Unreal Nature

May 31, 2012

Now and Then

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 3:28 pm

My next series is going to be called, as the post title says, “Now and Then.” Below are two very rough drafts, posted, not because they are done but because it has taken me absolutely forever to get the backgrounds to sort of do what I have in mind and today is the first time I’m (finally!) seeing what I want. Anyway, the birds aren’t lit, edge work isn’t done (of which there is a *ton* — ugh!), and so on and so on.

These two “test” images have been through so many incarnations … most of them depressingly awful. Why is what seems like a perfectly clear idea so elusive in the execution?




One’s Own Dirt

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:32 am

Tigers piss on the edge of their lair. And so do lions and dogs.

This is from Malfeasance:: Appropriation Through Pollution? by Michel Serres (2011; 2008). Continuing from the book’s opening lines above:

… Whoever spits in the soup keeps it; no one will touch the salad or the cheese polluted in this way. To make something its own, the body knows how to leave some personal stain: sweat on a garment, saliva put into a dish, wastes in space, aroma, perfume, or excrement, [ … ] appropriation takes place through dirt. More precisely, what is properly one’s own dirt.

… The first who bled a child or a pig after having led him around such a spot, and flooded this spot with the blood of the victim, succeeded in enclosing it and made it into a temple. Let me now give a Greek translation. Belonging to the same family as lobo-tomy or a-tom, the word ***** [<< Greek letters] (temno) in Greek means to cut. Just so, the term temple means the closure of a place that is sometimes sacred, sometimes profane. Translated into French, it becomes cloître (cloister). Translated into Polynesian, “here” is taboo, elsewhere, yours. When you go to a Pacific island you will see the word taboo in large letters on the signs indicating private property. Don’t enter here, this place belongs to someone. Another enclosure.

When in ancient times the human or animal sacrifice flooded the altar, the temple, or the square with the victim’s blood, the horrible outflow marked in red the place of the god. Or that of the hero: Remus’ blood spreads over Romulus’ Rome. It is his. Blood signals the inner space. No one has the right to enter this templum tabu, this taboo temple. Do you want to desecrate it? Well then, soil it! The “natural” foundation of property right is followed by the religious foundation. Yes, Numa succeeds Romulus.

Finally, nothing is shut more tightly than the temple of Vesta, located long ago in the Forum in Rome. A round structure, it admitted only chaste priestesses. In the back, a small door opened up through which the vestals regularly expelled the ashes of their pure and perpetual fire. They called it the stercorian door — in other words, the anus. As we know, the word stercus means excrement; the (scatological) term scoria says the same thing in Greek and Latin. Situated outside the city that Romulus appropriated in earlier times, the temple threw its refuse into the city. Thus they signaled the boundaries of the temple.

After urine, blood. And after blood we have ashes.



Or Not

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:31 am

… It will work out or not — depending on whether the individual function systems are capable of tolerating and absorbing by their own means the willingness of other function systems to take risks.

This is from Risk: A Sociological Theory by Niklas Luhmann (2008; 1993):

… What lies in the future cannot be observed. This induced Aristotle to ask how judgements about the future could possibly be made using terms such as truth and falsity.

… In more modern times the problem has not primarily presented itself as profoundly disquieting. Where cognition is inadequate, one relies on will and competence. The inability to decide is balanced by a regulable progression. Hobbes still adheres to the old pattern: everything in the future is to be judged as either true or false. Where we cannot decide in these terms, we refer to the decision as contingent. And then it is a matter of power and of the capacity for action. However, what is to be done if the problem is contained precisely in the proposed solution? Precisely in the fact that a decision has to be made? For it could be that the future is indeterminable not only because what will happen depends on too many known and unknown factors, but above all because it is back-coupled with the process of deciding itself, thus depending on what decisions are made in the present.

… We must therefore generally proceed on the assumption of a risk of observation. It lies in the dependence of this operation on a distinction, requiring the operation to take as its starting point one side and not the other, although the other also exists. Initially the risk may appear small, since the distinction does after all allow the boundary marking it to be crossed. But to do this we need a further operation. We need time! and how are we to decide between staying where we are and crossing over to the other side?

We could also say that observation has to use the pertinent underlying distinction blindly. It then becomes problematic to speak of risk, for in our definition the concept presupposes a decision. But as soon as a system is capable of second-order observation — and this can at all events be imputed to modern society and to its function systems — it becomes evident that we cannot see what we cannot see; that we are at the mercy of the distinction we are using in each particular instance for the purpose of observation (because observation without drawing distinctions is impossible). We can escape its clutches only by rejecting or accepting another distinction, to which the same applies. And on this level of autological observation of observation the definition of distinctions becomes a risk — and indeed a risk no observer can avoid.

