Unreal Nature

May 31, 2009

Amazing Coincidence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 11:32 am

Dr. C’s blogging friend, Redjalapeno— whom I know nothing about beyond his blog postings — while at the University of Virginia in 2007-08, lived in the house that I used to live in in Charlottesville (twenty years ago).

Scared the bejesus out of me when I was browsing his blog. Because I am from Charlottesville, home of UVa, I clicked his tag of that name. In the tagged results I saw a picture of a vegatable garden with a long view and I thought, “Gosh, that looks familiar…” Then there’s a view from the house, in which you can see my old darkroom. Incredible.



Institutionalized Irony

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:52 am

… how have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today’s avant-garde tries to write about? One clue’s to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a rhetorical mode that wears well. As [Lewis] Hyde (whom I pretty obviously like) puts it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome. It is unmeaty. Even gifted ironists work best in sound bites. I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly fun to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures. And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, or sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing but trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow … oppressed.

… Make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

That and what follows are from an essay, E Unibus Pluram: television and U.S. fiction, by David Foster Wallace in his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (1997)

The following precedes the leading quote:

… TV’s re-use of postmodern cool has actually evolved as an inspired solution to the keep-Joe-at-once-alienated-from-and-part-of-the-million-eyed-crowd problem. The solution entailed a gradual shift from oversincerity to a kind of bad-boy irreverence in the Big Face that TV shows us. This in turn reflected a wider shift in U.S. perceptions of how art was supposed to work, a transition from art’s being a creative instantiation of real values to art’s being a creative rejection of bogus values. And this wider shift, in its turn, paralleled both the development of the postmodern aesthetic and some deep and serious changes in how Americans chose to view concepts like authority, sincerity, and passion in terms of our willingness to be pleased. Not only are sincerity and passion now “out,” TV-wise, but the very idea of pleasure has been undercut.

…  Indifference is actually just the ’90s’ version of frugality for U.S. young people: wooed several gorgeous hours a day for nothing but our attention, we are loath to fritter it. In the same regard, see that in 1990, flatness, numbness, and cynicism in one’s demeanor are clear ways to transmit the televisual attitude of stand-out-transcendence — flatness and numbness transcend sentimentality, and cynicism announces that one knows the score, was last naïve about something at maybe like age four.

And here is most of the ending paragraph:

… It’s entirely possible that my plangent noises about the impossibility of rebelling against an aura that promotes and vitiates all rebellion say more about my residency inside that aura, my own lack of vision, than they do about any exhaustion of the U.S. fiction’s possibilities. The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:45 am


It’s 24 carat gold-plated. Wear it 6-9 hours per day for 6 months.

Testimonials (and probably this post) are “censured.”


Diagrams for how it works. Eights hours a day for six months? Guys …



May 30, 2009

After the Fact

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 am

Even if photography could produce a picture by means of the action of light, could it produce an art without the skillful touch of a hand?

… the camera operator, no matter how sensitive to the picturesque accidents of the world, lacks the capacity to take full credit for the plenitude of the photograph.

Those two bits, which sum up two perennial sore points to advocates of photography-as-art, are from an essay, “Photography, Chance, and  The Pencil of Nature“, by Robin Kelsey that is part of the collection of essays, The Meaning of Photography, ed by Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson (2008).

Kelsey does an unusuallly good job of presenting the issues. Here is some necessary preliminaries:

… Although this upheaval has been described many times, these descriptions have neglected one of the principle features of photography, as a new pictorial means: its openness to chance.

To understand this openness, two dichotomies are particularly important (and here I will coin a few terms). The first dichotomy consists of the terms arrangement and interruptant. By arrangement, I mean the program or general intention that informs the production of the photograph as a picture. A desirable arrangement makes us inclined to take this photograph and not some other. By interruptant, I mean an accidental detail or formal relation that addresses the viewer as if from the photograph itself and swerves attention away from the arrangement. I use this dichotomy instead of the now familiar one proposed by Barthes, of studium and punctum, because the latter terms have idiosyncratic and often abused meanings.

