Unreal Nature

March 31, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:36 am

Recently, while reading an article in The New Yorker, Birds, Bees, Fish, by Ben McGrath, I ran across this sentence:

Next came shorts in which [Isabella] Rossellini was dressed as a whale, a limpet, an anglerfish, and a barnacle — which turns out to have the largest penis of all, relative to its body size. Rossellini’s barnacle costume included a twenty-foot-long extension.

Did you know that? I didn’t know that. This seems like the kind of thing one would know.

Here is what I have found out about barnacles from Deep Sea News (Kevin Zelnio) blog (June 17, 2008):

… you are a permanent fixture on a rock. Can’t move. What is a young, lovestruck sessile she-male to do? Well, if you are hung like a barnacle you don’t really have to move that far.

… penises reaching up to 10 times their body size.

… For most of the year, the barnacle’s penis is rather languid. The vernal season for this little fellow is September to October where it rapidly grows until ready to spring into action come November. Unfortunately, the excitement of it all is short lived and the penis is cast off with the next moult upon mating. Because the growth and decay of the penis happens so quickly, Hoch hypothesizes that it is costly to maintain this one-use only appendage. If the closest neighbor is far away, it will need to invest more energy into maleness, resulting in a longer penis.

Well, I don’t know about you, but one thing really stands out from that report. They cast off their penises every year! You do the math. Where do they all go? Imagine if humans did that willy-nilly anywhere, not recycling or putting them to any good use.




Provisional and Strange

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:23 am

This article, Where nature went, by Dushko Petrovich in The Boston Globe (March1, 2009) serves as a nice follow-up to my recent attempt to define landscape art. Though it does not define the genre, it does discuss its modern intent. From the beginning of the essay:

… Having produced hundreds of oil paintings and watercolors over the previous six decades – a corpus of landscapes that would redefine European art — Turner simply declared: “The sun is God.”

In the century after Turner’s death, landscape painting became the great engine of modern artistic creativity. Artists did in fact live by chasing the sun, capturing the way it felt in the world in ever more pioneering ways. Turner’s pale and radiant scenes changed the way artists painted light; his main rival, John Constable, was similarly influential with his moody evocations of shifting weather. The French painters who followed — Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Degas — successively pushed the boundaries of artistic innovation, and created landscapes that still count today among the great works of art, bridging both serious and popular tastes.

In our own time, landscape painting retains an unquestionable popular appeal. As civilization pulls us further and further from nature, it’s no surprise that we cherish glimpses of arcadia. Landscapes have become nearly ubiquitous: in living rooms and waiting rooms; on fine china and restaurant walls; at adult ed and on PBS; in regular blockbuster exhibitions and on the resulting sweatshirts, mugs, and even refrigerator magnets.

There is one place, however, where landscapes have almost disappeared: serious contemporary painting.

And from the end (leaving out quite a lot in the middle):

… What has changed, clearly, is how we see nature itself. The traditional model – in which we were separate from nature and enjoyed its representation as a form of escapism – won’t work anymore. No longer able to see our world as simply beautiful, artists also have to see what humans have done to imperil it, which will necessarily change the way that it is depicted, and the point of depicting it.

As painting tries to find its way back to nature, some of the more practical artistic responses to the environmental crisis have an undeniable appeal. [ . . . ] I recently saw a poster inviting students to submit work for a show on sustainability, promising young artists they can “be a part of the solution.”

But art also serves where there isn’t a solution. And painting, with its long tradition, might have a special — if difficult — role to play. With pure formal innovation having exhausted itself in the last century, and with scientific or political remedies clearly beyond its purview, contemporary landscape painting faces a task that is both humble and daunting. But the project also represents an enormous opportunity, given landscape’s immense popularity with the general public, and our increasingly shared concern with the environment.

A picture of nature is now also a picture of our own behavior. Seen in this light, the scattering of the formerly unified idea of landscape painting into disparate realms of aesthetics, politics, and interventions betrays a larger anxiety about what exactly our relationship with nature is. The current attempts to reconstitute that vision — whether refined and complete or provisional and strange — could serve to clarify the situation. But a new kind of landscape will require a new kind of vision: Long accustomed to seeing what we need from nature, artists will now have to find a way to see what it needs from us.