… Society … foregoes traditional multiple safety-nets, multifunctional institutions such as the family responsible for all aspects of the individual life, with its network of membership or its morality encompassing all relationships. (Morality, too, becomes a special code with heightened and limited risks.) This renunciation in its turn actuates unforeseeable risks, which can result from the fact that risks acceptable in one system may have unpredictable effects on other systems — consider, for example, the consequences of scientific progress in the fields of microphysics and biochemistry on the economy and politics.

In other words, society encourages the assumption of risk within the function systems by means of universalization and specification. At the same time it reduces security devices, formerly located above all in the family and thus in stratification structures, and abandons the consequences to an evolution not subject to centralized control. It will work out or not — depending on whether the individual function systems are capable of tolerating and absorbing by their own means the willingness of other function systems to take risks. And it is not least of all this situation that provides one of the reasons why the future is opaque to us and why we see it in terms of potential and possibly no longer controllable losses.

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



May 30, 2012

The First Gift

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:32 am

… Here is the first gift this true speech gave us: speaking is our fortune, our chance …

This is from The Infinite Conversation by Maurice Blanchot (1993; originally published in 1969):

… For independently of both content and form, what this power of saying made manifest to every interlocutor is that speaking is a grave thing: as soon as one speaks, even in the most simple manner and of the most simple facts, something unmeasured, something always waiting in the reserve of familiar discourse is immediately at stake. Here is the first gift this true speech gave us: speaking is our fortune, our chance, and to speak is to go in search of chance, the chance of a relation “immediately” without measure.

… We should come back to this idea of a presence that is tied to the act of speaking. This presence is rare. It is not to be confused with the traits of a particular physical reality. Even the visage in its unforgettable, visible affirmation is not manifest as speech can be when presence announces itself in it. The theatrical magic of the voice, the premeditated wiles of expression, and even the immediate manifestation of any perceptible movement must be excluded here. What is present in this presence of speech, as soon as it affirms itself, is precisely what never lets itself be seen or attained: something is there that is beyond reach (of the one who says it as much as the one who hears it). It is between us, it holds itself between, and conversation is approach on the basis of this between-two: an irreducible distance that must be preserved if one wishes to maintain a relation with the unknown that is speech’s unique gift.

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



An Undistinguished Bit of Matter

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:31 am

… in working with the body-as-object, at once person and art, Rainer set herself up precisely at the strained center of the emerging artistic antihumanism.

This is from Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s by Carrie Lambert-Beatty (2008):

Rainer’s gestures toward treating the human body like any other object paralleled, exaggerated, and offered subtle correctives to the other art of the period for which “object” was a central concern: that produced by the visual artists in her New York milieu who were then becoming labeled minimalists. Artists like Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Robert Morris imagined an art so specific and situated that it would preclude metaphorical, metaphysical, or psychological interpretation. As these other artists so often did, Rainer’s art of the mid to late 1960s reminds us at every turn that the object is always an object of spectatorship. What she adds to this view is a typically problematic recognition: that its spectators are (only) human.

… In 1964 Herbert Marcuse commented on the condition of art in a world where humanist themes were deployed and dissolved in the consumer culture stream of images and information, where “the music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship.” Minimal art and postmodern choreography together took part in a widespread period attempt to counter assumptions inherent in the idea of an art “of the soul.” According to these assumptions, even in abstraction art ought to transcend the merely material, revealing the subjectivity of its creator, expressing universal values, or addressing the essence of the human condition. Such beliefs Rainer’s peers often labeled “humanist” and associated, in a broad way, with the rejected inheritance of the New York School in painting and Martha Graham in dance. It was in this mode that, in early 1964, Frank Stella famously complained about “the humanistic values” that old-fashioned viewers insisted on finding in art, “asserting that there is something there besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object.”

There were at least two dimensions of the antihumanist artistic stance as it was discussed in the U.S. context in the mid 1960s. First was a precept about art spectatorship. Stella’s prohibition of interpretive projection, or expecting works to “speak to you,” which was given its most famous form in late 1964 by Susan Sontag’s call in “Against Interpretation” for a spectatorship based on sensory experience rather than interpretation of content — and “erotics” rather than a hermeneutics of art.

