Unreal Nature

February 20, 2011


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:03 am

… Artists are no less inventive in devising ways of getting fictional truths generated than they are in choosing what fictional truths to generate.

Time for out next installment from Mimesis as Make-Believe: on the Foundations of the Representational Arts by Kendall L. Walton (1990). I’m skipping his chapter “Objects of Representation” and using only a bit from the end of the next chapter, “The Mechanics of Generation” because I found both chapters to be not very useful. The point of both (in a total of 81 pages) seemed to be that there is no point to be found. Could have been said in one paragraph, if you ask me:

… What determines which fictional truths imply which others? Given a representation’s core of primary fictional truths, how do we decide what else it generates?

[skipping over 25 pages of entertaining if convoluted examples]

… The mechanics of indirect generation have turned out — to no one’s surprise, I should think — to be very disorderly. Implications seem not to be governed by any simple or systematic principle or set of principles, but by a complicated and shifting and often competing array of understandings, precedents, local conventions, saliences. Sharply divergent principles, answering to different needs, are at work in different cases, and it seems unlikely that there are any very general or systematic meta-principles for determining which is applicable when. Experience and knowledge of the arts of society, and of the world will sharpen the critic’s skills. But in the end he must feel his way.

The following description of Picasso’s Women Running on the Beach illustrates nicely the diversity of devices by which fictional truths can be implied — in this case a single fictional truth or group of them in a single work. Picasso’s objective is not just to establish the fictionality of the proposition that the figures are moving (or moving quickly), however, but also to convey a “sense of motion.” He does this by establishing that fictional truth many times over in many different ways.

We find that the forward thrust of the two figures becomes irresistible because of a combination of calculated distortions acting in concert. The lead is given by a greatly enlarged arm stretched forward and pointing in the direction that the girls are running. This is backed up in every detail by flowing hair and garments, elongated clouds and the empty horizon between beach and sky across which they run. But the most telling feature is the haptic tension between the pointing hand and the much smaller foot almost left behind in the haste of the leading figure. We are presented, in fact, with a powerful make-believe, strengthened by a multiplicity of devices both plastic and psychological, such as the appearance of reluctance in the companion to be carried along at such a pace, which acts as a foil. [Roland Penrose, “In Praise of Illusion” (1973)]

… Is the machinery of direct generation any more orderly than that of implication?

… What would be the grounds for denying that Nude Descending “shows” a parade, if not that this is not what it represents, that it is fictional that there is only a single woman on the staircase? So how could an appeal to what it shows assist the task of determining what it makes fictional?

When in response to these negative observations we look to see how direct generation does work, we are treated to a veritable variety show. Artists use every trick in the book and more. Some techniques are more or less traditional; others are strikingly ad hoc. (One is reminded of the impromptu utilization of unconventional props in children’s games.) Some, even some ad hoc ones, leave no doubt about what is fictional; others keep us guessing forever. Some require familiarity with the genre to be understood, or familiarity with one or another aspect of the outside world. Artists are no less inventive in devising ways of getting fictional truths generated than they are in choosing what fictional truths to generate.

… Why do all thirteen of the diners in Leonardo’s Last Supper line up in a row on the same side of the table? So that we, the viewers of the painting, should be able to see all of their faces, of course. No doubt that was Leonardo’s reason for painting them so, for making it fictional that they are configured as they are. But what, fictionally, are their reasons for arranging themselves thus? It isn’t fictional that they want to accommodate us or Leonardo, or that they are posing for a portrait. Must we suspect that they are fearful of facing one another — of kicks under the table or bad breath? Or is it fictional that there is nothing unusual, nothing remarkable or noteworthy about their crowding together on one side of the table? Is it, fictionally, the custom to sit thus at a communal meal? How did such a peculiar custom arise? Could it be fictional that that is not their custom, that diners normally sit on both sides of a table, but fictional also that their departure from the norm on this occasion is not noteworthy, not in need of explanation? None of the alternatives is attractive.

… Recognition of a question’s silliness, and so of one reason for disallowing or deemphasizing fictional truths that give rise to it, may depend on awareness of various demands to which the artist must respond. A decision to disallow anomalous fictional truths is especially plausible when it is evident that there are other reasons for the presence in the work of the features that appear to generate them — when, for instance, they are needed to make the fictional world accessible to the audience, or to enhance appreciators’ games of make-believe.