It’s a pretty good piece. Read it if you want to learn more about what specific artists have done in landscape art (but there’s no mention of landscape photography). [ link ]



March 30, 2009

The Same Only Different

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:59 am

This is old news (it was reported twenty years ago) but it’s still interesting to consider:

The researcher, Erick Greene of the University of California at Davis, disclosed his findings on the caterpillar Nemoria arizonaria in the journal Science last week.

In effect, he said, the caterpillars hatched in spring eat their way into bright yellow and green outfits resembling a flower. Fall caterpillars munch on leaves to assume the subdued gray- green appearance of a plain twig. The survival strategy, Mr. Greene said, probably developed as a way for caterpillars to conceal themselves from hungry birds. ”Both fall and spring caterpillars have identical genetic material,” Mr. Greene said. ”The spring brood and the fall brood look exactly the same when they hatch. ”Their later change depends entirely on what the caterpillar eats,” he continued. ”Diet cues turn on or off the right set of genes so that they turn into the right shape at the right time of year.”

— from Diet Determines Color and Shape of a Caterpillar (AP) (Feb 7, 1989) in the NY Times


(above) Catkin eating caterpillar on the left; oak leaf eating caterpillar on the right. These two pictures are of siblings from the same brood.



First-Person Science

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:47 am

I think that (‘first-person science’) could be a great definition for art. But within the ‘real’ scientific community, it’s a controversial subject. Should first-person accounts be considered valid evidence on their own, or must there be third-person interpretation before it can be used or included in ‘real’ science?

In a written version of a debate with David Chalmers, held at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL,. February 15, 2001, supplemented by an email debate with Alvin Goldman — which transcript is titled, The Fantasy of First-Person Science— Daniel Dennett argues strongly against Chalmers’ pro position on first-person science. Here is a little bit of Dennett’s position:

… In Consciousness Explained, (Dennett, 1991) I described a method, heterophenomenology, which was explicitly designed to be

the neutral path leading from objective physical science and its insistence on the third-person point of view, to a method of phenomenological description that can (in principle) do justice to the most private and ineffable subjective experiences, while never abandoning the methodological principles of science.

… From the recorded verbal utterances, we get transcripts (e.g., in English or French, or whatever), from which in turn we devise interpretations of the subjects’ speech acts, which we thus get to treat as (apparent) expressions of their beliefs, on all topics. Thus using the intentional stance (Dennett, 1971, 1987), we construct therefrom the subject’s heterophenomenological world. We move, that is, from raw data to interpreteddata: a catalogue of the subjects’ convictions, beliefs, attitudes, emotional reactions, . . . (together with much detail regarding the circumstances in which these intentional states are situated), but then we adopt a special move, which distinguishes heterophenomenology from the normal interpersonal stance: the subjects’ beliefs (etc.) are all bracketed for neutrality.

I can’t see how Dennett can have such confidence in the ability of one to verbalize consciousness (that’s what art tries to communicate — both verbally and non-verbally — and that’s why art is so hard to make and requires interpretation in its own right).

Next, here is Dennett describing Chalmers’ position (pro-first-person people are the ‘B team’):

Is this truly neutral, or does it bias our investigation of consciousness by stopping one step short? Shouldn’t our data include not just subject’s subjective beliefs about their experiences, but the experiences themselves? Levine, a first-string member of the B Team, insists

“that conscious experiences themselves, not merely our verbal judgments about them, are the primary data to which a theory must answer.” (Levine, 1994)

Dennett, continuing his argument against:

… unless you claim not just reliability but outright infallibility, you should admit that some — just some — of your beliefs (or verbal judgments) about your conscious experiences might be wrong. In all such cases, however rare they are, what has to be explained by theory is not the conscious experience, but your belief in it (or your sincere verbal judgment, etc). So heterophenomenology doesn’t include any spurious “primary data” either, but plays it safe in a way you should approve.

