Unreal Nature

April 17, 2014

The Song that Sang to Us

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… the song that sang to us from the very dawn of our consciousness in the womb — a song that seemed to come from everywhere and to be part of us before we had any conception of what “us” meant — that this song is the voice of another and that she is now separate from us and we from her.

This is from the ‘Foreword’ by Walter Murch; to Audio-Vison: Sound On Screen by Michel Chion (1994):

We begin to hear before we are born, four and a half months after conception. From then on, we develop in a continuous and luxurious bath of sounds: the song of our mother’s voice, the swash of her breathing, the trumpeting of her intestines, the timpani of her heart. Throughout the second four-and-a-half months, Sound rules as solitary Queen of our senses: the close and liquid world of uterine darkness makes Sight and Smell impossible, Taste monochromatic, and Touch a dim and generalized hint of what is to come.

Birth brings with it the sudden and simultaneous ignition of the other four senses, and an intense competition for the throne that Sound had claimed as hers. The most notable pretender is the darting and insistent Sight, who dubs himself King as if the throne had been standing vacant, waiting for him.

Ever discreet, Sound pulls a veil of oblivion across her reign and withdraws into the shadows, keeping a watchful eye on the braggart Sight. If she gives up her throne, it is doubtful that she gives up her crown.

[ ... ]

… For as far back in human history as you would care to go, sounds had seemed to be the inevitable and “accidental” (and therefore mostly ignored) accompaniment of the visual — stuck like a shadow to the object that caused them. And, like a shadow, they appeared to be completely explained by reference to the objects that gave them birth: a metallic clang was always “cast” by the hammer, just as the smell of baking always came from a loaf of fresh bread.

Recording magically lifted the shadow away from the object and stood it on its own, giving it a miraculous and sometimes frightening substantiality.

…The essential first step that Chion takes is to assume that there is no “natural and preexisting harmony between image and sound” — that the shadow is in fact dancing free.

… The challenge that an idea like this presents to the filmmaker is how to create the right situations and make the right choices so that bonds of seeming inevitability are forged between the film’s images and sounds, while admitting that there was nothing inevitable about them to begin with.

… We take for granted that this dancing shadow of sound, once free of the object that created it, can then reattach itself to a wide range of other objects and images. The sound of an axe chopping wood, for instance, played exactly in sync with a bat hitting a baseball, will “read” as a particularly forceful hit rather than a mistake by the filmmaker.

… in my own experience, the most successful sounds seem not only to alter what the audience sees but to go further and trigger a kind of conceptual resonance between image and sound: the sound makes us see the image differently, and then this new image makes us hear the sound differently, which in turn makes us see something else in the image, which makes us hear different things in the sound, and so on. This happens rarely enough (I am thinking of certain electronic sounds at the beginning of The Conversation) to be specially prized when it does occur — often by lucky accident, dependent as it is on choosing exactly the right sound at exactly the right metaphoric distance from the image. It has something to do with the time it takes for the audience to “get” the metaphors: not instantaneously, but not much delayed either — like a good joke.

[image from Wikipedia]

The question remains, in all of this, why we generally perceive the product of the fusion of image and sound — the audio-vision — in terms of the image. In other words, why does King Sight still sit on his throne?

One of Chion’s most original observations — the phantom Acousmêtre — depends for its effect on delaying the fusion of sound and image to the extreme, but supplying only the sound — almost always a voice — and withholding the image of the sound’s true source until nearly the very end of the film. Only then, when the audience has used its imagination to the fullest, as in a radio play, is the real identity of the source revealed, almost always with an accompanying loss of imagined power: the wizard in The Wizard of Ox is one of a number of examples cited, along with Hal in 2001 and the mother in Psycho. The Acousmêtre is, for various reasons having to do with our perceptions (the disembodied voice seems to come from everywhere and therefore to have no clearly defined limits to its power), a uniquely cinematic device. And yet …

And yet there is an echo here of our earliest experience of the world: the revelation at birth (or soon after) that the song that sang to us from the very dawn of our consciousness in the womb — a song that seemed to come from everywhere and to be part of us before we had any conception of what “us” meant — that this song is the voice of another and that she is now separate from us and we from her.




