Unreal Nature

December 31, 2011

The Ability to Picture

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:12 am

… the layman cannot tell what it is to be like without seeing it finished …

Continuing through The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski (1989). All illustrations within this post are from Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook (1968; 1925) and are not in Petroski’s text:

… The plumbago from Borrowdale had certainly been absorbed into the universe at large over the three centuries since it had been discovered: being blown in dust from all the sawing and rubbing, being deposited on the furniture of pencil factories and on the hands and clothes of their workers, being carried in fabricated veins of lead in millions upon millions of wood-cased pencils made and exported around the world, being buried in the stubs of pencils no one wanted to hold on to, being laid down in notes in the margins of books like trail markers through forests of thought, being redeposited in thin lines on thoughts and images on countless sheets of paper, being twisted and crushed in the lines of crumpled manuscripts and sketches, being burned with the thoughts and images no one wanted, or no one wanted to remember or to build. So by the mid-1800s what had once been the world’s purest source of plumbago was essentially worked out and had been diffused throughout the world in a three-centuries-long fit of black entropy.

I’m not going to even try to give a synopsis of the history of the discovery and development of subsequent sources for pencil “lead” and wood and eraser material. Rather I skip to Petroski’s descriptions of one of the pencil’s main uses: drawing:

… Drawing materials have their origins in antiquity. The Egyptians used looped string to scribe true circles, and the Romans used compasses made of bronze and rulers of wood and ivory. By the second century permanent drawings were being made by using a reed pen to draw in ink over the lines scratched on animal skin or papyrus.

Pens made from the quills of birds replaced reed pens by the seventh century, and during medieval times paper making was introduced in the West. With the use of paper widespread during the Renaissance, the method of marking on it with silverpoint was developed. In this method the paper was prepared by applying a wash of finely ground pumice suspended in a very dilute solution of glue and flour paste. When a silverpoint was drawn across such paper, a line varying from pale gray to black could be produced by controlling the pressure on the point. Leonardo used such a method for many of his mechanical drawings, which he then went over with a pencil brush or quill pen and ink.

By the sixteenth century making drafting inistruments had become a trade throughout Europe, and by the eighteenth London became renowned for “mathematical” instrument making generally. But insturments were useless without a drawing medium, and according to Hubert Gautier de Nimes, whose 1716 treatise was the first on bridge building, “the graphite stick, with a file to sharpen it, belongs in the military engineer’s kit.” George Washington’s set of drawing instruments [he was a land-surveyer] bears the date 1749, and includes a divider, two compasses with removable legs, a compass leg for holding a pencil lead, a compass leg with a pen, and a ruling pen — essentially the same equipment as in the set that students learned to draw with two centuries later. And Washington’s kit almost certainly contained some extra graphite or pencil leads. In Washington’s day, in a manner not unlike the use of silverpoint, drawings would first be laid out in pencil and, when all lines were complete, inked over with mechanically guided pens to produce a final draft. For his fieldwork, Washington the surveyer had a red-morocco pocket case holding a folded scale, dividers, and three-inch-long pencil.

In engineering drawing, also called mechanical drawing and even in the past instrumental drawing, because of its use of tools like Washington’s, the weight or thickness of a line is significant. Heavy solid lines are used for the visible outlines of objects, dashed or broken lines are used for indicating hidden parts of objects, and light lines are used for lines giving dimensions. … The inking pens in Washington’s mechanical drawing set were adjustable to make different thicknesses of line, and thus they were well suited to giving the proper weight of line in a final drawing. The draftsman needed only to concentrate on guiding his pen properly and on not cutting the paper.

The use of graphite was much more difficult in Washington’s day. In order to achieve different thicknesses and different weights of lines, different sharpnesses of pencil point and different pressures on the pencil had to be used. Thus pencils made by the Conté process were a great improvement; since they came in a variety of grades, marks of different degrees of darkness could be had by changing pencils instead of changing the pressure on a single piece of lead.

… No matter what the designation of a pencil, the individual particles of lead it will leave on a writing surface will all be equally black, but their size and number will vary according to the pencil’s hardness or softness and the nature of the writing surface. Since paper is a mass of layered fibers, the paper actually acts like a file in shearing off and catching in its small recesses some of the pencil lead.

… While using a sandpaper pad to sharpen drawing pencils enabled the engineer to form his lead into just the point he wanted for the work at hand, the method was also very messy and potentially disastrous. A great deal of dust was always produced and it could ruin any drawing over which it might spill or be blown.

