Unreal Nature

July 31, 2011

Now and Then

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:06 am

… Lineal thinking will always generate either the teleological fallacy (that end determines process) or the myth of some supernatural controlling agency.


This is the third of three posts today from Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson (2002; first published in 1979):

… We use the same words to talk about logical sequences and about sequences of cause and effect.

… But the if . . . then of logic in the syllogism is very different from the if . . . then of cause and effect.

… Thirty years ago we used to ask: Can a computer simulate all the processes of logic? The answer was yes, but the question was surely wrong. We should have asked: Can logic simulate all sequences of cause and effect? And the answer would have been no.

When the sequences of cause and effect become circular (or more complex than circular), then the description or mapping of those sequences onto timeless logic becomes self-contradictory. Paradoxes are generated that pure logic cannot tolerate. An ordinary buzzer circuit sill serve as an example, a single instance of the apparent paradoxes generated in a million cases of homeostasis throughout biology. The buzzer circuit is so rigged that current will pass around the circuit when the armature makes contact with the electrode at A. But the passage of current activates the electromagnet that will draw the armature away, breaking the contact at A. The current will then cease to pass around the circuit, the electromagnet will become inactive, and the armature will return to make contact at A and so repeat the cycle.

If we spell out this cycle onto a causal sequence, we get the following:

If contact is made at A, then the magnet is activated.
If the magnet is activated, then contact at A is broken.
If contact at A is broken, then the magnet is inactivated.
If the magnet is inactivated, then contact is made.

This sequence is perfectly satisfactory provided it is clearly understood that the if . . . then junctures are causal. But the bad pun that would move the ifs and thens over into the world of logic will create havoc:

If the contact is made, then the contact is broken.
If P, then not P.

The if . . . then of causality contains time, but the if . . . then of logic is timeless. It follows that logic is an incomplete model of causality.

… Lineal thinking will always generate either the teleological fallacy (that end determines process) or the myth of some supernatural controlling agency.

What is the case is that when causal systems become circular, a change in any part of the circle can be regarded as cause for change at a later time in any variable anywhere in the circle. It thus appears that a rise in the temperature of the room can be regarded as the cause of the change in the switch of the thermostat and, alternatively, that the action of the thermostat can be regarded as controlling the temperature of the room.

… we should define “stability” always by reference to the ongoing truth of some descriptive proposition. The statement “The acrobat is on the high wire” continues to be true under impact of small breezes and vibrations of the wire. This “stability” is the result of continual changes in descriptions of the acrobat’s posture and the position of his or her balancing pole.

It follows that when we talk of living entities, statements about “stability” should always be labeled by reference to some descriptive proposition so that the typing of the word, stable, may be clear.

… Similarly, all statements about change require the same sort of precision. Such profound laws as the French “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” owe their wiseacre wisdom to a muddling of logical types. What “changes” and what “stays the same” are both of them descriptive propositions, but of different order.




Raiding the Random

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:02 am

… This power to create context is the recipient’s skill; to acquire which is his half of the coevolution mentioned above.He or she must acquire that skill by learning or by lucky mutation, that is, by a successful raid on the random. The recipient must be, in some sense, ready for the appropriate discovery when it comes.

This is the second of three posts today from Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson (2002; first published in 1979):

… The messages and guidelines for order exist only, as it were, in sand or are written on the surface of waters. Almost any disturbance, even mere Brownian movement, will destroy them. Information can be forgotten or blurred. The code books can be lost.

The messages cease to be messages when nobody can read them. Without a Rosetta stone, we would know nothing of all that was written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. They would be only elegant ornaments on papyrus or rock. To be meaningful — even to be recognized as pattern — every regularity must meet with complementary regularities, perhaps skills, and these skills are as evanescent as the patterns themselves. They, too, are written on sand or the surface of waters.

The genesis of the skill to respond to the message is the obverse, the other side of the process of evolution. It is coevolution.

Paradoxically, the deep partial truth that “nothing will come of nothing” in the world of information and organization encounters an interesting contradiction in the circumstance that zero, the complete absence of any indicative event, can be a message. The larval tick climbs a tree and waits on some outer twig. If he smells sweat, he falls, perhaps landing on a mammal. But if he smells no sweat after some weeks, he falls and goes to climb another tree.