April 16, 2014

All People Guard Their Beliefs

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… All people guard their beliefs and contrive to interpret their behaviors as consonant with and expressive of them.

This is from Symbol and Politics in Communal Ideology: Cases and Questions edited by Sally Falk Moore and Barbara G. Meyerhoff. I start with the editors’ Prologue, and their introduction to the first part, which is on ‘Spontaneity’ (as opposed to ‘Tradition and Regulation’ which will be covered in the second part of the book):

… A campus commune provided a rich basis for identifying manipulations of ideology in the face of the problem of daily living. This commune, theoretically anarchistic, publicly claimed, among other things, that all visitors were welcome to stay as long as they liked, that no one should be expelled, and that membership was utterly open. In fact, the commune was troubled regularly by long-term visitors or “crashers” who contributed nothing to group life and drained its resources. No mechanism or procedure for expulsion existed, since membership selection was “not a problem,” because, by fiat, self-selection should have sufficed. Revision of the ideology was assiduously avoided on this critical point.

… Rather than confront the necessity for establishing regulations that would violate their ideology on two counts — one, that not everyone is a suitable member, and two, that formal procedures should replace spontaneous, individual motives and desires as a basis for making decisions — they publicly confessed that they had fallen short of their ideals, chastised themselves, and repented, with pledges to try harder in the future. It was a ritual of renewal and an affirmation of ideology, repeated many times in the life of the groups.

[ ... ]

… Collective action presents great difficulties to groups with an antiplanning ideology. The carrying out of complex projects that require coordination, subordination of individual desires, and delayed gratification is highly problematic, especially in those groups which aspire to provide members with a complete way of life. Communes based on an antiplanning ideology in which people live full-time must struggle continually with ways of taking action and legislating affairs.

… Some of the specific stratagems employed by the antiplanning social forms are illuminating. We have touched on the disguise which is made in the form of claiming regularity to be accidental, reflecting individual peculiarities and talents. Regularities are construed to be one-of-a-kind events, particularized so as to have no implications for the ideology. A variation on this theme was the interpretation of behaviors as manifestations of accidents. Decisions can be arrived at by the use of I Ching, and group antagonisms can be viewed as reflecting mysterious supernatural forces of all sorts, from witchcraft to Jungian typologies. All events provide explanations which sidestep attribution of predictability and do not carry the implication of possible remedy through design, intention, or planning, since accident and destiny are beyond human, rational control. The affinity for surrealism in art is another manifestation of the preference for understandings which appear in accidental configurations, underscoring the non-sense of life and relationships.

Short-lived encounters, postponements, simple collective projects, and the use of drugs to provide retreat into subjectivity are frequently used in avoiding conflict, but result in an adumbrated, much-limited social life. Self-help also appears in individual crises in lieu of group regulatory procedures, but requires no collective interpretation. Issues are also avoided by ad hominem analyses which attribute them to personal idiosyncrasies. When confrontations with failure are not avoidable, communards, for example, developed rituals of contrition which become occasions for reaffirming rather than questioning their ideology. Purge and purification rites, often conducted in group therapy-like sessions, effectively refocused attention on particularities of people and events. Inevitably, contaminating outside influences would be cited, and pledges to throw them off more assiduously consolidated rather than threatened ideological commitment.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Ambiguity was employed in various forms in avoiding confrontations that threatened the ideology. The devaluation of logic, reason, and precise verbal communication, the stress on permissiveness, and the use of symbolism to convey messages were also useful in bypassing awareness of conflicts or differences. Thus a complex, often ingenious, range of stratagems replaced procedures. This is not to attribute an exceptional malevolence or dishonesty among adherents to the ideology of antiplanning. All people guard their beliefs and contrive to interpret their behaviors as consonant with and expressive of them. Regularities in masking regularity are no more than a vocabulary appropriate to these kinds of groups and movement, and in other belief systems different accommodations can be found. It is our task here to bring out some of the forms particular to these cases and leave to others the identification of idioms of adjustment suitable to other explanatory beliefs.