[ … ]

… There is hardly an artifact of engineering or technology that can be separated from its physical appearance, and thus it is not surprising that engineers and technologists think and create in terms of pictures. It is for this reason that the naïve view of engineering as “applied science” is simply not valid. It is actually the theories and equations of science that are applied to the object of an engineer’s imagination — once there is a picture of what is to be theorized about or analyzed with equations — and so science is really used as theoretical engineering. Heavenly explanations of our origins may posit: “In the beginning was the word.” But earthly explanations of the origins of our artifacts must start: “In the beginning was the picture.” Science is really thinking “on second thought,” and science is applied “after the artifact,” when the object has been pictured first in the mind of the engineer.

Vitruvius stressed the importance of drawing for Roman architects and engineers, and he also recognized that it was the ability to picture the as yet unrealized that set the architect-engineer apart from the layman:

In fact, all kinds of men, and not merely architects, can recognize a good piece of work, but between laymen and the latter there is this difference, that the layman cannot tell what it is to be like without seeing it finished, whereas the architect, as soon as he has formed a conception, and before he begins to work, has a definite idea of the beauty, the convenience, and the propriety that will distinguish it.

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




December 30, 2011

Twenty-Three and Twenty-Four

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 3:05 pm

book 1, proposition 23

book 1, proposition 24

See previous propositions here.




The Sweet Toil of Bliss

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:38 am

… Are there any more elaborately erotic coverings than the wrappers of sweets, waxy, crackling, filmy-wrinkled?

This is from Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things by Steven Connor (2011). This first segment is from the book’s Introduction:

… Magical things invite a kind of practical rêverie, a kind of floating but intent circling through or playing with possibilities, a following out of their implied reach.

… We can do whatever we like to things, but magical things are things that we allow and expect to do things back to us. Magical things surpass themselves, in allowing us to increment or surpass ourselves with them. They are things, as we say, to be conjured with, though their magic is done on ourselves rather than on others.

… When we put something to work, we use it for a particular purpose. In play, we seek not so much to use things as to use them up. The point of putting things into play may be to play them out, to see how far they go, how far we can go with the open totality of their affordances. And, at the same time, we put ourselves into play, we use these objects to play with ourselves, even to toy with our own play, seeking its possibilities and limits.

… Precisely because they instance the once-new, things can impart the shock of the newly old. Such things inhabit space, but are a kind of temporising with it, a refracting of the white noon of the now into a chronic rainbow of times, with their twilight tints and hues. Such things hum with hint and import because they are there without being fully present; to hand, but not exactly here-and now. Intimate and exotic, such things ‘link us to our losses,’ in Philip Larkin’s phrase. They may be said to be our haunts, because they hang around us so, we are condemned and content, like unquiet ghosts, to frequent them. Untimely things like those on which I meditate in this book are unstopped clocks, miniature time bombs, that, going off at unpredictable times, can pull time itself apart.

… our personal paraphernalia is also what we need for the occupation of being ourselves. As our fund of necessary accessories, that do not have to be ours and yet somehow makes us what we are, our paraphernalia is both anonymous and intimate, arbitrary and intrinsic. It is the kind of stuff that is found, or, just as often, lost, in places like drawers, cupboards and pockets, which, though they often contain very similar and predictable kinds of object — keys, pins, pills, elastic bands — also constitute something like involuntary abstracts or personal archives, that bear our signatures, have our lives in their charge and may one day amount to what we were.

Connor does a chapter, in alphabetical order, on each of his selected “magical things.” Because this post already covers the Introduction, I’ve chosen the shortest of his chapters for our first magical thingie (the longest, if you’re wondering, is on Rubber Bands). This (below) is from the chapter on Sweets:

… ‘Don’t play with your food,’ adults say to children. But sweets are made to be playthings, protests against the sensible good citizenship of eating routines. Perhaps this is also why we treat sweets as playthings. Sweets are things that we do things to. We want to handle them before we commit them to our tongues, where we play with them anew. Are there any more elaborately erotic coverings than the wrappers of sweets, waxy, crackling, filmy-wrinkled?

… The multilayered lolly or lozenge encourages us to keep taking it out to see what colour it has changed to, in a striptease for the taste buds. Chewing gum and bubblegum are never swallowed at all, and are therefore perhaps the most essential kind of sweet. Once we have had the sweetness from it, the substance of the gum is a mere nothing, or nothing but play.

Sweets are beyond words. All sweets are gobstoppers. When we eat sweets, we say ‘mmm,’ the sound of speech’s superseding, the replacing of speaking by sweetness. … Sweet is also, of course, baby talk, an infant and infantilising language, which is on the border between eating and speaking, and lets us hear eating, and eat meaning. The words ‘gum’ and ‘gobstopper’ clog and glue the mouth like the things they name. The words ‘jelly’ and ‘lolly’ and lollipop’ elicit lolling and licking from the tongue that lets them out. Even the grown-up names of sweet makers and sweet owners become suffused with magical nestling comfort. You could never, I think, take a philosopher called Cadbury seriously (I know, I know, saying this in public means I am bound straight away to hear of, or worse, from one), but if a Cadbury should ever run for prime minister in Britain, they would surely be unopposable.