… Fictionality is not defined by the principles of generation; it consists rather in prescriptions to imagine. The variety lies in the means by which such prescriptions are established. Although fictional truths are generated in very different ways, the result is the same in every case: propositions that are to be imagined.

And there we return to Walton’s core premise (“prescriptions to imagine” and “”propositions to be imagined”) to which he will return in subsequent chapters. But first, tomorrow, we return to The Nude.

[It is my intention to pair posts (either on the same day or on consecutive days) from Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990) with posts from Kenneth Clark’s The Nude (1956). I’m doing this rather bizarre and arbitrary juxtaposition because, for me, the obvious contrasts as well as the occasional similarities make both books more interesting.]



February 19, 2011

Chicken or Egg?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:57 am

… objects are not defined by their relations: instead they are what enter into relations in the first place, and their allies can never fully mine their ores.

This is the second of two posts today from Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics by Graham Harman (2009). If you’ve been reading my Latour posts over the last month or so, you may have been wondering how much I agree with his philosophy, and how much I disagree. Some and some. But, like Harman, I love his different perspective and I truly love how much it stirs me to think and rethink my own perspectives. That being said, in this post, Harman gets into one of my particular problems with Latour, and, I think, even if he doesn’t resolve the problem, lays it open nicely. I’m going to start with Harman’s quick review of Latour’s position on the point in question:

… An object is no more than what it modifies, transforms, perturbs, or creates … There is not a ‘something more’ for Latour, a latent substance hidden from public view beneath an actor’s overt performance. An actor is completely actualized in any moment, inscribed without reserve in its current scheme of alliances. The term sometimes used for this doctrine is ‘actualism’ …

… For Aristotle, a thing is always more than what it is right now; for Latour, never. A thing changes by enrolling other actors, not by unveiling a pre-existent interior.

Now to Harman’s critique. The first paragraph below is the very end of a two part criticism of the above:

… 1. … This ‘I’ is surely a vast alliance composed of numerous elements: the friends and schools of my past, the books that have shaped me, the internal organs that keep me alive, the grain and beans I consume. But my reliance on internal components does not entail reliance on my outer relations. I cannot exist without my components, but can very well exist without my allies. These allies may shape me in turn: but what they are shaping is me, not my previous set of alliances, most of which are not preserved in my current self at all. If not for this basic asymmetry between an actor’s components and its alliances, we would have a purely holistic cosmos. Everything would be defined to an equal degree by the actors above it as below it, and there would be no place in reality not defined utterly by its context. But this is by no means what happens. What happens instead is that components sometimes unite to form a new actor, an ’emergent’ reality irreducible to its pieces. It can survive certain changes among its constituents, and even more easily survives the outer relations into which it is thrown. An actor is a firewall, preventing all tiny shifts in its components from affecting it, and also preventing its environment from entering the black box too easily. An object needs its components to some extent, but never needs its allies. Only the alliance as a whole requires the allies, but the alliance as a whole is a different entity from each of its components. Stated briefly, Pasteur is not the same thing as Pasteur-discoverer-of-microbes.

2. We have already touched on the second problem: even an actor’s present is not adequately defined by its relations. When Merleau-Ponty speaks of ‘the house seen from everywhere’, what he means is the house seen from all current points of view. But a simple thought experiment allows us to consider other points of view on the house. Imagine hundreds of new entities in contact with the house from previously untried angles, distances, or moods. This would certainly create new relations, but it would not create a new house. Now imagine (even though Cantor seems to forbid it) that the house is viewed by all possible actors from all possible angles under every conceivable condition. Even under this bizarre scenario, it is still not these viewpoints that are doing the work of the house. These infinitely many observers are not the ones who block the winds and keep the inhabitants dry: only the house itself does this. This implies that the house contains unknown realities never touched by any or all of its relations. Relations do not exhaust a thing — instead, they rely on the thing.

… Just as Latour teaches, there are countless actors of different sizes and types, constantly dueling and negotiating with each other. But objects are not defined by their relations: instead they are what enter into relations in the first place, and their allies can never fully mine their ores. In Heideggerian terms, objects enter relations but withdraw from them as well; objects are built of components, but exceed those components. Things exist not in relation, but in a strange sort of vacuum from which they only partly emerge into relation.

