Unreal Nature

February 28, 2009

Missing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:47 pm

This is one verse from the poem, Objects, by Martha Ronk in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Boston Review:

a photographic album

The experience of things missing seems itself to be disappearing, although I am speaking here of one tiny realm of experience, of turning the pages of a photographic album as the relatives in my family used to do, although not in recent years, since most of them are dead or live so far away that, although they may still be doing such things, turning pages slowly as the couch sinks into featherless flatness, I no longer am witness. What I refer to, however, is not the absence of photographic albums per se, but of that experience of turning a page into which black-and-white photos have been glued, only to find that one of the photographs is missing. Traces of glue remain on the page, perhaps even bits of the backing, but the photograph is gone, missing entirely — some aunt perhaps or a boy with a baseball glove or oneself. If I could remember a particular pose or particular set of apartment steps, I might remember the photograph that’s missing, but the person I was is now also missing and it seems suddenly the clue to a time, even were the documents intact, that is lost.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

Spasmodic Finger Twitchers

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:41 am

When I saw the book review, Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature, Scott Walden (ed.), reviewed by John Andrew Fisher listed in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, I was delighted. I bookmarked it so I could have plenty of time to savor every morsel. So, when, with napkin tucked in to my shirtfront and knife and fork in hand, I was presented with a steaming pile of total drivel, you can imagine my intense disappointment (which is putting it nicely). It promised so much …

… it is a ground-breaking, cutting-edge anthology of essays by leading analytic philosophers of art all focused in one way or another on the foundations of photography.

But soon after that, as I read on, I ran into this:

… Only instrumental classical music has fascinated philosophers as much. In pure instrumental music there is no intrinsic representational content, yet the music feels as if it is saying something and sounds as if it expresses emotions. In the case of photography we have the opposite problem: instead of too little representation, we have nothing but pure representation; we see nothing in a photograph but the objects that are photographed.

*blink* Wha ….??

Then this bit on Kendall Walton’s contribution to the collection: 

Whether through an optical-and-chemical or digital process, once the shutter is triggered the image is determined by what is in front of the lens, not by the beliefs of the photographer:

The essential difference between paintings and photographs is the difference in the manner in which in which they . . . are based on beliefs of their makers. Photographs are counterfactually dependent on the photographic scene even if the beliefs (and other intentional attitudes) of the photographer are fixed. Paintings which have a counterfactual dependence on the scene portrayed lose it when the beliefs (and other intentional attitudes) of the painter are fixed. (38)

If a painter who is trying to depict the scene in front of her believes that there is a gorilla in the scene, she will put it in the painting even if it is not actually there, whereas even if a photographer also has that belief, a gorilla will not appear in the image if one does not exist in front of the camera.

How, how, how can presumably intelligent  people (which presumption is probably a mistake on my part) not see the problem with that statement within oh say, (looking at my watch) twenty three seconds?

Neither the photograph nor the painting are determined by the beliefs of the artist. If the painter wants to put the gorilla in the painting she will. She could believe that there is a gorilla in the scene and choose not to put it in the painting because she does not want it there. Likewise, the photographer will work to include in his photographs, whatever it is that he wants to be there. If he wants a gorilla and for some mysterious reason, it does not appear when he thought it should, he’ll make another picture in which, this time, the gorilla is where he wants it to be.

Philosophers (among others) get all bent out of shape because there is unintended stuff in photographs. Stuff that was not chosen by the photographer. As if anything that appears on any potentially pictorial surface must necessarily be art. If the photograph has stuff in it that the art photographer doesn’t want to be there, then the picture is not a finished work any more than a painting that has white canvas still visible is a finished work. A photograph happens to (unavoidably) have stuff in its “white space”; an unfinished or draft painting has blank whiteness; as does an unfinished or draft drawing. If you want to get literal, the painting and drawing have stuff also, it just happens to be a material that is canvas or fibrous paper. In all three cases, the art photographer, the painter or the sketcher will either decide that they want what is there (the stuff as it is, whether it be something or nothing) or they will choose to change it (by making another photogaph or by adding to or changing the painting or sketch).