… Sweet-making and sweet-eating are closely and mysteriously associated with the arts of magical picturing and effigy. We eat things we like the look of; teddies, bunnies and gingerbread men. Themed birthday cakes give us the opportunity of eating ourselves: the Arsenal supporter, or the Thomas the Tank Engine fan, eats their loved object, and encounters anew its sweetness. This is as it should be, for sweet things really do not taste of themselves; they taste of our own pleasure in them.

… Why so many explosions, so many bombs bursting in the air in the names of sweets (Starbursts, Fizzers, Sherbert Fountains, the Snap and Crackle, the Wham bar), why so many teasing deceits and promises of amazement and teeming transmogrifications in their manufacture (Curly-Wurlies, Fried Eggs and Live Wires), if you are not really always saying to sweets and they to us: ‘Surprise!’ Sweets will let nothing persist as what it merely, drearily, is.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why eating sweets is not meant entirely to be a pleasure. In the eating of a sweet, the entire being is concentrated around the drawing out of the taste. Look at somebody who has just got the first sour spurt out of a sherbet lemon, or the spreading drowsiness of a lump of milk chocolate. The eyelids are flickering, the eyes misting like a junkie’s after a hit. There is nothing there but ardour, ordeal, and the sweet toil of bliss.

[both pictures from Wikipedia]




December 29, 2011

Without Remains

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:04 am

… This knife or blade does not stop. Why would it stop?

… It got a denuded space, a white domino.

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

… the purge, the sacralization of a given space, of a templum, of a garden, begins by the total and radical expulsion of all species. And not only of the hare. Agriculture could not have begun before the complete denuding of certain areas of ground. Before they served as a clear spot or a tabula rasa for their covering of vegetables. The field is first of all a spot from which everything is removed. A battlefield: everything has left the camp, uprooted. And when I say radical, I mean that the very roots have been eradicated, that the ploughshare has been pushed deep enough to destroy everything, even the rootlets of the ejected species. It wasn’t a question of fertilizing and fecundating the earth through labor but rather of extirpating, suppressing, and banishing. Of destroying. The blade of the plough is a sacrificial blade, killing all the plants to make a clean space. Everything that grows here is excluded. Not only weeds, but everything. Cleaning by emptying out. That is certainly the first act of religion, and by chance, it is an agricultural one as well. The same action, the same work, the same upset. The same appropriation: propriety or property.

The ploughshare is a sacrificial knife frenetically manipulated at the height of murdering fury. The knife kills a man or an animal. Abel or the lamb, Isaac or the scapegoat. It is a cut-throat. It slices. It does not decide but slices. Not in two, but in three. It cuts up space. It marks a closed line: inside, the sacred; outside, the profane; inside, the temple; outside, the vague area filled with evil. Inside, the city, surrounded by walls, and the country outside. The ploughshare founded the city, and in the hollow of a furrow, a brother killed his twin. The ploughshare is the knife that sacrifices the brother. It cut his throat; it cut up space and earth. This knife or blade does not stop. Why would it stop? It continues madly, cutting everything, going beyond the mastery of the sorcerer’s apprentice. Not a continuous and firm furrow, but one furrow, two furrows, three, ten thousand, so that the whole earth is cut, so that space everywhere is sliced up, so that nothing resists its mad movement, no weed, no plant, no root, nothing that is there. When the fury of this knife is appeased, everything has been worked into a fine powder. Harrowed. Reduced to its elements. Analysis.

The first work is a frenetic murder, continued until atoms are obtained. Until no more cutting is possible. Assassination, until the victim is cut into small pieces.

Thus agriculture is born.

It got a denuded space, a white domino.

… The river and its swelling waters are not opposed to the joint actions of the priest and the farmer, but help them in their business, do even better than help them: they act on their behalf and in their stead. It is not only the boundary that the river erases through the excess of its swell; it is the entire population of things that existed in this space or in this field. Everything in it is torn up, expelled; the space is white, homogeneous, and covered with silt. This smooth square appears as the waters abate: who will come to limit it? The farmer, the priest, and the geometer. Three origins in three persons in one motion at the same moment. The field, the temple, and measured space. Democritus and my ancestors said it right; it was necessary only to listen to them. The space discovered by the Nile, the Tigris, the Garonne, or the Hwang Ho is the white domino, the virgin spot of the excluded thirds, the difference from equilibrium. This expanse, because it is empty, is homogeneous, isotropic, and measurable. It is the field of agriculture in the valley, the templum spoken of by Mircea Eliade, in both its etymological and sacred meanings; but at the same time it is the abstract space of geometry. The abstract space from which everything was subtracted, from which everything was uprooted, from which everything was taken away, from which everything was extracted. Read attentively Plato’s texts where he wants to define the space or the figure: they are all negative, or more exactly, apophatic. The philosopher acts like the priest or the farmer; he removes from there everything that might reappear, including color. He gets, once again, a white domino.