… listen to Brian O’Doherty in the New York Times just a month before Stella’s famous comment, struggling to explain the dimensions of the change implied by the “excess of objectivity” that turned Stella’s “pictures into mere objects”: “His new paintings are unimportant. What is important is that they announce that a new kind of human animal is around, a new response to living life — one that is anti-emotion, anti-human, anti-art (by transgressing its limits  of expression or non-expression) and that is even anti-anti.”

O’Doherty’s intuition matches that made in musicologist Leonard B. Meyer’s “The End of the Renaissance?” of 1963. … Meyer argued that the new art using chance procedures or radical abstraction to redirect audiences toward “what is really there to be perceived” arose from a coherent philosophical foundation. “The Renaissance is over,” he imagined artists to be saying: “Man is no longer to be the measure of all things, the center of the universe. He has been measured and found to be an undistinguished bit of matter different in no essential way from bacteria, stones and trees.” By 1966, responding to minimal art’s major public debut in the Jewish Museum’s “Primary Structures” exhibition, Mel Bochner could put the two sides of the problem together: the new art was “dumb in the sense that it does not ‘speak to you,’ yet subversive in that it points to the probable end of all Renaissance values.”

Perhaps necessarily, however, the two sides of artistic anthumanism coexisted uncomfortably. In finding the paintings themselves less important than the philosophical shift they “announced,” O’Doherty reprised precisely the move from work to idea that the “anti-anti” aesthetic should have disallowed — the one Sontag would have bemoaned as “reducing the art to its content and then interpreting that.” A similar problem was registered by Bochner’s conjunction in the sentence I have quoted: the new work of art does not speak, yet it points; it bespeaks the end of humanist values by not speaking at all. This tension was palpable in the mid 1960s. To some writers, like Annette Michelson, the problem seemed to be other critic’s inability to shake idealist habits of mind when confronted with art like Morris’s. Certainly the nihilistic vision O’Doherty imputes to Stella appears to be an error of this kind. The lesson of Rainer’s work of this period is slightly different, however: it is that we might take as the very object of consideration the incompleteness of the match between art, critical language, and philosophical models during this period; that this difficulty itself might be understood to constitute the field of artistic investigation. For, in working with the body-as-object, at once person and art, Rainer set herself up precisely at the strained center of the emerging artistic antihumanism.

My most recent previous post from Lambert-Beatty’s book is here.



May 29, 2012

To Sting Him

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:16 am

… Great composers very often mix dissonance with harmonious chords to stimulate the hearer and to sting him, as it were, so that he becomes concerned about the outcome …

… Music responds to the terror of noise, recreating differences between sounds and repressing the tragic dimension of lasting dissonance — just as sacrifice responds to the terror of violence.

This is from Noise: The Political Economy of Music by Jacques Attali (2011; 1977):

… Festival and Penitence, Violence and Harmony. In an intense instability of powers, two processions, two camps, two lives, two relations to the World rumble and vie around a center of light and a well of darkness. Around them, the day-to-day labors of men, a strange round dance, boisterous child’s play by the door to the church, and a cortege of penitents mark the significant figures of a secret dynamic — that of music and power.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559 [image from Wikipedia]

… A noise is a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission. A resonance is a set of simultaneous, pure sounds of determined frequency and differing intensity. Noise, then, does not exist in itself, but only in relation to the system within which it is inscribed: emitter, transmitter, receiver. Information theory uses the concept of noise (or rather, metonymy) in a more general way: noise is the term for a signal that interferes with the reception of a message by a receiver. Long before it was given theoretical expression, noise had always been experienced as destruction, disorder, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages. In all cultures, it is associated with the idea of the weapon, blasphemy, plague. “Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle” (Jeremiah 19.3). “When the drums of the Resurrection sounded, they filled the ears with fear” (al-Din Runir, Divani, Shamsi Tabriz).

… Music, then, constitutes communication with this primordial, threatening noise — prayer. In addition, it has the explicit function of reassuring: the whole of traditional musicology analyzes music as the organization of controlled panic, the transformation of anxiety into joy, and of dissonance into harmony. Leibniz writes:

Great composers very often mix dissonance with harmonious chords to stimulate the hearer and to sting him, as it were, so that he becomes concerned about the outcome and is all the more pleased when everything is restored to order.

… The game of music thus resembles the game of power: monopolizes the right to violence; provoke anxiety and then provide a feeling of security; provoke disorder and then propose order; create a problem in order to solve it.

Music, then, rebounds in the field of sound like an echo of the sacrificial channelization of violence: dissonances are eliminated from it to keep  noise from spreading. It mimics, in this way, the space of sound, the ritualization of murder.