Let’s consider the difference between what might be going through the mind of a photographer and the mind of a painter as they work toward the full visualization of what it is they want in their picture. First, the artist:

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, maybe, yes that little bit (adding it), no, no, no, maybe, yes, no, no, no, no, no, yes, maybe, almost, no, yes.

Now, the photographer, looking through his camera, moving about through the world or working over a studio set-up:

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, maybe, yes that little bit (circling closer; fiddling with lenses, aperture, etc.), no, no, no, maybe, yes, no, no, no, no, no, yes, maybe, almost, no, yes.

The reason it takes a long time to become — and there are so few really good — art photographers is (mechanical technique aside) the same reason that it takes a long time and there are so few — really good painters. Both are about knowing and then getting what you want. If philosophers who want to philosophize about photography would first either try to make an artistically good photograph or simply watch art photographers laboriously striving to make good pictures, they might get a clue.

One last quote from the review that I won’t dignify with a response except to say, see above. This one is about the contribution to the collection by Roger Scruton:

In “Photography and Representation” Scruton couples many of the same basic facts about photography that other authors accept with his own not implausible view of what an artistic representation of the world is to conclude that photographs as such can never be artistic representations: “photography is not a representational art” (139). It should be said that he is referring to a logically ideal photography, which he defines as having a purely causal and non-intentional relation to its subject. An ideal photograph of x implies that x exists and that it is, roughly, as it appears in the photograph. Yes, there is an intentional act involved in taking the photo, but it is not an essential part of the photographic relation. The appearance of the subject, therefore, is “not interesting as the realization of an intention but rather as a record of how an actual object looked” (140). Appearances in a representational painting are a different story. “The aim of painting is to give insight, and the creation of an appearance is important mainly as the expression of thought” (148). Given how they are defined, ideal photographs cannot express thoughts. He argues that “if one finds a photograph beautiful, it is because one finds something beautiful in its subject.”

As if anybody buying a point-and-shoot camera also gets a beret and a black turtleneck and goes bounding joyously out of the store singing Handel-ish halleluljahs, their fingers twitching rapidly, spasmodically on the shutter-release; works of art streaming across their LCD.

If you want to read this totally not recommended, hugely disappointing load of drek by a bunch of idiots … [ link ]

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

February 27, 2009

In Subordination

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:44 am

The guest of honor in the aquarium’s Kids’ Corner octopus tank had swum to the top of the enclosure and disassembled the recycling system’s valve, flooding the place with some 200 gallons of seawater.

“It had grabbed the tube that pulls out the water and caused it to spray outside the tank,” said aquarium education specialist Nick Fash. Judging by the size of the flood, Fash estimated that the water flowed for about 10 hours before the first staff member, Aaron Kind, showed up for work.

… The tiny octopus, which is about the size of a human forearm when its appendages are extended, floated lazily in the water that remained in its tank.

It watched intently through glass walls and portholes as workers struggled to dry the place out in time for the day’s first busload of schoolchildren to arrive on a 9:30 a.m. field trip.

… The incident was reminiscent of a 1994 incident at San Pedro’s Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in which an octopus named Octavia pulled a plastic pipe loose.

That giant Pacific octopus died when all of the water in her tank drained out.

Since octopuses are considered by many to be the most intelligent invertebrate — and to have good memories — Fash said he jury-rigged his octopus tank piping with clamps and tape in hopes of thwarting any further mischief by its occupant. “She would need tools,” he said of his octopus, which until now had no name.

From Octopus floods Santa Monica Pier Aquarium by Bob Pool (Feb 27, 2009) in the Los Angeles Times.

Also, see my post from last November, about Otto the octopus (at the end of the post). Here is a bit of that:

Staff believe that the octopus called Otto had been annoyed by the bright light shining into his aquarium and had discovered he could extinguish it by climbing onto the rim of his tank and squirting a jet of water in its direction.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

In Human

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:38 am

Scientists in Germany have now mapped 65% of the Neanderthal genome, and could bring one of these hulking fellas to life.