… The constitution of a virgin space bathed in light, not as an ideality, but as an object-world, makes such a considerable rupture in the cultural equilibrium that through the fault of this gap will hurtle the modern rational, the proliferating multiplication of a certain type of sameness. At every apparition of this white, an outgrowth of a singularity replaces the former multiplicity of complexes. At every apparition of this white, reproduction explodes.

… This (hi)story would have no end if it went from local square to local square. But its very logic, the logic of eradication, brings about, necessarily, a global without remains, doesn’t it?

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



The Harlequin May Dance in the Dark …

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:03 am

… works of art themselves are the medium of communication, insofar as they contain directives that different observers follow more or less closely. They are designed exclusively for that purpose.

… The harlequin may dance in the dark — but his dance is still communication, a communication that sabotages its own perfection only to convince itself that it owes its existence to itself alone, not to the gaze of an observer. To top this triumph, one would have to observe what others would observe if they were not excluded from observation.

Continuing through Art as a Social System by Niklas Luhmann (2000):

… The unique meaning of the forms embedded in the work of art — always two-sided forms! — becomes intelligible only when one takes into account that they are produced for the sake of observation. They fixate a certain manner of observation. The artist accomplishes this by clarifying — via his own observations of the emerging work — how he and others will observe the work. He does not need to anticipate every possibility, and he can try to push the limit of what can still be observed, deciphered, or perceived as form. But it is always assumed that the point is to observe observations, even if the effort is directed at producing unobservability, for then we would be dealing with an unobservability of the second order. The same holds for the observer. He can participate in art only when he engages himself as observer in the forms that have been created for his observation, that is, when he reconstructs the observational directives embedded in the work. Produced without apparent external purpose, the artwork immediately conveys that this is the task. Subsequently, the work takes control and defines the conditions of inclusion, and it does so by leaving open the possibility for discovering something that no one, not even the artist, has seen before.

… Art permits a kind of playful relationship to questions of reasonable consensus or dissent. It avoids degrading or excluding those who think differently. And it does so in such a way that doubts about whether or not one communicates about the same thing never arise. This is not to say that art does not place high (and exclusive) demands on an observation that seeks to be adequate. The measure for adequacy is not a consensus determined by a “shared symbolic system” (Parsons), but resides instead in the question of whether the viewer can follow the directives for adequate observation embedded in the work’s own formal decisions.

… works of art themselves are the medium of communication, insofar as they contain directives that different observers follow more or less closely. They are designed exclusively for that purpose.

… The forms that constitute the work’s structure are initially fixated by an observer for other observers. Like texts, forms abstract from the physical and mental aspects of whoever produces or observes them. Like writing, they assume a material expression that overcomes the temporal distance between subsequent observations. Today, we can find art forms that deliberately focus on a singular event or are performed in front of a random group of spectators — so as to reduce the work’s social and temporal components to a minimum. But even if the performers staged the work entirely for their own sake, it would still be an art that experiments with its own boundaries, and it would still be communication addressed to an audience, albeit an audience tending toward zero. To produce observability is to communicate order within a formal arrangement that doesn’t come about spontaneously. The harlequin may dance in the dark — but his dance is still communication, a communication that sabotages its own perfection only to convince itself that it owes its existence to itself alone, not to the gaze of an observer. To top this triumph, one would have to observe what others would observe if they were not excluded from observation.

The other is always anticipated as observer. The audience, too, is bound by communication. They attribute the work of art to an artist. They don’t confuse the work with nature. They are aware of themselves as (anonymous) addressees of a communication and take the artwork as a minimal guarantee for the sameness of their experience. They assume that this is intentional, that something was to be shown to them. And this suffices for communication to realize itself in the observation of a difference between information and utterance.

… The social autonomy of the art system rests on its ability to define and use resources in ways that differ from those of society at large.

Communication by means of art, like communication about art, was customary long before the art system organized itself on the basis of communication. Several attempts were necessary to gain autonomy. The first efforts to systematize second-order observation might conceivably be traced to ancient Greece, where they were facilitated by writing, by a high degree of diversity within structures and semantics, and by the privatization of religion. The role of the chorus in Greek drama highlights this development. It would be difficult to account for the evolutionary emergence of autopoietic closure in art — or in any other domain — if there had been no prior experience with suitable components of meaning, here works of art. For autopoietic systems to emerge, the ground must be ready. But the stratified societies of the Old World were far from realizing a fully differentiated art system. Art had to please, and whom it should please was no matter of indifference. Not until modernity — we can date its beginning to the Renaissance — did the art system begin to set its own standards for recruiting observers, and the heyday of the arts in the Middle Ages most likely facilitated this change. For an artist who worked in the service of God, it was only a small step to present himself as directly inspired by God.