Music responds to the terror of noise, recreating differences between sounds and repressing the tragic dimension of lasting dissonance — just as sacrifice responds to the terror of violence. Music has been, from its origin, a simulacrum of the monopolization of the power to kill, a simulacrum of ritual murder. A necessary attribute of power, it has the same form power has: something emitted from the singular center of an imposed, purely syntactic discourse, a discourse capable of making its audience conscious of commonality — but also of turning its audience against it.

[ … ]

… When money first appeared, music was inscribed in usage: afterwards, the commodity entraps, produces, exchanges, circulates, and censors it. Music is then no longer an affirmation of existence, it becomes valorized. Its usage did not prevent its entering into exchange: since the time that societies’ regulatory codes, prohibitions, and sacrificial rituals broke down, music has been unmoored, like a language whose speakers have forgotten the meaning of its words but not its syntax.

… it is senseless to classify musicians by school, identify periods, discern stylistic breaks, or read music as a direct translation of the sufferings of a class. Music, like cartography, records the simultaneity of conflicting orders, from which a fluid structure arises, never resolved, never pure. How can one act upon a stream laden with so many colliding temporalities? How can one, at the same time, account for this foreshadowing of crisis in the degradation of the code and in the displacement of the production of money in music?

Today, however, a single code threatens to dominate music. When music swings over to the network of repetition, when use-time joins exchange-time in the great stockpiling of human activity, excluding man and his body, music ceases to be a catharsis; it no longer constructs differences. It is trapped in identity and will dissolve into noise.

… the loss of meaning becomes the absence of imposed meaning, in other words, meaning rediscovered in the act itself — composition: in which there is no longer any usage, any relation to others, except in the collective production and exchange of transcendence. But composition necessitates the destruction of all codes. Is it to be hoped, then, that repetition, that powerful machine for destroying usage, will complete the destruction of the simulacrum of sociality, of the artifice all around us, so that the wager of composition can be lived?

My previous post from Attali’s book is here.




May 28, 2012

Breathe; Burn; and Change

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:48 am

These are the first and last (of four) verses from:

by Adrien Stoutenburg

The owls roost like gray lamps up there
above the firebreak and weeds,
where we never venture after dark —
wicks of ears blowing in a fir-black wind,
eyes (rounder and simpler than our own)
staring down at this estate
toward the picture window we cannot close
to any viewer, wise bird or beast.

[ … ]

Still though they are,
with talons shut around a waving branch,
they could drift down.
I have wakened often from a cold dream
and smelled the smoke beneath their wings
and seen their eyes, this side of the pane,
hot and intent with a strange love
for what they can light upon and keep.

The Break
by E.N. Sargent

As in a dream of flood from which we rose intact but alone

Or in worse days held a child overhead (let me see his face
………………………………….one more time) as we went down

Or in that other life spoke golden words and sang and floated
………………………………….and wished we had not died insane

Or further still wept finding no body to receive our drowning rays
………………………………….as yet unborn,

Now burn, lungs, in the fierce flood, breathe
………………………………….the strange element in this living time;
………………………………….breathe; burn; and change.

[I hope you can’t see all the white dots I’ve added to the second poem to force the formatting of the second lines.]



Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:47 am

… I am alone with this thing, and it is up to me to evaluate it in the absence of available standards.

… They are without end, these questions, and their answers are nowhere in storage.

This is from the collection Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg (2007; 1972). The following is from the essay ‘Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public’:

… One well-known abstract painter said to me, “Oh, the public, we’re always worrying about the public.” Another asked: “What is this plight they’re supposed to be in? After all, art doesn’t have to be for everybody. Either people get it, and then they enjoy it; or else they don’t get it, and then they don’t need it. So what’s the predicament?”

Well, I shall try to explain what I think it is, and before that, whose I think it is. In other words, I shall try to explain what I mean by “the public.”

In 1906, Matisse exhibited a picture which he called The Joy of Life [Le bonheur de vivre ], now in the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. It was, as you now know, one of the great breakthrough paintings of this century. The subject was an old-fashioned bacchanal — nude figures outdoors, stretched on the grass, dancing, making music or love, picking flowers, and so on. It was his most ambitious undertaking — the largest painting he had yet produced; and it made people very angry. Angriest of all was Paul Signac, a leading modern painter, who was the vice-president of the Salon des Indépendants. He would have kept the picture out, and it was hung only because that year Matisse happened to be on the hanging committee, so that his painting did not have to pass a jury. But Signac wrote a friend: “Matisse seems to have gone to the dogs. Upon a canvas of two and a half meters, he has surrounded some strange characters with a line as thick as your thumb. Then he has covered the whole thing with a flat, well-defined tint, which, however pure, seems disgusting. It evokes the multicolored shop fronts of the merchants of paint, varnishes, and household goods.”

