Dead Eye Genealogy

Rumor has it that Abraham Lincoln was the first "photographic president." His political journey from spindly lawyer with hollow eyes and deteriorating face to the earnest speechmaker and oratorical scholar/statesman, to the bearded Jehovah/Jesus of the White House, and whose legendary place in history, which is equivalent to the freedom of Man and Woman from nationally sanctioned servitude, were all tied together by the ribbon of the camera. The cult of the face began here, in these Illinois barebones, in this wife-battered saint, in the locus of crossover appeal which broke boundaries increasingly reinscribed by selfish economic factions hell-bent on the flogging of the flesh.

But, at some point, time broke and the eligibility requirements for photoelectric transcendence were loosened. Even after the man who photography made President fell to the camera's cousin, the bullet (a similar airborne concretization of time and flesh), Joe- from-the-corner could go and get his picture taken so that, hundreds of years down the road when his progeny looked naively into their past, hungry for connection and history, there they could find him: garish mustache hanging like the fabled Bantam tree, white-aproned, standing proudly, massive fish slapped over his shoulder, before the sign, "Joe the Butcher: Cheap Meats." The unknown could pay to escape class and time itself through the Daguerrotypical guerre. Method: dress in your best, erect your spine, do not smile, sit in a dignified manner, protest your relevance to the living eyes of the Future, do not close your eyes during the flash, then pay. Perhaps put your hand within your coat like Napoleon and Ulysses Grant. But Great Great Uncle Joe the Butcher, Eke thought to himself, was the Blue Collar hero who could only be photographed within the context of his labor, with his dead quarry slung over his scapula. Forget the moral looseness of the Gilded Age and beyond. Here was American Work in its unbridled brilliance.

He looked back down to his computer (clock 5:58 pm: had he been staring at the picture for twenty minutes? really?) and began to tap out the following string of words:

Guerre ------> War ------> Civil ------> Civilization

If I could only think onto paper, I could break past this block. Writer's block.

Around the turn of the century's stomach, as the desire for photographic immortality became commonplace and as visible as the symptoms of a disastrous plague, portability became the key component of technology. If it could be carried, anyone could carry it. If anyone could carry life-in-death within the sweaty linings of their pockets, there could be, as hard as it was to profess, no Death. Joe the Butcher used to take his camera everywhere he went. He routinely took pictures of each of his usual customers, not the cheap ones who came in buying the degraded pork, but the prime rib purchasers; the bright red meat-of-distinction would lay within the blooming flower of brilliant white butcher paper, as Joe and his choice customers stood arms over shoulders grinning into the lens. Each picture, a frame of time, then went into another frame and was hung in perfect symmetry on the butcher shop walls, under the hand-painted wooden sign, proclaiming: "Joe's Choice Cuts!"

But Joe did not know that the first portables were called "detective cameras," and yet there he was, out on the streets, at the parks, by the lakes, in the alleys, detecting life, sealing time. His son, Joe II, was also addicted to the snapshot, at one time holding vast libraries of photos of his small town within the narrow confines of his five-room flat. Mug shots of neighbors. Suspect books of city streets, Identikits of family members, taxonomies of relations coded and colored specifically for noiseless integration into the neural network of its viewer. Joe II did not sleep without a photo of his loved ones nearby, just as Allan Pinkerton's sleepless eye of the Secret Service could not find inner peace without the photographic services of technological certitude.

"Uncle Joe, the Click-Happy Bastard," Eke sings to himself as he rises to greet the kettle's shrill whistle. A scratch for the stomach, a cup of Oolong, and he is back to his chair, in his library, beneath a wall filled with photos, postcards, clippings, and comic book covers, to write a story of the Period.