… Dr. George Church, at Harvard, says Neanderthals could be brought back with existing technology, at a price of about $30 million. The trouble, says Richard Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford, is that you wouldn’t know whether to put Neanderthals in a zoo or at Harvard.

… These scientists really seem to set great store by species. The “recipe” for creating a Neanderthal using modern techniques allows you to start with a human cell, and tinker madly (see article for what “tinker madly” means), or start with a chimpanzee cell. The article says —

To avoid ethical problems, this genome would be inserted not into a human cell but into a chimpanzee cell.The chimp cell would be reprogrammed to embryonic state and used to generate, in a chimpanzee’s womb, a mutant chimp embryo that was a Neanderthal in many or most of its features.

How does this avoid ethical problems? The idea seems to be that the resulting creature would be a mutant chimp, not a mutant human, so it would be much easier to justify poking, prodding, keeping it in a lab, etc.

If Rachels were alive to discuss the case, he’d find this the height of nonsense. How could anything be relevant to the way an individual is treated but the character of the individual itself? The special deference we feel toward anything that happens to be classified human is groundless, and not innocently so either. The flip side of the deference for humans is dismissal (relative or absolute — to make Mary Midgley’s helpful distinction) of all that is not human.

All of the above is from an interesting discussion in the Talking Philosophy forum titled, Neanderthal Ethics, posted by Jean Kazez on February 13, 2009. Comments to the thread are worth a read, too.

For some additional philosophical background on the animal ethics question see this book review, The Animal Question: Why Non-Human Animals Deserve Human Rights, by Cavalieri, Paolal; tr. Catherine Woolard; reviewed by Chris Belshaw in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

Cavalieri’s major claims here are first that moral status attaches to sentience — and is neither wider than this, contra the claims of many environmentalists, nor, against what is here described as humanism, narrower — and second, that there are no good grounds for believing that such status admits of degrees, such that, on a more moderate humanism, members of our species have, or typically have, more of it than animals.

… Only a few will need to be reminded of the argument that animals, insofar as they are sentient, are deserving of moral consideration, and only a few will hold out against this, either by denying the antecedent, and insisting that animals do not feel, or by rejecting the conditional, appealing here to the obscure Kantian claim that, because they cannot judge, we have only indirect duties to animals, or to the related contractarian account, where moral status attaches only to those who might be thought to have bargained with us.

… many readers will already have been persuaded that attempts to maintain a sharp divide between the human and non-human realms all fail—distinctions here are blurred first by the strong suggestions of reason, language and self-consciousness among some animals at least, and, perhaps more importantly, by the absence of such characteristics among certain members of our species.

There are also, near the end of the review, fairly cogent descriptions of the arguments against rights for animals. [ link ]

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

February 26, 2009

Good Skills

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:36 am

The quote below is taken from Heather Chaplin in conversation with Tom Bissell in the Feb 2009 issue of The Believer magazine. They’re talking about ways of looking at video games. This is Chaplin:

Maybe there’s something relaxing about playing at war instead of being at it. Although I also wonder if it’s just the opposite — if the games just keep you pumped up and ready to be at war twenty-four hours a day. And to go back to the “show me the games of your children, and I’ll show you the next hundred years” thing, you could rationally look around and say we’re moving into an increasingly militarized society. I mean, the army advertises in gaming magazines like crazy and shows up at first-person shooter competitions. This colonel I interviewed once broke down for me exactly what video games foster above all else — the ability, amid a sea of chaos, to discern, in seconds, what’s important and what’s not. That’s the reason so many grown-ups feel only fear when they look at a video-game screen — there’s so much going on and they don’t know how to begin to make that kind of instantaneous decision. But any modern-day kid can see the same screen and know immediately what he’s supposed to do and how — no matter how much chaos there appears to be. That’s a good skill for a soldier to have. It also sounds like a pretty good skill for any twenty-first-century citizen to have, considering the amount of information with which we’re surrounded and how fast it flies.