The letter that you do not write, the apology you do not offer, the food that you do not put out for the cat — all these can be sufficient and effective messages because zero, in context, can be meaningful; and it is the recipient of the message who creates the context. This power to create context is the recipient’s skill; to acquire which is his half of the coevolution mentioned above. He or she must acquire that skill by learning or by lucky mutation, that is, by a successful raid on the random. The recipient must be, in some sense, ready for the appropriate discovery when it comes.

Thus, the converse of the proposition that “nothing will come of nothing” without information is conceivably possible with stochastic process. Readiness can serve to select components of the random which thereby become new information. But always a supply of random appearances must be available from which new information can be made.

This circumstance splits the entire field of organization, evolution, maturation and learning, into two separate realms, of which one is the realm of epigenesis, or embryology, and the other the realm of evolution and learning.

… Ideally, epigenesis should resemble the development of a complex tautology in which nothing is added after the axioms and definitions have been laid down. The Pythagorean theorem is implicit (i.e., already folded into) Euclid’s axioms, definitions, and postulates. All that is required is its unfolding and, for human beings, some knowledge of the order of steps to be taken. This latter species of information will become necessary only when Euclid’s tautology is modeled in words and symbols sequentially arranged on paper or in time. In the ideal tautology, there is no time, no unfolding, and no argument. What is implicit is there, but of course, not located in space.

In contrast with epigenesis and tautology, which constitute the worlds of replication, there is the whole realm of creativity, art, learning, and evolution, in which the ongoing processes of change, feed on the random. The essence of epigenesis is predictable repetition; the essence of learning and evolution is exploration and change.

In the transmission of human culture, people always attempt to replicate, to pass on to the next generation the skills and values of the parents; but the attempt always and inevitably fails because cultural transmission is geared to learning, not to DNA. The process of transmission of culture is a sort of hybrid or mix-up of the two realms. It must attempt to use the phenomena of learning for the purpose of replication because what the parents have was learned by them. If the offspring miraculously had DNA that would give them the parental skills, those skills would be different and perhaps nonviable.

It is interesting that between the two worlds is the cultural phenomenon of explanation — the mapping onto* tautology of unfamiliar sequences of events.

Finally, it will be noted that the realms of epigenesis and of evolution are, at a deeper level, typified in the twin paradigms of the second law of thermodynamics: (1) that the random workings of probability will always eat up order, pattern, and negative entropy but (2) that for the creation of new order, the workings of the random, the plethora of uncommitted alternatives (entropy) is necessary. It is out of the random that organisms collect new mutations, and it is there that stochastic learning gathers its solutions.

[*I use the phrase, to map onto, for the following reasons. All description, explanation, or representation is necessarily in some sense a mapping of derivatives from the phenomena to be described onto some surface or matrix or system of coordinates. In the case of an actual map, the receiving matrix is commonly a flat sheet of paper of finite extent, and difficulties occur when that which is to be mapped is too big or, for example, spherical. Other difficulties would be generated if the receiving matrix were the surface of a torus (doughnut) or if it were a discontinuous lineal sequence of points. Every receiving matrix, even a language or a tautological network of propositions, will have its formal characteristics which will in principle be distortive of the phenomena to be mapped onto it. The universe was, perhaps, designed by Procrustes, that sinister character of Greek mythology in whose inn every traveler had to fit the bed on pain of amputation or elongation of the legs.]




Wild Variables

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:57 am

… The division of the perceived universe into parts and wholes is convenient and may be necessary, but no necessity determines how it shall be done.

… All you have is the hope of simplicity …

This is the first of three posts today from Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson (2002; first published in 1979). This first post reprises stuff that’s pretty much been beaten to death on this blog, but I still want to give just enough of it to orient you:

… Science, like art, religion, commerce, warfare, and even sleep, is based on presuppositions. It differs, however, from most other branches of human activity in that not only are the pathways of scientific thought determined by the presuppositions of the scientists but their goals are the testing and revision of old presuppositions and the creation of new.

In this latter activity, it is clearly desirable (but not absolutely necessary) for the scientist to know consciously and be able to state his own presuppositions. It is also convenient and necessary for scientific judgment to know the presuppositions of colleagues working in the same field. Above all, it is necessary for the reader of scientific matter to know the presuppositions of the writer.