April 15, 2014

Operatic Romanticism That Is Still Sincere

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… It was by his very vulgarity that Courbet was able to attain to a completeness of statement …

This is from ‘Review of an Exhibition of Gustave Courbet’ (1949) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

… He put his century into his art so completely that he practically forced his successor, Manet, to turn toward the future before he was quite ready. Who knows but that without Courbet the impressionist movement would have begun a decade or so later than it did — aside from the fact that he himself sowed some of the seeds of that movement? He was a great artist.

… Ingres and Delacroix also expressed their age, but their taste was too cultivated to permit them to surrender to it so frankly. It was by his very vulgarity that Courbet was able to attain to a completeness of statement in certain directions that redeemed the vulgarity in part. He might have been a greater artist could he have transcended his age, but some of the enjoyment we get from his art arises precisely from the fact that he did not, that his art is at rest within itself, and lacks many of those tensions we feel elsewhere in the great art of the nineteenth century.

Burial at Ornans, 1850 [image from WikiPaintings]

[ ... ]

… I do not like Courbet’s portraits, but they are sensitive in feeling if not in actual painting. His nudes, which I usually like even less, manage however to be less crass and poetic at the same time [see here: scroll to Nudes under Artworks by Genre]. Courbet always had trouble in asserting figures in a background, but he achieved some of his greatest triumphs precisely in this matter, and their mood of figure-cum-foliage almost redeems some very inanimate nudes. It is the same mood that compensates at times for the vulgarity of Balzac and Berlioz, an operatic romanticism that is still sincere.

Courbet’s great fault was his refusal to be cultivated (this does not mean he was not an erudite painter), which was an effect, it seems, of his egotism and self-indulgence. He had small powers of self-criticism, and after reaching artistic maturity in his thirties he stopped developing. As the catalogue for the Courbet exhibition at Wildenstein’s says: “From now on his work simply alternated between good and bad. From now on, it was merely a question of landscapes, marines, portraits, nudes — depending upon circumstances.” Marx would have said that this was a typical symptom of the petty-bourgeois attitude toward existence, with its reluctance to take risks and its distaste (see Proudhon) for history. I would not dispute this, but I would add that it was also the sign of a temperament that had a great capacity for pleasure and was largely immune to the anxiety which can prevent even the calmest artist from being satisfied with success in the present.

The Wave, 1870 [image from WikiPaintings]




April 14, 2014

A Third, Fourth, Fifth

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… I have tended to believe that things might have other aspects than the two we have mentioned (a third, fourth, fifth aspect) …

This is from ‘Zeus the Explorer’ by Giorgio de Chirico (1918):

Once the gates in the idiotic stockade that enclosed the various bleating or lowing “groups” have been breached, the new Zeuses take off alone to discover the curiosities that nestle like moles throughout the crust of the terrestrial globe.

“The world is full of demons,” said Heraclitus of Ephesus, walking in the shade of the porticoes at the mystery-fraught hour of high noon, while within the dry embrace of the Asiatic gulf the salty water swelled under the warm south wind.

One must find the demon in every thing.

The ancient people of Crete painted an enormous eye in the middle of the narrow bands that circled their vases, on their household utensils, and on the walls of their houses.

Even the fetus of a man, a fish, a chicken, a snake in its first stage is exactly an eye.

One must discover the eye in every thing.

This next is from ‘On Metaphysical Art’ also by Giorgio de Chirico (1919):

… I enter a room, I see a man sitting in an armchair, I note a bird cage with a canary hanging from the ceiling; I notice paintings on the wall and a bookcase with books. None of this startles nor astonishes me because a series of memories which are connected one to the other explains to me the logic of what I see. But let us suppose that for a moment, for reasons that remain unexplainable and quite beyond my will, the thread of this series is broken. Who knows how I might see the seated man, the cage, the paintings, the bookcase! Who knows with what astonishment, what terror and possibly also with what pleasure and consolation I might view the scene.

Giorgio de Chirico, Strange Travelers, 1922 [image from WikiPaintings]

The scene, however, would not be changed; it is I who would see it from a different angle. Here we meet the metaphysical aspect of things. By deduction we might conclude that everything has two aspects: a normal one that we almost always see and which is seen by other people in general; the other, the spectral or metaphysical which can be seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance or metaphysical abstraction, just as certain bodies that exist within matter which cannot be penetrated by the sun’s rays, appear only under the power of artificial light, under X-ray for example.