How the Dead Eye and the Detective were bound up with each other like the Worm and its Tail. The anti-terrorist antihero, the outsider, the fringe element which somehow maintained a healthy sense of justice through insatiable desires for violent suggestion. Joe II was a Rent-a-Cop, who policed the Port Economicus Country Club, a rolling hill of white, neurotically-manicured estates, whose streets were paved with the gaseous exhalations of golfcarts. His portable camera and his gun were surrogates for his right and left hands, as much a part of who he was as the two live blue eyes in his head. He had the Dead Eyes disguised in all sorts of mechanisms: watches, binoculars, pens, pockets, you name it, surreptitiously recording the spinning world around him, freezing time on its axis. He became a Spy of Ordinary Life.

Eke types out the title of his new book, The Spy of Ordinary Life. He chews the inside of his mouth, devouring himself until he tastes blood. It used to be the nails, but a hard basketball injury to the mouth, which loosened the bottom row of his front teeth, took care of that nervous habit. Now it had to be the soft, pink inside of the body's most vocal absence.

Truth be told, most Everyday Life spy cases involved the voyeuristic capture of illicit sex and transgressive activity: women giving head to men who are not their husbands, men banging women who are not their wives in shrub-thick parks, men giving head to other, previously professed heterosexual men, and so on. The spies of ordinary life like to watch, that desire had been there all along: to escape boundaries, to control behavior, its packaging. They wanted to get off, but behind the curtain where Dorothy couldn't see them. But they could see Dorothy, and, even when home, cameras asleep in the crook of their arms, they still, erections stiff and moist, built fantasies around the frozen glimpses of their busy days. Their dreams were full of copulating 3x3x6 inch Kodaks, bought from George Eastman, shooting off their cartridges at climax, moaning, "The principle of the Kodak system is the separation of the work that any person whomsoever can do in making a photograph, from the work that only an expert can do."

You push the button, we do the rest.
Anyone can use it.
As easy to use as a pencil.

Now you could load your member and shoot your load in daylight, snap quick and discreet shots of naked women, across tenement courtyards, shower curtains half-drawn, innocently unaware of the slow but methodical creep of the Dead Eye. The gelatin had been abandoned finally for the roll, and onward the project rolled on the frame assembly line, sequenced and spaced for the minute, delicate testimony of witness, wheel to wheel. Then, the inside mysteries of mechanisms did not matter. Even dollar Brownies were ripped from shelves, basking in the aura of childlike imagination, as meaningless as the child's first goo. The first black box, the decoder, the encrypter, the vehicle of magical metamorphosis.

Are you listening? Eke looks up at one of his postcards. Alfred Hitchcock, wide-eyed and Gothic, is stalking a Harper's model, gaunt and sallow, across the overgrown front lawn of the Bates Hotel. His second chin hangs like a waistpack of hidden information. His victim's hair is sprayed five inches above her forehead, the prototype for the talking heads of evening hour newscasts.

Photographer/Private Eye. A nation of Magellans exploring and exploiting zones of publicity and privacy. It all must begin with the eye behind the eye. Record the history, and it will always be there, a coat of arms, for you: when you fall into eschatological madness, an escape hatch, the Dead Eye, will be made manifest.

Or kids. Capture your children, the dominant subjects of the Future, the Future in the making, time frozen before it unravels embarrassingly, they have been the subject and telos of the lens.

Easy enough for a child to learn.

Is it a coincidence that once snapshots of petulant youngsters began popping up on the mantles and desks of the world that the infant mortality rate began to creep slowly downward, crawling back to the point of its origin? Did it not bring you close to your own wasted youth, and did it not immobilize the progress of maturity, so that even when they are older and richer and hungrier for success, you still, after the phone is hung up or during the quiet moments of confusing barbecues, take a wistful tour around your own dens, living rooms, arms folded across your chest, lower lip peeking slightly outward, and peruse the postcards of your past?

That's no longer a love letter. It's a postcard from a psycho!

