Unreal Nature

November 30, 2011

Should You Persist

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:27 am

… But should you persist … perhaps you will brush against one of these presences, triggering synaesthetic clues of your encounter.

This is from the essay “Eversion: Brushing against Avatars, Aliens, and Angels” by Marcos Novak in the collection of essays From Energy to Information: Representation in Science and Technology, Art, and Literature, eds. Bruce Clarke and Linda Dalrymple Henderson (2002):

… Eversion is the obverse of immersion. Literally, it means “to turn inside-out,” and differs from the more common inversion, which signifies “turning outside-in” or simply “turning over.”

… As captivating as the concept of immersion into virtuality has proven to be, it focuses on our entry into information spaces and has an unfortunate but strong connection with a narrow understanding of virtual reality. More importantly, immersion is not a complete conceptual apparatus: it lacks a complementary concept describing the outpouring of virtuality onto ordinary space. Because there is neither reason, desire, nor likelihood that we will abandon ordinary space soon, if ever, and every reason why we should augment it now, such a companion concept is necessary. Eversion is this complementary concept and signifies a turning inside-out of virtuality, a casting outward of the virtual into the space of everyday experience.

… The word space is now just shorthand for space-time, and space is no longer innocent. Cyberspace already implies a space laden with intelligence. For the time being, the metaphor and technology of immersion keeps cyberspace apart from our conventionally embodied experience. Eversion, as I have described it, predicts that the phenomena we are familiar with in cyberspace will find, indeed are finding, their equivalent, everted forms in ordinary space.

… Consider this: you reach into a sensor space. As your fingers cross into a selected region, sounds are triggered. Curious, you try to trace the extent of the region that causes the sounds. Soon you discover that it is a tall, elongated shape, tapering at both ends. Exploring further you begin to realize that it is a sculpted form, an invisible rendition of Brancusi’s “Bird in [Space].” What has happened here?

What I am proposing is that a new form of sculpture has been born. This new form of sculpture reverses most of the ordinary expectations we might have about sculpture: Since there is nothing to see, voyeuristic visuality has been replaced by Duchampian nonretinality. The still prevalent prohibition against touching the work has also been destabilized, since the object can only be known by touch: untouchability has been replaced with hypertactility. However, this sense of touch is problematized: There is nothing there to touch. Tactility becomes virtualized and synaesthetic.

Now let’s follow this a step further. Instead of having the region of space be a simple shape, let’s use a three-dimensional scan of someone’s head and shoulders, a classical bust. Rather than render it in pixels, or voxels, let’s render it in sensels. Now, when we interact with the sensor region, we can accurately trace our fingers across the face of the sculptural portrait. Although we cannot see the face of the person, we can, ever so lightly, caress their features. Voyeurism is replaced by intimate touch.

Gustave Doré, 1867 illustration to the Divine Comedy  

… In Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire, angels walk among humans eavesdropping, hearing their inner dialogues, their thoughts and fears and worries. Occasionally, the angels place an ethereal hand on a heavy shoulder to soothe a person. More often than not, they just observe. Now consider this: a gallery space with an installation that is entirely invisible, consisting of animated, autonomous sensor-presences. Walking into the gallery, you see nothing but space, empty space. But should you persist and remain in the gallery, perhaps you will brush against one of these presences, triggering synaesthetic clues of your encounter. Perhaps, alerted to this presence, you will reach out to touch the unseen visitor. The sensor-field of the invisible presence can be as detailed as we wish it to be: You can reach out and touch the face of an angel. Touching gently, and paying attention to carefully correlated synaesthetic clues such as sound, voice, light, or projections, you will be able to feel every feature and expression on the angel’s face.

[pixels = picture elements; voxels = volume elements; texels = texture elements; sensels = sensed elements]

My most recent previous post from this collection of essays is here.




November 29, 2011

“Marvelously Corporall”

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:25 am

… “There is no man (if he listen to himselfe) that doth not discover in himselfe a peculiar forme, a swaying forme, that wrestleth against the institution … “

This is from Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor (1989). Today’s two chapters are on John Locke followed by Michel de Montaigne :

… Mechanism is plainly still linked with a certain theology for Descartes. He pushes God’s sovereignty to the point of holding that even what we understand as the “eternal verities,” such as the axioms of mathematics, are made by divine fiat. But at the same time, he sees the new science as one which will make us “masters and possessors” of the earth. And this instrumental control is not just valued for itself but is identified (perhaps following Bacon) as a criterion of scientific truth, as it must be if the world is really machine-like.

The modern figure I call the punctual self has pushed this disengagement much further, and has been induced to do so by the same mix of motivations: the search for control intertwined with a certain conception of knowledge. The disengagement is carried further in being turned towards the subject himself. Descartes already starts this movement. It involves taking a stance to ourselves which takes us out of our normal way of experiencing the world and ourselves.