Le bonheur de vivre, 1905-6 [image from Wikipedia]

I cite this affair merely to suggest that Signac, a respected modern who had been in the avant-garde for years, was at that moment a member of Matisse’s public, acting typically like a member of his public.

One year later, Matisse went to Picasso’s studio to look at Picasso’s latest painting, the Demoiselles d’Avignon, now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This, we now know, was another breakthrough for contemporary art; and this time it was Matisse who got angry. The picture, he said, was an outrage, an attempt to ridicule the whole modern movement. He swore that he would “sink Picasso” and make him regret his hoax.

Demoisselles d’Avignon, 1907 [image from Wikipedia]

It seems to me that Matisse, at that moment, was acting typically, like a member of Picasso’s public.

Such incidents are not exceptional. They illustrate a general rule that whenever there appears an art that is truly new and original, the men who denounce it first and loudest are artists. Obviously, because they are the most engaged. No critic, no outraged bourgeois, can match an artist’s passion in repudiation.

… May we not then drop this useless, mythical distinction between — on one side — creative, forward-looking individuals whom we call artists, and — on the other side — a sullen, anonymous, uncomprehending mass, whom we call the public?

In other words, my notion of the public is functional. The word “public” for me does not designate any particular people; it refers to a role played by people, or to a role into which people are thrust or forced by a given experience. And only those who are beyond experience should be exempt from the charge of belonging to the public.

As to the “plight” [of the essay’s title] — here I mean simply the shock of discomfort, or the bewilderment or the anger or the boredom which some people always feel, and all people sometimes feel, when confronted with an unfamiliar new style. When I was younger, I was taught that this discomfort was of no importance, firstly because only philistines were said to experience it (which is a lie), and secondly because it was believed to be of short duration. This last point certainly appears to be true. No art seems to remain uncomfortable for very long.

… At the present rate of taste adaptation, it takes about seven years for a young artist with a streak of wildness in him to turn from enfant terrible into elder statesman — not so much because he changes, but because the challenge he throws to the public is so quickly met.

… When a new, and apparently incomprehensible, work has appeared on the scene, we always hear of the perceptive critic who hailed it at once as a “new reality,” or of the collector who recognized in it a great investment opportunity. Let me, on the other hand, put in a word for those who didn’t get it.

Confronting a new work of art, they may feel excluded from something they thought they were part of — a sense of being thwarted, or deprived of something. And it is again a painter who put it best. When Georges Braque, in 1908, had his first view of the Demoiselles d’Avignon, he said: “It is as though we were supposed to exchange our usual diet for one of tow and paraffin.” The important words here are “our usual diet.”

… This sense of loss or bewilderment is too often described simply as a failure of esthetic appreciation or an inability to perceive the positive values in a novel experience. Sooner or later, we say, the man — if he has it in him — will catch on, or catch up. But there is no dignity or positive content in his resistance to the new.

But suppose you describe this resistance as a difficulty in keeping up with another man’s sacrifices or another man’s pace of sacrifice.

… when Matisse painted this picture [Le bonheur de vivre], Degas was still around, with ten more years of life in him. It was surely still possible to draw with bite and precision. No wonder that few were ready to join Matisse in the kind of sacrifice that seemed implied in his waving line. And the first to acclaim the picture was no fellow painter but an amateur with time on his hands: Leo Stein, the brother of Gertrude Stein, who began, like everybody else, by disliking it, but returned to it again and again — and then, after some weeks, announced that it was a great painting, and proceeded to buy it. He had evidently become persuaded that the sacrifice here was worthwhile in view of a novel and positive experience that could not otherwise be had.

[ … ]

… this is what it means, or may mean, when we say that a man, faced with a work of modern art, isn’t “with it.” It may simply mean that, having a strong attachment to certain values, he cannot serve an unfamiliar cult in which these same values are mocked.

… Let me take an example from nearer home and from my own experience. Early in 1958, a young painter named Jasper Johns had his first one-man show in New York.