Oh dear. I’m not sure about “a strange sort of vacuum,” in spite of the fact that I am fairly sure that my mind often does some strange vacuuming. And I’m not entirely convinced that the new views don’t create a new house or that the blocking of the wind and the sheltering of inhabitants aren’t constituted by the wind and the inhabitants. Nevertheless, I do agree with what Harman is trying to ferret out; that relations are actively regulated/buffered/deployed according to ingredients that are not in play, and “ingredients that are not in play” is not found (or allowed by) in Latour’s descriptions.

I will have further from Harman’s critiques of Latour in this chapter in subsequent posts. Stay tuned.



No One Leaves Town

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:49 am

An old maxim states that there are two kinds of critics: those who want us to succeed, and those who want us to fail. Debate is always tedious when conducted with persons of the latter kind.

This is the first of two posts today from Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics by Graham Harman (2009). In this section of the book, Harman moves from describing Latour’s work to critiquing it. He begins with a brief discussion of the nature and value of good critiquing.I think Harman’s comments about the “latter kind”are just … perfect. Continuing from the above:

… Wherever we turn, they are popping balloons and spilling oil on the floor; we find ourselves confronted not only with arguments, but with unmistakable aggressions of voice and physical posture. Yet such gestures of supremacy yield no treasures even for the victors, and somehow always seem to solidify the status quo. It is analogous to ‘critiquing’ long-distance buses by puncturing their tyres, assuring that no one leaves town and nothing is risked. But fair play demands that we let the buses leave. If we make no concessions and play along with nothing, then our ‘critical’ claims merely endorse one of the prefabricated positions of the day, whichever one it may be. Today’s critics stand not only for critique, but usually for a weary human/world dualism that is either affirmed or else falsely overcome by gluing two pieces together that should never have existed in the first place. If some random crank were to assert that everything in the world is made of either wood or metal, we would oppose him not by upholding a primal ‘wood-metal’ that prevents the two materials from ever existing in isolation, but simply by observing that wooden vs. metallic is not a fundamental rift.

… Instead of tripping and beating a philosophy for its supposed faults only to end up with the same range of mediocre biases with which we began, we ought to find a more vigorous means of engagement with philosophers. The method I propose is to replace the piously overvalued ‘critical thinking’ with a seldom-used hyperbolic thinking. For me at least, it is only books of the most stunning weakness that draw attention to non sequiturs and other logical fallacies. The books that stir us most are not those containing the fewest errors, but those that throw most light on unknown portions of the map. In the case of any author who interests us, we should not ask ‘where are the mistakes here?’, as if we hoped for nothing more than to avoid being fooled. We should ask instead: ‘what if this book, this thinker, were the most important of the century? How would things need to change? And in what ways would we feel both liberated and imprisoned?’ Such questions restore the proper scale of evaluation for intellectual work: demoting the pushy careerist sandbagger who remains within the bounds of the currently plausible and prudent, and promoting the gambler who uncovers new worlds. Nietzsche makes far more ‘mistakes’ than an average peer-reviewed journal article but this does not stop intelligent adults from reading him all night long, while tossing the article aside for a day that never comes.



February 18, 2011

And Not Try To Go Further Back

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:05 am

“The effect of considering a system’s environment as a source of perturbations and compensations, rather than inputs and outputs, is far from trivial. In the latter, control-based formulations, interactions from the environment are instructive, constitute part of the definition of the system’s organization, and determine the course of transformation. In the autonomy interpretation, the environment is seen as a source of perturbations independent of the definition of the system’s organization, and hence intrinsically noninstructive; they can trigger, but not determine, the course of transformation. . . . In one case an input (partly) specifies the system’s organization and structure: in the other case a perturbation participates in the transformation of an independently specified system.” — Francisco Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy (1979)

“Intellectual invention is not only invention that takes place within the intellectual order, but more fundamentally, the invention of that which is intellectual itself in its subsistence as an order. It is the intellectual order that is permanently invented, produced, regulated and legitimated by itself. So the heuristic question is the question of the self-constitution of meaning. . . . If meaning invents and founds meaning, the question of rationality is less the question of the foundation than that of the limit of the rational space.” — Judith Schlanger, L’Invention intellectuelle (1983)

“It is so difficult to find the beginning. Or better: it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not try to go further back.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (1969; published posthumously)



February 17, 2011

Little Frictions

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:41 am

… It is not a linkage, but a local pull, by way of little frictions.

… Here we are in liquid history and the ages of waters.

… These small propagations, which are endlessly zebra-streaking the background noise drift into, do not drift into, can sometimes drift into the universal.