… In view of its transposition of first-person experience into an objectified, impersonal mode, it might seem surprising to class the stance of disengaged control as a modified figure of Augustinian inwardness. But the paradox is merely superficial. Radical reflexivity is central to this stance, because we have to focus on first-person experience in order so to transpose it. The point of the whole operation is to gain a kind of control. Instead of being swept along to error by the ordinary bent of our experience, we stand back from it, withdraw from it, reconstrue it objectively, and then learn to draw defensible conclusions from it. To wrest control from “our appetites and our preceptors,” we have to practice a kind of radical reflexivity. We fix experience in order to deprive it of its power, a source of bewitchment and error.

Locke proposes to demolish and rebuild.

… What we are called upon to do by both [Descartes and Locke], and by the tradition they establish, is to think it out ourselves. As with Descartes, knowledge for Locke isn’t genuine unless you develop it yourself.

… the procedure is a radically reflexive one, as we have seen. It essentially involves the first-person standpoint. It involves disengaging from my own spontaneous beliefs and synthesis, in order to submit them to scrutiny. This is something which in the nature of things each person must do for himself. We are not just independent once we have achieved science; our whole path there must be radically independent if the result is to be science.

That is why this model of reason is radically and intransigently exclusive of authority. In Locke’s case, this requirement of disengaged reason is further strengthened by the Protestant principle of personal adhesion.

… The disengagement both from the activities of thought and from our unreflecting desires and tastes allows us to see ourselves as objects of far-reaching reformation. Rational control can extend to the re-creation of our habits, and hence of ourselves.

… To take this stance is to identify oneself with the power to objectify and remake, and by this act to distance oneself from all the particular features which are objects of potential change. What we are essentially is none of the latter, but what finds itself capable of fixing them and working on them.

… What probably made Locke the great teacher of the Enlightenment was his combination of these two factors: that he offered a plausible account of the new science as valid knowledge, intertwined with a theory of rational control of the self; and that he brought the two together under the ideal of rational self-responsibility. Many things have been declared authoritatively true, both in science and in practice, which have no real title to the name. The rational, self-responsible subject can break with them, suspend his adhesion to them, and by submitting them to the test of their validity, remake or replace them.

… The philosophy of disengagement and objectification has helped to create a picture of the human being, at its most extreme in certain forms of materialism, from which the last vestiges of subjectivity seem to have been expelled. It is a picture of the human being from a completely third-person perspective. The paradox is that this severe outlook is connected with, indeed, based on, according a central place to the first-person stance. Radical objectivity is only intelligible and accessible through radical subjectivity. This paradox has, of course, been much commented on by Heidegger, for instance, in his critique of subjectivism, and by Merleau-Ponty. Modern naturalism can never be the same once one sees this connection, as both these philosophers argue. But for those who  haven’t seen it, the problem of the ‘I’ returns, like a repressed thought, as a seemingly insoluble puzzle.

Now to Montaigne:

Montaigne, like Lucretius, has an idea of nature which is no longer a vehicle for the demands of moral perfection, but which can be used to free us from what is excessive and tyrannical in these demands. The battle is not the Epicurean one with the fear of the gods and their punishments, but rather with the contempt and depreciation of our natural being which these presumptuous standards engender and express. This contempt is often directed at our bodily being. But “It is man with whom we have alwayes to doe, whose condition is marvelously corporall.”

… Each of us has to discvoer his or her own form. We are not looking for the universal nature; we each look for our own being. Montaigne therefore inaugurates a new kind of reflection which is intensely individual, a self-explanation, the aim of which is to reach self-knowledge by coming to see through the screens of self-delusion which passion or spiritual pride have erected. It is entirely a first-person study, receiving little help from the deliverances of third-person observation, and none from “science.”

The contrast with Descartes is striking, just because Montaigne is at the point of origin of another kind of modern individualism, that of self-discovery, which differs from the Cartesian both in aim and method. Its aim is to identify the individual in his or her unrepeatable difference, where Cartesianism gives us a science of the subject its general essence; and it proceeds by a critique of first-person self-interpretations, rather than by the proofs of impersonal reasoning. What it ends up with is an understanding of my own demands, aspirations, desires, in their originality, however much these may lie athwart the expectations of society and my immediate inclinations:

There is no man (if he listen to himselfe) that doth not discover in himselfe a peculiar forme, a swaying forme, that wrestleth against the institution, and against the tempests of passions which are contrary unto him.

Descartes is a founder of modern individualism, because his theory throws the individual thinker back on his own responsibility, requires him to build an order of thought for himself, in the first person singular. But he must do so following universal criteria; he reasons as anyone and everyone. Montaigne is an originator of the search for each person’s originality; and this is not just a different quest but in a sense antithetical to the Cartesian. Each turns us in a sense inward and tries to bring some order to the soul; but this likeness is what makes the conflict between them particularly acute.