[ … ]

… You assume that you can predict, and indeed I suggested this presupposition to you. But the only basis you have is your (trained) preference for the simpler answer and your trust that my challenge indeed meant that the sequence was incomplete and ordered.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it is so that the next fact is never available. All you have is the hope of simplicity, and the next fact may always drive you to the next level of complexity.

Or let us say that for any sequence of numbers I offer, there will always be a few ways of describing that sequence which will be simple, but there will be an infinite number of alternative ways not limited by the criteria of simplicity.

… science is a way of perceiving and making what we may call “sense” of our perception. But perception operates only upon difference. All receipt of information is necessarily the receipt of news of difference, and all perception of difference is limited by threshold. Differences that are too slight or too slowly presented are not perceivable. They are not food for perception.

It follows that what we, as scientists, can perceive is always limited by threshold. That is, what is subliminal will not be grist for our mill. Knowledge at any given moment will be a function of the thresholds of our available means of perception.

… As a method of perception — and that is all science can claim to be — science, like all other methods of perception, is limited in its ability to collect the outward and visible signs of whatever may be truth.

Science probes; it does not prove.

… The processes of perception are inaccessible; only the products are conscious and, of course, it is the products that are necessary. The two general facts — first, that I am unconscious of the process of making the images which I consciously see and, second, that in these unconscious processes, I use a whole range of presuppositions which become built into the finished image — are, for me, the beginning of empirical epistemology.

[Aside from, and in addition to that] … According to the popular image of science, everything is, in principle, predictable and controllable; and if some event or process is not predictable and controllable in the present state of our knowledge, a little more knowledge and, especially, a little more know-how will enable us to predict and control the wild variables.

This view is wrong, not merely in detail, but in principle. It is even possible to define large classes of phenomena where prediction and control are simply impossible for very basic but quite understandable reasons. Perhaps the most familiar example of this class of phenomena is the breaking of any superficially homogeneous material, such as glass. The Brownian movement of molecules in liquids and gases is similarly unpredictable.

Last week’s post from Bateson’s book is here.




July 30, 2011

A Different Ground

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:58 am

… Each of these squares assumes a different ground.

This is from true to life: twenty-five years of conversations with David Hockney by Lawrence Weschler (2008):

… ” … The lens on a Polaroid camera is fixed: you can’t add close-up or zoom lenses or anything. So that to get a close-up of the floor, I had to get close up to the floor. In this other one here, of Stephen Spender” (Hockney pulled out a reproduction of a remarkable composite portrait with the writer seated in the foreground and the living-studio receding into the background), “I spent so much time in the back of the room, behind Stephen’s chair, that finally he exclaimed, ‘Are you still taking my picture, David?’ …”

Stephen Spender, April 9th, 1982

… The exhibition of these Polaroid collages, when they were mounted … would be called Drawing with a Camera. Assay and correction, approximation and refinement, venture and return. “The camera is a medium is what I suddenly realized,” Hockney exclaimed. “It’s neither an art, a technique, a craft, nor a hobby — it’s a tool. It’s an extraordinary drawing tool. It’s as if I, like most ordinary photographers, had previously been taking part in some long-established culture in which pencils were used only for making dots — there’s an obvious sense of liberation that comes when you realize you can make lines!” And for all their beauty as color-saturated objects … these collages are principally about line. An internal sleeve crease, for example, aligns in the next frame with the outer sleeve contour, and contours generally jag from one frame to the next, a series of locally abrupt disjunctions merging into wider coherence.