For some time, however, I have tended to believe that things might have other aspects than the two we have mentioned (a third, fourth, fifth aspect), all different from the first but closely related to the second or metaphysical.

Finally, this last is from ‘The Quadrant of the Spirit’ by Carlo Carrà (1919):

… I feel that I do not exist in time, but that time exists in me. I can also realize that it is not given to me to solve the mystery of art in an absolute fashion. Nonetheless, I am almost brought to believe that I am about to get my hands on the divine. Quite aside from seeming a reprovable thing, such an art may make me look unforgivably frivolous.

I feel as if I were the law itself, not a simple rendezvous of elements. How could the advocates of naturalism ever make me believe that all art is reducible to things constructed by manual skill?

… Alas! Now I see that I have been the blind man for whom the enchantments of life were destroyed when his sight was restored. My idea runs the risk of being upset if it outstrips certain capacities.

I believed in and swore by the flattering concept of my mind. Fugitive voluptuousness; then enthusiasms inflict heavy loss.

Carlo Carrà, The Engineer’s Lover, 1921 [image from Wikipedia]




April 13, 2014

(assuming that it ought to last)

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… This is no longer “becoming-secular” but “becoming-worldly,” that is to say the restitution of sovereignty within existence, naked existence.

This is from the essay ‘Politics I’ found in The Sense of the World by Jean-Luc Nancy (1993):

… One could say: love begins in pure truth (punctuality, myth) and must, in order to last, come to make sense (assuming that it ought to last), whereas the political begins in pure sense (undifferentiated and value being-toward) and must punctuate itself into truth (the first punctuation having the form of power). For this reason, they have been set up, in our tradition, as two interconnected and antagonistic paradigms,each exposed, in a sense, to the other, each attracting and repelling the other.

Just as the becoming-sense of love can go so far as to deprive love of truth (and thus, at the same time, of sense — of “erotic” sense, at least converting it into “political” or “social” sense: the family), so the becoming-truth of the political can go so far as to absorb sense into itself. What one calls “totalitarianism” is the complete presentation of a sense in truth: myth, that is, but myth as reality, without the différance of its narrative. It is the immediate being-there or immanence of myth. In the fascist version, truth is the life of the community, in the Nazi version, truth is the conflagration of the people, and in the communist version, truth is humanity creating itself as humanity. Life, fire, creation: three figures of completed sense, signifying itself and absorbing itself without remainder in its signified, that is, in its referent — for truth here is a concrete punctuation. On this account, politics must be destiny, must have history as its career, sovereignty as its emblem, and sacrifice as its access.

[ ... ]

… As much as Rousseau “secularizes” Sovereignty, he gears down its truth by deferring its sense, by opening up for it an unheard-of history that is still our own. This is no longer “becoming-secular” but “becoming-worldly,” that is to say the restitution of sovereignty within existence, naked existence.

… Decision is existence as such, and existence, inasmuch as it does not take place for one alone or for two but for many, decides itself as a certain in of the in-common. Which one? Decision consists precisely in that we have to decide on it, in and for our world, and thus, first of all, to decide on the “we,” on who “we” are, on how we can say “we” and can call ourselves we.




April 12, 2014

Insisting Itself into a Kind of Truth

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… the source of this magical power is just noises made by air, cartilage and saliva. … But is the fact that people believe in something that has nothing to it itself something, or nothing?

This is from Beyond Words: Sobs, Hums, Stutters and other Vocalizations by Steven Connor (2014):

… Even apart from the direct mimicking of speech baulked or bulked by oral pleasure, the m sound may be regarded as a primary phoneme — one which human children across many different cultures produce earlier and more easily than many other sounds. [ ... ] The vocable um, which functions in English as a linguistic placeholder, is a kind of silence made audible — the sound of not speaking, that keeps the channel open when where there is no communication. It is a vocal noise that impersonates voice.

… The plumped out pause that is the um is perhaps a minor form of the Big Nothing embodied in the mystical vocable Om, or Aum, that is supposed simultaneously to saturate and evacuate the thoughts of the meditator.