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



December 28, 2011

Where is the Observer In This Theory?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:00 am

… Like religion, art is fascinated by what escapes it. … Art, however, is not religion. It seeks to explain the world from within.

… does the world frame the play, or does the play frame the world?

This is from an essay “Self-Reference in Literature” by David Roberts in the collection of essays Problems of Form edited by Dirk Baecker (1999):

… Observation is blind to itself and cannot distinguish between itself and what is observed. Nevertheless, the observer is of course invisibly present.

… There is no way back to the lost unity, the unmarked or formless state of the world. The world can be observed only by means of distinctions that make the unmarked world invisible. What the observer observes is the marked world, the indication made by drawing a distinction. The unmarked world, the world as it really is, however it is, is neither observable nor describable. Form is two-sided, but the observer cannot get to the other side of the form. The observed world is the product of the observer. … The idea of art is an absolute concept (what Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy call the “literary absolute”), and it is the function of form to point beyond its own finitude to the unattainable idea of art to which the individual work strives. Form is thus the key to the romantic theory of the work of art. As the self-limitation of the infinite energy of reflection, form has two sides: the individual work points beyond itself to the absolute work of art.

[paragraph break added by me to make this easier to read] We thus have a mystical concept of two-sided form: beyond the limits of the visible work lies the invisible work. Visible form is therefore necessarily contingent, and it can only point beyond itself by making its contingency apparent. This is the task of romantic irony, which we can reformulate in terms of the paradoxical achievement of the re-entry of form into the form. Romantic irony is the objective self-reflection of the work because it does two opposed things at the same time: it manifests the self-limitation of the form within the form at the same time as it raises the form to a higher power, the power of potentially infinite self-reflection. This paradox of form that is both less and more than itself we might call the mystery of two-sided form. It is, nevertheless, the logical consequence of the laws of form, that is, of the initial distinction that divides the (unmarked) world into observer and observed. I quote Gotthard Günther:

It stands to reason that these systems of self-reflection with centers of their own could not behave as they do unless they are capable of “drawing a line” between themselves and their environment. We repeat that this is something the Universe as a totality cannot do. It leads to the surprising conclusion that parts of the Universe have a higher reflective power than the whole of it.

The re-entry of form thus demonstrates simultaneously the self-limitation and self-potentiation of the part in relation to the whole.

… Like religion, art is fascinated by what escapes it. The vision of God is the crossing of the boundary, the re-entry of form into form, the making visible of the unobservable in the observable — as incarnation, as sacrament, as miracle. Art, however, is not religion. It seeks to explain the world from within. Art must remain within form, and it is only within form that the re-entry of form can be made visible.

[ … ]

… Self-reference is the product of second-order observation, which distinguishes between self- and external reference. This can take the form of external or self-observation. Insofar as the distinction is external, the play remains within the “illusion” of first-order observation, while yet being predicated on the higher observational power of the audience. Drama is thus inherently self-referential since the other side of its form is the invisible audience to which it plays.

… Even if drama’s self-reference remains invisible like the audience on the level of first-order representation, the invisible audience is made “visible” on stage through the blindness of the participants in the dramatic action. In fact blindness is the indispensable and inexhaustible theme of drama, and we can say that the making visible of blindness is the implicit (latent) and thus ever-given self-reference of the drama.

… The knowledge that all the world’s a stage is the frame of frames, which can only be made visible by the frame within the frame. The play within the play demonstrates before our eyes the paradox of form: that less is both less and more.

The paradox of second re-entry of form is this: the play, which is contained and framed within the play, contains and frames at the same time the play which contains it. The form in the form is the form of the (containing) form. (And this applies also to the film in the film, the painting in the painting, the book in the book, the poem in the poem, the story in the story.) The invisible boundary, that is, the invisible distinction that separates the audience and play but also play and world, is made visible through the re-entry of form, that is, through the self-limitation of form. The play within the play can manifest within itself the comedy (Midsummer Night’s Dream) or the mystery (Six Characters in Search of an Author) of the crossing of the boundary between the inside and the outside of form, between illusion abnd reality, play and world. This crossing of the boundary can transform the paradox of form into the paradox of reality: does the world frame the play, or does the play frame the world? … What is involved here is the implication for the observer of a self-implicating form.

… form, as we know, cannot exist without an observer, that is, without a distinction. And this is the answer to all the paradoxical theories that declare contemporary society to be a society of the spectacle, a world of simulation or pastiche in which reality has become indistinguishable from illusion. The answer is the simple question, where is the observer in this theory?