… the masterpiece of the entire series is arguably one of the last collages, a composite of Noya and Bill Brandt consisting of forty-nine squares, seven by seven. In early May, encountering the distinguished British photographer in a London restaurant, Hockney invited him and his wife to pay a call at his Pembroke studio. A few days later, when the couple took up the invitation, Hockney attempted a portrait. The collage, as usual, changed as it went along: as Hockney completed each new shot, he’d place the square on the floor before the seated couple, slowly building up his collage. The two sitters became increasingly absorbed in the process and the portrait turned into a celebration of their intent concentration. Brandt’s soft, intelligent face apears in profile across two squares, leaning further and further forward. His hands seem to start by his shoulder, resting on the high armrest, then slide slowly down the armrest into an almost prayerful clasp just above his knee and then on down his leg to a balancing clutch above the ankle. (Seven hands in all appear, reading as one gesture.) Brandt’s entire posture seems cusped, nestled in the larger arc of his wife’s seated figure. (She, closer to us, likewise gazes down at the developing collage.) “As I was finishing this piece,” Hockney recalled while we examined a reproduction of the collage, “Brandt asked me, ‘Couldn’t you be in the picture, too?’ So I turned the camera back on myself, snapped several shots, replaced the collage at their feet with these shots of my face, and took some more pictures of this new array on the floor. Thus, although they now seem to be looking at a collage of me, what they were actually looking at when I photographed them was the picture of themselves, coming into being.”

Noya and Bill Brandt with Self-Portrait (although they were watching this picture being made), Pembroke Studios, London 8th May 1982

… “looking itself has been the central subject of all of these collages. Ordinary photography, it seems to me, is obsessed with subject matter, whereas these photographs are not principally about their subjects. Or rather, they aren’t so much about things as they are about the way things catch your eye. I don’t believe I ever thought as much about vision, about how we see, as I have during the last several months.” And Hockney’s collages are in turn a school for vision. Ordinary photographs present a whole, from which details can be elicited. Hockney seems to suggest that this is the opposite of how we actually see the world. For him, vision consists of continuous accumulation of details perceived across time and synthesized into a large, continuously metamorphosing whole. “Working on these collages,” Hockney explains, “I realized how much thinking goes into seeing — into ordering and reordering the endless sequence of details which our eyes deliver to our mind. Each of these squares assumes a different ground. The general perspective is built up from hundreds of micro-perspectives. Which is to say, memory plays a crucial role in perception. At any given moment, my eyes catch this or that detail — they really can’t keep any wide field in focus all at once — and it’s only my memory of the immediately previous details which allows me to form a continuous image of the world. … “

My previous post from this book is here.




July 29, 2011

Defacing the Worm

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:13 am

… It does have a head, because the head is an integral part of the body. It can even be reduced to the head.

This is from Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze (2003; first published in French in1981):

… The body is the Figure, or rather the material of the Figure. The material of the Figure must not be confused with the spatializing material structure, which is positioned in opposition to it. The body is the Figure, not the structure. Conversely, the Figure, being a body, is not the face, and does not even have a face. It does have a head, because the head is an integral part of the body. It can even be reduced to the head. As a portraitist, Bacon is a painter of heads, not faces, and there is a great difference between the two. For the face is a structured, spatial organization that conceals the head, whereas the head is dependent on the body, even if it is the point of the body, its culmination.

Head; 1948

Reading that and then reading it again made my head hurt. Taking Felix’s advice, I pondered eating worms to ease the pain. Whereupon, the above paragraph suddenly made perfect sense in a worm-face-head sort of way. I hope Felix, who bravely held steady against the temptation to eat worms on Thursday, will find this offering suitably rewarding.




Into Fields of Color

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:09 am

… the scream, Bacon’s scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth.

This is from Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze (2003; first published in French in1981):

… Perhaps this is Bacon’s approximation of horror or abjection. There is one painting that can guide us, the Figure at a Washbasin of 1976: clinging to the oval of the washbasin, its hands clutching the faucets, the body-figure exerts an intense motionless effort upon itself in order to escape down the blackness of the drain.

Figure at a Washbasin; 1976

… The entire series of spasms in Bacon is of this type: scenes of love, of vomiting and excreting, in which the body attempts to escape from itself through one of its organs in order to rejoin the field or material structure. Bacon has often said that, in the domain of Figures, the shadow has as much presence as the body; but the shadow acquires this presence only because it escapes from the body, the shadow is the body that has escaped from itself through some localized point in the contour. And the scream, Bacon’s scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth.