… The magical thinking expressed through the letter m is reinforced by the fact that a large group of words in the lexical field related to magic employ it: myth, music, meditation, magic, mysticism, dream, imagination, the mantic, the numinous (indeed, something of the incantatory power attaching to the words phenomenon and phenomenological indicate their affinity to this phonaesthetic cluster, despite the fact that the phenomenon is the opposite of the noumenon). It is perhaps the prominence of the m-sounds in Coleridge’s ‘five miles meandering with a mazy motion’ in ‘Kubla Khan’ that makes this line seem mimetic, the suggestion perhaps being that mazes and maziness that are confusing to the eye have a stupefying effect.

… Freud called magical thinking ‘omnipotence of thoughts,’ for the belief in magic is a belief in the magical power of thinking to make the world conform to it. But magical thinking is also often characterized by its conviction, or at least assertion, of the limits to thought, along with the irrational curtailing of the powers of reason, and the deliberate projection of mysterious powers or realities that lie beyond it: if you cannot know what you cannot know, you can still relish the delicious assurance that you cannot know it. Words that rumor of the numinous and the mysterious are often the carriers of this thought that assiduously keeps itself at a distance from itself, while remaining serenely confident nevertheless of its power to take the measure of the immeasurable, imagine the fact of unimaginability, name the unnameable. Magical thinking operates in the mode of amplified murmur, of assertion without articulation, of mime and intimation, lullabied by the slumberous humming of these nasals.

… In this sense, the um is another diagram of the mouth as such, abstracted to its twin actions of opening and closing. The noises of the voice are the voice of the vocal apparatus itself heard in parallel and in excess to the voice. Where the voice seeks to shape the mouth and the speaking voice in accord with meaning, these noises seek to pull the meaning back into the shape of the speaking apparatus, to draw the whole round world into the hollow O of the mouth. And the most mouthy sound of all is the one that seems to draw everything back into the mouth, the m.

… writers have been drawn to the strong implication of the lips produced by m sounds. Dylan Thomas’s ‘The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower’ mimes different kinds of mouths at work in speaking, sucking, leaching and finally, devouring. There is a force that ‘dries the mouthing streams’; the speaker is ‘dumb to mouth’ to his veins that ‘the same mouth sucks’ as sucks at a mountain stream and is equally ‘dumb to tell’ (unable to tell, or dumb in order to indicate dumbly) how ‘the same crooked worm’ (tongue, finger, pen, penis) is at work in his writing. Joyce’s ‘allwombing tomb,’ the equivalence of life and death, is carried through the poem’s humming labials. To be ‘dumb to tell’ implies both that the speaker is unable to tell, and therefore dumb, and also that being dumb might itself be a kind of telling, mutism being assimilated to utterance.

… If it is true that langauge is in essence and in itself fundamentally arbitrary, with no given or necessary relationship between particular sound-forms and particular areas of reality or experience, it is also true that human users of language, who are also, by that very token, human producers and transformers of it, are powerfully influenced by conscious and unconscious assumptions about the relations between sound and sense, many of them magical. As a theory of the essential nature of langauge, phonosemantics may be — no, certainly is — erroneous, but the error has a distinctive form and force. Like many other forms of magical thinking, it is a form of error that bends things into its image, insisting itself into a kind of truth. So I am arguing, not for the simple actuality of the effects of the bilabial nasal, considered as what Margaret Magnus calls a ‘god in the word,’ or consonantal ‘archetype,’ but for the reality of the fact that we seem, in our uses of and attitudes towards language, to assume this actuality.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Rather than a mythic actuality, it is therefore a mimic or as-if actuality. Possibly swallowing, or myself being taken in by phonaesthetic fantasy, I have had to assimilate myself to the mimic magic, the magical mimesis, of this taking-to-be-true. The magic of sound iconicity and its associated forms of mouth-mysticism are ultimately founded on– nothing; founded, that is, on the fact that the source of this magical power is just noises made by air, cartilage and saliva. The mouth is magical because, as the vehicle of speech, it constantly translates hardware into software, making something (meaning) out of nothing (mere sounds), and nothing (idea) out of something (matter). But is the fact that people believe in something that has nothing to it itself something, or nothing? If the primal cavity of the speaking mouth has indeed so often seemed to be full of magic, this may be literally enough because there is nothing in it.

My most recent previous post from Connor’s book is here.




