Home > Blog > The ‘Alienating’ Art of the Camera: Questions with Karl Kirchwey
Published: Thu Dec 14 2017
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
The ‘Alienating’ Art of the Camera: Questions with Karl Kirchwey

Karl Kirchwey’s poem “Speedlooker” appears in AGNI 86.


Lauren Peat for AGNI: “Speedlooker” is written from the first-person perspective of Ottomar Anschütz, developer of the focal-plane shutter. As the poem’s speaker, Anschütz suggests that his invention has “caused our first fall into alienation” (a reference to Susan Sontag’s On Photography). Where did the idea to assume the perspective of an earlier technological pioneer come about?

The long poem MUTABOR [of which “Speedlooker” is a part]…was the result of a trip I took in 2007 or so to the Italian-, French-, and German-speaking parts of Switzerland, with all three of which I have family/autobiographical ties. Upon my return to the United States, I began to contemplate a poem that would somehow explore the geography and both natural and human history of these three areas. Again for autobiographical reasons (the uncle for whom I was named was a pilot killed in the Pacific in WWII; my father flew on heavy bombers out of England in 1944-5), the history of aviation has been a recurrent theme in my work. It appears that Anschütz’s photos of storks taking off and landing provided a German engineer, Otto Lilienthal, with the idea for the first airfoil (wing), later used by the Wright brothers. So aviation and photography are linked. Then I became interested in the effect of photography and film on our own experience of the world; crucial in this was my rereading Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which posits a shift in the nature of the human experience of the work of art, and the loss of the “aura” of that work with mechanical reproduction (cinema and film, for instance).

The poem has grown over these ten years to now comprise twenty sections and some 300 rhymed quatrain stanzas (about 1200 lines). The open-endedness of this project appeals to me strongly; I may write on any subject and discover that it has a place in the long poem, which at its most fundamental level addresses our human experience of change (mutability) and our desire to stop or transcend it (our knowledge that we are mortal)…. As someone who has always tried to get my facts straight and pay attention to sources, I also wanted MUTABOR to be a kind of dialogue between the poem text and a marginal text, which is part autobiographical commentary, part criticism, and part bibliography, acknowledging the poem’s sources.

Readers of “Speedlooker” will likely be reminded and/or led to reconsider modern technological advancements; I think of social media, for example, and the idea that although we may believe that such platforms “bring things closer,” they perhaps only make us “absentminded and distract[ed] / …part of a collective” in which the “self is only dispossessed, / never transcended.” While the poem suggests that these technologies have “murdered” the “aura” of something formerly holy, it also gestures toward the intoxicating quality of these technologies: the machine is described as having “seduced the unarmed eye.” Has the imaginative exercise of adopting Anschütz’s perspective caused you to rethink your own relationship to technology, and if so, how? Do you struggle with this double thrust (between disillusionment and attraction) personally?

Mine may be the last generation that can remember not being computer-literate. And even now I am, by choice, only barely computer-literate. Which is to say that I regard the internet as a great resource but e-mail as a kind of tyranny over my attention and energy; I take every opportunity I can to be off-line and (for example) reading the cold print of a book in the quiet space of my own mind. I do not use Facebook, Twitter, etc. But then, my social needs were conditioned by the ancient practices of talking to people and writing letters to people. Along with everyone else, I marvel at how easy communication has become (though tricky, too, as the difficulty of reading the tone of an e-mail makes clear), and I acknowledge that my two young adult children are encountering the world now, including the social world, in ways that are different from those I have chosen.

I think the long poem…is indeed addressing the “seduction” of the “unarmed eye” (that last phrase is Benjamin’s) with particular regard to the voyeuristic appetite we have for watching extreme on-screen violence, for example. I think we all struggle with what you call the “double thrust” between disillusionment, with the new technologies and their virtual reality, and attraction, even to looking at what some moral sense in us tells us is “forbidden.” Of course, “mechanical reproduction” does have redemptive or recuperative qualities, too; the MUTABOR section entitled “Palmyra”—available in the current issue of the BU journal ARION—explores these effects, whereby digital image archives have allowed us to reconstruct monuments destroyed by human barbarism. (This was the case of the destruction of the Roman Arch at Palmyra by ISIS, for instance, and its reconstruction by the Institute for Digital Archaeology.)

Again, with regards to my own relationship to technology, you already mentioned Sontag’s book On Photography, which I read as a meditation on our (lapsarian, Edenic, Satanic) seduction by looking. The background reading for the poem has led me to Barthes, Baudrillard and other thinkers as well; indeed, this is the first time that a poem of mine has been informed by a set of conscious philosophical propositions. Thus I suppose you could say that I have had to rethink my relationship to technology, but less with regard to gadgets than with regard to what a poet might spend his life exploring in poetry, which is beauty and its representation in art. And the religion of beauty (for all the hazards of a nineteenth-century Aestheticism attached to that term) is part of what my new book Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems is all about.


Lauren Peat is an editorial assistant at AGNI. (12/2017)

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