… The Cartesian calls for a radical disengagement from ordinary experience; Montaigne requires a deeper engagement in our particularity. These two facets of modern individuality have been at odds up to this day.

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



Indelibly Amused

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:24 am

… You know perfectly well that the sleeve and the arm akimbo are to be deferentially received as markers of moneyed manliness.

This is from Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt Against the Italian Renaissance by Harry Berger, Jr. (2000):

… What, then, is a sitter to do? Let’s return to 1624, the year of the Haarlem butter tax uprisings, and imagine that somewhere in Holland, a Holland through which the treacherously shifting crosswinds of post-truce controversy still swirl, there lives a sitter who is man enough to meet the perils of political incorrectness head on. Let’s imagine further that he has found the painter whose dash and dazzle are attuned to his. Although it has been incessantly drummed into him that embarrassment is the better part of valor, he is too fond of his sash and extravagant wardrobe to let the voice of discretion cut him off from the glory he affects. He has, however, seen enough of the still unfinished portrait of van Heythuyzen to be willing to forgo the sword. He also agrees, in the interest of prudence, to settle for something a little more modest in the way of format — something less than life-size and full-length. He understands the cost of glory; he will let himself be cut off at the waist.

Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, 1624

When the result of these negotiations was liberated from its context of production and sent forth into the world to make a living, it failed at first to impress those who could advance its career and thereafter spent a long time languishing in a low-income bracket. Not until relatively late in the nineteenth century did an upward turn in its fortunes enable our arriviste to pass into the aristocracy of art and receive its noble title together with the long-deferred recognition it still receives a century later.

… Given an area of indeterminacy or undecidability [about the meaning of the many emblems embroidered into the man’s sleeve] that blocks interpretation, do we simply ignore it for the time being and shift to a different point of interpretive entry? Or, after we shift to the fiction of the pose, do we mark our present uncertainty as part of the effect: the sitter is holding forth the sleeve, flaunting it, for us to read, and looking at our act of inspection with benign self-satisfaction. It is too bad that the times have changed and the portrait has sailed into a culture of spectators who can’t read what the sitter wants them to read. But the failure of the symbols as an integrated collection to weather time and deliver the meaning that may identify or even interpret the sitter necessarily imposes a different mandate on the spectator who continues to look for the meaning of the pose.

… although he and his upturned mustachio command you to keep your eyes on his eyes, the perspective foreshortening accentuated by the hat situates your eye-level well below his face and sinfully close to the pyrotechnics of the slashed sleeve thrust forward in your face.

This of course is where you as a sensible observer really want to be, optically inching about with an imaginary magnifier and losing yourself in the luminous rich flickers of that gorgeous territory. You know perfectly well that the sleeve and the arm akimbo are to be deferentially received as markers of moneyed manliness. … Nothing should interfere with that general impression. But unfortunately everything does. The proximity of the sleeve below the elbow is a trap entangling painter and observer in the lacy and fiery weblike patterns that seem to float forward to the panel surface, where their symbolicity becomes otiose and they register less as brocade than as flat untextured calligraphic activity — sheer, lovely, painterly noise. In the blithe voyeuristic abandon of this aesthetic conspiracy, the putative subject of the portrait is momentarily upstaged by indices of the painter’s busy hand. But only momentarily. There the officer stands indelibly amused, forever catching the guilty observer in the act.

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



November 28, 2011

The Sensuous Element of Thought

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:35 am

… “Hypothesis [guessing] produces the sensuous element of thought.”

This is from Doubt by Richard Shiff (2008):

… Theory predicts and prescribes what an artist can do, both before and after the fact; practice shows an artist what he or she is doing during the fact, the event. For Newman to operate “beyond what he knows he can do” would amount to his feeling his way through his own thinking, “tak[ing] off from where the most advanced theory stops.” In 1965, when asked about Uriel — a large, horizontal painting of a decade earlier, in which an expanse of pale greenish-blue covers about three-quarters of the width — Newman explained that he had “wanted to see how far [he] could stretch [the color] before it broke.” His action had no internal logic to guide it and no purity of a formal kind, solely purity of heart and emotion.

Barnett Newman, Uriel, 1955 

… What kind of positive, immediate sensation or knowledge would lie “beyond” what an artist or any other person “knows”? Given the various arguments intellectuals made from within the modernist context, two answers come to mind, although these are not precisely [Clement] Greenberg’s responses. The first possibility is a body of skills and capacities called tacit knowledge: a person possesses tacit knowledge yet is unable to articulate or explain it, as if it were never fully conscious in an intellectual way, although perhaps conscious in a physical, somatic way. This is Polyani’s notion, from his book Personal Knowledge. We might argue that de Kooning had tacit knowledge in abundance; it enabled him to make Crucifixion drawings with his eyes closed. Animal life, including humans, thrive on tacit knowledge. We all have it, though some of us appear to have more. Such knowledge is like a feeling rather than a thought. Artists who work within a particular medium or a set of related mediums tend to be strong in tacit knowledge because they learn so much through hands-on experience. Their habits and skills acquire a tacit component.