April 11, 2014

Exactly What We Need

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… Brutal, stupid and brazen, like a peepshow (i.e. unequivocally pared-down ballet): therefore radical, and therefore exactly what we need …

The following are from ‘Notes 1984′ found in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting; Writings 1962-1993 edited by Hans-Ulrich Obrist (1998):

23 April 1984. I have committed myself to thinking and acting without the aid of an ideology; I have nothing to help me, no idea that I can serve in return for being told what to do, no regulation that tells me how, no belief to show me the way, no image of the future, no construction that I can place on things in order to be given an overriding meaning.

I recognize only what is, and in my view any description and pictorialism of what we do not know is meaningless. Ideologies seduce; they invariably exploit ignorance and legitimize war.

13 June 1984. Lack of culture, directness, immediacy, spontaneity, authenticity (!): this is pared-down art, which avoids all artificiality, which no longer tries to take us in, which eliminates as a distraction all artistic skill and all complexity of reference. Brutal, stupid and brazen, like a peepshow (i.e. unequivocally pared-down ballet): therefore radical, and therefore exactly what we need — what liberates us from cultural constraints — what is really going to make us happy.

[ ... ]

21 September 1984. Certainly, Piloty, Makart and all those other Salon artists were far more influential in their own day then Manet, Mondrian and the like: i.e. they were even more important to society, and not only in the negative sense that they supported the reactionary status quo. They also supported a social order that may have been untenable but nevertheless basically performed its social function: unjust, antisocial or criminal though it was (is, and will be), it was necessary. There is no way out of that; all that is left is Utopia, a more or less vague, insubstantial Hope. But what I meant to say was something different, which is this: that these Salon artists, whom we today barely remember — however unimportant, inane, bloated and moronic they are — these very Salon artists represented the mind and spirit of their own time. I can barely believe this myself, but I have to assume that it was so — not only because the importance of these so-called artists is on record in the old magazines, but because we see the same thing today. What represents our own time, and actually keeps it alive, is the very same Salon trash, which we need, produce in vast quantities, discuss, comment upon, record in exhibitions, texts and films — and which is the mind and spirit of our time, our Zeitgeist. And I think that a short-lived elitist phenomenon such as the movement that produced Minimal and Conceptual Art is the exception that might have been expressly designed to prove the rule.

It was all over in no time. And then came retribution: trash painting and trash sculpture by the ton and by the square mile, eagerly swallowed by a greedy society. Art in the real sense does exist, but it is almost impossible to recognize with any certainty. …

19 October 1984. Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations. For a year, two years, I have listened to almost nothing else. What is beginning to irritate me is the perfection. This totally absurd, boring, malevolent perfection. No wonder he died young. I ought to listen to the radio.




April 10, 2014

With and Through Screens

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… the very act of screening has become an intimate part of our sexuality.

This is from the conclusion to Screening Sex by Linda Williams (2006):

… The publication of sex in all forms I have examined in this book has never been a making public of that which properly belongs to the private — George Steiner’s “night words” shouted from the rooftops. A we saw, perhaps most forcefully in the examination of Brokeback Mountain‘s publicity campaign, a movie about two cowpokes who think their sexual pleasure is “nobody’s business” but their own, offered gay anal sex its widest publicity. Publicity is not necessarily the exposure of something that is more properly private. It does not contaminate “an otherwise sealed interiority.” It is, as Thomas Keenan has said, what belongs to everyone and to no one in particular. Publicity is promiscuous, it exposes us to, it involves us with, others, even and perhaps especially others who are not physically present to us there with us in the same time and space.

The carnal knowledge that we gain from screening sex is, finally, not a matter of seeing “it.” It is not a matter of arriving at an ultimate degree of frankness, explicitness, and least of all maturity. However much I have been rooting, throughout this book, for American moving images to grow up and integrate hard-core art into the fabric of adult narratives beyond the various ghettos of pornography and to put an end to the awkward “long adolescence of American movies,” we cannot cure the dishonesty and bad faith about sex with more explicitness. And however much I would root for the sight of a few more convulsing clitorises to answer the seeming ubiquity of money shots, I do not really believe that more realistic depictions of female pleasure are the answer.

