I SPY PINHOLE EYE: SEEING VISUAL SOCIETY’S BLIND SPOTS
VU University, Amsterdam
In the 2009 volume I Spy Pinhole Eye, Philip Gross poetically responds to Simon Denison’s pinhole photographs of concrete fundaments of pylons. Gross and Denison’s partnership based on ekphrasis, “the verbal representation of visual representation” (Mitchell 152), fails to answer to W.J.T. Mitchell’s characterization of a relationship predominantly governed by an othering power struggle (180). Rather, the two British artists engage in a verbal-visual “collaboration” (Loizeaux 137), the most social form of friendly ekphrasis that Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux discerns as she extends Mitchell’s earlier ideas (13-16, 137). Verbal-visual collaboration has been neglected in critical thinking, in spite of its artistic and literary significance since the twentieth century (Loizeaux 136). In its full equality of poems and photographs I Spy Pinhole Eye differs from other recent forms of photo-text collaboration such as the twentieth-century “photographic essay” (Mitchell 211). Denison first took the pictures and Gross subsequently responded to them, but the artists felt that the poems in turn influenced and “somehow changed […] the pigments […] fixed on the page” (Gross Interview 2), so that the overall communicative power of both media became mutual (Gross Interview 2). In I Spy Pinhole Eye, “paragone” (Mitchell 157) does not manifest in verbal-visual antagonism, but in an opposition between poetic/photographic art and popular visual culture.
Together, Gross and Denison tell a story that is both firmly grounded in - and extended far beyond - the concrete foundations of the pylons that power it. These steel structures were featured earlier in 1930s pylon poetry (Denison, Endnotes 78). Denison and Gross’s work arguably contradicts previous pylon poetry’s positive stance. The volume’s subject matter may seem unlikely for photography and poetry as Denison points out that “[p]ylons are the pariahs of the landscape, […] detested […] by most people who bother to think about them at
all” (Endnotes 78). The iron towers bear the electricity that essentially facilitates important facets of postmodern western daily life, however, so that they provide the ideal entry into studying contemporary culture. Through looking at pylons, the volume assesses present-day results of the industrial and technological revolutions in western society, especially regarding our obsession with the image.
I Spy Pinhole Eye can be explained in relation to W.J.T Mitchell’s idea of the “pictorial turn” (11) which he delineates as a paradigm switch that has been taking place in academic and cultural thinking since the late twentieth century. Western society is increasingly dominated by the image that is seizing the former position of the word (Mitchell 11-16). Rapid technological progress enables the feasibility of global pictorial supremacy. Therefore, the long-standing “fear of the image” (Mitchell 15) has been gaining new currency (Mitchell 15). Via the partnership of pinhole photos and ekphrastic poems centred on pylons, I Spy Pinhole Eye meditates on ways in which contemporary western society may be blinded by the visual age.
1. Artisan Eye Confection versus Visual Junk Food (see note 1)
I Spy Pinhole Eye comments in multiple ways on the quality of images and the (forgotten) art of looking in western culture. For instance, the poem “Long Exposure” (Denison and Gross 23) presents I Spy Pinhole Eye in opposition to mainstream culture’s “fast food for the eye” (1) that is a “flash-in-the-pan, slapped / on the photographic plate / like paparazzi-pizza” (2-3). The speaker draws up a metaphor whereby unhealthy convenience food stands for popular media images that impose themselves on people daily and that are flashy, ephemeral, shallow, and sensationalist. Like junk food these pictures are poor in flavour and nutritional value, as is suggested by the contrast the poem creates with artistic pinhole photographs that Gross ekphrastically describes as “slow- / cooked in the black box half the day: / a concentrating taste” (4-6). Pinhole pictures are displayed as wholesome and intense compared to other, conceivably more modern images because - as the title “Long Exposure” refers to - its camera requires a longer opening time, which creates a more layered image. The poem depicts how the volume as a whole artistically counteracts dominant visual culture through offering a substantial alternative for the eye and the mind.