 …  The second dichotomy I will refer to as the crop and the click. Following Rosalind Krauss, I use crop to mean the act of framing the photograph at the time of exposure, the cutting out of a rectangle or square or other shape from the encompassing visual field. The crop, in this sense, is a function of the deployment of the apparatus at the time the negative is made. By click, I mean the taking of a photograph in one particular span of time (however slight) and not another. The crop delivers the photograph as a representation of a fragment of continuous space. The click delivers the photograph as a representation of a fragment of continuous time.

He then moves on to discuss Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature:

… The problem for Talbot was that the labor of the artist, by virtue of the judgment that guided it, had long been understood as a principal means by which pictures took on value as art. “Labour united with genius,” was how Egerton articulated the formula for the work of art in his discussion of the painter Lanseer. So the question was: Even if photography could produce a picture by means of the action of light, could it produce an art without the skillful touch of a hand?

Talbot addresses this challenging question with an appeal to chance.

 …  Talbot proposes that art is a matter of the eye and not the hand. He implies that sensitivity to the chance encounter is what binds the eye of the photographer to that of the painter. Both photographer and painter rely on a capacity to detect the potential of accident to stir the imagination or soul. Under this scheme, the true creative act of practitioners of both categories is the arresting of the eye, the momentary crop delimiting a portion of an everyday visual field. Talbot embraces the notion, one might say, of pictorial composition as found object. The arrangement of the photograph, to use that term, is construed as serendipitous.

… Why then, did Talbot not suggest that photography and painting are akin by virtue of the common practice of basing pictures on carefully arranged models and props?

The answer lies, I think, in Talbot’s vested interest in transferring the locus of creativity from the hand to the eye. If arranging brooms in doorways was the stuff of art, then presumably arranging paint on a canvas would be as well, and skilled painters brought years of arduous training to their craft. If, however, the crux of artistic production was a matter of seeing, then photography as an art would be at no disadvantage when compared to painting. Talbot construes the art of all pictorial art as an opportunism of sight. Discovering a picturesque scene requires aesthetic sensibility and inspiration; transposing it to a surface, whether canvas or photographic paper, is merely a matter of mechanical industry.

…. Later in The Pencil of Nature, Talbot recognizes in photography a second operation of chance. [ … ] Photography, Talbot notes, can transpose things of which the camera operator himself is unconscious. [ … ] Talbot here acknowledges the possibility that not every item of interest that the camera records is noticed by the photographer during the preparation of the shot and the exposure of the plate. … This passage constitutes an admission that the eye of the camera operator, no matter how sensitive to the picturesque accidents of the world, lacks the capacity to take full credit for the plenitude of the photograph.

… Talbot’s meditations on photography and chance may require us to revise our understanding of photography’s relationship to knowledge in the nineteenth century. In recent years, scholars have focused on what one might term the indexical guarantee of photography, the notion that the photograph as a trace offers a direct knowledge of what is photographed. This focus has perhaps led us to neglect signs of a troubled nineteenth-century negotiation concerning the disruptive role of chance in determining the value of that guarantee. Chance, as we have seen, threatened to determine whether a meaningful arrangement came into view, or whether an interruptant possessed intelligibility and significance; and chance was always shadowed by fraud. The photograph may have borne an indexical guarantee, but of what?

… Talbot’s photographs of brooms in doorways and building at Oxford, I am suggesting, were less experiments of the sort that Comte favored and more probabilistic aggregates. One could not control the photographic process entirely, but one could nonetheless appreciate the order that unpredictably emerged in photographic samples. Talbot, by likening the unexpected clock dial to the magical delivery of the photograph itself, encouraged viewers to bracket any ambition to trace the exact causes of the image before them. They could take the photograph as it is — such is its charm — and discover order in it that the camera operator never intended. Similarly, Talbot’s peers who were pioneering modern statistics bracketed concern for the certainties of causal sequences and took their statistical data as it was, discovering order in it that reasonable men could not have foreseen. Order simply came to the surface, unexpected and after the fact. The black box of the camera had counterpart in the black box of the new statistical society.

These are the most interesting arguments I have seen in recent writings about photography. Kelsey does a beautiful job of presenting the issues — though I don’t agree with some of his conclusions. 

First, I think it is the exception, not the rule, that meaningful content be found in a photograph that was not noticed while it was being made. Second, I don’t think that (the rare) meaningful or (the common) meaningless “stuff” that fills out a photograph without being specifically noticed by the photographer necessarily detracts from or damages the conveyance his original intent. It may add to it or it may offer alternative meanings, but I don’t think it ever negates the picture that the photographer made. It’s auxiliary to, not a replacement or effacement of the first or primary picture.