If that’s true (and I’m not sure it is), then what “good skills” does a person who spends a great deal of time staring through a camera have over people who don’t? The ability to instantaneously spot the essential and expressive framed by rectangles of the appropriate proportions? The good skill of paying attention to everything in the world that they’re looking at, not just the homo sapiens that are one part of it?

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

Philosophy as Suspense Thriller

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:28 am

I love philosophy, but the following exchange made me laugh: 

n+1: The cinema exists to show consciousness in some way but the hardest thing in movies is to convincingly show people thinking.

AT: The suspense in that for me is, what will they say next? What are they thinking and how will they articulate it? Will they find the right words? So much of day-to-day life is finding the right words.

n+1: And deciding what to wear. Avital Ronell is dressed kind of exotically in the film. She starts it off talking about anxiety and West ends it talking about mystery. The film is bracketed by those two thoughts. West and Ronell set the tone for the whole film. Sometimes it seems like the walking and moving through space make the talking unnecessary. The moods come out without speech. It’s almost like the walking would have been enough.

AT: If I really had balls I probably would have done it that way!

It’s taken from Time is Real: Interview with Astra Taylorm Director of Examined Life, , in N+1 (Feb 25, 2009).

Astra Taylor’s documentary Examined Life premieres in New York this week and opens in other cities soon. It follows eight philosophers, public intellectuals, writers, or whatever you want to call them, on trips through public spaces like airports and garbage dumps.

Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, and Judith Butler discuss their ideas with the filmmaker on strolls, or while rowing a boat (in the case of Hardt) or from the backseat of a moving car (West).

I think I’d like to see the movie, but my interest is more about a People magazine type celebrity ogling than ‘observing’ their philosophizing.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

February 25, 2009

Deeper and Warmer Understanding

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:42 am

Omni: Maybe it’s the way the textbooks are written, but few people outside science appear to know just how quickly real, complicated physical problems get out of hand as far as theory is concerned.

Feynman: That’s very bad education. The lesson you learn as you grow older in physics is that what we can do is a very small fraction of what there is. Our theories are really very limited.

Omni: Do physicists vary greatly in their ability to see the qualitative consequences of an equation?

Feynman: Oh, yes — but nobody is very good at it. Dirac said that to understand a physical problem means to be able to see the answer without solving equations. Maybe he exaggerated; maybe solving equations is experience you need to gain understanding — but until you do understand, you’re just solving equations.

That’s Richard Feynman and the quote and all that follow are from the The Smartest Man in the World chapter within the book, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. It’s a transcript of a 1979 interview of Feynman by Omni magazine. (Note that I have added bolding to the speakers to make them more visible than is found in the book’s formatting.)

Omni: To someone looking at high-energy physics from the outside, its goal seems to be to find the ultimate constituents of matter. [ … ] But with the big accelerators, you get fragments that are more massive than the particles you started with, and maybe quarks that can never be separated. What does that do to the quest?

Feynman: I don’t think that ever was the quest. Physicists are trying to find out how nature behaves; they may talk carelessly about some “ultimate particle” because that’s the way nature looks at a given moment, but ..Suppose people are exploring a new continent, OK? They see water coming along the ground, they’ve seen that before, and they call it “rivers.” So they say they’re exploring to find the headwaters, they go upriver and sure enough, there they are, it’s all going very well. But lo and behold, when they get up far enough they find the whole system’s different [ … ] As long as it looks like the way things are built is wheels within wheels, then you’re looking for the innermost wheel — but it might not be that way, in which case you’re looking for whatever the hell it is that you find!

Omni: But surely you must have some guess about what you’ll find; there are bound to be ridges and valleys and so on …?

