Unreal Nature

June 29, 2012

If My Voice

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:01 am

…  If my voice is mine because it comes from me, it can only be known as mine because it also goes from me.

This is from Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism by Steven Connor (2000):

My voice comes and goes. For you, it comes from me. For me, it goes out from me. Between this coming from and going towards lie all the problems and astonishments of the dissociated voice.

My voice comes from me first of all in a bodily sense. It is produced by means of my vocal apparatus — breath, larynx, teeth, tongue, palate, and lips. It is the voice I hear resonating in my head, amplified and modified by the bones of my  skull, at the same time as I see and hear its effects upon the world. It must surely have something to do with the fact that the voice issues from the sternum — with the pushing out of the breath from the lungs — that the emotional being is commonly said, in the West, at least, to be located not in the head, but in the heart. If my voice is one of a collection of identifying attributes, like the colour of my eyes, hair, and complexion, my gait, physique, and fingerprints, it is different from such attributes in that it does not merely belong or attach to me. For I produce my voice in a way that I do not produce these other attributes.

[line break added by me to make this easier to read online] To speak is to perform work, sometimes, as any actor, teacher, or preacher knows, very arduous work indeed. The work has the voice, or actions of voice, as its product and process; giving voice is the process which simultaneously produces articulate sound, and produces myself, as a self-producing being. Here, now, I speak; now, again, it is I speaking still. If, when I speak, I seem to you, and to myself as well, to be more intimately and uninterruptedly there than at other times, if the voice provides me with acoustic persistence, this is not because I am extruding or depositing myself with my voice in the air, like the vapour trail of an aircraft. It is my voicing of my self, as the renewed and persisting action of producing myself as a vocal agent, as a producer of signs and sounds, that asserts this continuity and substance. What a voice, any voice, always says, no matter what the particular local import may be of the words it emits, is this: this, here, this voice, is not merely a voice, a particular aggregation of tones and timbres; it is voice, or voicing itself. Listen, says a voice: some being is giving voice.

… More even than my gaze, my voice establishes me in front of things and things in front of me. It is not just that I aim my voice at the world ranged in front of me, typically in an arc of about 30 degrees; for my voice also pulls the world into frontality, and disposes it spatially in relation to this frontality. When I speak, my voice shows me up as a being with a perspective, for whom orientation has significance, who has an unprotected rear, who has two sides. The sight of me speaking underlines the fact of my visual inhabitation of the world. When children cry out to warn Mr Punch of who is behind him, his unawareness of what is invisible to him is much more striking and funny if he is speaking at the time. As I speak, I seem to be situated in front of myself, leaving myself behind. But if my voice is out in front of me, this makes me feel that I am somewhere behind it. As a kind of projection, the voice allows me to withdraw or retract myself. This can make my voice a persona, a mask, or sounding screen. At the same time, my voice is the advancement of a part of me, an uncovering by which I am exposed, exposed to the possibility of exposure. I am able to shelter behind my voice, only if my voice can be me. But it can be me only if it has something of my own ductility and sensitivity: only if it is subject to erosion and to harm.

[ … ]

… So here is the essential paradox of the voice. My voice defines me because it draws me into coincidence with myself, accomplishes me in a way which goes beyond mere belonging, association, or instrumental use. And yet my voice is also most essentially itself and my own in the ways in which it parts or passes from me. Nothing else about me defines me so intimately as my voice, precisely because there is no other feature of my self whose nature it is thus to move from me to the world, and to move me into the world. If my voice is mine because it comes from me, it can only be known as mine because it also goes from me.



June 28, 2012

Lyrical Value

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:44 am

… These habits are so well-designed to disturb human beings that scientists for once, to their credit, have abandoned their professional dryness.