… My own first reaction was normal. I disliked the show, and would gladly have thought it a bore. Yet it depressed me and I wasn’t sure why. Then I began to recognize in myself all the classical symptoms of a philistine’s reaction to modern art. I was angry at the artist, as if he had invited me to a meal, only to serve something uneatable, like tow and paraffin. I was irritated at some of my friends for pretending to like it — but with an uneasy suspicion that perhaps they did like it, so that I was really mad at myself for being so dull, and at the whole situation for showing me up.

I’m going to skip over Steinberg’s description of the evolution of his appreciation and understanding of Johns’s work — its very good, but not necessary for this already-too-long post. Jumping to the conclusion:

… What I have said — was it found in the pictures [of Johns] or read into them? Does it accord with the painter’s intention? Does it tally with other people’s experience, to reassure me that my feelings are sound? I don’t know. I can see that these pictures don’t necessarily look like art, which has been known to solve far more difficult problems. I don’t know whether they are art at all, whether they are great, or good, or likely to go up in price. And whatever experience of painting I’ve had in the past seems as likely to hinder me as to help. I am challenged to estimate the aesthetic value of, say, a drawer stuck into a canvas. But nothing I’ve ever seen can teach me how this is to be done. I am alone with this thing, and it is up to me to evaluate it in the absence of available standards. The value which I shall put on this painting tests my personal courage. Here I can discover whether I am prepared to sustain the collision with a novel experience. Am I escaping it by being overly analytical? Have I been eavesdropping on conversations? Trying to formulate certain meanings seen in this art — are they designed to demonstrate something about myself or are they authentic experience?

They are without end, these questions, and their answers are nowhere in storage. It is a kind of self-analysis that a new image can throw you into and for which I am grateful. I am left in a state of anxious uncertainty by the painting, about painting, about myself. And I suspect that this is all right. In fact, I have little confidence in people who habitually, when exposed to new works of art, know what is great and what will last.

Modern art always projects itself into a twilight zone where no values are fixed. It is always born in anxiety, at least since Cézanne. And Picasso once said that what matters most to us in Cézanne, more than his pictures, is his anxiety. It seems to me a function of modern art to transmit this anxiety to the spectator, so that this encounter with the work is — at least while the work is new — a genuine existential predicament. Like Kierkegaard’s God, the work molests us with its aggressive absurdity, the way Jasper Johns presented himself to me several years ago. It demands a decision in which you discover something of your own quality; and this decision is always a “leap of faith,” to use Kierkegaard’s famous term.

My previous post from Steinberg’s book is here.



May 27, 2012

Once the Sole Prerogative of the Gods

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:10 am

… the vision from an airplane window provides us with an objective overview that was once the sole prerogative of the gods.

Continuing through The Book of Symbols, eds. Ami Ronnberg and Kathleen Martin (2010):

Swimming: … If it is a lake, river or sea, the swimmer is aware of a great openness, the expanse of the water, the vast empty space above, the sheer depths beneath and an absence of boundaries. There is fear of being suddenly snatched and pulled under into the deep, and at the same time elation in floating above it.

… Swimming allows playful movements that transcend more familiar possibilities. We gyrate, plunge, dive, progress rapidly at a crawl or on our sides or backs, and use our arms as wings and our legs as flippers. For humans, swimming is perhaps the closest thing to the freedom of flying, evoking the medium of the fluid, aerial imagination.

Bicycle: … Now associated … with professional racing and extreme sports, the bicycle, as an intimately personal set of “wheels,” has also become emblematic of speed, daredevil challenges and the transcendence of the known limits of an individual’s capacities. So accustomed are we to the bicycle’s marvels that it requires the rare display of acrobatic finesse on a unicycle to remind us that bicycling is foremost a feat of balancing. Without momentum and balance between mind and body, a cyclist does not glide gently forward, but makes a bruising spill to the ground. The delight visible in a toddler’s face taking its first steps is revisited in learning to master a bicycle. The initially unnatural sensation of finding balance on one’s feet reawakens when a cyclist launches off on a wobbly virgin voyage, comically jerking the unfamiliar handlebars from side to side before finally rolling away with the elegant ease for which the ingenious bicycle was designed in a daring age of inventions.

Car: … A vast number of individuals live their lives between enclosed structures and the controlled, insular space of their cars, from which they make a “pass” at nature. The car, however, is associated with sexiness, power, speed, aggression, “drive.” On the car is projected essential aspects of identity, or persona. Receiving the keys to the ar in adolescence can represent the achievement of a developmental milestone, a perceived capacity for independence, following the rules of the road, displaying sound judgment and good instincts.