The metaphor in “Long Exposure” (Denison and Gross 23) that depicts high art as comparable to nourishing home-made food may perhaps be specifically inspired by the photograph the poem is coupled with (figure 1, see note 2), since the pylon foot conceivably resembles an aluminium moka pot. This simple and relatively cheap Italian coffee maker brews strong
Figure 1. Pinhole Photograph next to “Long Exposure.” Denison and Gross, 22.
artisan coffee, which makes it comparable to the basic “black box” (5) that boils down the objects it witnesses into rich pictures. Poetry, photography’s partner in I Spy Pinhole Eye, could fit this analogy too: as a classic medium that generally produces comparatively short, but condensed texts that contain (surprising) worlds of information. The forms of both pinhole photos and poetry therefore collaboratively underwrite the promise made in “Long Exposure” (Denison and Gross 23) to deliver true sustenance.
“Writing This At 3 a.m.” (Denison and Gross 32) further explains the significance of Denison’s use of a pinhole camera. Whereas conventionally and popularly, seeing is associated with light, I Spy Pinhole Eye emphasises the importance of darkness in order to achieve focus and clarity. The pinhole camera is a box of inner blackness that creates images by means of a tiny but strong light beam. In “Writing This At 3 a.m.” (Denison and Gross 32) Gross’s speaker compares the intensity of the camera’s concentration to waking up for a brief moment at the dead of night “[i]n no-man’s-time” (1) that permits one to “snap awake” (12) “wholly, perfectly” (14). This refers to the heightened awareness that the blackness and quietness of the night can bring. As the poem connects lucid thinking to visual focus, it implicitly hints that intense mental clarity is harder to achieve in the day-time, perhaps due to the abundance of flashy images and light in our society. From this can be inferred how even at night large cities’ lampposts, neon signs, and illuminated billboards partially drive out the sky’s darkness to the extent that it is hard to see the stars (another, more natural kind of light). As the poem suggests, the general profusion of unnatural light could inhibit seeing in the sense of thinking and understanding.
As an alternative to ostentatious mainstream images, I Spy Pinhole Eye offers photographs of “meditative single-mindedness” (Gross, Endnotes 79) coupled with a poetic philosophy of gazing and contemplating carefully (see note 3). The poem “Observing Angels” (Denison and Gross 36) blends both the visual and verbal components of intent looking. The speaker describes viewing and thinking in terms of the photographic process that consists of zooming in on something small and then retreating “back into the dark / of your own un- / seeing” (8-10). This darkness (8) alludes to the pinhole camera’s black interior and to the human dark-room of the mind in which a figurative absence of light precedes understanding. Taking distance from the object in question establishes the right focus (11-13) and ultimately “the vision / clarifies” (13-14) and a precise photographic picture arises, which simultaneously symbolizes mental lucidity. “Observing Angels” communicates that concentrating on something as little as a “pinhead” (3) may result in attaining a level of grander “vision” (13). In a world saturated with images that can cause an addictive insatiability and a fear of missing out, Denison and Gross’s volume shows that any single thing looked at attentively may reveal an (or even the) entire world.
The use of an elementary kind of camera moreover alludes to truthfulness. The photographs in I Spy Pinhole Eye are presented to the beholder as realistic (see note 4), in opposition to exaggerated, sensational and insubstantial “paparazzi-pizza” (Denison and Gross 23: 4). The volume’s title associates the pinhole with the human eye, which the camera may consequently be trusted to closely resemble. The reference to spying could be another truth-claim, since secretly watching someone or something is generally related to encountering unguarded authenticity. Peeking through the camera’s candid pinhole suggests that with only minimal technological mediation, the visually over-stimulated albeit malnourished contemporary observer is treated to an unusual perspective of real seeing. This links to Arild Fetveit’s consideration of a critical juncture in contemporary visual culture. Due to the essential technique of directly copying what is in front of the camera, photos are expected to accurately represent the subject they depict. And therefore reality stories in the major news media have become increasingly based on photographic proof. Yet, digital photography’s technological developments simultaneously increase possibilities for image manipulation, which makes it hard for the viewer to know how truthful a photo is in spite of its appearance (Fetveit 787, 794-795).