… As I try to make clear in CE, in the section entitled “The Discreet Charm of the Anthropologist,” (pp82-3, on “Feenoman”) heterophenomenology is NOT the NORMAL interpersonal relationship with which we treat others’ beliefs — with its presumption of truth (marked by the willingness of the interlocutor to argue against it, to present any evidence believed to run counter, etc). That is also true of anthropologists’ relationships with their subjects when investigating such things as their religion. Actually, it extends quite far–when the native informants are telling the anthropologists about, say, their knowledge of the healing powers of the local plants, the anthropologists’ first concern is to get the lore, true or false — something to be investigated further later. Ditto for heterophenomenology: get the lore, as neutrally and sympathetically as possible. That is a kind of agnosticism, differing in the ways I detail on pp82-3 from the normal interpersonal stance, but it is the normal researcher/subject relationship when studying consciousness with the help of S’s protocols. If it doesn’t fit your (or a dictionary’s, or the majority of epistemologists’) definition of agnosticism perfectly, I have at least made clear just what kind of agnosticism it is, and why it is the way it is.

And around and around they go. At some level, at some point, it’s all going to boil down to first-person interpretation, isn’t it? There is no group mind.

The text on the web page from which this is extracted is miserable; it’s tiny with large blocks in italic. Read it all if you want to go blind. [ link ]

Here is David Chalmers paper, First-Person Methods in the Science of Consciousness.

Also see my earlier post, The Mereological Fallacy.

It’s my opinion that no matter how much data and verbal descriptions one collects, you will never get to consciousness from a third-person position. Take art, including the visual arts, music, literature and dance. If you are ‘agnostic’ about your perceptions of them, they disappear. If a third party is agnostic about what you say are your perceptions of them, the perceptions are meaningless. To devalue first-person science seems to me to invalidate art — and my first-person response to that is that I think Dennett and his ‘A team’ are missing the forest for the trees.



March 29, 2009

Bird Words

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:21 am


(above) Doves. The enemy. They can suction up all your birdseed faster than an industrial vacuum cleaner. I made it through this winter without them noticing my feeding station, but just recently, they have found me. Bloated, with insatiable appetite, leaving nothing for the little guys . . . who does that remind you of in our current economy?


(above) Romance. What a racket. They’re knee-deep in bird seed and she wants him to pick out the best seeds and give them to her.


(above) A pine siskin. They are probably the smallest bird that I see, yet they are also the meanest. And this one was the meanest of the mean. He would not let anybody else eat anything. Not one other bird was allowed to so much as land on the eight feet of railing where the food is. He wanted it all for himself. Another AIG Goldman Sachs kind of bird.


(above) This bird needs an exorcist.


(above) Optical illusion


(above) I call this one “Dr. C”


(above) This junco sits on this branch and watches me, thoughtfully, for long periods of time. I think she wants to be a photographer. I should get her a little camera and let her take pictures of me through the glass as I eat my lunch. (I wonder if she has a blog.)



March 28, 2009

Un Elation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:27 am

LEHRER: What is a “voodoo correlation”?

Thus begins an interview with Ed Vul in Scientific American. I’ll return to the interview in a minute, but first some background from an article in Seed magazine:

Late last year, Ed Vul, a graduate student at MIT working with neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher and UCSD psychologist Hal Pashler, prereleased “Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience” on his website. The journal Perspectives in Psychological Science accepted the paper but will not formally publish it until May.

The paper argues that the way many social neuroimaging researchers are analyzing their data is so deeply flawed that it calls into question much of their methodology. Specifically, Vul and his coauthors claim that many, if not most, social neuroscientists commit a nonindependence error in their research in which the final measure (say, a correlation between behavior and brain activity in a certain region) is not independent of the selection criteria (how the researchers chose which brain region to study), thus allowing noise to inflate their correlation estimates. Further, the researchers found that the methods sections that were clearing peer review boards were woefully inadequate, often lacking basic information about how data was analyzed so that others could evaluate their methods.