… If the ring or the round area is replicated in the washbasin and the umbrella, the cube or the parallelepiped is also replicated in the mirror. Bacon’s mirrors can be anything you like — except a reflecting surface. The mirror is an opaque and sometimes black thickness. Bacon does not experience the mirror in the same way as Lewis Carroll. The body enters the mirror and lodges itself inside it, itself and its shadow. Hence the fascination: nothing is behind the mirror, everything is inside it. The body seems to elongate, flatten, or stretch itself out in the mirror, just as it contracted itself by going through the hole. If need be, the head is split open by a large triangular crevasse, which will reappear on two sides, and disperse the head throughout the mirror like a lump of fat in a bowl of soup. But in both these cases, the umbrella and the washbasin as much as the mirror, the Figure is no longer simply isolated but deformed, sometimes contracted and aspirated, sometimes stretched and dilated. This is because the movement is no longer that of the material structure curling round the Figure; it is the movement of the Figure going toward the structure and which, at the limit, tends to dissipate into the fields of color.

Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror; 1968




July 28, 2011

Perfomative Power Transactions

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:05 am

… we were not we before we were here, we were not here before we were we, and here was not here before we were.

This is from Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics by Ira Livingston (2006):

… If self-organization is a circle, or, just a little more elaborately, if organisms and communities are complex, self-enfolding fractal circuitries, then violence would seem to be a kind of straight line.

A subject inflicting immediate violence on an object seems to be the most straightforward kind of violent power. A gun, for example, is an instrument to make power straightforward: it polarizes two people into subject and object (an act of violence in itself) according to which end you’re on.

… The power to destroy is straightforward; it is in fact the relentless straightforwardness of a fired bullet — and what happens when it is resisted — that makes it destructive. Where there is no resistance, there is no power: a fired bullet will not stop a swarm of gnats. Straight violence operates as simple fact: all facts, as such, are “brute facts”: it doesn’t matter whether you believe in them or how you understand them as meaningful or not meaningful; there they are anyway.

… The power to persuade, to please, to teach, or to elicit recognition or love or desire — the powers of poetry, among others — each of these requires more than simple coercion. They require dynamic engagement with another and a certain (at least strategic) respect for the identity of the other and for the other’s powers and constraints, whereas simple violence is defined as power precisely for its violation of the other. “Random violence” or “arbitrary power” is in this sense redundant; the path of a bullet through a body is violent and powerful because it is random or arbitrary in relation to the organization of the body, regardless of the deliberateness or rationality with which it was fired. On the other hand, if I want to compel you to perform a complex and ongoing task, it will not suffice to put a gun to your head, much less to shoot you. Most likely, I will have to speak to you in your language or teach you mine in order to tell you what I want; the task must be adjusted to your capacities or vice versa or both; even if I may kill you at will, I may have to reckon with the fact that you may call my bluff or even prefer death to serving me; to keep you on the job, I may have to tailor rewards and punishments to your desires and fears (or vice versa).

… Violent power, power that violates and polarizes, operates with and against networks of power that push and pull, generating a complex palimpsest of asymmetries among people. Modernity is supposed to involve the ascendency of hegemonic and weblike power over coercive and violent power, but in any case it is a question of proportion; both kinds coexist and play off each other. We call some of these webs of power language, culture, society, community.

Skipping over Livingston’s reprisal of the arguments over whether the origins of language are primarily intrasocial (see Robin Dunbar), which Livingston prefers, or instrumental (see Steve Pinker), which he discounts:

… The Tool idea, by treating human tools, language among them, as categorically different from snail shells and puppy-dog tails, begs the question by sneaking in human uniqueness as an unspoken assumption when that is precisely what it had offered to prove.

… The use of a strictly referential language as a tool — instrumental realism — has also been widely construed as distinguishing science from sloppier kinds of mythic thinking and as distinguishing modern people generally from premoderns and primitives. More specifically, in this view, premodern and primitive people are supposed to be more or less unable to distinguish self-reference from reference proper; in other words, their rituals and quaint beliefs about the cosmos may have succeeded in their performative and self-referential social functions of holding themselves together individually and in groups but failed pretty thoroughly as referential theories about the world “out there.” To convince yourself of this — that is, that primitive religion is bad science — you have to assume that it sought to perform the same functions that modern science serves, and beyond this you have to project your own conviction that mastery and subordination of the world, the particularly anxious obsessions of modern science and the Protestant ethos on which it built, must be the universal desiderata for all people at all times.