This is from The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader edited by Claudine Frank (2003). Today’s post is from ‘The Praying Mantis’ first published in 1934:

… It has long been known that the mantis does not make do with … half measures. Indeed, in a Journal de physique of 1784, J.L.M. Poiret conveyed his observation of a female mantis that decapitated her male before mating and then completely devoured him after copulation. This story was recently corroborated in a fine account by Raphael Dubois, with details that aggravated the case. Paul Portier and others … had originally thought that such cannibalism could be explained by the fact that the mantis needs albumin and protein to produce her eggs — and that she can find this in greatest quantity among her own species. This hypothesis was challenged by Rabaud, who noted, in particular, that the mantis does not eat the male just when she most needs the food. Thus, Raphael Dubois’s theory (which does not exclude the preceding ones, in my view), is more generally favored. This naturalist observes that after having been decapitated, a cricket performs induced reflexive and spasmodic movements both better and for a longer time than before. Referring to the work of Goltz and H. Busquet (if one removes a frog’s superior centers, it immediately assumes the coital position normally adopted only in the spring), he wonders whether the mantis’s goal in beheading the male before mating might not be to obtain a better and longer performance of the spasmodic coital movements, through the removal of the brain’s inhibitory centers. In the final analysis, it would hence be the pleasure principle that compels the female insect to murder her lover — whose body she begins to ingest, furthermore, in the course of lovemaking itself.

[image from Wikipedia]

These habits are so well-designed to disturb human beings that scientists for once, to their credit, have abandoned their professional dryness. For example, in his recent monograph, La Vie de la mante religieuse, Léon Binct, professor of physiology at the Faculté de Médicine in Paris, seems visibly affected by them. In any event, it is quite surprising to see him briefly foreswear his scientific detachment to call the female a kind of “murderous mistress,” while venturing a most alarming literary quotation in this regard.* I myself shall take this revealing lapse as the basis for interpreting Binet’s conclusion: “This insect really seems to be a machine with highly advanced parts, which can operate automatically.” Indeed, it strikes me that likening the mantis to an automaton (to a female android, given the latter’s anthropomorphism) reflects the same emotional theme, if (as I have reason to believe) the notion of an artificial, mechanical, inanimate, and unconscious machine-woman — incommensurate with man and all other living creatures — does stem in some way from a specific view of the relations between love and death and, in particular, from an ambivalent premonition of encountering one within the other.

For all that, I would not deny the existence of facts amply vindicating in and of themselves the conclusion called into question above. On the contrary, this kind of overlap would significantly heighten the praying mantis’s objective lyrical value. Indeed, here again, reality exceeds our wildest expectations.

Above and beyond its jointed rigidity, which recalls a coat of armor or an automaton, it is a fact that there are very few reactions the mantis cannot perform in a decapitated state — that is, without any center of representation or of voluntary activity. In this condition, it can walk; regain its balance; sever a threatened limb; assume the spectral stance; engage in mating; lay eggs; build an ootheca; and (this is truly frightening) lapse into feigned rigor mortis in the face of danger or when the peripheral nervous system is stimulated. I am deliberately expressing myself in a roundabout way as it is so difficult, I think, both for language to express and for the mind to grasp that the mantis, when dead, should be capable of simulating death.

[* in footnotes the quote is given as (in translation) “She exhausts, she kills, and this only makes her more beautiful.”]



Contagious Belongings

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:43 am

… In this ever-gathering accretion of force-relations (or, conversely, in the peeling or wearing away of such sedimentations) lie the real powers of affect, affects as potential: a body’s capacity to affect and to be affected.

This is from the editors’ introductory essay, ‘An Inventory of Shimmers’, in The Affect Theory Reader edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (2010). They begin by asking:

How to begin when, after all, there is no pure or somehow originary state for affects?

For some (a lot of?) people, what is explored by affect theory looks like the bastard/mongrel child of a cross between philosophy and poetry … and they don’t like it. Not one bit. They look through the child to the parents, ignoring the ongoing in favor of expectations. If you are one of those people (do such read my blog??), if what follows irritates the bejesus out of you — makes your brain break out in hives — you might want to skip my Thursday posts for a while.