Continuing through Genesis by Michel Serres (English translation 1995; originally published in French in 1982):

… The condition of his being a receiver, a subject, an observer, is, precisely, that he make less noise than the noise transmitted by the object observed. If he gives off more noise, it obliterates the object, covers or hides it. An immense mouth, miniscule ears, how many are thus built, animals in their misrecognition!

… Is background noise a welter of aborted beginnings? Is it messages only half spoken? The clinking cacophonic collision of unaddressed bottles in the sea? Hear multiply how the immense things that our pretension calls history commence. Conceive conceptionless how time can begin.

This chain is not the chain of reasons, simple and easy. Easy: in other words, reliable. The chain of reasons is reliable because it is reduced to the law of the weakest link, and thus in any other linkage there is always more than enough strength. It is reliable through the law of the slowest actuating force, and because there is consequently more than enough speed in any other linkage. On the global chain of circulation, everybody understands that the fastest speed is that of the slowest party. The weakest and slowest are the general law here. Everywhere else, consequently, there are residues, surplus stocks. The chain is solid because it has surplus stocks all over, except at one point, where it can break. These reserves everywhere ensure linkage and stability.

The chain conceived here has the essential attribute of being able to break at all points and at all times. In actuality, it almost always fades away, almost everywhere, in actuality it dies right in the vicinity of being born. It begins and it has an almost infinitesimally brief life. Calls, little signals, lights, and then fading in the mist. A long form that seems lively until adolescence and vanishes almost at the same time as its counterparts. The links of the chain of reasons are strongly joined in proportion as the surplus, the difference between the strongest and the weakest, is great. The links of the weakest do not connect, do not catch, they touch. They touch, they are tangential. This is the chain of contingency. No, the contingent chain does not break, its links slide over one another, as though viscous. They touch because they are adjacent, they touch like sailors’ hitches or the loops of motorway cloverleaves are stacked upon one another. It is not a linkage, but a local pull, by way of little frictions. The local pull induces a global movement very seldom, although it can happen. This is not a solid chain, it is simply liquid movement, a viscosity, a propagation that wagers its age in every locality. Here we are in liquid history and the ages of waters.

It is the chain of genesis. It is not solid. It is never a chain of necessity. Suddenly, it will bifurcate. It goes off on a tangent. It surrenders to the passing signals, the fluctuations of the sea, or some sowing of sameness. This chain is not a chain of chance either, it would remain meticulously broken. It is a chain of contingency, the recruiting takes place through tangency, by local pulls and by degrees, by word of mouth, from one mouth to another. It emerges from the sea-noise, the nautical noise, the prebiotic soup.

It is a little bit of the secret thrust of our awakenings, and the timid and green advance of the new. Look at it: it is the dance of time, which is dormant in our habitual behavior.

… I have understood at last why the endeavor that was no doubt born in the classical era had to end in the Los Alamos desert, at the place where all the grains of sand look alike, where the work of men still vitrifies them. Rationalism is a vehicle of death. Science must dissociate itself from it.

The soft quasi-chain conjured up here, glimpsed, sketched, faintly, its local, tangential, contingent, aquatic drives and pulls, its open, free and unstable links, this badly woven fabric, or these proximities almost always abandoned as trials, attempts, essays, hold true, I believe, on occasion, for the inert, more often for the living, little for the pathological and sometimes for the cultural, they hold true, I believe, for history. These small propagations, which are endlessly zebra-streaking the background noise drift into, do not drift into, can sometimes drift into the universal.



February 16, 2011

At a Glance

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:32 am

… A single glance suffices to detect the pathology of pretense that infects a hegemonic social scene …

This is from the Introduction to The World at a Glance by Edward S. Casey (2007):

… How can this stripling act, so seemingly innocent and ever young, stand up to the daunting authority of orthodox theories of vision? How can this David confront the Goliath of such theories? … The glance is the slingshot of the look: at once meager in means and yet potent in effect, deceptively local in its immediate orbit and yet far-flung in its full compass.

… What the glance takes in is vast in comparison with its own physical extent (being a mere epiphenomenon of the eye) and time of enactment (taking no more than a few seconds at best). It is as if the glance were a fulcrum, an Archimedean point of leverage, for otherwise quite demanding or massive being-in-the-world.

… the glance is all too often taken as the epitome of the shallow in human perception, something that merely flits over the superficies — literally the “outer faces,” the bare “outward appearance” — of things. Like a butterfly playing on the surface of a glacier.