The following is about a forum Livingston attended at NYU in 1996 “at which a panel that included cultural critic and Social Text editor Andrew Ross, physicist Alan Sokal, and others discussed the vicissitudes of the phony science studies article [of Sokal’s].” Livingston focuses on the distress of archaeologists who are more and more being prevented by Native Americans, from close examination of their ancestors:

… Against the many different Native American accounts of “emergence,” current archaeological theory proposes that, about ten thousand years ago, the first would-be Americans crossed the Bering Strait from Asia over a land bridge (which has since disappeared) and then spread across the American continent. Sokal proposed that the two accounts simply be debated in an open forum, and may the truest theory win.

… Can the “validity” of the archaeological and Native American accounts be judged by a single standard? The archaeological Bering Strait narrative predictably casts a context-independent free agent setting off to colonize a new world. But (to adapt the argument made by Vine Deloria Jr. in Red Earth, White Lies) this is not the story of Native American origins; it is another rewriting of the White Man’s story of himself. As I understand them, anyway, the Native American accounts (like the Sioux story cited above) emphasize that their identities as peoples, indeed as people, are contextual, relational, ecological, saying in effect, we were not we before we were here, we were not here before we were we, and here was not here before we were. In these terms, anyway, the Sioux account of emergence seems clearly the superior theory, scientifically, politically, ethically, philosophically. Couldn’t the Bering Strait narrative be retold in terms that emphasize better the coemergence of people and ecologies, terms less shaped by colonial ideology, terms that might even be partially reconcilable with the emergence narrative and its representatives? Maybe so, or maybe not, but in any case, this would entail a process of renegotiation, of pushing and pulling, but certainly not if the process is set up as an either/or contest between value-free, scientific facts on one side and primitive, self-referential, and performative mythology on the other.

… What bones or chips or commodities or practices or currencies is your identity wired through? Would you mind if I wire mine through them as well? Surely you would not mind if I took them for myself, since you can simply rewire yourself through some other things instead, right?

Jack Goody, in his book The East in the West — a study of why science rose as such only in the West — adduces the following example from psychologist A.R. Luria’s work with Russian peasants after the Russian Revolution: “One noncollectivized (and presumably more traditional) peasant was posed the following problem: ‘In a certain town in Siberia all bears are white. Your neighbor went to that town and he saw a bear. What color was that bear?’ The peasant responded that there was no way for him to know what color that bear was, since he had not been to that town. Why didn’t Professor Luria go to his neighbor and ask him what color the bear was? Such responses were typical.” The collectivized peasants, on the other hand, are said to have “responded very much was we might respond.” Goody cites the example to illustrate the nonuniversality of formal, syllogistic reasoning. But he fails to notice that the peasant in the example seems to understand the professor’s question, first and foremost, as a part of a performative power transaction — a game with stakes — and is rightly resistant and suspicious: you can hear the peasant winding up the professor: “Why didn’t the Professor Luria go to his neighbor and ask him what color the bear was?”

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



July 27, 2011

The Essay

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:43 am

… there are ‘little acts of knowledge [ … ] that [ … ] cannot be caught in the net of science.’

This is the third of three posts today from Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present by Michael Sheringham (2006):

… In a preamble on the cover [of Espèces d’espaces] Perec begins by asserting that the space we live in (as opposed to theorize) is not homogeneous or uniform. Spatial experience is discontinuous: we are constantly shuttling between different kinds of space, separated by ‘fissures, hiatuses, friction points.’ Rather than inventing space or reinventing it (there are already many well-meaning agencies ready to ‘think’ our environment for us), we need to interrogate or, more simply, to read it: to log the experience of negotiating the ‘laps d’espaces,’ the gaps encountered as we constantly shift from one kind of space to another. Approached in this mode, that of the ‘diary’ of ‘un usager de l’espace’ (space user), the act of reading space is a matter of beginning with elementary observations, and thus counteracting our tendency not to see or to feel our everyday experience: ‘for what we call everydayness is not obvious but opaque: a kind of blindness or anaesthesia.’ The manner of reading and writing enacted in Perec’s text is designed not to conceptualize or to create something new, but to reanimate as one might regain feeling in an anaesthetized limb, a pre-existent ambient reality that needs to find an appropriate form.