In addition to asserting honest reliability, the simple directness of Denison’s pinhole photographs may be explained to endeavour restoring a straightforward connection with the real world. Fetveit argues that (potential) photographic manipulation psychologically links to a diminishing sense of being connected to reality via the image (796-797). Western culture’s proliferation of reality television originates from a desire to re-establish a truthful contact with reality via photographic means (Fetveit 798-800). In I Spy Pinhole Eye an authentic link to the world is emphasised poetically too, for example in “Cat’s-eye” (Denison and Gross 21), which is paired with a picture of a pylon whose foot is brightly illuminated in the dark (figure 2). The poem’s first lines assert the reality and directness of the picture by describing “[t]he shock of a world, caught / in a headlight beam” (1-2). Like reflective signals on the road (Cats-eye) spotted by car lamps, what seems to be the camera’s flash light takes the photographic subject by surprise and momentarily freezes it in its full display. This proves a brief moment of unawareness of being looked at that makes the depiction real.
Figure 2. Pinhole Photograph next to “Cat’s-eye.” Denison and Gross, 20.
The pinhole photos’ reliability is further asserted by Denison’s explanation of his procedure that centred on “minimising, as far as possible, my own role as decision-maker […]. The camera […] was positioned at the same distance […] from each foot of every pylon […] and I never knew what the camera had seen until the negatives were scanned” (Endnotes 78). This objective method simultaneously emphasizes, however, that the photographic objects are in fact transferred via the pinhole camera whose view is presented. Jean Baudrillard’s contemplation of mediation shines a light on this:
Rather than thinking of technology as the site of a subject which, by means of technology, masters the world and so on, I’m beginning to wonder if – almost ironically or paradoxically – technology may not prove to be the site where the world or the object plays with the subject […] technology as an instrument of magic or of illusion. (38)
Baudrillard proposes taking mediation seriously, because technique may not be (just) a means to capture reality, but a specific way of doing so that impresses its own distinct perspective. Denison’s minimal interference and basic equipment have transformed a series of seemingly similar, plain, and unglamorous pylon feet into a variation of rather diverse, mysterious, and exotic photographs. Denison’s unobtrusive approach therefore highlights the alchemic influence of technology itself and stresses the effects of mediation that take place invariably, even in the most basic form of picture taking. In a society dominated by images claimed to accurately represent reality Denison’s photographs thereby make a salient point about the inescapability of mediation.
2. Spying Politics of Pylon Power
I Spy Pinhole Eye’s discussed outlook on popular visual culture as “fast food for the eye” (Denison and Gross 23: 1) obliquely links to the dangerous side of modern media that is hinted on by the topic of mediation and truthfulness. Flashy visual input may attract and addict people, but largely fails to provide genuinely meaty food for thought as it keeps uncritical (and even critical) viewers easily subdued in a superficial rush. Mitchell characterizes the pictorial turn as centrally concerned with the pressures on the viewer (16) who must negotiate “the power/knowledge quotient of contemporary visual culture [that is] too deeply embedded in technologies of desire, domination, and violence, [and] too saturated with reminders of neofascism and global corporate culture to be ignored” (24). As Mitchell observes, images generally contain and communicate ideology that may (subconsciously) influence or even control the observer.
In line with this, I Spy Pinhole Eye suggests that contemporary western civilization, bedazzled by the image, fails to see the imperialistic tendencies of the modern technology and the state politics that lie behind the visual age. The volume hereby contrasts to 1930s pylon poetry’s positive view on mechanical progress that communicates “a sense of beauty in things mechanical and modern” (Leeming 77). Stephen Spender’s poem “The Pylons” that the name pylon poets (see note 5) is based on (Leeming 71) depicts the iron towers in opposition to the pitiable rural valley. “The “pillars” (Spender 7) are described to brave “lightning’s danger” (Spender 15), while in their elevated arms “runs the quick perspective of the future” (Spender 16). The speaker equates the energy that shoots through the electricity cables with a vision of industrial and social progress. I Spy Pinhole Eye may initially seem to be an ode to pylons as well, as the pictures symbolically kiss the steel structures’ feet, an action that traditionally signals humble adoration, for instance as it occurs in the Bible. And the predominantly fourteen line long poems “allude to the sonnet” (Gross, Endnotes 79), a form conventionally focused on an unrequited love that it places on a pedestal. However, both the photographic and poetic adoration could ironically mirror contemporary society’s unfulfilling worship of television. Then, the volume mockingly concentrates on the pedestal-like feet of the ignored pieces of infrastructure that have obliquely captivated society by facilitating the national craving of home entertainment.