… You cannot prove a negative, they say. Nothing indicates that there might not be a logic or rationality to tacit knowledge, but we defeat the notion by regarding it as logical. If there were a significant difference between voiced and unvoiced knowledge, what would it be? Perhaps we acquire the logic of the distinctly tacit realm by means that are other than logical. This speculation, reasonable enough, leads to the second kind of knowledge that lies beyond knowledge: We call it intuitive, a result of nonlogical thinking. Intuition, however, may be nothing other than an advanced application of logical reason. With intuition, logic is too subtle or too complex, and its result comes too quickly for it to feel like deduction, as opposed to a hunch or guess. Recall Peirce’s statement: “Hypothesis [guessing] produces the sensuous element of thought.” I wonder whether what we call genius, insight, and intuition, is for the very quick thinker the same process that other people grasp only as slowly pondered reasoning. Logical thinking may be nothing more than a skill, but when skill operates at an extraordinarily high level, it begins to feel like tacit knowledge. There can be a difference, presumably, between how the mind is working and how one feels that the mind is working. I say that I have a hunch, when “in fact” I am reasoning by deduction — but doing it very quickly. This may explain why we doubt our intuition less than reason tells us we ought to doubt it. Slow reasoning expresses distrust of fast intuiting.

… A viewer is likely to miss whatever features of an object fail to suit the connotations of a category arbitrarily selected as appropriate to the object. The combinations of interior and exterior spaces in Judd’s wall and floor boxes are remarkably complex, especially given the stated display height for these structures, one that encourages viewers of average size to peer into and around them. One of Judd’s insights was that a box-like structure, if projected abruptly from the wall, at right angles to it, would create a genre of object and a corresponding type of space inconsistent with either low or high sculptural relief. This was new space, outside the existing categories, space the critics had either never seen before or to which they had never before been sensitized — unconscious space becoming conscious.

So Judd succeeded in producing an art that demands — that is, induces in its viewer — an intensified observation. He talked about his new kind of space only after he and a few others created it. To his mind, it had not derived from the application or realization of a theory. If we view Judd’s art through the prevailing critical understanding of minimalism, or with just this name as a conceptual guide — a noun that is itself the distillate of a theory — then we fail to reach the level of experience that Judd learned to expect from his works. As a human agent, not a conceptual identity like minimalism, he had intentions. He wanted to perceive in a material object qualities specific enough to constitute the immediate relation to its physical existence. To this end, he learned to expect both wholeness and complexity. It seems that wholeness without complexity would amount to identity, and complexity without wholeness would lack the degree of presence that holds on-the-spot human interest.

… Academic critics, evaluating both words and deeds and sensitive to semiotic difference, often fail pragmatically. They ignore the gulf separating what visual artists do from what critical writers do. Judd made the box, and the critics gave him minimalism and its “industrial metaphor” in return — an exchange of incommensurables.

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




November 27, 2011

Thirteen and Fourteen

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 12:37 pm

book 1, proposition 13

book 1, proposition 14

detail from book 1, proposition 14

Previous propositions are here.




The Veil Flutters

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:51 am

… Now the nineteenth century is empty. It lies there like a large, dead, cold seashell. I pick it up and hold it up to my ear. What do I hear?

These are from the writings of Walter Benjamin:

… The Hasidim have a saying about the world to come. Everything there will be arranged just as it is with us. The room we have now will be just the same in the world to come; where our child lies sleeping, it will sleep in the world to come. The clothes we are wearing we shall also wear in the next world. Everything will be the same as here — only a little bit different. Thus it is with imagination. It merely draws a veil over the distance. Everything remains just as it is, but the veil flutters and everything changes imperceptibly beneath it.

… The chirping of the cicadas has fallen silent; the man’s thirst has vanished; the day is waning. A sound rises up from somewhere down below. Is it a barking dog, some falling rocks, or a person calling from afar? As he listens, trying to identify it, a peal of bells wells up within him, note by note. Then it ripens and expands in his blood. — from “In the Sun” (1932)

[ … ]

… “Try to ensure that everything in life has a consequence.” — This is without doubt one of the most detestable maxims, one that you would not expect to run across in Goethe. It is the imperative of progress in its most dubious form. It is not the case that the consequence leads to what is fruitful in right action, and even less that the consequence is its fruit. On the contrary, bearing fruit is the mark of evil acts. The acts of good people have no “consequence” that could be ascribed (or ascribed exclusively) to them. The fruits of an act are, as is right and proper, internal to it. To enter into the interior of a mode of action is the way to test its fruitfulness. But how to do this? — fragment probably written in 1932, unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime

[ … ]

… Now the nineteenth century is empty. It lies there like a large, dead, cold seashell. I pick it up and hold it up to my ear. What do I hear? I do not hear the noise of field artillery or of Offenbach’s gala music; nor do I hear the howling of factory sirens or the cry that goes up at midday on the stock exchange — not even the din of soldiers on parade or the long-drawn-out whistle of a train. I can of course imagine all these things. But what I hear when I put the shell up to my ear is something else: it is the rattling noise of the anthracite that is emptied from the coal-scuttle into the furnace; it is the dull pop with which the flame lights up the gas mantle; it is the jangling of my mother’s keys in her basket, the clatter of the tube in its casing, the clink of the glass globe on its metal ring when the lamp is carried from one room to another. — part of a fragment written in early 1933; unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime

My most recent posting from Benjamin’s writings is here.