Adorno defines the essay as ‘the speculative investigation of specific, culturally predetermined objects’ and he characterizes the intellectual, and ludic, freedom it deploys as a ‘childlike freedom that catches fire, without scruple, on what others have already done.’

… By refusing to bracket out the ‘spontaneity of subjective fantasy’ in the name of neutrality, the essay resists ‘departmental specialization’ and so releases ‘the object’s expression in the unity of its elements.’ (just as Perec looks at the multiple facets of lived space). The essay recognizes a qualitative difference between different modes of thought, acknowledging that there are ‘little acts of knowledge [ … ] that [ … ] cannot be caught in the net of science.’

Lukács had noted that ‘the essay is a court, but (unlike in the legal system) it is not the verdict that is important, that sets standards and creates precedents, but the process of examining and judging.’

… [Adorno] observes, ‘the thinker does not think, but rather transforms himself into an arena of intellectual experience, without simplifying it.’ Proceeding ‘methodically unmethodically,’ the essay, ‘becomes true in its progress, which drives it beyond itself, and not in a hoarding obsession with fundamentals.’

… Foreshadowing Perec’s reference to ‘fissures’ on the back cover of Espèces d’espaces, Adorno writes that the essay ‘thinks in fragments just as reality is fragmented and gains its unity only by moving through the fissures rather than by smoothing them over’ [emphasis added by Sheringham]. Important here — and this parallels a deep-seated tendency in approaches to the quotidien — is the small-scale (‘little acts of knowledge’), the detail (‘the claim of the particular truth’), and the concrete, experimental stance of the essay. Adorno cites an earlier contribution to the aesthetics of the essay by Max Bense who wrote:

He writes essayistically who writes while experimenting, who turns his object this way and that, who questions it, feels it, tests it, thoroughly reflects on it, attacks it from different angles, and in his mind’s eye collects what he has seen, and puts into words what the object allows to be seen under the conditions established in the course of writing.

Last week’s post from this book is here.




The Novel

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:37 am

… the everyday, as constructed in the realist work, becomes part of a wider project where the presentation of everyday reality is clearly subservient to other ends, literary and ideological.

This is the second of three posts today from Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present by Michael Sheringham (2006):

Charles Taylor’s magisterial account of the evolution of modern western identity, The Sources of the Self, establishes connections between modern selfhood, attitudes to everyday life, and the emergence of artistic genres, notably the realist novel. What Taylor calls ‘the affirmation of ordinary life’ involved an attenuation of the sacred and the assertion of an individual first-person viewpoint tied to a body of experience garnered in the processes of production and reproduction — work and marriage.

Taylor argues that in the eighteenth-century novel a wealth of particulars — entities and events all placed on the same footing — dislodges established hierarchies and archetypes. Henceforth, in the novel, as in the form of autobiography initiated by Rousseau, ‘we have to scrutinize the particular to arrive at the general.’ The meaning of a series of events derives from the connections and ingredients established by a narrative whose shape is not predetermined by conventions and archetypes. On the face of it, both the realist novel, which emerged in the contexts of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and the whole range of non-fictional writings aimed at describing, dissecting, and classifying the world, which can be associated, in the nineteenth century, with the realist project more generally — seem ideally disposed to the exploration of the everyday.

… It is possible to argue, however, as in the case of other celebrations of the quotidien, that the realist novel often fails to connect with the everyday as a dimension of human experience. … [I]t has become a truism to say that realism, far from offering either a transparent window on reality, innocently relaying a neutral vision, or the ‘complex vision’ of a sovereign author, is a mode of discourse with its own laws, conventions, and codes: it is by manipulating these, while at the same time failing to acknowledge their existence, that the realist writer achieves his or her effects. Thus the everyday, as constructed in the realist work, becomes part of a wider project where the presentation of everyday reality is clearly subservient to other ends, literary and ideological.

… For Benjamin, the rise of the novel is a response to the ‘atrophy of experience.’ Through the order it sets in place, the scaled-down and highly organized world it creates, the novel fills a gap. But in remedying a loss it substitutes its own order for that of lived reality. Despite all that links it to modernity, and to the real world of technology, the novel has proved a poor conductor of everydayness, not so much — and this is a key point — because of its fictionality but because if its tendency to abstraction.