Nevertheless,  I would like to read more of Kelsey on photography. He has a book coming out in the fall of 2009, Photography and Chance, which should be interesting.



May 29, 2009

The Other Bad Boys

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:00 am

Cowbirds aren’t the only anthropomorally dastardly players in my compositing menagerie. Blue jays are known to eat the eggs and babies of other birds. On rare occasions they will also eat adult song birds. Researchers claim that the eating of other birds, baby and adult is very rare (about 1% of their diet). Anecdotal evidence suggests that many birders think it’s not so rare. See the very graphic home video of a jay eating a bird, posted on Treehuggers and the comments that are below that video. The associated videos that appear after that video demonstrate the omnivorous and combative nature of blue jays. (Or you can just search on YouTube.)

Oddly, while opinion is divided on blue jays, people are almost unanimous in despising cowbirds even though they don’t eat meat (they are brood parasites). It’s probably because cowbirds are considered sneaks and cheaters while jays are “merely” bloodthirsty. In any event, as with cowbirds, I think it’s ridiculous to apply human moral standards to creatures incapable of choosing to do otherwise.





And I see that I got the white balance wrong in the RAW conversion of that first picture. *sigh*

I am going stark raving nuts with these bird files — I’m only 2/3 of the way through the conversions and it seems like I’ve been doing them forever.



May 28, 2009

Ventriloquizing the Dead

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:43 am

… You gave an assignment: “For Wednesday, prepare the speech that Alcibiades should have given to avoid being exiled during the Peloponnesian war.” You can see very quickly that this sort of thing is a perfect school for historicist thinking!

And for forgery, as it happens.

Quite right. When I sat down to write Forgers and Critics, what I wanted to do was think my way through the long tradition of reasoning about the coherence and character of the past, but I ultimately came to a slightly disturbing conclusion: forgery was deeply rooted in this tradition, as deeply rooted as ways of thinking about the past that we might now call historical or philological. After all, that notion of the integrity of an historical epoch — that sense of what is possible and impossible in a given period — is literary as much as it is historical.

That’s from Deception as a Way of Knowing: A Conversation with Anthony Grafton, in Cabinet (Spring 2009). The person doing the interviewing — text in bold in the excerpts — is D.Graham Burnett. Picking up later in the interview, this is Grafton:

Ventriloquizing the dead is a touchy business. Take the great example of the historical Faust. Not Goethe’s Faust, but the actual German conjurer and itinerant magician of that name who studied at the University of Heidelberg and wandered around the inns and towns of central Germany in the 1530s. There is a story that when he was teaching temporarily at Erfurt, he stood up at a school banquet and offered to bring back the lost Latin comedies of Plautus and Terence. What fun, right? Nope. Apparently the faculty got up in arms about the proposition. Why? They feared that the Devil might well have interpolated all kinds of horrible, scary, dangerous things into those texts, and that if Faust brought them back to life, he’d be revivifying these satanic elements.

And still later, starting with Burnett in bold:

That sort of paranoia makes me think of the other great deceiver that looms over early modern theories of knowledge: Descartes’s “Evil Deceiver” of the Meditations. If ever the idea of deception played a critical role in epistemology it was here, since Descartes set to the task of regrounding philosophical inquiry precisely by imagining that some sort of evil genie had insinuated itself into the core of his being. Descartes wants to know if it is possible to establish anything as “true” if we consider a worst-case scenario: a Mephistophelean Wizard of Oz who orchestrates the theater of our sensory life, a demon who can conjure everything that seems to us to be reality — what we see, what we touch, what we hear, all of it might be a diabolical puppet show. How would we know? Does the very possibility of certainty wither in the face of this hypothetical? Descartes thinks that the only kind of knowledge we could feel confident about would be knowledge that could face down this nightmare possibility. It is a very odd way to think about thinking.

But is it? On the contrary, Descartes’s idea was in the air all around him in the early seventeenth century. It is we modern readers who are really deceived. We read Descartes, we read Galileo, and we think, “This guy’s really one of us. He’s a modern.” I mean we can imagine having a conversation with Descartes in a way that we probably can’t imagine having a conversation with, say, a rather overzealous chap like Martin Luther. There is only a century between them, but Descartes feels much more like our contemporary. But don’t fool yourself! Descartes’s Evil Deceiver isn’t a philosophical heuristic, it’s the basic anxiety of a late fifteenth-century Dominican!