After more than a century of screening sex, perhaps the most important lesson I would like to draw from the last stage of this impressionistic chronicle is that the very act of screening has become an intimate part of our sexuality. The point therefore should not be to discover that screening sex brings us so much closer, spatially or temporally, to “real sex.” Rather, it should be to discover that viewers and now users, have become habituated to these new forms of mimetic play with, and through, screens.

My most recent previous post from Williams’s book is here.




April 9, 2014

Pons Asinorum

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… Perpetual signification machines can do no more work than perpetual motion ones; occurrence must break in somewhere.

This is my final post from The Anthropology of Experience edited by Victor W. Turner and Edward M. Bruner (1986). It’s from the book’s epilogue, ‘Making Experiences, Authoring Selves’ by Clifford Geertz:

R.P. Blackmur, writing, I think, about Henry James and the charge that James’s work was so rarefied because he had not lived enough, remarked that no one, artist or otherwise, is ever really short of experience. We all have very much more of the stuff than we know what to do with, and if we fail to put it into some graspable form (not, of course, the case with James in any event) the fault must lie in a lack of means, not of substance.

… We cannot live other people’s lives, and it is a piece of bad faith to try. We can but listen to what, in words, in images, in actions, they say about their lives. As Victor Turner, the moving force in all these studies and in so much more in recent anthropology, argued, it is with expressions — representations, objectifications, discourses, performances, whatever — that we traffic: a carnival, a mural, a curing rite, a revitalization movement, a clay figurine, an account of a stay in the woods. Whatever sense we have of how things stand with someone else’s inner life, we gain it through their expressions, not through some magical intrusion into their consciousness. It’s all a matter of scratching surfaces.

Even this, however, is trickier than it seems. It is not enough, as has recently been more and more suggested, to record streams of directly given cultural materials (chants, myths, dialogues, rites, life histories, designs, terminologies) and then, translating strictly, simply get out of the way so as to let them shine in their own light — an updated version of that most persistent ethnographic will-o’-the-wisp, brute fact. [ ... ] The burden of description, saying what it is others are saying, is not so easily shed.

It is here that “experience,” the elusive master concept of this collection, one that none of the authors seems altogether happy with and none feels able really do without, becomes the asses’ bridge all must cross. [ ... ] If what James Boon, following Alexander Pope at the appropriate distance calls the Machinery of culture is not to spin on in some frictionless paradise where no one fears or remembers or hopes or imagines, nobody murders or rescues or revolts or consoles, it [cultural analyses] must engage some sort of felt life, which might as well be called experience. Perpetual signification machines can do no more work than perpetual motion ones; occurrence must break in somewhere.

… The Durkheimian manner, that has been for so long the favored mode of dealing with symbolic materials in anthropology — the “see, it fits!” clanish-thoughts-for-clanish-societies approach to things — is silently but firmly discarded.

… Experiences, like tales, fetes, potteries, rites, dramas, images, memoirs, ethnographies, and allegorical machineries, are made; and it is such made things that make them. The “anthropology of experience,” like the anthropology of anything else, is a study of the uses of artifice and the endlessness of it. The wrenching question, sour and disabused, that Lionel Trilling somewhere quotes an eighteenth-century aesthetician as asking — “How Comes It that we all start out Originals and end up Copies?” — finds in these essays some beginnings of an answer that is surprisingly reassuring: it is the copying that originates.




April 8, 2014

A Fresh Response to a Fresh Reality

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… As our painting and sculpture abandon naturalism they find more and more stimulating precedents outside the historical and social orbit of Western culture.

This is from the essay ‘Jean Dubuffet and “Art Brut” ‘ (1949) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

Jean Dubuffet is perhaps the one new painter of real importance to have appeared on the scene in Paris in the last decade. Though himself an erudite and sophisticated artist, he professes to despise cultivation, tradition, professional skill — all that which makes art “fine” — and to see genuine value only in the rawest forms of pictorial representation: graffiti, scrawlings on walls and sidewalks by untrained or impatient hands, the drawings of very young or untalented children, mudpies; “art brut,” “raw” art, art in its first and most rudimentary and least conscious stages. This is not at all the same thing as what is called “primitive” or naive art (Rousseau le Douanier, Alfred Wallis, Bombois, Vivin, Kane, Pickett, Bauchant, et al.), which is a relatively recent phenomenon and is in almost every case the result more or less of an untutored or visually innocent or only half-talented person’s attempt to approximate traditional easel painting. The “primitives” do not appear in force until the popular diffusion of museum art is made possible by reproductions and journeyman copies. Art brut, however, does not depend on history or culture as much as that. It is found essentially the same in all times and places, wherever anyone without training, interest, or artistic aspirations tries to communicate something graphically.