Do you need to look into, possibly through the photograph, like the mirror, to remember who you are, to stave off the desire to become another, to kill or transgress, to break through to the darker side of unknown urges, or does it work the other way around? Linearity, in this light, becomes liminal. Now your children never die, now the environments in which they grow become significant, now the actors and actresses are too young to grow goatees, explore sexual primes, believe. Each frame contains a clumsy voice waiting to crack, and a career to suffer destruction. The model of the Average Joe, the spy of Everyday Loathe, detecting changes in the same, shackling change and sweating in his crotch, eyeing the ladies. Average Joe. Uncle Joe the Butcher, the Spy of Ordinary Life. The Blushing Amateur, steps away from the auteur that every soul believes exists in the mirror's reflection. The clear, pure object in the adoring gaze, staring back at the kneeling observer/lover, the Viewfinder. Detective of perspective. How poetic that the grinding fine of time was left to the Germans and the Swiss, leaders in the manufacture of the universal appliance. How fitting that the impatient space of individuality resided in the fist-sized concept of the snapshot, Eke doesn't think, but writes this:

Guerre --> War --> Gun --> Shot --> Flesh --> Bone --> Snap

You push the button, we do the rest.
You push, we rest.

A secret message of energy division, an Instamatic process carrying quantum leaps in price and productivity. Increased profits are there to tell you the truth: you are selling yourself to yourself. What proud and lucrative circularity, stolen from the dull, methodical Europeans by the Japanese, who know how to have fun, who grasp onto Hello Kitty and still sell Sambo-lipped toys and Swastika hats. Perfect proprietors of contextual vacuums, winsome Easterners whose deep understanding of image tension coupled with the heated aggression of "Kingdoms Come and Go," so start chopping. Swords to the neck, head on poles, poison darts and muscle reassignments, the uneasy proposition of Martial Art, the Art of War, design and doubling in the ceaseless invasion of neighbors and loyalties. Stylish colors, fun fast curves, the satisfaction of the palms unconscious desire for curvature. Now you can buy a camera, take the pictures, throw the camera away. Millions of Dead Eyes, floating past garbage barges in oceanic exile, choking sea life, looking for a way home, back to the familiar friction of Eye to eye. Only to look once more upon a scene, capture it, to invade once again the Moment, before I am sacrificed, left to drift into the food chain, forsaken, to finally wobble atop the current to a foreign shore, to begin my journey again. Kodak named its sacrificial lamb Fling: you nuzzled it, rubbed eyes, clicked and then flung it into oblivion. Into the stream of molecules, into pure energy, where you may someday go. Let me pass into Thermodynamics: I can never be created or destroyed. I can live forever, in all states, changing form like my children change skins.

And the waste that creeps through your circular muscles, cartridges, tubular shells, spools of film, amorphous matter, the steady stream of business, they provide the dredge of pollution and fragmentation together, equally foreboding in their power and longevity. Copyrighted smiles, gene strings, motion trademarks, the brown sludge lining the cool pool of Narcissus, choking the vegetation with elongated and unremitting machinic arms, curling the cinematic fist around that tender meat of the stem. When did it turn around? Products designed to consume other products, and those who were in The Know, figured quickly they were the ones being consumed: their land, their communities, but they were the human gnats poised with the upraised fist in front of the Tiananmen Tanks, whose human commanders watched quietly, hands around their erections, in closed-circuit disinterest, loaded guns on artificial hips. They believed firmly in human perfectibility, were shiny and ready for utopian commerce, and they wanted to buy you, your backyards, that nose, no, there would be better noses, extra inches on their cocks, larger breasts, whiter teeth, everyone is watching, watching, watching, for what? What thoughts go through their lobes, in deep circulation between the Dead eyes, faces contorted, in media res, in peace, what data screams along its neural networks, leapfrogging synapses like Important Thoughts that never seem to make it past the Post-Its? Who was it that said, "Promoters are the true socialists of this generation?" So many questions, and what are questions but broken circuits, hollowing out their self-conscious desires for closure? Mirrors with stains or cracks.

Eke has fallen asleep at his keyboard now, so I will take over for him. Picture him: head resting sideways, on slightly folded arms, drool sliding peacefully down his blonde forearms, a shaft of hair magnetically attracted skyward, visions of slam-dunks dancing in his head.

