Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture / Hard/Soft/Lost / Sarah Wasserman

Image credit: Normform on Shutterstock. 

I spend most of my scholarly time at the edges of disciplines, looking for seams that might be joined, for instance, under the umbrella of material culture studies. Interdisciplinarity can collapse quickly into an empty buzzword, but it can also teach us new, productive ways to approach our objects of study. I am interested in different ways of looking—in whether it is possible to look with the eyes of an artist, a conservator, or a curator—at a literary text. What are the terms or tools we might borrow from the study of material artifacts to study other kinds of things: the way contemporary fiction is plotted, a hot trend in book cover design, or the resonance between a billboard and a novel. Lingering at the edges of art history, I have learned that the term “edge” is an established one in the study of painting. There, edges refer to the transition between two shapes of different colors. In this context, the edge is the line where an object or area begins or ends: a border. Although color and composition usually garner more attention when we discuss artwork, edges are responsible for the perception of mass and depth. Without edges, no dimensionality. Without edges, no differentiation.

Artists refer to three different kinds of edges. Hard edges indicate an abrupt or sharp transition from one color or shape to another, soft edges indicate a gradual or smooth transition, and the wonderfully named lost edges are so soft we cannot see them; we only know they are there based on other elements in the image. We can trace these edges, using them to speak about the composition of a painting.

Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, ‘The Music Lesson’ by Johannes Vermeer. c.1662–1665.

The Music Lesson is filled with objects that Vermeer painted often—the draped rug, the white water jug, and the tiled floor and large windows that structure the play of light and shadows. A small portion from the right side of the painting includes hard, soft, and lost edges. On the left side of the jug, there is a very hard edge because of the differences between where the jug ends and the background begins. The left side of the jug is the brightest area of the painting, while the background is much darker; the contrast creates a hard edge. Another hard edge appears where the man’s white collar ends and his black shirt begins.

Detail from Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, ‘The Music Lesson’ by Johannes Vermeer. c.1662–1665. Annotated by the author.

In the background, where the frame meets the shadowy wall, we have a softer edge. And on the right side of the jug, the bluish background creates an even softer edge. That very soft edge on the right side of the jug is nearly nonexistent: the vessel blurs into the background. Soft dissolves into lost, but as your eye moves down the right side of the jug toward the base, the edges reappear again. We might call the reappearance of a lost edge a found one.

Identifying the edges in a painting can reveal details of color, contrast, and craft. Are there edges in other kinds of objects and media? What might we learn from identifying them? The eight essays in this cluster pursue these questions and illustrate the utility of a borrowed concept. Here, the edge becomes a new focalizer, a mandate to consider how transitions, which are often overlooked in favor of more ‘central’ or ‘stable’ content, in fact constitute our objects of study. Lingering at the formal, historical, and ideological borders of eight contemporary objects—novels, artworks, book covers, television shows—each essay illuminates the edge play of the present.

This cluster does not diagnose a trend or generate polemic claims about the contemporary. Instead, it presents an experiment in method, testing what this mode of interpretation can bring to light. To reflect this sense of collective experiment, to play with the edges of the cluster as form, each essay contains a line from another essay. Selected by the essays’ authors but assigned at random, this intertextual weaving invites readers to contemplate boundaries of thought. If the citation feels entirely integrated, does it comprise a soft or lost edge? Does it attest to the portability of concepts or to the expert smoothing on the part of the writer? Does a quotation that sticks out, stubbornly announcing itself as alien, constitute a hard edge? Is it evidence of incompatibility, either of different objects or different authors?

In the following essays about contemporary art, novels, and television, sharp delineation turns out, usually, to be something of an illusion—a cut that becomes a suture upon further inspection. The scholars here show that the edge joins even as it demarcates. Perhaps the present is hard enough and so we prefer soft edges; or perhaps the critical gaze inevitably blurs boundaries.

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Vermeer’s Music Lesson led me, somewhat shamefully, to a very different music lesson. When thinking about edges, it turns out there’s no way around Aerosmith’s massive hit song from 1993, “Livin’ on the Edge.” Looking for answers about edges, I watched the music video, an early 90s mashup of images: pseudo-rebellious youth culture, wannabe badass hard rockers, and a wormy, naked Steven Tyler. The video depicts vandalism, grand theft auto, joyriding, airbag crashing, unprotected sex, violence among teenagers, a sexy cross-dressing teacher, lead guitarist Joe Perry playing a guitar solo in front of an oncoming McCloud River Railroad freight train, and of course Steven Tyler holding a zipper by his crotch with half his nude body painted black.

Still from music video for Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge.” Dir. Marty Callner, 1993.

This creates a lost edge, meant to give the effect that Tyler has unzipped himself. I can’t believe I’m quoting Aerosmith in print now, but the song opens with the lyrics, “there’s something wrong with the world today/I don’t know what it is” before it gives way to the chorus: “Living on the edge/You can’t help yourself from falling/Living on the edge/You can’t help yourself at all.” I was laughing and cringing at the banality, and the mess of this all, until I hit an edge of a different kind. I read that Tyler says the song was inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles uprising—the series of civil disturbances that took place in Los Angeles in April and May after a jury acquitted four officers of the LAPD whose beating of Rodney King was videotaped and widely shown in tv broadcasts. The age of personal video evidence dawned; a gruesome contrast with the glossy videos airing on MTV.

Of course, artists claim all kinds of inspiration and political motivation for their work. But I felt some vertigo at this knowledge, and I call it an edge because it felt like going off a cliff, being pushed from the smug pleasure of laughing at a pop song to contemplating a terrible event whose echoes reverberate in the police-violence-saturated present. Aerosmith’s song and video were, to my mind, reaching ineffectively for the cool and cred of rebellion, the danger of life on the edge; they were about Aerosmith’s image until suddenly, uncomfortably, they were about something else.