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 am

… The power of roots is that they find a way.

Continuing through The Book of Symbols, eds. Ami Ronnberg and Kathleen Martin (2010). Now in the “Plant World” section:

Tree: … We and the tree seem alike, upright in the trunk, long-armed, slender-fingered, toeing the earth. … The tree shows us how, from a tiny, bare seed of potential, the self can come into existence, centered and contained, around which occur incessant processes of metabolism, multiplying, perishing and self-renewal. Water and minerals are drawn up to the leaves of a tree from the earth through deep roots and millions upon millions of orderly, conducting, threadlike vessels in the trunk and branches. The tree holds its flat, perforated leaves as high as possible to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and fire from the sun. The chlorophyll that makes the leaves green traps photons of sunlight and splits molecules of water, so that oxygen floats away into the atmosphere, giving us breath.

Alchemy’s Philosophical Tree materializing in a glass retort, engraving, ca. 1470

Oak Tree: … Ancient Europe was once covered so densely with oaks that Julius Caesar encountered Germanic tribes who had never reached the end of these hardwood forests. Intimating the grandeur and vastness of the mythic World Tree and axis mundi, the oak’s commanding presence made it the most widely worshipped of trees. A member of the beech family, the oak could live a thousand years and grow over ten stories tall. Like the disseminated divine matter of creation stories, the oak’s substance became the raw material for every kind of human fabrication. Carpenters fashioned its wood into bridges, pews, keels, barrels, coffins and thrones admired for their strength and beauty.

Olive Tree: … The olive was the Tree of Life for the ancient peoples of Greece and Rome, the Biblical Hebrews and the Muslims. Its fruit, processed with lye or salt, its rich delectable oil and its wood provided food, light, medicine, fuel and building materials. Evergreen olive branches, their shapely leaves green on one side and silvery gray on the other, so that they shimmered in the sun, crowned brides, war heroes and athletic victors who embodied the immortals. Olive oil anointed kings, holy objects for ritual and sacred spaces, and lighted the lamps of home and temple for centuries.

Pine Tree: … Because of its hardiness and the fact that it retains its green leaves even through the winter, the pine has become a symbol of long life, immortality, constancy, courage, strength in adversity and steadfastness unaffected by the blows of nature. Weathered pines are seen as images of the spirit and wisdom of old age.

… The pine cone with its myriad seeds formed the top of the thyrsus or staff of Dionysus, the ancient god of the vine associated with indestructible life, the wine culture, intoxication and subterranean rebirth in outer and inner worlds.

Palm Tree: … Considered a grass rather than a tree despite its tall sturdy trunks, a palm ripens its kernels enclosed in fleshy rinds (dates) or in hard protective shells (coconuts). The Egyptian variety pollinates at dawn, creating a mist that gave rise to the phoenix legend, the mythical bird reborn in a cloud of fire, smoke and ashes in the palm’s fronds.

… The tree of the desert oasis, the palm offers a vision of refreshment — sexual pleasure and the fruits of erotic union, redemption in the wilderness, compassion for the suffering and bliss to those, like the Egyptian Pashedu, who gratefully kneel to drink the “distant water of the beyond” in the palm tree’s cool shade.

Roots: … Cultural, ethnic and geographical roots link one with ancestral origins and the deep strata of evolutionary process and its psychic matrix in “sacred time.” Family trees of material and mythic substance develop from such roots, like the biblical “root of Jesse,” and continue to grow with each generation. Likewise the roots of an individual extend into layers of personal and archetypal ground. The quality of such rooting, fostered by experience, mirroring and imagination, affects the capacity to thrive, generate new growth and creatively blossom. Roots that find only meager subsistence in rocky soil can struggle with circumstances so inimical they would seem not to support life at all. The power of roots is that they find a way.

Kabbalistic Tree: … For the Kabbalist, the Tree of Life serves, among other things, as a kind of filing system for all archetypes. … The sefirot, portrayed as ten circles, are connected with divine names and principles. The paths connecting the sefirot symbolize the connections between the different levels of the cosmos.

This system gives a flexible but dynamic view of the workings of existence that can be applied to everything from the creation of a cosmos to the baking of a cake.

Find previous symbols here.