My argument will be that precisely in such a flitting, such ceaseless traveling among surfaces, the glance proves to be of inestimable value in coming to know the life-world in many of its primary guises. No other act of vision is capable of such subtle incursions into its surroundings. Not unlike the butterfly, by indirections we find out the world’s directions — sometimes better than by conventional modes of concerted and direct visual address.

… Just as moments and instants in their pointed and spotty ways cut up time, so glances sever space. In this way, the oppressiveness of all that bears “heavier or more deadly weight” is relieved by the glance as well as by the now-point (die Jetzpunkt in Husserl’s nonreductive sense). Each breaks through, and thereby undermines the complacency of contented and continuous time and space, their heaviness and plenitude, their spirit of gravity.

But more than cutting and undermining is here at stake. The now-point is a creative source as well as a punctate entity, and the glance comprehends and connects even as it severs. It not only takes the world apart but also puts it back together again, often both at once.

… The glance also enables us to cut through the cant and dogma of “false opinions and contentious thought,” to traverse the dead layers of sedimented ideas, and thus to reach a lively mother lode of new possibilities of interpersonal life. A single glance suffices to detect the pathology of pretense that infects a hegemonic social scene, and with this glancing blow an entire vision of a less stratified sociality opens.

In the last bit above (from “Just as moments …”), Casey is repeatedly referencing or quoting from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Book XII, lines 258-268. In Casey’s book, that segment of Wordsworth’s poem is given before what I’ve quoted. I guess I have to  include it here … grudgingly … because I don’t particularly like Wordsworth (and this poem is no exception):

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct pre-eminence retain
A vivifying virtue, whence depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up
when fallen . . .



February 15, 2011

Making History

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:42 am

… After the battle of Torreon it became apparent that the war needed a director and a scenario writer.

This is from a segment of A Million and One Nights by Terry Ramsaye (1926) reprinted in the collection Imagining Reality eds. Mark Cousins and Kevin Macdonald (1996). Ramsaye is describing the Mexican Revolutionary general, Pancho Villa:

… The year of 1914 had just dawned when agents of Villa in El Paso on the border let it be known that the conquistador could be approached for the motion picture rights of his war.

The Kings of Babylon graved their conquest of the Hittites in tablets of stone. Trajan had his column, and Pancho Villa would inscribe his glories in the living shadows of the screen and let the theatre proscenium be his Arc de Triomphe. Meanwhile, in an immediately practical sense, pictures of the success of Villa would make Villa more powerful in taking tribute of those foreign interests which could use the friendship of any Mexican government whatsoever.

The El Paso representatives of a number of motion picture concerns sent wires away to their home offices in New York. New York home offices in the motion picture industry usually let telegrams from such inconsequential persons as El Paso branch exchange managers ripen on the desk. Fate, however, entered.

And Harry E. Aitken, president of the Mutual Film Corporation read his mail and messages that morning. There was an appeal to the ever-glowing imagination of Aitken in this daring idea. Saturday, 3 January 1914, Frank M. Thayer, acting for the Mutual Film Corporation, signed a contract with Villa in Juarez, taking over the screen rights to the Villa version of the salvation of Mexico by torch and Mauser. It was agreed that Villa was to fight his battles as much by photographic daylight as possible. He was to share on a percentage basis the earnings of his pictures. He received in hand pay, in most excellent gringo money, $25,000.

. . . Villa delayed his projected attack on the city of Ojinaga until the Mutual could bring up its photographic artillery. When the cameras had consolidated their position the offensive swept forward and Ojinaga fell to Villa and film.

When the pictures reached New York they were found to contain too much Villa and not enough war.

[photo from Wikipedia]

… Down through Mexico with Villa the Mutual’s special camera cars travelled on the military trains, bearing to the peons the trademark message, ‘Mutual Movies Make Time Fly.’ Villa became one of the worst of that genus described in camera vernacular as a ‘lens louse.’ He had to be photographed riding at the head of a column every little while whether he needed it or not. Villa was not one of those controlled souls who can take it or leave it alone. This waste of film annoyed one photographer into an expedient of cranking an empty machine. ‘I fooled the greaser that time — there’s no film in the old box,’ he remarked to his assistant. He was overheard by a Mexican who understood Americanese. The cameraman was put over the border with a blessing and advice that afternoon.

It probably would have been pleasanter for Villa to have shot the cameraman, but Villa was interested in the film business now. Business forces many good men into compromises like that.