Jean Dubuffet, Grand Maitre of the Outsider, 1947 [image from WikiPaintings]

Dubuffet discovered art brut at a time when many advanced writers in France were beginning to question the premises of literature itself as a cultivated discipline and some among them were attempting — as they still are — to bring the novel and short story closer to actual contemporary experience by stripping the narrative of its acquired conventions and modelling their prose on colloquial, popular usage, as Hemingway has done. Like these writers, Dubuffet is reacting against a tradition so rich, mature, and recent that it still dominates the scene of its triumphs. Even though it is no longer adequately relevant to contemporary experience, the splendor and abundance of its achievements seem to threaten the originality of those who wish to make a fresh response to a fresh reality. In the face of such a situation, one is apt to decide that nothing less in principle than a radical rejection of the past will be enough to win the artist or writer his freedom. But a rejection of this sort is impossible in practice, however much it may be proclaimed in theory. It is not only that one cannot deliberately discard habits of culture instilled since childhood. Even if one could, the supposedly greater immediacy of the work of art or literature would be bought at the price of an even greater aesthetic impoverishment. New experience demands increased, not lessened, consciousness, and the anti-artistic artist or anti-literary writer can succeed only by transcending or suppressing the past, never by rejecting it. If he does so, he does so falsely, and the result is false. What, after all, is more false than the deliberately primitive?

Despite the appearance of his pictures, Dubuffet has not thrown off the past as he seems to think; he has, on the contrary, extended it by treating it selectively. To be sure, he has saved himself from the oppressive influence of Picasso and Matisse, which in its direct form paralyzes so many of the painters of his own generation in Paris. But he has not passed beyond culture and discipline and his art is not the raw, immediate expression that he himself advertises it as. What Dubuffet has actually done is to exchange one part of the modern tradition for another. Instead of Picasso and Matisse, he has chosen Klee. But Klee is not altogether the spontaneous, “state-of-nature” artist he is taken for. Like Dubuffet, he was stimulated by art brut, but he assimilated cubism first and took from the “raw” art of children and adults only what cubist discipline would permit. In effect, Dubuffet has absorbed cubism through Klee. (Aside from the fact that he probably also absorbed a good deal of it directly for he first started out as a painter, back in the twenties, under the influence of Picasso, and it was only when he returned to painting at the time of the Occupation, after a long absence, that he appears to have oriented his art toward Klee’s.)

Dubuffet borrowed from Klee the key with which to unlock the spontaneity in himself — Klee who by no means repudiated tradition and wanted only to create an ampler one for modern art and was able to do so only under the guidance of cubism. Dubuffet has shown the highest sophistication in using Klee’s influence as he has, making it the foundation of an art more monumental than that of any other of the Swiss master’s disciples. But in order to do this he had to possess the whole extant culture of painting and all that French art, in particular, had to give in the way of a sensuous and knowing manipulation of paint. I believe that this erudition is self-evident in Dubuffet’s art, as is also his very acute and civilized perception of what is and is not relevant to ambitious art in our time. Next to this his talk about art brut only confuses the issue.

Fondation Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet, The beautiful horned, 1954 [image from WikiPaintings]

Dubuffet’s case demonstrates once again that the “primitivism” of which modern art is so frequently accused is in reality something quite different from what it seems. Instead of being a return to a primitive state of mind (whatever that may be), it represents a new evaluation and opening up of the past such as only erudite artists are capable of. The whole surviving past of art, rather than that of Western Europe and classical antiquity alone, has now been made available to contemporary artists. As our painting and sculpture abandon naturalism they find more and more stimulating precedents outside the historical and social orbit of Western culture. They find these in Africa, Asia, Oceania — and here at home and in the present as well: in the impromptu, rudimentary art of novices, amateurs, children, and lunatics.




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