Train: … The train has always seemed part animal, a huffing bull, a hissing snake, a great fire-breathing dragon, materializing with a prolonged annunciatory wail. … The separate but linked cars that one can walk about, dine or sleep in while progressing through new vistas and constant change has suggested the movement of life that simultaneously engages the now and the timeless.

… The train embodies immense energy and reshuntings of energy, carrying one toward a goal and engaged on time, delayed or missed altogether. A train rarely deviates from its path, and we can clock the time by a regularly scheduled train. Train wrecks are usually spectacular, evoking equally shattering psychological derailments. Still, for many, the train most of all conveys a vehicle of mystery and magic, which if we are receptive, might carry us anywhere.

Subway: … We call the subway “the underground” and imagination often perceives it as the underworld. Dark and subterranean, its tunnels bring to mind caverns, catacombs and labyrinths. The subway is a separate realm to which we cannot gain entry except by descent and the paying of a toll.

… For some the subway means the underground, pumping arteries of urban life, and consciousness expanding in many directions; others find in it merely the claustrophobic sensation of being swallowed by anonymity and mass. Globally, subways will increasingly become computerized, driverless and equipped with sensors and camera eyes, conveying to an even greater extent an invisible reality with its own agency.

Airplane: … Using merely the resistance of air molecules to gain lift under their wings, airplanes turned human attention to the skies, and beyond the clouds to outer space, as a medium for human travel. Psyche soon reflected these innovations, in dreams that replace Pegasus with Piper Cubs and Zeus’s thunderbolts with the Blue Angels.

… the vision from an airplane window provides us with an objective overview that was once the sole prerogative of the gods. An ironic consequence of this sublimated perspective is that we are so far above the concrete realities below that unlike the gods we are impotent to act upon them. [They must have forgotten about bombers …]

Helmut Middendorf, Airplane Dream , 1982 

Boat: … The boat immediately evokes a passage and the containing vessel that carries one over watery depths. The soundness of the boat is important because its integrity comprises a boundary, sometimes between life and death.

… Crossing, odyssey, voyage — the boat or ship is the vehicle of our mythical peregrinations. The ancient Egyptians depicted the sun as conveyed each night in a bark over the abysmal ocean of darkness toward sunrise and rebirth, just as consciousness is conveyed over the nether seas of sleep. The lunar crescent, lending its curvature to the form of a hull, slips through the black ripples of space with its cargo of dews, or is portrayed as a ship of souls riding the clouds, serene and transcendent. The human ego is carried in vessels conscious and unconscious, ships of imagination, intellect, hope, faith, courage, illusion, fantasy and dream on psyche’s shifting currents. All of our senses help us to navigate winds and tides, fathom the depths and take our bearings. We are moored, and loose our moorings, sail against the tide or with the tide in auspicious winds, are buffeted by storms, drift, circumvent the hidden reefs and glaciers or are wrecked by them.

Previous symbols are here.



What Belongs to Nature

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:09 am

…  Every duration has a thickness. The passage to the limit of this thickness toward the instant, which has none, is therefore not the passage from an imperfect, approximate knowledge to an exact knowledge.

… As long as we are not mistaken about what belongs to nature and what pertains to human approximation. … The durations that happen and pass are the concrete fact …

This is from Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts by Isabelle Stengers (2011):

… there is a risk of losing the movement and neglecting what philosophers seek to bring to life, thanks to their concepts, and especially what they are trying not to lose, what they are afraid to lose, that which, as the case may be, they cry out. Whitehead will not ask, will never ask of experience that it admit its finitude. Any resemblance between one Whiteheadian statement and another coming from elsewhere will be declared null and void if the latter orients thought, in one way or another, toward a mode of judgment that turns the infinite possibilities that haunt our experience into a temptation that must be resisted.

If thought must carry out a judgment, it is not about experience but about itself, about the power it can assume of judging that experience in terms of what it captures of it in a way proper to explanation. But neither does judgment mean contrition, or the self-critique of a thought that betrays the experience from which it proceeds. Whitehead will not, will never ask thought to condemn itself. Any resemblance between one Whiteheadian statement and another coming from elsewhere will be null and void if it orients thought, in one way or another, toward a nostalgic relation with what escapes it, with that to which, through original sin or wandering, it has lost access. Whitehead’s philosophy has nothing to do with a culture of dereliction. It simply brings into existence the importance of not confusing the “what” of thought, or its terminus, and “what we are aware of in perception.”