For the benefit of the films Villa staged an excellent shelling scene with a battery of light field guns. The picture went from close-ups of the guns to telephoto long shots of the hillside under fire, with the bodies of men flying in the air after the shell bursts. The ugly rumor got about that the hills had been planted with otherwise useless prisoners as properties.

But the evidence of the films is not to be accepted entirely for that. After the battle of Torreon it became apparent that the war needed a director and a scenario writer. H.E. Aitken discovered then what others have spent a great deal to learn since, that the best place to make war pictures is on the studio lot. Aitken went south, and on 10 March returned from Juarez with a new contract for the making of The Life of Villa, as per a good snappy New York scenario.



February 14, 2011


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:21 am

… the flow of her body is like some hieroglyphic of sensuous delight, and behind the severe economy of Botticelli’s drawing, we can feel how his hand quickens or hesitates as he follows with his eye those inflections of the body which mysteriously awaken desire.

As promised, here is the third installment from The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form by Kenneth Clark (1956). Today’s quotes are from the chapter “Venus I” (Venus gets two chapters). From Clark’s commentary on Venuses and Aphrodites from antiquity to Girogione and Titian, I am quoting his remarks on three Botticellis, starting with Primavera. At the time it was painted (1482), humanist philosophers were writing about the idealized female form, but the kind of nude female that Botticelli made in this picture were not being done:

… where in the visual rather than the literary sense, did [Botticelli’s] vision come from? That is the mystery of genius. From antique sarcophagi, from a few gems and reliefs and perhaps some fragments of Aretine ware; from those drawings of classical remains by contemporary artists which were circulated in Florentine workshops, like the architects’ pattern books of the of the eighteenth century; from such scanty and mediocre material, Botticelli has created one of the most personal and memorable evocations of physical beauty in the whole of art, the three Graces of the Primavera. The Primavera is, of course, ten years earlier than The Birth of Venus, and it is significant that Botticelli should have felt his way back to antiquity through the image of the Graces, for their nudity had been sanctioned, as emblematic of sincerity, by Christian writers who condemned the nakedness of Venus. What antique representations of the subject he had seen remains uncertain; … In [any] case, he has penetrated beyond the Hellenistic replica to the impulse from which it derives, and has achieved an extraordinary affinity with Greek figures that he cannot possibly have seen. He has recognized that the Graces were part of a frieze of dancers, and has given them back their movement, animated by the rhythm of drapery. So naked beauty reappears in the Renaissance as it first emerged in Greece, protected and enhanced by draperie mouillée. In the management of flowing lines he was no doubt influenced by the figures of maenads, which were such a frequent motive in Hellenistic decorations.

[click for larger]

… In the end it is by their human quality that Botticelli’s Graces dissociate themselves from antiquity.

Moving on to The Birth of Venus:

… Between the Primavera and The Birth of Venus, Botticelli spent some time in Rome, at work on his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Antiques, which in Florence were confined to a few collections, lay all around him. No foundations could be laid, no field freshly dug, without there coming to light some fragments of an ideal world. It was as if every day the dreams of the preceding night were to find concrete but casual confirmation. From the thickets and vineyards of the Palantine, nude figures emerged without shame or comment, and Botticelli, who had already penetrated so far into the Greek spirit, could recognize a Venus different from the gentle priestess of the Primavera, and no less ideal. So when, on his return to Florence, his patron Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici asked him to paint a subject illustrating the lines of Poliziano’s famous poem of the Giostra in which he describes the goddess rising from the sea, Botticelli had perfected in his mind a clear image of her naked body. Poliziano’s lines were taken almost direct from one of the Homeric Hymns, and the same passage seems to have inspired a picture of Aphrodite Anadyomene by Appelles mentioned in Pliny. Botticelli’s commission was therefore intended as a tribute to antiquity; and the whole conception is far more classical than the Primavera. Instead of the tapestry composition, with its figures spread out decoratively against a background of Gothic verdure, The Birth of Venus is so concentrated and sculptural that it could almost be carried out as a relief. Yet, from the time of Ruskin onward, it has been observed that the Venus herself is not classical, but Gothic. This is not owing , as is usually said, to her slender proportions, for the cardinal measurements of her torso follow exactly the classical scheme. She is, in fact, considerably less elongated than many pieces of Hellenistic sculpture … . Her difference from antique form are not physiological, but rhythmic and structural. Her whole body follows the curve of Gothic ivory.