In the paper, Vul and his coauthors cite specific studies, many of which were published in leading journals such as Nature and Science, going so far as to call some of the studies “entirely spurious.” Suddenly, a number of researchers found themselves under attack. The paper began filling neuroscientists’ inboxes. Two groups of neuroimaging scientists, shocked by the speed with which this paper was being publicly disseminated, wrote rebuttals and posted them in the comments section of several blogs, including Begley’s. Vul followed up in kind, linking to a rebuttal of the rebuttals in the comment sections of several blogs. This kind of scientific discourse — which typically takes place in the front matter of scholarly journals or over the course of several conferences — developed at a breakneck pace, months before the findings were officially published, and among the usual chaos of blog comments: inane banter, tangents, and valid opinions from the greater public.

Find links to the pro/con rebuttals to Vul in the gray sidebar to the Seed article. There is also a link to a .pdf file of Vul’s paper.

 Now back to the interview of Vul by Jonah Lehrer in Scientific American:

LEHRER: What is a “voodoo correlation”?

VUL: We use that term as a humorous way to describe mysteriously high correlations produced by complicated statistical methods (which usually were never clearly described in the scientific papers we examined)—and which turn out unfortunately to yield some very misleading results. The specific issue we focus on, which is responsible for a great many mysterious correlations, is something we call “non-independent” testing and measurement of correlations. Basically, this involves inadvertently cherry-picking data and it results in inflated estimates of correlations.

To go into a bit more detail:

An fMRI scan produces lots of data: a 3-D picture of the head, which is divided into many little regions, called voxels. In a high-resolution fMRI scan, there will be hundreds of thousands of these voxels in the 3-D picture.

When researchers want to determine which parts of the brain are correlated with a certain aspect of behavior, they must somehow choose a subset of these thousands of voxels. One tempting strategy is to choose voxels that show a high correlation with this behavior. So far this strategy is fine.

The problem arises when researchers then go on to provide their readers with a quantative measure of the correlation magnitude measured just within the voxels they have pre-selected for having a high correlation. This two-step procedure is circular: it chooses voxels that have a high correlation, and then estimates a high average correlation. This practice inflates the correlation measurement because it selects those voxels that have benefited from chance, as well as any real underlying correlation, pushing up the numbers.

One can see closely analogous phenomena in many areas of life. Suppose we pick out the investment analysts whose stock picks for April 2005 did best for that month. These people will probably tend to have talent going for them, but they will also have had unusual luck (and some finance experts, such as Nassim Taleb, actually say the luck will probably be the bigger element). But even assuming they are more talented than average — as we suspect they would be — if we ask them to predict again, for some later month, we will invariably find that as a group, they cannot duplicate the performance they showed in April. The reason is that next time, luck will help some of them and hurt some of them — whereas in April, they all had luck on their side or they wouldn’t have gotten into the top group. So their average performance in April is an overestimate of their true ability — the performance they can be expected to duplicate on the average month.

It is exactly the same with fMRI data and voxels. If researchers select only highly correlated voxels, they select voxels that “got lucky,” as well as having some underlying correlation. So if you take the correlations you used to pick out the voxels as a measure of the true correlation for these voxels, you will get a very misleading overestimate.
This, then, is what we think is at the root of the voodoo correlations: the analysis inadvertently capitalized on chance, resulting in inflated measurements of correlation. The tricky part, which I can’t go into here, was that investigators were actually trying to take account of the fact they were checking so many different brain areas—but their precautions made the problem that I am describing worse, not better!


VUL: The debate we have spurred is quite interesting to watch. At first some of the authors whose papers we criticized challenged our statistical point, but—for good reason–that line of argument doesn’t seem to have caught on. Right now, so far as I know, everyone seems to concede that the analysis used in these studies was not kosher, in the sense of providing correlation numbers that can be taken seriously. Instead, we are mostly hearing a couple of other arguments at this point.