Feynman: Yeah, but what if when you get there it’s all clouds? You can expect certain things, you can work out theorems about the topology of watersheds, but what if you find a kind of mist, maybe, with things coagulating out of it with no way to distinguish the land from the air? The whole idea you started with is gone! That’s the kind of exciting thing that happens from time to time. One is presumptuous if one says, “We’re going to find the ultimate particle, or the unified field laws,” or “the” anything. If it turns out surprising, the scientist is even more delighted. You think he’s going to say, “Oh, it’s not like I expected, there’s no ultimate particle, I don’t want to explore it”? No, he’s going to say, “What the hell is it, then?”

Omni: You’d rather see that happen?

Feynman: Rather doesn’t make any difference: I get what I get.

To me, that description could very easily be applied to photography, though with the added qualification that the photographer can — and surely will — elaborate, clarify, amplify … take your pick — whatever it is that she “get what” she “gets”.  The same might be said for this next bit:

Omni: Do you have any guesses on [the history of cosmology]?

Feynman: No.

Omni: None at all? No leaning either?

Feynman: No, really. That’s the way I am about almost everything. Earlier, you didn’t ask whether I thought that there’s a fundamental particle, or whether it’s all mist; I would have told you that I haven’t the slightest idea. Now, in order to work hard on something, you have to get yourself believing that the answer’s over there, so you’ll dig hard there right? So you temporarily prejudice or predispose yourself — but all the time, in the back of your mind, you’re laughing. Forget what you hear about science without prejudice. Here, in an interview, talking about the Big Bang, I have no prejudices — but when I’m working, I have a lot of them.

Omni: Prejudices in favor of … what? Symmetry, simplicity …?

Feynman: In favor of my mood of the day. One day I’ll be convinced there’s a certain type of symmetry that everybody believes in, the next day I’ll try to figure out the consequences if it’s not, and everybody’s crazy but me. But the thing that’s unusual about good scientists is that while they’re doing whatever they’re doing, they’re not so sure of themselves as others usually are. They can live with steady doubt, think “maybe it’s so” and act on that, all the time knowing it’s only “maybe.” Many people find that difficult; they think it means detachment or coldness. It’s not coldness! It’s a much deeper and warmer understanding, and it means you can be digging somewhere where you’re temporarily convinced you’ll find the answer, and somebody comes up and says, “Have you seen what they’re coming up with over there?”, and you look up and say, “Jeez! I’m in the wrong place!” It happens all the time.

Finally, here is my leading quote with a bit more preceding it that I think is of interest:

Omni: One more question from your lectures: you say there that “the next great era of awakening of human intellect may well produce a method of understanding the qualitative content of equations.” What do you mean by that?

Feynman: In that passage I was talking about the Schrödinger equation. Now, you can get from that equation to atoms bonding in molecules, chemical valences — but when you look at the equations, you can see nothing of the wealth of phenomena that the chemists know about; or the idea that quarks are permanently bound so you can’t get a free quark — maybe you can and maybe you can’t but the point is that when you look at the equations that supposedly describe quark behavior, you can’t see why it should be so. Look at the equations for the atomic and molecular force in water, and you can’t see the way water behaves; you can’t see turbulence.

Omni: That leaves the people with questions about turbulence — the meteorologists and oceanographers and geologists and airplane designers — kind of up the creek, doesn’t it?

Feynman: Absolutely. And it might be one of those up-the-creek people who’ll get so frustrated he’ll figure it out, and at that point he’ll be doing physics. With turbulence, it’s not just a case of physical theory being able to handle only simple cases — we can’t do any. We have no good fundamental theory at all.

Omni: Maybe it’s the way the textbooks are written, but few people outside science appear to know just how quickly real, complicated physical problems get out of hand as far as theory is concerned.

Feynman: That’s very bad education. The lesson you learn as you grow older in physics is that what we can do is a very small fraction of what there is. Our theories are really very limited.

Omni: Do physicists vary greatly in their ability to see the qualitative consequences of an equation?