November 26, 2011


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:06 am

… “When you tap something, you don’t always recognize the sound. That’s apt to come later.”

Continuing through Duchamp: A Biography by Calvin Tomkins (1996):

… “Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’?” Duchamp asked himself in a 1913 note that he included in The Green Box. It is an insidious question, implying that anything made by man, from stone axes to saxophones, requires the same mental activities (discipline, skill, intention, and so forth) that go into the creation of an esthetic masterpiece. Duchamp had already found a way to subvert the skill factor, by letting mechanical drawing take the place of “la patte.” Now, toward the end of 1913, he short-circuited conscious intention through the use of chance.

With the methodical patience of a scientist performing an experiment he cut a length of white sewing thread exactly one meter long, held it, stretched taut, at a distance of one meter above a rectangular canvas that he had painted Prussian blue, and let it fall. He did the same thing with two more threads, allowing each one to fall, “twisting as it pleases,” onto a separate canvas, and gluing it down carefully with drops of varnish in the shape it had assumed. The result was 3 Stoppages Etalon, or 3 Standard Stoppages, in which, as Duchamp once said, he “tapped the mainspring of my future.” What Duchamp had done was to mend, or, rather, to amend the French unit of length, a formerly impregnable measurement marked by two scratches on a platinum bar kept under unvarying conditions of temperature and humidity in a government vault. The spirit of playful physics was at work in this “new image of the unit of length,” whose contours were dictated by chance, and which Duchamp would come to look upon as one of the key works in his development as an artist. “In itself it was not an important work of art,” he said, “but for me it opened the way — the way to escape from those traditional methods of expression long associated with art. I didn’t realize at the time what I had stumbled on. When you tap something, you don’t always recognize the sound. That’s apt to come later. For me the Three Stoppages was a first gesture liberating me from the past.”

Skipping over the story of Duchamp’s move to New York City in 1915 and endless descriptions of his social life, we arrive at the creation of the first readymade (ignoring several possible earlier candidates):

[Jean] Crotti was with Duchamp when he bought the snow shovel. It was an ordinary snow shovel, with a flat, galvanized iron blade and a wooden handle, which he picked out in a hardware store on Columbus Avenue. There were thousands just like it in hardware stores all over America, stacked up in advance of the winter storms or, as Duchamp would say in the title that he inscribed on the metal reinforcing plate across the business end, In Advance of the Broken Arm. Why did he choose this particular item? He and Crotti had never seen a snow shovel before, he explained some years later — they did not make such things in France. Duchamp remembered very clearly how pleased and proud Crotti had looked as  he carried their purchase, slung like a rifle on his shoulder, the few blocks to their shared studio in the Lincoln Arcade, where Duchamp, after painting on the title and signing it “[from] Marcel Duchamp 1915” (to show that it was not “by” but simply “from” the artist), tied a wire to the handle and hung it from the ceiling.

In addition to being the first American readymade, the snow shovel brought to full, conscious fruition the readymade idea that had been hovering around in his mind for two years. It was a mass-produced, machine-made object with no esthetic qualities whatsoever, chosen on a basis of “visual indifference, and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.” … Only by giving it a title and an artist’s signature could it attain the odd and endlessly provocative status of a readymade, a work of art created not by the hand or skill but by the mind and decision of the artist.

Further skipping — of even the infamous Fountain of 1917 (the story of which I hope you already know), we find Duchamp in 1918, painting:

… It took him more than six months, working mostly on weekends, and the result which a good many people (including this writer) consider to be one of  his three or four masterpieces, did not please him at all. … “I had found a sort of projector which made shadows rather well enough,” he told [Pierre] Cabanne, “and I projected each shadow [of three of his readymades], which I traced by hand, onto the canvas.” … Starting at the center and receding in perspective to the upper left corner is a series of what look like diamond-shaped paint samples, which cover the spectrum from bright yellow to pale gray. (Duchamp delegated the tedious job of painting these to Yvonne Chastel.) The first (yellow) sample is secured to the canvas by a bolt — real, not painted. Just to the right of the yellow diamond is what looks like a jagged rip in the canvas; although the rip is painted, not real, it is “closed” by two real safety pins. A real bottle brush has been inserted into the trompe l’oeil rip; it sticks out a good twenty-three inches from the painting’s surface. Below the rip and slightly to the left is a crudely painted hand, the index finger extended and pointing to the right. Duchamp hired a professional sign painter to execute the hand, and he had the man sign his own marvelously Duchampian name underneath: “A. Klang.”

[click for larger]

A lot of Duchamp’s earlier ideas are recapitulated in Tu m’. There is a note in The Green Box in which he suggests making “a picture of cast shadows.” Games of illusion and reality, new and personal forms of measurement, jokes that call into question the definition of art — all these were part of Duchamp’s ongoing search for an art that moved beyond retinal effects to mental constructs, but apparently he felt that Tu m’ did not push the search along in any useful ways.

