow because I found its contents to relentlessly un-surprising, and yet his own and others descriptions are clearly intended to lead us to believe that the book is in fact surprising. I was, as noted in my initial review, uncertain as to whether my lack of surprise was due to my own situation.

In short, no. In terms of factual information, in terms of conclusions, in terms of the archival photographs offered up, Bush's effort hews entirely to the well-established mainstream contemporary story. His textual description of relevant history could be assembled in an afternoon from Wikipedia, with one exception I was able to identify. That exception is found in Neufeld's biography of von Braun, Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War which is the source everyone including wikipedia and Bush cites.

The photos are mostly (or entirely) available on the web, and many of them are more or less canonical. The V2 rocketry photos, and many of the early von Braun photos, can mostly be found on the various V2 Rocket fan sites that appear on the first page of google search results. I cannot prove that Bush simply downloaded his photos from a couple of V2 fan sites, but there are a lot of V2 photos, and the subset that appears on the fan sites overlaps a lot with Bush's book. This is the general theme, Bush's book seems to have winnowed large collections of material down to exactly the subset that appears in the first page of google search results.

It is, of course, much easier to reconstruct this sort of thing than to assemble it in the first place, but I am pretty sure I could pull together if not exactly Bush's corpus of materials, at least an equivalent one that overlapped enormously, in a few days.

It is, of course, possible and even likely that Bush labored away and assembled an enormous mass of fascinating detail, with many never-before seen photos, many obscure facts, and so on. However, he seems to have thrown away everything except what is essentially the mainstream contemporary narrative. The facts, the photos, the conclusions, these are all precisely what you'd find in an even cursory research effort.

So what is the point here?

If he's done anything of value, it has to be in the way he's assembled these components. He's not saying anything new, and he's not bringing any new or even slightly obscure material to the table; there's literally nowhere else this book can contribute except to bring a novel approach to how the standard materials lead to the standard conclusion.

Let's look at his archival photos. To my chagrin, I did not notice what is in fact obvious.

He's crushed the photos into a common format. He's eliminated shadow detail entirely, rendering all the photos as super high contrast "low quality" black and white, regardless of source. He's printed them as black and white (I think physically — if he did it digitally it's very well done) on highly textured yellow paper, with a black border. This brings them all into a common format.

Here, for instance, is an original:

And here is Bush's version (note: none of my reproductions from the books are particularly good, but they should give the flavor and certain facts):

You can see the loss of detail, the textured paper, and so on. But also notice the 3-hole punch hole. The original is a copy of a page from a three-ring bound book. Bush has almost cropped out the holes, but not quite, part of one remains. Then he re-framed the picture into a larger blank space before putting the black border on and printing it out badly.

Here's von Braun being carried through the streets of Huntsville after Apollo 11's astronauts, the first to land on the moon, returned.

Bush's version, smashed as usual, but also cropped and, oddly enough, rotated slightly. There's no black border this time, as this photo appears in the front matter not in the body of the book:

And one more, von Braun shakes hands with JFK:

Bush, again:

So.. what's going on? Well, Bush is tinkering with archival photos. Nothing major, and god knows I am no stickler for "preserve shadow detail at all costs" or whatever, but some of the modifications don't seem to be worth it. Bush is definitely not respecting these things as documents (but then, he wouldn't, he's philosophically opposed to treating them as such, I think.)

If you'll recall, his gimmick here is to fold von Braun's life back on itself, in a "Memento" structure, and so Bush wants photos to be comparable. I am certain this is how he justifies the process of bringing them all to a common format. The common format has to be low-fi because some of the photos are pretty low-fi. He probably argues for the yellow tone on the basis that it complements the blue tone of his cyanotypes.

But at the same time, the effect (which he cannot be ignorant of) is to imbue the archival photos with a false oldness. They look like they were extracted from dusty files by a diligent researcher, rather than simply downloaded from the internet and smashed with a saved Photoshop action. He has to be aware that this effect is present; the alternative is that he is incomprehensibly stupid, and he simply isn't.

I have to say that his willingness to tinker with the archival photos and at the same time to describe his book as:

... tell[ing] a little known history of space exploration that starts in Nazi Germany with the Second World and the Holocaust, and examines how these problematic origins continue to shape the field today.

which makes it sound, well, like a history. Like the pictures are real, and not tinkered with. Which, in a sense, they are? It's not like he's photoshopping little green men in there, but at the same time no mainstream news outlet would touch these photos. The whole business makes me uncomfortable, but I am also loathe to say it's wrong.