[ … ]

… Let me conclude with a reference to a visualization of the paradox of observation by that master of the paradoxes of self-reference — Magritte. The painting, appropriately titled The Human Condition I, is elucidated by Magritte as follows:

I placed in front of a window, seen from a room, a painting representing exactly that part of the landscape which was hidden from view by the painting. Therefore, the tree represented in the painting hid from view the tree situated behind it, outside the room. It existed for the spectator, as it were, simultaneously in his mind, as both inside the room in the painting, and outside in the real landscape. Which is how we see the world: we see it as being outside ourselves, even though it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves.

The Human Condition, I (1933)

What Magritte’s painting shows is that the spectator is only brought to see how he sees the world through the re-entry of the form into the form: the painting of the painting of the tree, the window as the visible/invisible boundary between inside and outside, which in turn is visibly/invisibly replaced by the painting before the window. Magritte’s painting neatly demonstrates that the difference between inside and outside, self-reference and external reference, is a difference within the form. This difference is both invisible — the canvas in front of the window is not distinct from the landscape behind it — and visible — the canvas rests on an easel, one edge separates it from the landscape. The juxtaposition of first- and second-order observation here constitutes the difference that frames this unframed canvas. Moreover, as we observed with the play within the play, the painting within the painting frames the painting that contains it. This frame, constituted by difference, is the code of art.

The Human Condition (1935)




December 27, 2011

From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:14 am

… The concept of “risk” tells us everything and it tells us nothing. It can estimate future scenarios that create a space for active human intervention, but it can never tell us about the individual case: how we fit into this future scenario, or whether it is applicable to us at any particular moment in time.

… the urge to find reasons and to attribute causes is pervasive. And, at the limits of reason, this desire manifests itself in … all manner of other “refusals” of probability and reason.

This is from an essay “Living with Risk: Chance, Luck, and the Creation of Meaning in Uncertainty” by Gerda Reith in the collection of writings The Aesthetics of Risk edited by John C. Welchman (2008):

We live in a universe of chance. The fact of being born at all is the most improbable event any of us will ever experience, but from the moment of our birth, the fact of our death — if not the time and manner — is the most certain. In between, we are forced to live between these two extremes of contingency and fate, and what makes up the flavor of our lives depends on how we deal with this.

This is why our understanding of uncertainty, in concepts like “chance,” “risk,” and “luck” are crucial. These ideas have preoccupied humanity for centuries, and they act as a microcosm for the major themes of existence — free will and determinism, reason and unreason, knowledge and belief. So, the way that we deal with uncertainty is central for understanding how societies operate and organize themselves, and indeed, for revealing within those explanations the nature of entire worldviews.

… Although its meanings have changed since it first appeared in the 17th century, the concept of risk can still be defined largely through its attempt to calculate, and so manage, the uncertainties of the future. It is an expression of the likelihood of some situation or event — usually negative — occurring, and so, when we speak about risks, we are talking of the future: trying to work out what will  happen next, and what we can do to avoid or expedite this. … — it exists as a feature of knowing; not an aspect of being.

… According to the religious doctrine of providence, every earthly event and every supposedly random or trivial occurrence was imbued with symbolic meaning as an expression of God’s will. … [E]verything happened for a purpose, everything had a meaning, and it was widely accepted that what may have appeared to be so-called random or “chance” events were simply evidence of human ignorance of the underlying reality of God’s intentions.

… Around the 17th century, the development of a system of mercantile capitalism and the rise of scientific rationality transformed the Western world. This was the move from traditional society where limited control over nature was accompanied by magic, ritual, and religion, to one where the world was increasingly controlled by science and technology. The shift also revolutionized ideas about uncertainty and chance, introducing the idea, most crucially, that it was something that would be calculated and controlled. Out of this, the notion of risk was born.

… This new concept of risk can be seen as the vanguard for a whole new way of thinking as the West became more secular and individuals were freed from the strictures of tradition to become self-determining agents of their own destiny. The expanded time frame of risk assessment expressed a new world: from something fixed, limited, and static, it became open and full of possibilities for the rational individual. This was the move, described in Alexander Koyré’s elegant phrase as a transition “from the closed world to the infinite universe.” For the first time, unexpected events were no longer seen as acts of Divine providence, but as calculable risks that could be estimated.

… [In post-modernism] The ideas of “truth” and “objective” knowledge have been replaced with relativism, pluralism, and constantly shifting values, and the ideal of certainty has been replaced by an ongoing exercise in probability calculation.

… Since absolute certainty about future events was impossible, the best course of action was simply risk minimization, and this could be achieved by the rational calculation of relevant factors. In such models, the notion of risk represents an order of knowledge that has given up all  hope of certainty, concerning itself instead with calculating degrees of probability and belief; hence Frank Knight’s clasic description of it as “determinate uncertainty.” Contrary to the optimistic Enlightenment belief that greater knowledge brings greater certainty, this application of risk makes clear that the more knowledge we have, the less certain we become, and the ideal of certainty is replaced with an ongoing exercise in probability calculation.