In this gloomy light, for instance, “Hoard” (Denison and Gross 14) interprets “the planted feet of pylons” (5) as “meaning my / hillside my power my kingdom” (5-6). This depicts the concrete footings of the steel structures as claiming territory, personifying them as “rough chieftains with a face / they looted from the Romans” (2-3). In this simile the electricity carriers are equated with powerful clan-leaders that resemble the Romans, which suggests that contemporary western society is (the clan) ruled by (or via) the (literal and symbolic) power of technology, and specifically by electrical energy. The pylon feet are established into “the common weal” (13), which expresses a duality in their presence as they improve society’s welfare, but also relate to a social bruise or pain that implies harm being done by technology. The personification of the iron structures culminates darkly. “Mine, the robber cries, all mine” (14), as the energy carrier is no longer generously giving the nation power, but shows itself as a greedy thief, lusting over its own possessive control.
The paradox regarding technology and the “common weal” (13) that surfaces in “Hoard” (Denison and Gross 14) is further explained by the poem “Pax Pylonica” (Denison and Gross 54). As the title’s allusion to Pax Romana indicates, contemporary western society is compared to the relatively long period of peace and prosperity in the Roman Empire. Ben Speet explains that Roman imperialism was founded on granting captured nations relative freedom by respecting their native traditions, while concurrently justifying their domination through generating peace and welfare. These offerings, however, were far from unconditional as they forcefully coaxed people into accepting Roman rule (Speet 70-72). “Pax Pylonica” (Denison and Gross 54) draws a parallel between ancient Roman leadership and the way present-day technology tames people, specifically by providing television. This clarifies the image of the pylon foot that is “bored / into […] / the common weal” (Denison and Gross 14: 11-13) as it both enhances social wellbeing and hurts the people by its hidden domineering capabilities. Like the Janus-faced concord and wealth during Pax Romana, the poem interprets contemporary society as experiencing a phase of relative harmony and well-being due to modern inventions that have a dangerous dark side, such as pylon-supplied television which suppresses people by rendering them passive.
“Pax Pylonica” (Denison and Gross 54) further suggests that in today’s western empire pylons represent a military kind of surveillance as the electricity masts ensure that “[t]here’s no place we’re not / overlooked, no skyline not garrisoned” (3-4). Like iron soldiers, the structures have come to occupy the land and they inquisitively tower over its inhabitants. Regarding their connection to television stated later in the poem (9), the pylons as prying emblems of supervision may be compared to George Orwell’s dystopian prophecy in 1984 of all-pervading political observation through telescreens and other (visual) technology by invisible, omnipresent leader “Big Brother” (3). Gross’s poetic depiction of the high voltage towers as structures of supervision adds to their potentially grim role of supporting political television-powered rule, and hints at electricity’s share in enhancing pervasive spying possibilities.
The masts also tower above people in the mock sense of being better, as the speaker in Pax Pylonica” (Denison and Gross 54) ironically states that
If not for them, we’d be deep
in the dark ages here, our sulking
valleys, history. We stay in,
nights, and watch the world perform
on the television they make hum. (5-9)
Electricity facilitates modern comforts like light and television, but the enjambments in this section’s first three lines hint that conversely such inventions perhaps made us shallow instead of “deep” (5), and that they have not enlightened our society as we live in “the dark ages” (6) frustrated and powerless. Our previously pristine “valleys” (7) are now “history” (7) as they are invaded by futuristic man-made structures, and instead of roaming nature “[w]e stay in” (7). The speaker’s sardonic stance continues as he states that television makes us passive (7-8) (see note 6). Its calming effect is brought to us by pylons (9) likened to Roman soldiers bringing their Roman peace. Therefore, the poem’s vision on television may be comparable to Karl Marx’s view on religion as “opium of the people” (qtd. in McGrath), television seems to be regarded here as a contemporary intoxicating institution whose surrogate satisfaction keeps people conveniently quiet and suppressed, which makes it an excellent means of political control. The power-hungry pylons in I Spy Pinhole Eye may hence also be explained as a metaphor for politicians, and pylons as bringers of (visual) technology may be the perfect political weapon.