But what does it do here? How is this a novel way of using the standard materials to tell the standard story?

Other than some gimmicky color theory and a not-very-illuminating "Memento" trope deployment, there's just not a lot here. I don't find this to be a particularly revealing new way to see the story, I find it if anything kind of a pointless meander to nowhere.

Perhaps what he has done is create a novel combination. He's brought "V2 Rocket Fandom" imagery to a sketch of the Neufeld biography, and maybe that means something.

What I am not seeing here is any kind of a novel epistemology. There is no new way of seeing the story here, it comes across as a kind of clumsy reprise of the photo essay of the 1960s, without even the benefit of telling a new story. The refusal to "merely illustrate" the story seems to add nothing much to the method, and the need to pile in large quantities of visual material, likewise.

Like Asselin's Monsanto this is just a big exercise in "what the actual fuck?" to no real purpose, simply repeating a well-known set of ideas, briefly, clumsily, and with a lot of more or less pointless pictures.

This is not to say that the method couldn't produce something, only that in the few cases I have looked at closely, it has not.


  1. Molitor, Art Detective, investigates! Strange... I can only repeat the comment I made on the previous post:

    "It troubles me that art-school students -- rarely the most academically-inclined people -- are being encouraged to regard themselves as essentially "thinkers", not makers. To present a half-baked thesis in illustration form is not the same thing as writing a half-baked thesis (I know, I've written two).

    Someone who is good at taking photographs or painting is not thereby gifted with philosophical or sociological insight, and should not be expected to demonstrate anything more than exceptional visual acuity, which is an inchoate sort of knowledge and gift enough, but different in kind."


    1. Mike, inchoate is an awesome word! I take exception to the rest of it ... someone who is "good at" [visual stuff] may not necessarily be gifted with insight into other things -- but they also may be so gifted, and if so, I think these insights form an essential aspect of visual expression in general. It contributes a great deal to our overall philosophical and sociological (etc.) understanding, without requiring formal study or research, which might even be detrimental to the outcome, as we have seen.

    2. Yes, sure, but those doubly-gifted people are rare birds indeed. People with one talent (say, the ability to take excellent photographs) should not be presumed *therefore* to have (or be encouraged to believe they have) some other talent (say, profound and original sociological or scientific insight). You cannot be a multi-talented prodigy just because you *want* to be... The result of that delusion is exactly what you see here.


    3. Various ways of knowing and thinking aren't the exclusive domain of siloed academic disciplines, and being "gifted" (whatever that means, but usually involving a hell of a lot of work) in this or that pursuit doesn't disqualify one from having other interests, and expressing ideas about them. I maintain artists have been producing salient observations about philosophy and anthropology (etc) through our work for a whole lot longer than the PhD has been around, and I'm not sure the postgrad approach has much legitimacy for developing visual ideas anyway, being at best a distraction and impediment. Great networking tool though!

  2. "Deeper themes" -- https://c4journal.com/depravitys-rainbow-a-dark-history-of-space-travel/

    1. It's curious that Lewis was evidently engaged to review his own book. I do see that it's disguised as a discussion of process/method but honestly, it's a hell of a lot like a review.

      I kind of know the C4 people a bit, and they're perfectly nice people who seem surprisingly grounded.

    2. His explanation for why cyanotypes -- to make disparate source images look similar(?) -- would seem to militate against the whimsical research/documentary angle he's been flogging. Maybe too many ideas?

    3. Yeah, I dunno. It certainly makes me uncomfortable. I liked how he talks about how gathering the photos from museums and archives around the world.

      Bro. You downloaded most of them from two V2 Rocket fan sites. Are we counting web sites from 2003 as "museums" now? Or would those be "archives"?

    4. It's interesting to see how guys like Lewis spin stuff. For another project he: "used open-source techniques, satellite mapping and radio interception to gather information about around thirty of these stations, geolocating them to their probable transmitters around the world."

      which I think means "I looked up the lat & long of a bunch of numbers stations, and typed those numbers into google maps, and then clicked on the satellite layer to get a picture of the thing, and then I took a screenshot"

      and also "I bought a radio thing for my computer, and turned it to the frequencies I looked up online, and if I heard any numbers, I recorded a bit"

      which sounds a lot less fancy.

      To be fair, all this shit is magic to many of his colleagues, who are not particularly technical, so I guess that's cool?