[ … ]

I am kindling a large fire here for all these Satanists…

You and a fair number of early modern prosecutors. These folks, with their great witch-finding handbook, the Malleus Malificarum, exterminated some 50,000 to 70,000 victims in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It’s a pretty extraordinary number. Suffice it to say that this was a universe in which the Devil was pervasive, omnipresent, and continuously working to deceive us. You never know whether the person you are talking to is your friend Graham or Amalek pretending to be Graham.

Read the whole interview if you are interested in questions about historical truth/deception. [ link ]



It’s About Time!

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:30 am

“For too long, game designers have been creatively stymied by a mammary-imaging technology only capable of rendering one type of breast — a heaving pair of massive, gravity-defying, torpedo-shaped bosoms,” said Warren Hood, developer of the new Vex9 graphics card, which has finally enabled video game wire-frame artists to digitally sculpt breasts as small as B-cups.

— from New Video Game Technology Finally Allows Rendering of Small Breasts

More Oniony goodness:

STOCKHOLM—In recognition of her groundbreaking work treating life- threatening diseases of the privates, renowned hoo-ha specialist Dr. Victoria Lazoff was awarded the Nobel Prize in Lady Medicine this week.

The world’s foremost authority on ailments down south, Lazoff led a team of cutting-edge hoo-ha doctors to develop new strategies for detecting abnormal growth in…you know, that area. The accomplished physician humbly accepted medicine’s highest honor before a crowd of her peers, and spoke about the importance of regular screenings to prevent unnecessary complications up inside one’s business.

— from Renowned Hoo-Ha Doctor Wins Nobel Prize for Medical Advancements Down There

New Prescription Fish Tank Eliminates Need for Glasses While Looking at Fish
Auction Won by Crab with $20 Stuck in Claw
That Cheesecake Sitting on the Table: What if it Accidentally Fell Into Your Mouth?
Last Few Republican Senators Form Roman Tortoise
Art Professor Revealed to Be Convincing Fake


— from First 10 Minutes of Chess Game Spent Explaining Replacement Pieces



May 27, 2009

We Invariably Lose

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:42 am

These little interview snips are quite possibly corny and very probably meaningless. I found them entertaining to think about.

It’s a Robert Stone (RS) interview (Apr 20, 2009) in Identity Theory. The interviewer is Robert Birnbaum (RB). (I have never read anything by Stone, and know nothing about him.)

RB: I thought that you might have used the quote from the Kabbalah that “to tell the truth without sorrow is the greatest gift” as an epigraph to begin the book.

RS: There are so many great epigraphs I could have used and didn’t. And I’m not sure about the one I did use, which is from Melville [“Enigma and evasion grow; And shall we never find Thee out?”]. But yes, God, there are so many, so many statements in the Kabala and Zohar, and so forth. But I resisted, in a way. I thought I wouldn’t invoke these words.

RB: There is a quote by a painter very late in the book, the unnamed painter.

RS: Gosh, he’s unnamed because I can’t remember his name.

RB: “Losing it is as good as having it.”

RS: That absolutely wiped me out. He had a show in the Whitney together with Hopper, and I never forgot that.

RB: The quote was printed on the wall?

RS: Yeah. I thought that it was extremely wise.

RB: Tell me why you think it is true.

RS: That which we have, we invariably somehow lose. And at the same time, it can’t be taken away. That is what I take it to mean, and I take it as true.

[ … ]

RB: In the context of something that is so fraught with the weight of the centuries and the really big questions, and people who are really in trouble, I think that that can overshadow the light things, the funny things.

RS: I think it does, but there is no life without humor. There was never anywhere, I don’t think, that people found themselves without a degree of humor. I think even in the lowest circle of hell.

[ … ]

RB: Right. Guys just show up. They’ve got a long, sad story; they have skill and survival.

RS: And they’re mean.

RB: And they’re mean, right. They’ll go on surviving. Indestructible. And they are employed by everybody: good guys, bad guys. You also quoted something that was from Cuba — “Have to not die”…

RS: You have to not die, yeah.