That discomfort is, perhaps, enacted by the move I’ve just made—a move in questionable taste that veers from a moment of tongue-in-cheek humor to a call for awareness about the lethal edges that shape our contemporary landscape. I’ve been thinking more broadly about edge this way—or at least about hard edges—as the moment in an aesthetic encounter that can catch me off guard and send me spiraling. This entails shifting a term of object analysis (as in the analysis of the Vermeer painting) to a term of response analysis. What are the edges, for instance, in a literary text that can create this reaction? Are there ways to think about how an edge in a novel might be gradated? How does fiction work with edges to avoid the kind of pat absorption of racial and social unrest that I saw in the music video?

Most recently, I fell off kind of a hard edge while reading Hari Kunzru’s 2019 novel, Red Pill. The novel follows the narrator, a writer, to a three-month-long fellowship at the Deuter Center for Social and Cultural Research in Berlin, where he plans to work on his treatise on the self in lyric poetry. In a darkly comic mode, the narrator finds the Deuter Center intolerable: transparency and community are taken to a perverse extreme. It turns out the Center is a small surveillance state, tracking the fellows’ work through logs, data retention, biometric identification cards, and hidden cameras in their rooms. The protagonist feels the Orwellian omnipresence of the state, its capacity to dispense with the edge between public and private.

And so, ironically, the narrator shuts himself away in his room, eating takeout and bingeing a show all about surveillance: a police procedural called Blue Lives. Blue Lives presents a world where state sanctioned violence is the norm. It is not a remote subtext as in the case of Aerosmith who claim to be “doing politics”, but rather lurid foreground. In the show, law enforcement breaks down doors, ruthlessly tortures and murders citizens, and subliminally messages its viewers with out of context quotes from intellectuals. Kunzru’s narrator knows that something nefarious is going on, that something is off about this show, but cannot pull himself away. The rest of the novel goes down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. At a party, the narrator meets the show’s creator, who turns out to be a well-connected right-wing troll. Kunzru explores the soft edge between information delivery and conspiracy theory. In Red Pill, conspiracy theories become real by way of the internet.

Kunzru creates a fulcrum—an edge—between the first part of his novel, the satirical “look at me I’m a tortured writer struggling to write” part and the second, politically grim part. That edge is a lengthy vignette in which the narrator meets a woman named Monika who works as a housekeeper at the Center. She tells him about her punk-culture youth in the German Democratic Republic, and how she was coerced to become a Stasi informer. Hers is a story of shocking twists in which the worst we fear and believe about political systems—as well as the things we can’t even imagine—turn out to be true. Monika’s 33-page story was previously published in The New Yorker as “A Transparent Woman.” I find the story—its ultimate reveals and its inclusion in Red Pill—a hard and unforgettable edge. Monika’s story in the novel is a part of the narrator’s crises in masculinity and creativity, but it also points, for the first time in the novel, to a material outside—toward the “real” of historical violence that is the topic of the novel’s second half.

The edge in Red Pill feels like a twist but it can’t be called that, because what I’m really describing is an anti-twist: the reveal in which what you suspected all along turns out to be exactly true. Put another way, it’s impossible to be paranoid if the state—its surveillance and white supremacist powers—really are everywhere. The hard edge, in this brief hypothesis, names a reader’s response to the moment or device that takes us out of our fantasies that art (or Steven Tyler) might transport us somewhere else, somewhere better. An edge-oriented reading moves us from the performative veneer of politics to a contemplation of the material reality of those politics. The edge mobilizes our sense of surprise as readers, viewers, or listeners so that we feel the encounter with historical and political structures: the hard edge hurts.

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The hard edge requires—or even creates—a division: a foreground and a background, a here and a there, a this that is not that. The hard edges of Kunzru’s fiction, or of reality television confessionals that Olivia Stowell discusses in her essay, call attention to form and genre, using convention to work on the reader or viewer. But the stakes of the hard edge can be life-or-death, as Jessica Hurley’s essay on South African anti-nuclear campaigns shows. Hard edges also seem to soften as we try to name and describe them. Sarah Dowling’s essay shows how the edge between Rebecca Belmore’s well-known photograph Fringe and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s novel Noopiming dissolves as media and formal crossings occur. Plot itself, Gloria Fisk tells us, is itself often dissolved by the prolepsis that she notes is a hallmark of contemporary Anglophone fiction. For Fisk, prolepsis works like a lost edge that allows authors to represent structural violence. Lost edges also enable artists to trouble the histories that displace such violence into a distant past: David Hering allows the lost edges of Rachel Chu’s “Fractured Skull” to carry us through reflections on mortality and what becomes of it in the digital era. For Grégory Pierrot, the lost edges of Umar Rashid’s art dare viewers to try and distinguish the historical record from the fictions it generates. And edges in Beauford Delaney’s artwork, Amy Elias argues, overwrite histories of racial violence with abstraction. Not all edges edify, of course; others, like the colorful soft edges of instagrammable book covers that Cara Lewis considers, invite us to surrender into a story enclosed in swirling, squishy packages.

As the essays in this cluster cut across medium and genre, they speak to each other through the borrowed terminology of edges. Taken together, they demonstrate that taxonomies—like hard/soft/lost—can be most useful for how they show the instability of categories. To identify an edge, we learn, is to discover how quickly it can be eroded or erased.

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This is part of the cluster Hard/Soft/Lost: The Edges of Contemporary Culture. Read the other posts here. 

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