… The do-it-yourself title — the viewer is free to complete it with any French verb that begins with a vowel — is usually read as a contraction of tu m’emmerdes, a “very coarse verb” (according to Cassell’s French dictionary) meaning “you bore me,” … [A] reason suggests itself … for Duchamp’s denigration of Tu m’. With all its visual puns and contradictions, this also happens to be a highly “retinal” picture — one that provides intense pleasure for its visual qualities alone. Duchamp may have decided that he was in danger of falling into the trap of art. Tu m’, at any rate, was the last painting on canvas that he ever made.

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



November 25, 2011

To Bear and Retain

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:07 am

… The marked skin means memory, means never being able or willing to forget.

Levinas and Lyotard … want the skin to remain invisible, unfigured, and yet able to touch and be touched through the blind palpations of metaphor, the nudgings and insurgences of touch into discourse.

This is from The Book of Skin by Steven Connor (2004):

… The beginning of time, the beginning of culture, the beginning of sin, the beginning of difference, the beginning of mixture, the beginning of death: all these may be imagined in terms of the marking of a previously immaculate surface. Time leaves its mark. There can be no time without deviation and difference, and no deviation or difference that is unmarked.

The marking of skin is the arrival of accident and contingency. Whatever it may be, the first, arbitrary, unnecessary event is a marring, a maculation. Behind every myth of the coming of writing lies a myth of the marking of bodies or faces previously dreamed perfect, by the traces of injury and death, by the lines of age.

… Things of the world and beyond it sign themselves through the contact, impact, or printing of their surface upon another surface. The signing of a contract (that which is drawn together in the act) brings about a binding agreement that is also called a ‘compact.’ This mode of manifestation is immediate, faster than thought or even perception. It requires and allows no transcoding, no transliteration, no selection, no compression. What signs in this spontaneous impression, this sigillating impingement of things one upon another, is not a proposition, or a proper name, but the all-at-once tout d’un coup here-and-now haecceitas of the very gesture of the signature.

… In marking the skin, part of the point is to set the skin at naught, to treat it, not as the outward part of a living being, but as an object. And yet the skin itself is indispensable to that process; the living quality of the skin, the cutis, is necessary to the process whereby it is made two-dimensional, reduced to a pellis, pelt or pall. Writing instantiates a play between hard and soft, durable and malleable, mineral and organic.

… Writing is painless. But the fact that writing seems to have an ineliminable reference to the skin, as its ideal ground or surface, implies hurt and injury as the counterpart of law. If letters are imagined, not as resting on a surface, but as being incised into it, then that surface cannot be imagined except as patient but suffering, passive yet impassioned by the signifying touch. Writing awakens its mute, receptive surface into life, by constituting it as a surface. For beings in whom the reddening and darkening of the flesh is both signification of stimulus and itself stimulating (at once designating and transmitting alarm, fear, pleasure, arousal), the making of marks is an intense affair. We speak of ‘angry’ marks left in the skin of the victims of violence, or ‘livid’ marks, where lividness is also the sign of anger. The anger of the oppressor has been caught and preserved in their skin, becoming their skin’s anger at its own violation. The skin’s capacity to bear and retain marks is also a capacity to transfer affect from body to body.

… Whether it is an exhibition of a penalty or a redemption, marking is a making good, in which the exhibition of the mark is part of the equation. This is an equation that aims either to refuse or to reverse time. It borrows and transforms the skin’s tendency to gather and retain the marks of injury and accident. It trammels up accident and change in representation. Marking is remarking. The marked skin allows the past and present to communicate, easily; running backwards and forwards.

… The marked skin means memory, means never being able or willing to forget.

keloid scarring on the back of a whipped slave, [image from Wikipedia and is my choice; it is not in Connor’s book]

… Both Lyotard and Levinas seek from the skin figurations of the nonfigural: the image of a touching without marking, a writing without residue, a weightlessness, nearness and immediacy. The skin is now reserved as that which eludes visibility, the ground on which the visible is written and which itself can thus be seen only in intimate revelatory flashes: ‘The law takes a grip . . . Features have to be deciphered, read and understood like ideograms. Only the hair, and the light that emanates from the skin escape its discipline.’ This is perhaps why both Levinas and Lyotard are reluctant to thematize the skin; they want the skin to remain invisible, unfigured, and yet able to touch and be touched through the blind palpations of metaphor, the nudgings and insurgences of touch into discourse.

… According to a traditional metaphor, the skin is written by time in just the same way as time is written into writing, its lines and furrows being said to be the work of time’s pen, or chisel or plough. Time’s writing on the skin, or the concealment of that writing through cosmetics or cosmetic surgery, is our meaning: but it is a meaning that was never meant, or intended in the way that a written mark inscribed on a surface represents a decision. It is the way we come to mean, the meaning we come to have, through time. In this sense, the figure of time writing on the skin is itself a protective anthropomorphism, which projects a scene of here-and-now writing on a here-and-now surface — as though time could gather to a point and make its mark at a moment in time — to make sense of a writing of time that is really a writing through time.