… To a greater extent than ever before, the individual is left to face risk alone, for there are fewer sources of comfort and security to turn to in times of uncertainty. Instead of the rules and prohibitions of traditional society, today’s citizens are faced with an endless array of choices, so that decision making becomes an anxious process of weighing up more or less possible outcomes. No longer in the hands of the gods, people are free to shape their own future — in fact, not only are they free to act, they have to act! Responsible citizens of neoliberal societies have a duty to govern themselves rationally and to safeguard themselves against harm by keeping themselves informed about potential dangers, weighing up risks and probabilities, safeguarding their health and protecting themselves against crime and material insecurity.

… They may not know what the future holds, but by following expert advice, they know that they are “doing the right thing”: armed with the appropriate information, individuals can feel secure as they go about their business, knowing that they are taking active steps to protect their well-being and to shape their future. … The calculation of risk cannot guarantee the avoidance of unfavorable results, and it cannot provide assurances about an uncertain future. But its role transcends this: independent of success or failure, it provides a justifiable guide for behavior. Although it cannot make the future predictable or the world certain, it can create the means for acting as though it were.

… technically, there is no such thing as an individual risk — risk is only calculable across populations. … And, this is the problem, for people do not see themselves as “motorists” or “smokers”: rather, they want to know what will actually happen to them at a particular time.

… The concept of “risk” tells us everything and it tells us nothing. It can estimate future scenarios that create a space for active human intervention, but it can never tell us about the individual case: how we fit into this future scenario, or whether it is applicable to us at any particular moment in time.

… emotions often intervene in assessments of risks and uncertainties. People tend to make moral connections between actions and outcomes, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This “just world” hypothesis denies the operation of chance, and assumes that actions are overseen by the operation of some kind of higher moral authority. Also, the tendency to believe in an “illusion of control” describes a belief that desirable outcomes are caused by internal factors, such as skill and ability, while failures are attributed to external factors like bad luck. Belief in luck is frequently invested in indeterminate situations, where knowledge and control are limited, and relate to ideas about transcendental powers that reside within individuals and that oversee the unfolding of events in their favor. In both of these misapprehensions, aspects of older beliefs in factors such as providence and luck can be discerned; the idea that everyone gets what they deserve and the belief that circumstances beyond one’s control are responsible for one’s poor lot in life.

… Throughout history, whether in religious worldviews propped up by notions of chance and magic, or in many secular ones guided by “scientific” concepts such as risk, the urge to find reasons and to attribute causes is pervasive. And, at the limits of reason, this desire manifests itself in alternative forms of belief and understanding: in the belief in a “just world” or a moral universe, in the belief in luck, in “illusions of control,” and in all manner of other “refusals” of probability and reason.



The Challenge of Inadequacy

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:13 am

… We might say that all positions are problematized by the fact that they exist in a field of alternatives. … The threat at the margin of modern non-theistic humanism is: So what?

Continuing through Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor (1989). We are now passing out of the Enlightenment:

… Our sense of the certainty or problematicity of God is relative to our sense of moral sources. Our forebears were generally unruffled in their belief, because the sources they could envisage made unbelief incredible. The big thing that has happened since is the opening of other possible sources. In a predicament where these are plural, a lot of things look problematic that didn’t before — and not just the existence of God, but also such “unquestionable” ethical principles as that reason ought to govern the passions. Who knows whether further transformations in the available moral sources may not alter all these issues again out of all recognition? I want to argue that our present predicament represents an epistemic gain, because I think that the alternative moral sources which have opened before us in the past two centuries represent real and important human potentialities. It is possible to argue, as many have done, that they are largely based on illusion. But even if I am right and we are in a better epistemic predicament as a consequence, this still doesn’t authorize us to talk of “the real” epistemic predicament.

What this means for the explanation of secularization is that the issue shifts from the removal of blinkers to the question how these new sources became available. This is the cultural shift which we have to understand. Secularization doesn’t just arise because people get a lot more educated, and science progresses. This has some effect, but it isn’t decisive. What matters is that masses of people can sense moral sources of a quite different kind, ones that don’t necessarily suppose a God.

… There are important respects in which the pagan authors failed to capture early modern moral experience: the dimension of agapè, later sliding into benevolence or altruism, was wholly absent from the pre-Christian writers, as was the affirmation of ordinary life. And the dimension of post-Augustinian inwardness in all its ramifications of self-control and self-exploration wasn’t there either. The most subversive of ancient philosophies. Epicureanism, also repudiated any belief in providence, which meant one had to renounce all recognition of a beneficent order. On the other side, the actual doctrines of the ancients who believed in cosmic order, uniting as they did the moral and the explanatory in theories of ontic logos, fell increasingly on the defensive before the advancing mechanistic science.