Atavistic competencies. Taking Polaroids, transmitting data, compressing impressions, immediate results, and, then, knowledge. The nagging questions can be more easily approached. Eke loved the smell of warmly excreted Polaroids, waving them patiently throughout the air, as if the onrush of oxygen contributed to its development, though it was a myth. But the desire to nurture is part of this process. Eke cared for his pictures, dusted them regularly, cried when they were lost. One day, as a teenager battling with a whole host of identity troubles, he came home only to find that his mother had cleared his walls of photographs, that she had thrown them all away, and that, unfortunately, it was trash day, and the garbage men had come and gone. His stomach churned with the thought of his precious evidence equally churning in the malevolent jaws of the rank and stained caboose of the behemoth trash truck.

"Eke, you have got way too much stuff on the walls. I don't want our guests coming over and looking at all those embarrassing pictures, thinking we're a bunch of slobs," his mom explained, when he, hot and getting hotter, confronted her on the issue. What of the question of space and privacy. That was the inner truth of his pictures, their distance. Why couldn't humans do the fucking same, why couldn't they mind their own goddamn business.

"Mom, you have no right to just throw my shit away!" He was hysterical, and the ensuing fight turned ugly. He was put on restriction for two weeks, forced to structure his life around unfair curfews, which even when faithfully enforced, only, to use a distasteful play on words, curbed a few. He came and went when and how he pleased, and there were further restrictions placed. What about the space?, he thought continually to himself.

With Polaroids, you could ensnare the ingenue in a conspiracy, take nude pictures of your girlfriend, stow them in your jacket pockets for easy retrieval when the need for masturbation grew as quickly as your erection. No film processor asserted power in this equation: the image and the eye were linked, married. It was all so clear.

Walker Evans: "I think, that you can put a machine in an artist's hand and have him rely entirely on his vision (emphasis Eke's) and his taste and his mind."

Xerox, IBM, infinity.

Eastman, Gillette, Evans, Babbage, Hollerith, Jacquard, Gates: the knots in the power looms of perception. Before the scanner, conductors punched out pictures in holes, in Lichtensteinian reverse, mustaches made of holes, eyes made of holes, presences and absences bound up together in pure articulation. At some point, someone will construct a code reader minute enough to inject into our systems and disencrypt the secrets of our Great Strings, and pull from the sweet and discordant music as easily as subtle arpeggios of classical guitarists, the dancing digits of violin players. Someone will plunge their finger into your soul, and hook all your data, retrieve. What is that photograph but the concretizaton of all you are, a method easily transmissible to previously unexplored areas, the census, the cell, the censure. The lens captures the face and we are all there, peeking from behind the eyebrows, nestled in the wrinkled corners, between teeth like plaque, sweating under the heavy burden of the tongue. All look alike. Subtle steps from the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company to the seamless space of loss promised by pagan incantations, thirsty WarPigs, Armanis, VR. What I am is what I am is what I am. I yam what I yam, near palindromic perfection, but with nagging injuries: Xerox, Kodak. And your governments know, they were the first to buy, because they love you, need to keep track of you, jittery parents, heads sweating on pillows, hoping you make it home alive from your carousing, your growing relations with people who are not them. How that distance hurts you, Mothers and Fathers. In those midnight ulcers you understand that you, like kingdoms, come and go, and that which crawls out of your body like images from mirrors, grow and grow apart inch by inch, day by day, until you're left hollow inside, toe in the water, heading back to your origin unannounced and alone. That is why you must keep track. Xerographic proof that you were here and that we once belonged to you (if you do not know your past, then you do not know your future), the power of the miraculous verified, stockpiled, filed. Someday these papers will replace us. Someday the machines will work with such divine grace and precision that we will be become dreams only, unrealized and patented cells, disappeared precedents.

Fame. I'm going to live forever. Light up the sky with my name.
You gotta look sharp. And you gotta have no illusions.
Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

Manta Ray is the pen name of a bodysurfing academic living in the San Francisco Bay Area. This article is excerpted from Dead Eye, a novel-in-progress.