[click for larger]

It is entirely without the quality, so much prized in classical art, known as aplomb; that is to say, the weight of the body is not distributed evenly either side of a central plumb line. Indeed, Venus’ foot makes no pretense of supporting her body, and almost the whole of her weight is to the right of it. She is not standing, but floating. This is the rhythm of the whole picture, and, without appearing anywhere to compromise the classical scheme, it has spread to each part of her body and subtly modified its shape. Her shoulders, for example, instead of forming a sort of architrave to her torso, as in the antique nude, run down into her arms in the same unbroken stream of movement as her floating hair. Every movement is related to every other by a line of unbroken grace, and Botticelli, like a great dancer, cannot make a gesture without revealing the harmonious perfection of his whole being. By this innate rhythmic sense he has transformed the solid ovoid of the antique Venus Pudica into “the endless melody of Gothic line,” the melody of twelfth-century drapery, of Celtic interlacings, even, but made more poignant by a delicate perception of the human predicament. Flow of line is the most musical element in the visual arts, continually urging us on in time, and this gives a unity to the form and content of Botticelli’s Venus. For her head is even further than those of the Graces from the expressionless, time-free pumpkins of antique sculpture. The word “wistful” that comes to the lips of every tourist who tries to describe her expression is correct and cannot be translated into Greek or Latin. It is the same head that Botticelli uses for his Madonnas, and this fact, at first rather shocking, is seen, on reflection, to reveal a summit of the human mind shining in the pure air of the imagination. That the head of our Christian goddess, with all her tender apprehension and scrupulous inner life, can be set on a naked body without a shadow of discord is the supreme triumph of Celestial Venus.

Although she is raised above the first impulses of nature by the melody of line, Botticelli’s Venus does not deny the empire of the senses. On the contrary, the flow of her body is like some hieroglyphic of sensuous delight, and behind the severe economy of Botticelli’s drawing, we can feel how his hand quickens or hesitates as he follows with his eye those inflections of the body which mysteriously awaken desire.

This sensuous character is made clear when we compare the Venus with the only other female nude by Botticelli that has come down to us, the figure of Truth in his Calumny of Appelles. Once again, he had reproduced an antique work of art on the basis of literary descriptions; but by this time the aesthetic impact of antiquity on Botticelli was over. The preaching and martyrdom of Savonarola had persuaded him that the pleasures of the senses, even when purified of all grossness were vain and contemptible. He had returned to the waning enchantments of the Middle Ages, from which, by some wonderful accident, the humanist philosophers had temporarily removed him. In consequence, the Truth in the Calumny is, of all nudes that are not positively ugly, the least desirable. Superficially she resembles the Venus (although she must, I think, have involved a separate study), but at almost every point the flow has ben broken. Instead of the classic oval of Venus, her arms and the angle of her head create the zigzag diamond-shaped pattern of medieval dialectics. The long strand of hair that winds round her right hip deliberately refuses to describe it. Botticelli could not draw without firmness and grace, but in every inflection he is at pains to deny himself the smallest tremor of delight, and this puritanism has forced him to give her form a distressing meagerness. Only when the body emerges from draperies, as do the arms of Calumny, does he permit himself some physical response; and we almost regret the iconographic tradition by which even the most austere moralists permitted Truth to be naked.

[click for larger (this is a cropped segment of a larger painting)]

[It is my intention to pair posts (either on the same day or on consecutive days) from Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990) with posts from Kenneth Clark’s The Nude (1956). I’m doing this rather bizarre and arbitrary juxtaposition because, for me, the obvious contrasts as well as the occasional similarities make both books more interesting. Walton’s was yesterday.]


February 13, 2011

Bird Ballet

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 2:43 pm

This one (below) is not dancing; he/she appears to have had a very close call with my resident Cooper’s Hawk.

It took me a couple of weeks to get a good frontal shot of this bird which is why the feathers are partially grown back. He/she was in pretty gory shape when I first saw this damage.



Prescribing Imaginings

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:56 am

… A particular function which a work possesses to greater or lesser extent may be more or less one of prescribing imaginings, as opposed to merely prompting them, more or less one of serving as a prop in games of make-believe. What a work has the function of prescribing may be, to a larger or lesser extent, imaginings rather than mere contemplatings of propositions.