One is that the correlation values themselves don’t really matter — it’s just the fact there is a correlation in a certain spot in the head that matters. I don’t agree with this observation at all, and we think the fact that many of these papers appeared in such high profile places is because editors were (justifiably) impressed with big effects. If one can account for, say, three quarters of individual differences in something important such as anxiety or empathy — obviously, that’s a real breakthrough, and it tells you not only where future research ought to look, but also where it shouldn’t. On the other hand, if it’s just 3 percent of the variance, that’s a whole lot less impressive, and may reflect much more indirect kinds of associations.

Read the full interview, if you like. [ link ]



In Which I Try to Define Landscape Photography

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:13 am

A few days ago, I wrote a post, Geo-Graphy: Slowed Into Form that was built on extracts from a roundtable discussion of geography. I’ve since been enjoying considering their ideas as they might be applied to landscape photography. In particular, these two little bits:

Jeffrey Kastner: … “the notion of actual space itself as a map of the forces acting within it.”

Eyal Weizman: … the physical terrain/built environment could itself be thought of as a map. This is obviously a property not of the object/landscape but of the way we decode it.

Is there room in the idea of landscape photography for such concepts?  … at which point, I discovered that I didn’t really know what the “idea of landscape photograph” encompassed. More precisely, I had no definition for landscape photography or even for landscape art in general.

Landscape art: It’s what you get if you don’t have anything interesting in the foreground and where you can see land that is a long way off — or at least not too close. It’s all the stuff that we take so much for granted that it’s not stuff anymore. It’s just there, in the background.

Well, that really narrows it down . . .

In an essay by John Fowles at the beginning of the book of Fay Godwin’s landscape photographs, Land:

The word landscape first appeared in English at the very end of the sixteenth century. It came from the Dutch landschap, meaning a province or region, and was first Englished as “landskip’: which if only unconsciously, suggests it was a rather trivial notion. The Catholic scholar Thomas Bount hardly imporved on that low estimate in his Glossographia (a book ‘interpreting all such hard words of whatsoever language, now used in our refined English tongue’) of 1656:

Landskip, Parergon, Patsage or By-work, which is an expressing of the Land, by Hills, Woods, Castles, Valleys, Rivers, Cities, & as far as may be shewed in our Horizon. All that which in a picture is not of the body or argument thereof is Landskip, parergon, or bywork.

This long counting of landscape as parergon — subsidiary work, mere accessory — is an odd aspect of European cultural history and sadly revealing of a much older fault in man: his belief that nature is there purely for his use, and so either hostile or of deep indifference to him in its wild or unusable state.

So, “landscape” is stuff we don’t really care about. Then why are we making pictures of it?

From Robert Adams’s essay, Truth in Landscape, found in his collection of essays, Beauty in Photography :

Landscape pictures can offer us, I think, three verities — geography, autobiography, and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together, as in the best work of people like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact — an affection for life.

… geography by itself is difficult to value accurately — what we hope for from the artist is help in discovering the significance of a place.

… we rely, I think, on landscape photography to make intelligible to us what we already know. It is the fitness of a landscape to one’s experience of life’s condition and possibilities that finally makes a scene important or not.

… the main business [of landscape art] is a rediscovery and revaluation of where we find ourselves.

How is any of that specific to or defining of landscape photography? Doesn’t it apply to almost any kind of photo?

Perhaps a dictionary will help. From Wordnet:

an expanse of scenery that can be seen in a single view
painting depicting an expanse of natural scenery

the appearance of a place

Nope. That didn’t help. (What does it exclude?)

I do like this one, though, from the Glossery of  The Miniatures Page: A Web-magazine for Miniature Wargamers:

Scenery and terrain are broad, generally interchangeable terms which refer to nearly anything on a wargame table which is not a unit or element of the conflict. That is, everything other than the combatants. Scenery and terrain may be thought of as what was on the mock battlefield before the arrival of the belligerants. Items such as hills, buildings, forests, hedges, fences, and rivers are all examples of scenery and terrain.