If time writes the skin, then the skin can also be thought  of as writing time. Assailed by marks, the skin possesses the capacity to regenerate itself, to grow out of, as well as into disfigurement. The skin marks time partly by effacement: by the healing of lesions, and the reassertion of the surface against every assault. The skin’s way of writing time is indeed to write it out. The skin is a soft clock, which we wind up whenever we mark it; for when we mark the skin, and await its healing, we can make time run backwards.

… The life of the skin is probabilistic, an unfolding between the alternatives of the family face, with its bags and folds and wrinkles buried in the genes, and the tannings, softenings, emaciations and alimentations to which it is heir in time. The idea of marking the skin aims to hold it suspended between the alternatives of figure and ground, accident and intention. But the mark on the skin in fact marks out the subjection, not to the positive law of visibility and making good, but the subjection to the invisible and imperfectly calculable space of competing probabilities. Freckles and acne come and go. The mole may or may not develop into melanoma, which may or may not be malignant. The skin is more like a sea than a screen, more like a mobile sky of shifting cloud and sun than the punctual night sky.

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




November 24, 2011

As Soon As We Are Two

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:13 am

… As soon as we are two, there is a medium between us, the light ray is lost in the air, the message is lost in the interceptions, there is only a space of transformation.

This is from The Parasite by Michel Serres (originally published in 1980):

… At the feast everyone is talking. At the door of the room there is a ringing noise, the telephone. Communication cuts conversation, the noise interrupting the messages. As soon as I start to talk with this new interlocutor [on the phone], the sounds of the banquet become noise for the new “us.” The system has shifted. If I approach the table, the noise slowly becomes conversation. In the system, noise and message exchange roles according to the position of the observer and the action of the actor, but they are transformed into one another as well as a function of time and of the system. They make order or disorder.

… Where am I now? Somewhere between the feast and telephone. I have found a spot where, give or take one vibration, moving a hair’s breadth in either direction causes the noises to become messages and the messages, noises. Of course this crest is jagged, random, stochastic. Whoever watched me in my comings and goings would think that he was watching a fly. I guide myself by sound. I am on the saw’s teeth of everything like a sonorous echo, but on the edges of messages, at the birth of noises. This erratic path follows the paths of invention exactly.

… Bivalent systems get lost around here. The value of belonging passes through space, through the spectrum that separates or unites the two old values. The mathematics of the “fuzzy” explores this milieu, this means, this medium.

… This couple and their relation are set apart by an observer seated within the system. In a way he overvalues the message and undervalues the noise if he belongs to the functioning of the system. He represses the parasites in order to send or receive communications better and to make them circulate in a distinct and workable fashion.

… One can leave the system in several ways: by one’s own difference or by the gesture of exclusion that I have just called repression. It is not so simple. If systems were univocal or if they  had one norm, this description would be enough. But systems function with several norms at a time, the proof of which is that one often arrives at the center by playing the periphery. In other words, the game of exclusion can be played without leaving the system, and, on the contrary, getting more and more into the system. The best way to succeed in it is to misconstrue it. The counternorm is never a noise of the norm but the same norm reversed, that is to say, its twin. If you make a motor turn in reverse, you do not break it: you build a refrigerator. Since Bergson, who invented this whole business about opened and closed, interior and exterior, systems have been immunized by becoming more complex. They became stronger by becoming more tolerant. They were acclimated to the revolutionary, the madman, the deviant, the dissident: an organism lives very well with its microbes; it lives better and is hardened by them. The implacable power of systems with several norms and several variables grouping each time a norm and a counternorm and the function of inclusion of these systems have to be added to the cruelty of systems with one norm and a gesture of exclusion. On one side you kill; on the other, you castrate. On one side you put away; on the other, you festoon. Tolerance is part of the panoply of intolerance. Thus, the genius never undoes the system; he generalizes it.

… In fact, all systems are very complex; in fact there are several of them. They come into play in an ideal world of light and dark where there is only one exterior and one interior, only one shadow and one light. This imaginary world is on the moon. Without an atmosphere, where a screen separates space into black and white, furnace and glacier, blinding light and opaque night. In both cases, no one can see a thing. But the atmosphere, the air, the milieu (the medium), make light diffuse …  As soon as the medium intervenes, the ray of light wanders about the world. We see only because we see badly. It works only because it works badly. Every system is a set of messages; in order to hear the message alone, one would have to be identical to the sender. As soon as love flees, the noise comes back in. As soon as the discussion of love lessens, Alcibiades is at the door, yelling at the top of his lungs, accompanied by his flute player. As soon as we are two, there is a medium between us, the light ray is lost in the air, the message is lost in the interceptions, there is only a space of transformation.

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



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