Continuing through Mimesis as Make-Believe: on the Foundations of the Representational Arts by Kendall L. Walton (1990), in this chapter he’s looking at the differences, or how we might know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. I’m going to start with part of his summation from the end of this long chapter:

… We have seen that fictionality has nothing essentially to do with what is or is not real or true or factual; that it is perfectly compatible with assertion and communication, including straightforward reporting of the most ordinary matters of fact, yet entirely independent of them; that it is not essentially the product of human action nor paradigmatically linguistic; and that fiction is not parasitic on “serious” discourse or nonfictional uses of symbols. These results, unexpected though some of them are, flowed easily from the simple intuition that to be fictional is, at bottom, to possess the function of serving as a prop in games of make-believe.

Now I’m going to circle back to a part of the middle of the chapter that I think was especially interesting:

… The actual literary works that populate our libraries do not come neatly differentiated into two discrete piles, fiction and nonfiction, nor do works of other media. It is not at all obvious, in practice, where to draw the line. Much of the territory is gray, speckled, even chameleonlike.

… insight does not consist in assigning each definitively to its own box. We do need to appreciate why works that resist classification do so, why and in what ways they are marginal or intermediate or mixed or ambiguous or indeterminate or whatever. But an account of fiction may serve this purpose without inscribing a precise line — even, indeed, if it does not enable us to identify any unambiguous cases at all. What we face is not a threat to the viability of the distinction or our account of it, but a challenge to understand the ways in which works fail to fit comfortably on one side or the other.

… Some works are mixtures of fiction and nonfiction. These are hardly problematic from a theoretical point of view. In a philosophical treatise passages presenting hypothetical examples (examples of evil geniuses, primitive “language games,” waiters who behave too much like waiters, brains in vats, unexpected executions) may qualify as fiction while the rest of the work does not. Metaphors or irony embedded in otherwise nonfictional contexts can sometimes be understood to have the job of serving as props in momentary games of make-believe. Novels and other predominantly fictional works may contain passages of nonfiction, no doubt, but entirely unambiguous instances are not easy to come by. It is reasonably obvious often enough, that a passage in a novel is to be construed as a more or less straightforward observation or pronouncement about the actual world, addressed by the author directly to the readers. The opening sentence of Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”) is frequently cited… . If … Tolstoy was [nonfictionally] claiming [what he wrote], his words may also make it fictional that someone — the narrator — utters them assertively. If this is their function, the passage is fiction in our sense.

… What is it for a work to have as one of its functions the job of serving as a prop in games of make-believe? What counts as fiction will depend on whether we understand a work’s function to depend on how its maker intended or expected it to be used; or on how, typically or traditionally, it actually is used; or on what uses people regard as proper or appropriate (whether or not the do so use it); or on how, according to accepted principles, it is in fact to be used (whether or not people realize this); or on one or another combination of these. There is no point in trying to be precise here.

… one might take functions to be essential to the identity of works. Perhaps a given painting or story necessarily has the function of serving as a prop in games of make-believe; without that function it would not be the thing that it is. This would mean that works are fiction or nonfiction absolutely, not just relative to one or another society. We might think of the myths as told by us as distinct from their Greek precursors (even if they share the same texts), the former being fiction absolutely and the latter nonfiction absolutely.

Function is a matter of degree even when it is relativized to societies, and so is fictionality. It may be more or less the function of a given work, for a given society, to serve as a prop in games of make-believe. But there are differences of degree along several other relevant dimensions. A particular function which a work possesses to greater or lesser extent may be more or less one of prescribing imaginings, as opposed to merely prompting them, more or less one of serving as a prop in games of make-believe. What a work has the function of prescribing may be, to a larger or lesser extent, imaginings rather than mere contemplatings of propositions. Borderline cases come in several varieties.

We have seen that service as a prop in games of make-believe can coexist happily with service in other capacities: props may also be vehicles of assertion, or vehicles of attempts to convey knowledge or induce understanding or cultivate wisdom or spur action. A single work may have the function of performing all or any several of these roles.

In case it hasn’t already occurred to you, photography is especially embroiled in questions of fiction/nonfiction and how or when and where that affects its usage.

Last week’s post from Walton’s book is found here. Tomorrow, The Nude.

[It is my intention to pair posts (either on the same day or on consecutive days) from Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990) with posts from Kenneth Clark’s The Nude (1956). I’m doing this rather bizarre and arbitrary juxtaposition because, for me, the obvious contrasts as well as the occasional similarities make both books more interesting.]



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