I think I have to give up. I’ve noticed that what is a landscape to me is different from what is a landscape to an ant. And what is a landscape to me here, is not a landscape to me once I’m in a spaceship halfway to the moon. My former landscape turns back into “the earth” which is some other kind of photography — which I have also not yet defined. And I’ve run out of time.



March 27, 2009

Five Tons of Rock

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:02 am

I got my rock collection from our grandparents’ paper boy. … The paper boy got the rock collection from a solitary old man named Downey, who until recently had lived just up the street from my grandparents. Mr. Downey had collected the rocks from all over. He had given them to the paper boy, in the grocery bags, explaining that he knew no one else. Then he had died.

All of the quotes from today’s post are from one chapter in the autobiographical book, An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard. The above was the start; here is more from later in the story:

… Here was a photograph of rockhounds in the field: two men on a steep desert hillside delightedly smash a flat rock to bits with two hammers. Far below stands a woman in a dress and sensible shoes, doing nothing. Here is their campsite: a sagging black pyramidal tent pitched on the desert floor. A Studebaker fender nudges the foreground. The very hazards of field collecting tempted me: “tramping for miles over rough country,” facing cold, heat, rain, cactus, rough lava, insects, rattlesnakes, scorpions, and glaring alkali flats. Collectors fell over boulders and damaged crystals. Their ballpoint pens ran out of ink. They carried sledgehammers, chains, snakebite kits, Geiger counters, canteens, tarps, maps, three-ton hydraulic jacks, mattocks, gold pans, dynamite (see The Blasters Handbook, published by Du Pont), cuff-link boxes, gads, sacks, ultraviolet lamps, pry bars, folding chairs, and the inevitable bathroom tiles.

Getting back home alive only aggravated their problems. If you bring home five hundred pounds of rocks from an average collecting trip, what do you do with them? Splay them attractively about the garden, one book suggested lamely. Give them away. Hold yard sales. One collector left five tons of rough rock in his yard when he moved. The books stopped just short of advising collectors how to deal with their wives.

The problem of storage and display were surprising. A roomful of rocks was evidently as volatile as a roomful of baby raccoons. Once you commit yourself to your charges, you scarcely dare take your eyes off them.

If you have some sky-blue chalcanthite on a shelf or gypsum, or borax, or trona, it will crumble of its own accord to powder. Your crystals of realgar (an orange-red ore of arsenic) will “disintegrate to a dust of orpiment,” which in turn will decompose. Your hanksite and sode niter will absorb water from the air and dissolve into little pools. Your proustite and silver ores will tarnish and then decompose. Your orange beryl will fade to pink, your brown topaz will lose all its color, your polished opals will craze. Finally, your brass-yellow marcasiste will release sulfuric acid. The acid will eat your labels, your shelves, and eventually your whole collection.

… When you pry open the landscape, you find wonders — gems made of corpses, even, and excrement. In Puget Sound you could find fossil oysters and clams that had turned to agate, called agatized oysters, agatized clams. In Colorado you could find fossil shrimps turned into scarlet and precious carnelian. People have found dinosaur bones turned to jasper.

Petrified wood is abundant in every county of every state, because soluble silicon seeps everywhere. In Southern states you could find petrified leaves and twigs. There are often worm borings in petrified wood, and inside the opalized tunnels, you might find gemmy piles of petrified worm excrement. Dinosaur excrement fossilizes, too. Bird and bat guano petrifies into a mineral called taranakite, which a book described as “unctuous to touch.”

Always with the excrement . . .

I could so easily get interested in rock collecting. I have to be very careful not to let myself even thing about it. In my life there have been, metaphorically, many, many “five tons of rough rock” types of collecting obsessions.

Luckily, in rock collecting, there is that part about hammering things to bits. Even if I hold my other hand behind my back, I have a knack for smashing my thumb to purple mush with the hammer. Do that a few times and it sort of puts you off of the whole hammering thing. If hammering were part of book collecting — and all the other obsessions that have gotten out of  hand — I’d have been cured a long time ago.