Feynman: Oh, yes — but nobody is very good at it. Dirac said that to understand a physical problem means to be able to see the answer without solving equations. Maybe he exaggerated; maybe solving equations is experience you need to gain understanding — but until you do understand, you’re just solving equations.

Understand, understand, understand … scientists, artists, philosophers. Are we converging or diverging ?

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

February 24, 2009

On the Value of Observation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:49 am

(This is a follow-up to what I was trying to get at with yesterday’s post.)

The first quote, below is from an address given by Richard Feynman, What is Science? delivered to the National Science Teachers’ Association in 1966:

… During walks in the woods with my father, I learned a great deal. In the case of birds, for example: Instead of naming them, my father would say, “Look, notice that the bird is always pecking in its feathers. It pecks a lot in its feathers. Why do you think it pecks the feathers?”

I guessed it’s because the feathers are ruffled, and he’s trying to straighten them out. He said “Okay, when would the feathers get ruffled, or how would they get ruffled?”

“When he flies. When he walks around, it’s okay; but when he flies it ruffles the feathers.”

Then he would say, “You would guess then when the bird just landed he would have to peck more at his feathers than after he has straightened them out and has been walking around the ground for a while. Okay; let’s looik.”

So we would look, and we would watch, and it turned out, as far as I could make out, that the bird pecked about as much and as often no matter how long he was walking on the ground and not just directly after flight.

So my guess was wrong, and I couldn’t guess the right reason. My father revealed the reason.

It is that the birds have lice. There is a little flake that comes off the feather, my father taught me, stuff that can be eaten, and the louse eats it. And then on the louse, there is a little bit of wax in the joints between the sections of the leg that oozes out, and there is a mite that lives in there that can eat that wax. Now the mite has such a good source of food that it doesn’t digest it too well, so from the rear end there comes a liquid that has too much sugar, and in that sugar lives a tiny creature, etc.

The facts are not correct. The spirit is correct. First I learned about parasitism, one on the other, on the other, on the other.

Second, he went on to say that in the world whenever there is any source of something that could be eaten to make life go, some form of life finds a way to make use of that source; and that each little bit of leftover stuff is eaten by something.

Now the point of this is that the result of observation, even if I were unable to come to the ultimate conclusion, was wonderful piece of gold, with a marvelous result. It was something marvelous.

Suppose I were told to observe, to make a list, to write down, to do this, to look, and when I wrote my list down, it was filled with 130 other lists in the back of a notebook. I would learn that the result of observation is relatively dull, that nothing much comes of it.

I think it is very important — at least it was to me — that if you are going to teach people to make observations, you should show that something wonderful can come from them. I learned then what science was about. It was patience. If you looked, and you watched, and you paid attention, you got a great reward from it (although possibly not every time). As a result, when I became a more mature man, I would painstakingly, hour after hour, for years, work on problems — sometimes many years, sometimes shorter times — many of them failing, lots of stuff going into the wastebasket; but every once in a while there was the gold of a new understanding that I had learned to expect when I was a kid, the result of observation. For I did not learn that observation was not worthwhile.

You can find that within the collection, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman on Google Books (limited preview).

Below is from the beginning of a talk Feynman gave to an audience of scientists at the Galileo Symposium in Italy, in 1964; What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society (also found in the collection linked to, above):

I am Professor Feynman, in spite of this suit-coat. I usually give lectures in shirtsleeves, but when I started out of the hotel this morning my wife said, “You must wear a suit.” I said, “But I usually give lectures in shirtsleeves.” She said, “Yes, but this time you don’t know what you’re talking about so you had better make a good impression … ” So, I got a coat.

Another anecdote — that I will not post here because this post has gotten too long — is the subsection titled Epaulettes and the Pope  from a 1981 interview with the BBC. Scroll down the linked page to find it.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

February 23, 2009

Intermediaries

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:30 am

There is a post on the JSBlog, Shamanic Shamuses (Feb 15, 2009), posted by Ray Girvan where he comments on a linguistic discussion of the connection between the words ‘shaman’ and ‘shamus’ from Language Log. What starts as a linguistic investigation of what was (maybe? probably?) a typographical slip, in Ray’s post, turns into an investigation of ties and similarities between the the nature of what is encompassed by the meaning of the two words.