RB: The translation was, “You have to not die.”

The full interview is interesting — probably more so if you know something about and are interested in Robert Stone. [ link ]




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:27 am

… After graduating from a creative writing master’s program and knocking around for a few years I had enough publications in small journals to earn a short-term residency at Yaddo, a well-known writer’s colony. I remember I had the tower room a the top of the stairs in the big mansion. The rules were clear: we artists and writers were to stick to our studios and studies during the day and come out at night for supper and socializing. For lunch, we ate from lunchboxes that had been prepared for us that morning and put on a shelf for us to pick up. Nothing was to come between us and our work.

I sat up in that tower room and sweated bullets. All around me I could hear the typewriters going (those were the precomputer days) and all I had before me was a blank sheet of paper ready for the important work I had come here to write. People now had faith in me. They had given me this residency, this fine tower room. In fact, my fellow artists had all been impressed that I had gotten “the best room,” with 360 degree views of the elegant grounds. But I didn’t deserve this faith. I had nothing Important to say. I was a sham. Before me floated the face of the famous writer. “See,” he crooned, “I told you so!” I was ready to pack my bags and leave Yaddo, at the very least to leave my room and visit with another blocked writer. Together we could gripe about how our major oeuvre was going to come later in our lives when we were seasoned and interesting. But from the sounds of those typewriters clicking away in all the downstairs rooms, I realized those other writers were creating their major oeuvres now.

And then, hallelujah — I heard the vacuum going right outside my door. Of course, the Yaddo mansion and grounds were cared for by a crew of men and women. There were maids that cleaned the big house, a gardener who tended the grounds, and a wonderful old cook down in the kitchen who packed our lunches and made our sit-down dinner meal. Immersed in our own work and world, we writers and artists had assumed that our parnassus ran on automatic.

And so, during the first week at Yaddo, this became my routine: Along with the other artists and writers, I woke early, had my breakfast, picked up my lunchbox, headed for my studio, looking inspired and ready for work. I read for a few hours, and then, mid-morning, when the typewriters began their maddening clicking, I tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen and talked to the cook or helped the maid cart her heavy industrial vacuum cleaner up to the second floor or yakked with the gardener about what was doing well this year out in his vegetable garden. One day, while gossiping with the cook about the eating habits of some of my favorite writers who had been to Yaddo, I paged through her cookbook. It was one of those old, falling-apart cookbooks with mother’s day cards and holy cards for bookmarks, with corrections and deletions and additions to recipes, written in the margins, the whole held together with one of those thick rust-red post-office rubber bands. As I read through one of those recipes, I was struck by the musicality of cooking terms. I began writing down the names of cooking procedures: knead, poach, stew, whip, skirr, score, julienne, whisk, sauté, sift. Then the names of implements: cup, spoon, ladle, pot, kettle, grater, peeler, colander, corer, waffle iron. Hmm. I began hearing a music in these words. The names of spices: dill, fennel, loveage, angelica, anise, hyssop, paprika.

“You working on a poem there?” the cook asked me.

I shook my head. At that point, I didn’t know I was.

A little later, I went upstairs to the tower room and jotted down in my journal this beautiful vocabulary of my girlhood. As I wrote, I tapped my foot on the floor to a rhythm of the words. I could see my mother and my aunts in the kitchen bending their heads over a pot of habichuelas, arguing about what flavor was missing — what could it be they had missed putting in it? And then, the thought of those aunts and my mother led me through the house, the big furniture that needed dusting, the beds that needed making, the big bin of laundry that needed washing.

What had happened was that I had been reminded by my talks with the caretakers of Yaddo of where my material lay. Not on the shores of ancient Greece, and certainly not on the nearest coast of lightness bordering on light, and not up in the tower with Yeats, but down in the kitchen with my mothers and aunts and sisters. [ … ]

All of that is from an essay, A First Step with “Dusting”, by Julia Alvarez, in the book, Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems, eds. Robert Pack and Jay Parini. Here is the source poem:


Each morning I wrote my name
on the dusty cabinet, then crossed
the dining table in script, scrawled
in capitals on the backs of chairs,
practising signatures like scales
while Mother followed, squirting
linseed from a burping can
into a crumpled-up flannel.