March 26, 2009

Geo-Graphy: Slowed Into Form

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:05 am

Tom McCarthy: Really good art and literature is always political — perhaps all the more so the less directly it seems to be. In a way (I’m being provocative here, but I believe this, too), engaging with the symbolic order directly, with the realm of meaning, hacking right into its source code, is more radical than taking meaning for granted in order to simply make a statement.

… Art doesn’t resolve anything: I’ll gladly accept that. Instead, it intensifies the problems, producing surplus meanings left, right, and center.

Jeffrey Kastner: What’s intriguing to me about this is not the idea of the map as a symbolic representation of real space, but the notion of actual space itself as a map of the forces acting within it.

Eyal Weizman: I agree that the physical terrain/built environment could itself be thought of as a map. This is obviously a property not of the object/landscape but of the way we decode it.

Tom McCarthy: Matter will always elude attempts to abstract it: There will always be a remainder.

All of the above are snipped from widely separated quotes within The New Geography: A Roundtable with Jeffrey Kastner, Tom McCarthy, Nato Thompson, and Eyal Weizman in the Apr/May 2009 issue of BookForum. I found the first half of the piece to be kind of boring, but suddenly, in the last half, it gets good. Really good. Here’s that section — from which I took the above bits and which I think is excellent:

TM: I think it’s all political. How can a map ever not be? The Hunting of the Snark, to use my earlier example, one that I suspect you’d relegate to the category of the “merely” aesthetic, isn’t just comic entertainment: It’s about the catastrophic collapse of a project that’s at once imperial (setting out across the ocean to capture something), economic (the crew includes a banker and a broker, equipped with a railway share), ontological (what is a snark, anyway?), and so on. Really good art and literature is always political — perhaps all the more so the less directly it seems to be. In a way (I’m being provocative here, but I believe this, too), engaging with the symbolic order directly, with the realm of meaning, hacking right into its source code, is more radical than taking meaning for granted in order to simply make a statement.

NT: I am of two minds on this. First, I agree that everything is political, in the sense that it exists in the world. I also agree that works in the symbolic order can have interesting political consequences. But I am sure we would all agree that not all things working in the symbolic order in fact do have them. I must say that cultural production has made hacking into the symbolic order in any way that has meaningful political results increasingly difficult. I suspect that’s why approaches in geography become more interesting as the symbolic order increasingly becomes a site for capital’s voracious appetite. The question perhaps is, How do problems in space resolve themselves in the symbolic order? Or, conversely, How do skirmishes in the symbolic order resolve themselves in space?

TM: But my point is that the symbolic order is itself political — indeed, the very possibility of political consciousness resides there. (How could you have political thought or action without meaning?) I think perhaps the “resolution” bit is the sticking point here. Art doesn’t resolve anything: I’ll gladly accept that. Instead, it intensifies the problems, producing surplus meanings left, right, and center. That in itself is subversive — subversive toward any dominant regime of understanding or interpretation, at the very least.

JK: This distinction between the symbolic and the tangible has obviously long been at the center of conversations about the differences between “artistic” and “political” practices. I doubt we’re going to put it to rest here, but I think we can all agree that the spatial environment is a particularly promising site for working on these problems. Perhaps as a way to bridge this, I can cite a passage from Hollow Land, where Eyal talks about the spatial organization of the occupied territories as “a kind of ‘political plastic,’ or as a map of the relation of all the forces that shaped it” — an array that includes official governmental bodies, the military, corporations, and so forth, but also more discursive things like the media and political activists. What’s intriguing to me about this is not the idea of the map as a symbolic representation of real space, but the notion of actual space itself as a map of the forces acting within it.

EW: I agree that the physical terrain/built environment could itself be thought of as a map. This is obviously a property not of the object/landscape but of the way we decode it. If territories are shaped by a multiplicity of diffused practices and forces, then we could try to read the way these abstract dynamics have slowed into form. I agree with what I sensed as Nato’s skepticism, namely that nothing is political in itself merely because power relationships are at work through it. Maybe we should reserve the term politics for more fundamental actions that change the way social forces come into play, rather than direct participation in the play of forces that structure a situation according to a dominant language.