The transition from the “red” of awareness to the “red” of thought is accompanied by a definite loss of content, namely by the transition from the factor “red” to the entity “red.” This loss in the transition to thought is compensated by the fact that thought is communicable whereas sense-awareness is incommunicable. [Whitehead, The Concept of Nature]

Whitehead’s ambition is not to oppose but to distinguish, in a way that confirms what we know instinctively. The goal is not to define a nature that is “knowable” in the philosopher’s sense, that is, where the point would be to define nature and the legitimate mode of knowledge, in one way or another, but always correlatively. Instead, the goal is to confirm that it is indeed nature that is at stake in knowledge, the multiple modes of knowledge, whereas as soon as we state “what” we perceive, a transition occurs for which “nature” cannot account.

[ … ]

… What Whitehead meant is what he said, however disappointing his answer may seem to be: the event is that of which we discern a specific character, whereas, “as we know instinctively,” this event is linked to other events. The cry of a bird. The refrigerator motor starting up. A laughing exchange between two passersby beneath my window. All this took place while I wrote these lines: specific characters, tending to be auditory since my visual attention was fixed upon my screen, but which cannot be reduced to a sound. I did not discern a sound but a specific character, sonorous, of events whose meaning I am “well aware” is not exhausted by this character.

… the adventure Whitehead is attempting in The Concept of Nature commits him to ask the concrete fact to exhibit the way it allows the proscribed maneuver, the recourse to psychic addition, to be avoided. If the “mind” is to be responsible for something, it is in terms of selection and simplification, not of addition, that this responsibility must be defined, and if “what we know instinctively” is to be confirmed, selection and simplification — in short, abstraction — must not define “knowledge,” but always such-and-such a way of knowing, which may be modified if we choose to try to explore how to pay due attention to what we are dealing with.

… what no duration discloses is the fact that it is made up of durations without thickness, or instants that happen and pass. Every duration has a thickness. The passage to the limit of this thickness toward the instant, which has none, is therefore not the passage from an imperfect, approximate knowledge to an exact knowledge. It is an abstraction that is constructed, and that is constructed only when it can be constructed. For this abstraction presupposes the choice of the properties that make this passage to the limit possible. It therefore imposes the active selection of what will be retained, the elimination of what, in what we are aware of, is lost when we take the path of the ever-more-exact.

Exactness is an ideal of thought, and is only realised in experience by the selection of a route of approximation.

The instant responds to an ideal of thought. Whether it is Newton’s time, affirming absolute simultaneity, or Einstein’s time, which makes it relative to the observer, what physicists take as the starting point of their reasoning, a moving object, or a dynamical system, or an event, each time in an instant, corresponds to a demand for exactness that does not belong to the concept of nature because it does not correspond to any experience. The same holds  true for the point, corresponding to the definition of an exact position in space, and Whitehead will show that it presupposes the ideal of an instantaneous space.

This is obviously not a matter of denunciation: the ideal of exactness to which the instant and the point respond conditions the specific risks of physics, but the condition must not be confused with what is required by every process of knowledge, including this specialized knowledge.

[ … ]

Whitehead … does not oppose to intellectual knowledge the profound truth of duration, whose experience the Bergsonian texts try to induce in their readers. For him, the experience of a duration is the most widely shared thing in the world, and the most “democratic.” What matters is not to confuse “what” we are aware of in perception and “what” we perceive. Whitehead by no means criticizes the fact that we pay to certain relations the attention appropriate for actively interpreting their signification … that is, for producing specialized knowledge. As long as we are not mistaken about what belongs to nature and what pertains to human approximation. As long as we keep in mind that it is the definition of measurable time and the notion of an instant that, as translations of an ideal of exactness, are obtained by approximation. The durations that happen and pass are the concrete fact, the “terminus” of sense-awareness (it is what I am aware of), what awareness offers to knowledge, and what knowledge requires.

… It cannot be denied that the meaning of the “now” belongs to experience itself, not only to its “that of which.” Although Whitehead does not think in terms of time but of durations, he has just rediscovered the “big question,” where the maximal divergence between philosophers is played out: is time the “number of motion,” that is, a relation between motions belonging to the world, or does it not rather refer to the subject who “relates” things?

… the question arises on which the very project of constructing a concept of nature outside of nature depends. How can one limit oneself to this problem? How can one celebrate the fact that the passage extends “toward” the mind without, however, including the mind in the passage of nature, without ending up by confusing nature and thought in the same “fact,” which would henceforth be metaphysical?

My most recent previous post from Stengers’s bo0k is here.



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