Identifying these inadequacies may help in describing the alternative moral sources which actually do begin to emerge in the eighteenth century, and which define our contemporary situation. I think we can, without too great oversimplification, range these under two heads or one might better say, two “frontiers” of moral exploration. The first lies within the agent’s own powers, those of rational order and control initially, but later, as we shall see, it will be also a question of powers of expression and articulation. The second lies in the depths of nature, in the order of things, but also as it is reflected within, in what wells up from our own nature, desires, sentiments, affinities.

We’ve traced both these frontiers far enough to see how they could emerge as alternatives. Learning to be the disengaged subject of rational control, and eventually a punctual self, is accompanied, even powered by, a sense of our dignity as rational agents.

… insofar as the sources now lie within us, more particularly, within certain powers we possess, the basis is there for an independent, i.e., non-theistic morality.

Similarly, we have seen the notion of providential order develop towards the picture of nature as a vast network of interlocking beings, which works towards the conservation of each of its parts, where this age-old principle is now understood as conducing to the life and happiness of the sentient creatures which it contains. It is not only this order which marks ordinary fulfilments as significant. We have access to this fact not only through reason but through our feelings as well. We are aware of this significance through our inner nature. In that the good to which nature conduces is now a purely natural, self-contained good, and in that the proximate moral source is a self-subsistent order of interlocking beings, to whose principles we have access within ourselves, the stage is set for another independent ethic, in which nature itself will become the prime moral source, without its Author.

… What arises in each case is a conception which stands ready for a mutation, which will carry it outside Christian faith altogether. But being ready isn’t sufficient to produce the mutation. That seems to have required an additional stimulus. The mutation became necessary when and to the extent that it seemed to people that these moral sources could only be properly acknowledged, could only thus fully empower us, in their non-theistic form. The dignity of free, rational control came to seem genuine only free of submission to God; the goodness of nature, and/or our unreserved immersion in it, seemed to require its independence, and a negation of any divine vocation

… Why the dignity of disengagement, and the wellsprings of nature, and not Epicurus’ ataraxia, or Stoic apatheia? Or Spinoza’s amor intellectualis Dei, for that matter?

… Theism is, of course, contested as to its truth. Opponents may judge it harshly and think that it would be degrading and unfortunate for humans if it were true. But no one doubts that those who embrace it will find a fully adequate moral source in it.

The other two sources suffer a contestation on this score. The question is whether, even granted we fully recognize the dignity of disengaged reason, or the goodness of nature, this is in fact enough to justify the importance we put on it, the moral store we set by it, the ideals we erect on it. Of course, certain theists have hastened to all this into question from the very beginning of our modern Kulturekampf. They have said that human dignity is a pitiable thing without God, that the demands of nature turn to violence and disorder without faith, and the like. But these doubts are not only raised by theists. From their very inception explorers on these two frontiers have felt the question of adequacy pressing on them.

We might say that all positions are problematized by the fact that they exist in a field of alternatives. But whereas faith is questioned as to its truth, dignity and nature are also called into question in respect of their adequacy if true. The nagging question for modern theism is simply: Is there really a God? The threat at the margin of modern non-theistic humanism is: So what?

This is what turns these sources into frontiers of exploration. The challenge of inadequacy calls forth continually renewed attempts to define what the dignity that inheres in us as rational or expressive beings, or the good involved in our immersion in nature, consists in. This, and not just the predicament of rivalry and contestation, is what makes modern moral outlooks so tentative and exploratory. And many theists join the search, as they try to relate their faith to the fact of modern unbelief.

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



December 26, 2011

Boo! Pers

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 11:19 am

These would-be-bloopers got there just a little too late — but their would-be victims felt the chilly  hand of their almost fate.

Not a blooper — unless you’re talking about the person who did this to this bird — but the banding on this cardinal (below) seems to me to be … excessive. I think it has two bands, but maybe it’s a container with a secret message from a foreign government. [Addendum: given that the carrier bird is a cardinal, I feel confident that any message would be from the Pope.]



The Screen of the World

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:20 am

Evening Ebb
by Robinson Jeffers (written in 1928-1929)

The ocean has not been so quiet for a long while; five night-herons
Fly shorelong voiceless in the hush of the air
Over the calm of an ebb that almost mirrors their wings.
The sun has gone down, and the water has gone down
From the weed-clad rock, but the distant cloud-wall rises. The ebb whispers.
Great cloud-shadows float in the opal water.
Through rifts in the screen of the world pale gold gleams, and the evening
Star suddenly glides like a flying torch.
As if we had not been meant to see her; rehearsing behind
The screen of the world for another audience.

Recent previous poem by Jeffers is here.



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