TM: I’m very taken by this notion of physicality and plasticity. I love the example of the explorer Ernest Shackleton setting out to conquer and map the blank, uncharted space of the southern polar region, and how that very blank space itself, the tabula rasa of sea, turned material: The water froze around him and first trapped, then crushed, his ship. It’s like Deleuze’s notion of haptic space, which he opposes to classical distance and perception. His example is the Eskimo in snow: A spot on which his vision alights could be five miles away or a flake in front of his nose; space becomes tangible, close-up, all around you; you don’t dominate it with your gaze and your perspective anymore.

For me, this type of materiality lies at the heart of the practice of poetry. The prose poems of the mid-twentieth-century French writer Francis Ponge, for example, all revolve around a simple question, How do we depict things through language? He describes trying to “express” an orange, express being a word that has the dual sense of both representing and squeezing. When you do this, you may get some juice out of the orange (which, being globe-shaped, is a stand-in for the world), but you’ll always leave a husk behind, and the orange, given back over to its own plasticity, will resume, or partially resume, its original shape. Matter will always elude attempts to abstract it: There will always be a remainder. According to this line, what most resists dominant mappings is not alternative mapping but rather the territory itself, its sheer materiality. Perhaps with Eyal’s story, what was really going on was not people using the model to impose their readings on the land, but rather, through the model, letting the physical landscape mold their understanding and decisions: They became passive in front of its materiality.

EW: I think that Tom’s description of abstract space turning material also captures what war does to space. The historian Stephen Kern thought that WWI should be understood as the shuttering of space and time, and he described the combined effects of camouflage and artillery as the collapsing of the geometric order of front lines and territories. Gertrude Stein described bombings that blended disfigured landscapes with the remains of machines, buildings, and people in terms of Cubism’s undoing of the difference between object and background.

I think that beyond the various justifications Israeli officials have given throughout the years for their destruction of the refugee camps, there is a certain consistent logic. The war against the refugees is undertaken by the reshaping of their built environment. This is done with a combined power to both destroy and affect the construction. It was incredible to hear politicians last winter speaking about “reconstruction” in Gaza while the bombing was still taking place. Destruction is often followed by development attempts that combine welfare and architecture to replace the refugee camp with “housing projects.” One of the aims is to break the historical, spatial, and social continuity of the camp and, with it, the collective political identity of the refugees. So, again, a violently imposed spatiality becomes part of an attempt to affect political subjectivities.

Read the full discussion if you like the quoted section — though, as I’ve already said, I found the first half to be not nearly so good what I’ve given here. [ link ]



March 25, 2009

The Motifs Multiply

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:42 am

In my last post the was a quote from Robert Hughes about Cézanne. Here is a little bit more, this from Hughes’s well-known text,  The Shock of the New (1980). The first paragraph is a quote from within a letter written by Cézanne to his son:

I must tell you that as a painter I am becoming more clear-sighted before Nature, but with me the realization of my sensations is always painful. I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my senses. I do not have the magnificent richness of colouring that animates Nature. Here on the bank of the river the motifs multiply.

These “motifs” were not merely rocks and grasses; they were the relationships between grass and rock, tree and shadow, leaf and cloud, which blossomed into an infinity of small but equally worthy and interesting truths each time the old man moved his easel or his head. This process of seeing, this adding up and weighting of choices, is what Cézanne’s peculiar style makes concrete: the broken outlines, strokes of pencil laid side by side, are emblems of scrupulousness in the midst of a welter of doubt. Each painting or watercolour is about the motif. But it is also about something else — the process of seeing the motif. No previous painter had taken his viewers through this process so frankly. In Titian or Rubens, it is the final form that matters, the triumphant illusion. But Cézanne takes you backstage; there are the ropes and pulleys, the wooden back of the magic Mountain, and the theatre — as distinct from the single performance — becomes more comprehensible. The Renaissance admired an artist’s certainty about what he saw. But with Cézanne, as critic Barbara Rose remarked in another context, the statement: “This is what I see,” becomes replaced by a question: “Is this what I see?”



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