The grip that pylons (and politicians) have on society because they enable television is further stated in the last four lines of “Pax Pylonica” (Denison and Gross 54) as the speaker describes the generally ignored or understated fact (indicated by the brackets) that
(Now and then again
they’ll fail us and we’ll rise up
powerless and indignant—kids
left with the run of the house, forlorn.) (11-14)
This final segment explicitly displays citizens as ruled by the iron bringers of electricity. These unmoveable leaders keep people subdued like helpless, frustrated children (13). In case of a power-cut (and thereby a television fail) nothing can be done to make the pylons listen (11-13). The temporary loss of habitual pastime leaves people feeling abandoned and unsure what to do with such unusual space and freedom (14), not unlike deprived addicts. These lines can simultaneously be interpreted as people’s powerlessness with regard to political decisions, in spite of our democratic system.
Although the iron structures (and politicians) are presented in several of Gross’s poems as dominating and (potentially) destructive forces, they are nevertheless invented and created by humans. “Stoneground” (Denison and Gross 52) points this out by speaking of a dangerous “dictator’s dream / becoming nightmare: pylons will resemble chain- / gangs, skeletons in frill and furbelow” (8-10). The inventions first seem useful to totalitarian leaders and they appear as positive beacons of progress to people, but in its advancing state, technology is depicted as a potentially treacherous, autonomous forces, hungry to take over the world. The poem warns that as the wind blows through the steel structures they toy with the wind instead, as “[a]-e-o- / lian harps that play from no score their control- / lers can control” (11-13). The Eolian wind harps that in Romantic poetry stood for the mind (Greenblatt et al. 426, note 1), depicts pylons here as thinking for themselves and dancing to their own tunes while humans, and specifically (despotic) political leaders, lose grip of their own inventions (see note 7).
3. Visual Society’s Dark Future
As hinted in “Stoneground” (Denison and Gross 52), I Spy Pinhole Eye foresees a gloomy fate for a system obsessed with - and dominated by - visual culture and the technology behind it. The volume may in this regard be approached from an eco-critical perspective as it suggests certain environmental consequences of visual culture and questions our use of energy sources. Various poems interpret the determined outlook of the photographed pylon feet as images of our possessively placed footprints on earth. This alludes to our colonization of nature that additionally mirrors the way in which we claim(ed) rights to foreign countries and cultures. In “First Footing” (Denison and Gross 26) for example, the pylon’s base is described as “a colonist’s first step / ashore” (3-4), which communicates the proprietary stance of the steel and concrete conquering nature.
Yet, the environment cannot be ignored as it forms the foundation that technology rests in and depends on, as visually and verbally speaks from Denison and Gross’s work. For instance, “As the Man Said” (Denison and Gross 17) depicts human’s self-assured admiration for “[a] bit of engineering [that] goes a long way / in a skewed world” (4-5). This presents our prevailing answer to the latently lingering threat of the forces of nature. The poem’s question “[w]hat if the rain / slews, soil shifts, the hills pitch and yaw?” (2-3) articulates the insecurity that obliquely underlies man’s faith in technology. The photograph that the poem is paired with tellingly depicts this tension, as a robust looking pylon base is located on swampy grassland (figure 3).
Figure 3. Pinhole Photograph next to “As the Man Said.” Denison and Gross, 16.
The volume’s penultimate poem “Sonnet, Interrupted” (Denison an Gross 72) shows the significance of the relatively little admitted worry regarding environmental forces, by acknowledging what (especially) our obsession with television could lead to. A bleak vision is foretold in the accompanying picture (figure 4) that noticeably zooms out to show a pylon from afar, blended into nature and overshadowed by ominously lit up clouds. The sonnet printed next to it is severed, displaying a power-cut due to “[a] heat wave, peak TV at teatime and a blown / fuse” (1-2), which creates chaos in cities that depend on a multitude of machines and other technology (3-6). In brackets, the speaker tentatively poses the question that people may be weary (or afraid) of hearing: “(Should we not have known?)” (6). Meanwhile amidst the disorder as our electrically based infrastructure fails and both the sonnet and our culture’s love of picture screens are halted “[t]he pylons look on, shrug by shrug by shrug…” (7). Perhaps their power was overrated, as after all they are only steel structures that people have exploited and taken for granted, and the poem hints that while they look sturdy and steadfast, the system they support is innately vulnerable. Like the high masts, our society may seem far above nature, but I Spy Pinhole Eye shows that the pylon feet are still planted on slippery ground, and overusing the earth’s resources can make our allegedly solid order collapse in moments.