Both words, ‘shaman’ and ‘shamus’ — and especially the combination of the two — reminds me of art and artists. Yes, I have a one-track mind. But I think my response is valid. This artist/shamus/shamans connection in turn reminded me of author David Abram and his book, The Spell of the Sensuous (1996). As a college student, Abram worked as a sleight-of-hand magician in Alice’s Restaurant (yes the Alice’s Restaurant). He became interested in investigating (shamus-ing) the magic of the shamans of traditional cultures in Southeast Asia — Sri Lanka, various parts of Indonesia, and Nepal. And he did. His book is about what he learned there.

The quotes below are taken from The Ecology of Magic: An Interview with David Abram by independent journalist Scott London. My quotes start somewhere in the middle of the interview. From them, you should be able to see why I find parallels between the shamans and artists: 

London : You have used the phrase “boundary keeper” to describe the magician. What do you mean by that?

Abram : I discovered that very few of the medicine people that I met considered their work as healers to be their primary role or function for their communities. So even though they were the healers, or the medicine people, for their villages, they saw their ability to heal as a by-product of their more primary work. This more primary work had to do with the fact that these magicians rarely live at the middle of their communities or in the heart of the village. They always live out at the edge or just outside of the village — out among the rice paddies or in a cluster of wild boulders — because their skills are not encompassed within the human modality. They are, as it were, the intermediaries between the human community and the more-than-human community — the animals, the plants, the trees, even whole forests are considered to be living, intelligent forces. Even the winds and the weather patterns are seen as living beings. Everything is animate. Everything moves. It’s just that some things move slower than other things, like the mountains or the ground itself. But everything has its movement, has its life. And the magicians were precisely those individuals who were most susceptible to the solicitations of these other-than-human shapes. It was the magicians who could most easily enter into some kind of rapport with another being, like an oak tree, or with a frog.

London : What sort of rapport?

Abram : Every magician that I met had a number of animals or plants or forms of nature that were their close familiars. Just as we speak of the witch’s black cat as her “familiar,” so in these animistic societies the magician might have crows and frogs and perhaps a certain kind of rubber plant as his familiars. It might also be a certain kind of storm — a thunder-storm — a being that, when it appeared in the sky, would tell the magician that it was time to go outside and just gaze at those clouds and learn from them what they might have to teach.

London : In the same way, perhaps, that horses can sense an impending earthquake.

Abram : Right. Other animals function for the magician as another set of senses, another angle from which he can see and hear and sense what’s going on in the surrounding ecology, because we are limited by our human senses, our nervous-system, and our two arms and our two legs. Birds know so much more about what’s going on in the air, in the invisible winds, than we humans can know. If we watch the birds closely, we can begin to learn about what’s going on in the sky and in the air simply by watching their flight patterns

London : Where do they draw the boundary between magic and reality?

Abram : That boundary is not drawn in traditional cultures. In indigenous, tribal, or oral cultures, magic is the way of the world. There is nothing that is not in some way magic, because the fact that the world exists is already quite a wonder. That it stays existing, that it continually keeps holding itself in existence, this is the mystery of mysteries. Magic is the way of the world. It’s that sense of being in contact with so many other shapes of awareness, most of which are so different from our own, that is the basic experience of magic from which all other forms of magic derive.

Abram also has some interesting views on reading; in particular, on children and the written word: 

London : You pointed out that the more we enter into the world of the alphabet, as you called it, the more we close ourselves off to the living world. Perhaps teaching kids to read when they are three or four is not such a good idea after all?