… In the modern period (which is not the age of tales) it is by playing with its own conventions and limits that the novel has been able to contribute to the exploration of the quotidien. Despite its alleged fluidity, its ‘loose baggy monster’ quality, observed by Henry James, or what Gide called its ‘lawless’ side, the novel’s habitual bent is towards abstraction and linear coherence. Thus if, in existential terms, the everyday is a dimension that resists the external conditioning of lived experience, there is a dimension of the novel that subverts its own inherent tendency to order. It is often where the artifice of fiction is made most manifest that an effective grasp on the everyday is seemingly achieved: in Joyce’s Ulysses for example, or the anti-novels of Raymond Queneau, or in the work of more recent writers like Georges Perec and François Bon.

Last week’s post from this book is here.




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:26 am

… the non-everyday is reached, in the first instance, not by a turn in a different direction but by a different stance towards the same elements.

This is the first of three posts today from Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present by Michael Sheringham (2006):

… ‘[Everyday] Life is an anarchy of light and dark: nothing is ever fulfilled . . . nothing quite ends . . . nothing ever flowers into real life [which is] always unreal, always impossible.’ For the young Lukács there are no channels of mediation between these two forms of life: when glimpsed at rare moments real life penetrates the dark of the everyday: ‘something lights up, a lightning flash in the midst of banality . . . chance, great moments, the miraculous.’

[ … ]

… As Malcolm Bowie observes, making an illuminating comparison with psychoanalysis: ‘For Freud the “everyday” is the erotic force field in which the unconscious makes itself heard; while for Heidegger it is, at one and the same time, the particular, close-at-hand habitation in which Dasein has its roots and the “averageness” over and against which Dasein achieves its “moments of vision”‘. By talking of ‘moments of vision’ Heidegger does seem to introduce a kind of transcendence, but the whole thrust of his discussion (and it is part of the pessimism of his thought at this stage), underlines how ‘moments of vision’ cannot be thought of independently of the terrain in which they are immanent. Authentic as well as inauthentic Dasein has everydayness as its field. If Being is intermittent and inaccessible it is because it depends on the everydayness that is antithetical to it.

In the following, Sheringham is talking about Agnes Heller’s book Everyday Life (1970):

… To a large extent the distinctions between particularity and individuality, and ‘in-itself’ and ‘for-itself,’ coincide with the distinction between the everyday and the non-everyday. The ‘in-itself’ of everyday life is essentially heterogeneous. In the everyday we constantly ‘objectify’ ourselves in diverse, ad hoc ways, as we are faced with a haphazard array of circumstances. Here we deal primarily with the immediate environment and our particular interests. Inclined to take things as they come, we generally apply a few basic rules of thumb to a plethora of variegated cases. … A practical relationship to values predominates, associated with concrete rather than abstract norms.

Homogeneity is, by contrast, the touchstone of what lies beyond the everyday. If it is epitomized in such higher spheres as art, science, and philosophy, the essence of the ‘for-itself’ is the ‘process of homogenization.’ Whatever the sphere, the sign of a non-everyday attitude is the attempt to achieve synthesis, and this often involves a suspension of ready-made responses. But if homogenization is ‘the criterion of the non-everyday,’ it is a process rather than a separate realm. And in the first instance it works on the same données that we encounter in everyday life. Just as individuality is achieved by a conscious relationship with values that we place before our own particularity, and which lead us freely to shape and synthesize our experience into a homogeneous unity, so the non-everyday is reached, in the first instance, not by a turn in a different direction but by a different stance towards the same elements.

Heller’s apparent ambivalence on this is crucial. On one hand, she tends to present the higher attitudes — synthesis, homogenization, distance — as specifically coming from the outside, like a spark that brings ignition from without, or as if everyday life were some kind of base matter awaiting alchemical transmutation by the ‘for-itself’ of synthesizing consciousness. On the other hand she often writes as if the everyday itself were capable of generating its own self-transforming dynamism. For example, she observes that if stagnation can reign in all aspects of everyday life, it is nevertheless always open to ‘new prehensions.’

… For her, everyday life remains a testing ground, the inescapable forum for the attainment of a mode of being that is not part and parcel of the everyday itself.

Last week’s post from this book is here.




Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.