She erased my fingerprints
from the bookshelf and rocker,
polished mirrors on the desk
scribbled with my alphabets.
My name was swallowed in the towel
with which she jeweled the table tops.
The grain surfaced in the oak
and the pine grew luminous.
But I refused with every mark
to be like her, anonymous.

She found her material down in the kitchen. I find mine in the woods. You find yours … wherever. Or maybe you don’t.

See this recent post for more on the art of cookery.



May 26, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:36 am

This post is somewhat prompted by comments that were made to Outer and Inter Pretation.

The vertebrate body is an extraordinary jumble of overlapping systems somehow coordinated as a marvelous machine. When viewed all at once, the whole structure is so complex, so “busy” that it defies our understanding. We have to take it apart, system by system — and the pedagogical devices for such analysis are legion. Consider the “transparent” man or woman of our science museums, and the standard mode of public demonstration — bones first, then nerves, blood vessels, lymphatics, organs, muscles, and skin, added step by step from inside out, until we clothe the terror of Halloween with the flesh of aesthetic comfort.



Squirrel Monkey / Saimiri sciurus

Scientists have struggled for centuries to disentangle the complexity by highlighting single systems and removing all others. Underlying skeletons are easy to retain, overlying soft anatomy more difficult. Many of the most famous “preparations” of our anatomical museums present just nerves, just blood vessels, or just the lymphatic system. The search for new methods goes on. Here we see two squirrel monkeys treated to preserve the vascular system alone. Blood vessels are injected with a liquid treated by a catalyst that will cause it to polymerize (harden) at room temperature. Surrounding tissues are then dissolved away, leaving a complete image of the animal expressed in but one of its “layers.”

If you claim that the only thing you see in the two photographs above is the vascular system of squirrel monkeys I won’t believe you. There are many “layers” of the “whole structure” that are available to science — but there are also “layers” that are not.

All of the text and images in this post are from the book, Illuminations: A Bestiary; photographs by Rosamond Wolff Purcell with caption text by Stephen Jay Gould (1986).


Mastodon / Mastodon americanus

Nothing so stuns my mind as an image misinterpreted in scale or orders of magnitude because it has no sure reference point in human bodies or artifacts. The Grand Teton Mountains are named for their whimsical resemblance to the female breast. Fossil mastodons (extinct elephants) evolved molars with cusps in pinnacled rows — so another man of science named them “breast tooth.” This ancient tooth, in the cradle of cotton wool provided by museum curators for its protection, might pass for Wyoming.


Ibis / Plegadis falcinellus

In a rare direct imposition upon modes of realities of preservation in museums, Rosamond has playfully drawn circles in the universal patina of all collections — dust. Thus, the banded contrast of nature and storage combines with the natural form of eggs to force these disappointed containers of future ibises into similarity with the beach-rounded pebbles made of dark igneous rock intruded by bands of white quartz or calcite — and so often found on New England’s beaches. Eggs achieve their streamlining by direct shaping in the oviduct, pebbles by the opposite route of erosion sculpturing from original roughness — but the common form does reflect a higher similarity of forces.

Since dust pervades museums, and seems both ineradicable and constant, sleuths may use its thickness as a guide to the age and stratigraphy of collections. I once opened a drawer in an old part of our collections. The contents had been dumped and sheepishly piled back in disarray — but obviously very long ago as the dust testifies. I found a note, also encrusted by the universal patina. It was dated 1861 and contained both an apology and exculpating explanation, penned by a terrified student lest the intense and temperamental boss of the museum, Louis Agassiz himself, discover such a calamity without appropriate documentation. Agassiz, obviously, never opened the drawer. The student, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, went on to become a famous scientist.


Lobodon / Lobodon carcinophagus

Lobodon, literally the “bumpy-toothed” seal, uses the straining mesh of corrugated teeth to filter krill (small arthropods) from the plankton.

[ … ] Rosamond and I agreed at the outset that we would trust each other’s different professionalisms and would not question choice of photos or textual themes. Yet we argued more about this photo than any other. I found the identification number ordinary and discordant — the ubiquitous method used by museums to catalogue specimens and, incidentally, so often to destroy their aesthetic integrity. She found it striking and unusual — a kind of prison signature with many layers of meaning. It is well that an artist and a natural historian should see the meaning of a simple alteration so differently — and as a result of so many years spent thinking in a certain unchallenged way.



Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.