Abram: It’s terrible. Also, children are now being encouraged to get on-line and onto the computer as rapidly as possible. It’s funny because we don’t realize that the astonishing linguistic capacity of the human brain did not evolve in relation to the computer, nor even in relation to written texts. Rather, it evolved in relation to stories that were passed down orally. For countless millennia, stories and story-telling were the way we humans learned our language. Spoken stories are something that we enter into with our bodies. We feel our way around inside a story.

I think children really need to experience stories and to hear their parents and their uncles and their aunts telling them stories. And I don’t mean reading stories to them, but simply improvising stories face-to-face with a child. Or stepping outside and pointing to the forest edge and saying, “Do you know what happens inside that forest every full moon?” Or, “Look at the river. Do you know how the river feels whenever the salmon returns to its waters? It feels this way, and this is the story that tells why.”

Rejuvenating oral culture is necessary because to enter so directly into the literate world of texts, and now into the world of the computer screen, is to enter all too rapidly into that purely cognitive dimension of symbol and symbol-manipulation. What a child needs first is to enter into language bodily, and to have a sense that all of his senses can be engaged within the language. That’s something that stories and oral story-telling alone can do for us.

And this last bit from the end of the interview:

London : What I hear you saying is that we need to expand our modes of awareness to include not just language and the alphabet, but also the magical realm of the senses.

Abram : That’s right. I’m not trying to demonize the alphabet at all. I don’t think the alphabet is bad. What I’m trying to get people to realize is that it’s a very intense form of magic. And that it therefore needs to be used responsibly. I mean, it’s not by coincidence that the word “spell” has this double meaning — to arrange the letters in the right order to form a word, or to cast a magic. To spell a word, or to cast a magic spell. These two meanings were originally one and the same. In order to use this new technology, this new play of written shapes on the page, to learn to write and to read with the alphabet, was actually to learn a new form of magic, to exercise a new form of power in the world.

But it also meant casting a kind of spell on our own senses. Unless we recognize writing as a form of magic, then we will not take much care with it. It’s only when we recognize how profoundly it has altered our experience of nature and the rest of the sensory world, how profoundly it has altered our senses, that we can begin to use writing responsibly because we see how potent and profound an effect it has.

No culture with the written word seems to experience the natural landscape as animate and alive through and through. Yet every culture without writing experiences the whole of the earth — every aspect of the material world — to be alive and intelligent. So what is it that writing does? It has a very powerful effect upon our experience of language and meaning.

London : What are some of the ways that we can bridge these two frames of reference?

Abram : One way is to simply let things be alive. Or, if you don’t want to let things be alive, just to allow that things have their own active agency, their own influence upon us, whether it be a slab of granite, storm clouds, a stream, a raven, a spider.

There is a little poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that captures this in a gentle way:

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars
The inner — what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.

There is much, much more in the interview that is very interesting, but I’ve already quoted too much. Read it all if you like the above. Highly recommended. [ link ]

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

February 22, 2009

Killer Moths

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:48 am

All from an article, Cyborg Moth Gets a New Radio  by Sally Adee on IEEE Spectrum Online.

10 February 2009 — Attempts by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create cybernetic insects (hybrids of biological and electronic bugs) have yielded ultralow-power radios to control the bugs’ flight and a method of powering those circuits by harvesting energy, according to research that will be reported this week at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Converence (ISSCC).

… To be considered successful, the final HI-MEMS cybernetic bug must fly 100 meters from a starting point and then be steered into a controlled landing within 5 meters of a specified end point. On landing, the insect must stay in place.

… To control the moth’s flight direction, Chandrakasan and MIT graduate student Denis Daly designed a small, lightweight, low-power radio connected to a tungsten 4-electrode neurostimulator. When this radio picks up the right commands, the device stimulates the nervous tissue in the moth’s abdominal nerve cord. The stimulation makes the moth’s abdomen move in a way that alters the direction of its flight. The radio and stimulator are powered by a hearing-aid battery.

From among the comments in a discussion of this topic on SlashDot:

At mere $3,000,000 per bug our government will create swarms of moths to charge into the windshields of Taliban truckers and irk the crap out of them.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

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