Figure 4. Pinhole Photograph next to “Sonnet, Interrupted.” Denison and Gross, 73.
Philip Gross and Simon Denison’s 2009 I Spy Pinhole Eye critically reflects on contemporary western (visual) culture. The volume communicates an anxiety about pictures’ power to rule and suppress people. It does this by comparing mainstream visual culture to convenience food (Denison and Gross 23: 1) and sensational journalism (Denison and Gross 23: 2-3). In response to this, the ekphrastic collaboration presents through its pinhole photographs and sonnet-like poems a wholesome alternative of eye and brain food. The volume additionally points out larger structures of technological and political domination that may hide under the pre-text of popular entertainment. Pylons are thereby made to represent armies that supply nations with bedazzling images which addict and pacify people. Finally, the volume suggests that the blinding system of visual insatiability may deplete not only people’s quality of life, but also the earth’s resources. Gross and Denison could be regarded as providing an answer to Mitchell’s final words in Picture Theory that “though we probably cannot change the world, we can continue to describe it critically, and interpret it accurately. In a time of global misrepresentation, disinformation, and systemic mendacity, that may be the moral equivalent of intervention” (425). I Spy Pinhole Eye does just this as via the means of ekphrastic collaboration it presents its audience with an insightful poetic-photographic antidote to popular visual culture.
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1. This subtitle refers to Gross’s line “[n]o fast food for the eye” (1) in the poem “Long Exposure” (Denison and Gross 23).
2. Alternatively, viewing the image may be influenced by the poem, as Gross points out that the photos also seemed to be changed by the poems (Interview 2).
3. Gross explains that he is “a believer in the value of looking at a very small object or focus of attention, with enough patience and concentration that eventually it becomes the lightning-conductor for whatever other charge is in the air” (Interview 1). Likewise, Gross states in his Endnotes that “[f]rom the simplest stimulus, ripples spread out, out, about” (79).
4. Mitchell distinguishes between “illusionism” and “realism” (325). Illusionism denotes pictures’ ability to mislead and influence the observer in an entertaining way or for exercising manipulation and control, or both. Realism, on the other hand, applies to pictures that (aim to) represent phenomena in an empirically objective way, as they truly are (Mitchell 324-328).
5. The poets referred to as the pylon poets were W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and C. Day Lewis (Replogle 133). In David Leeming’s opinion, John Lehmann and William Empson should be included too (71). Justin Replogle additionally points out that these poets were categorized by various other terms, such as “The Auden Group,” “The Oxford Poets,” and “The New Signatures Group” (133). Although they did not see themselves as a group, their views on life and society were comparable as they regarded man as created by his surroundings, which made them believe in the idea of realizing social reform via changing the environment (Replogle 133, 135, 138-150).
6. Additionally, in “Pax Pylonica” (Denison and Gross 54) the lines “[w]e stay in, / nights, and watch the world perform / on the television” (7-9) refer back to the topic (discussed in the first section of this essay) of mediation that both promises and breaches contact with the real, and which thereby causes a distancing from reality. Limiting our direct engagement with reality, from within our warm homes (7-8) we instead look at the world as it presents itself to us via the realistic show (8) on the TV screen (9).
7. The emphasis on the word “control” (Denison and Gross 52: 12-13) that is used twice in the lines “[a]-e-o- / lian harps that play from no score their control- / lers can control” (Denison and Gross 52: 11-13), may additionally link to television viewers’ use of a remote control. Even though this device enables them to change the channels, it could be seen as a mock (or even children’s toy like) weapon of power, since, as is shown in I Spy Pinhole Eye the television dominates people more than vice versa.