… At once intimate and impersonal, affect accumulates across both relatedness and interruptions in relatedness, becoming a palimpsest of force-encounters traversing the ebbs and swells of intensities that pass between “bodies” (bodies defined not by an outer skin-envelope or other surface boundary but by their potential to reciprocate or co-participate in the passages of affect). Bindings and unbindings, becomings and un-becomings, jarring disorientations and rhythmic attunements. Affect marks a body’s belonging to a world of encounters or; a world’s belonging to a body of encounters but also, in non-belonging, through all those far sadder (de)compositions of mutual in-compossibilities. Always there are ambiguous or “mixed” encounters that impinge and extrude for worse or for better, but (most usually) in-between.

In this ever-gathering accretion of force-relations (or, conversely, in the peeling or wearing away of such sedimentations) lie the real powers of affect, affects as potential: a body’s capacity to affect and to be affected. How does a body, marked in its duration by those various encounters with mixed forces, come to shift its affections (its being-affected) into action (capacity to affect)?

… Because affect emerges out of muddy, unmediated relatedness and not in some dialectical reconciliation of cleanly oppositional elements or primary units, it makes easy compartmentalisms give way to thresholds and tensions, blends and blurs. As Brian Massumi has emphasized, approaches to affect would feel a great deal less like a free fall if our most familiar modes of inquiry had begun with movement rather than stasis, with process always underway rather than position taken.

It is no wonder too that when theories have dared to provide even a tentative account of affect, they have sometimes been viewed as naïvely or romantically wandering too far out into the groundlessness of a world’s or a body’s myriad inter-implications, letting themselves get lost in an overabundance of swarming, sliding differences: chasing tiny firefly intensities that flicker faintly in the night, registering those resonances that vibrate, subtle to seismic, under the flat wash of broad daylight, dramatizing (indeed, for the unconvinced, over-dramatizing) what so often passes beneath mention. But, as our contributors will show, affect’s impinging/extruded belonging to worlds, bodies, and their in-betweens — affect in its immanence — signals the very promise of affect theory too: casting illuminations upon the “not yet” of a body’s doing, casting a line along the hopeful (though also fearful) cusp of an emergent futurity, casting its lot with the infinitely connectable, impersonal, and contagious belongings of this world.



June 27, 2012

The Empirical Acts

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:50 am

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

… The human sciences do not have as their object a particular region of being that is empirically observable and produced by men speaking or acting over the course of the ages; what man does — in a particular and well-determined zone of his activity — only concerns knowledge and in a sense only exists when “what is done” can be regarded as being a system (of forms and laws) that precedes and goes beyond the empirical acts that are delineated or inscribed in this zone.

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



Awkward Avidity

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:50 am

… Artists are faced with an involved public, willy-nilly. It is not bent on hating them, and it is better to be loved well than loved to death.

This is from Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life; Expanded Edition by Allan Kaprow (2003; 1993). Today’s essay is ‘The Artist as a Man of the World’ first published in 1964:

… What has been called the art public is no longer a select, small group upon whom artists can depend for a stock response, favorable or otherwise. It is now a large diffused mass, soon to be called the public-in-general. Comprising readers of the weeklies, viewers of TV, visitors to world’s fairs here and abroad, members of “culture” clubs, subscribers to mail-order art lessons, charitable organizations, civic improvement committees, political campaigns, schools, and universities — not to mention the boom of new galleries and museums that serve the private collector, the corporation, and the average person — this growing public is involved in art for reasons that are as complicated as they are varied.

A community club may want a stimulating show and lecture. Some members may simply want contact with the artist; but others may want to learn. A university art department may want to galvanize its students with the challenge of modernism at its most virulent as well as to prove a point to a lethargic faculty. A politician, seeing an advantage in enlisting the aid of the intelligentsia, may sponsor municipal exhibitions, incidentally becoming so intrigued by the exhibits that he or she starts a collection. A business wants not only the latest art around its factories but also a good investment and, with the tax advantages accompanying large-scale buying, a pleasant sort of philanthropy.

Collectors, the most committed part of this public, are themselves a compound of motives. Newly rich and newly privileged, they are basically intelligent but without excessive training to encumber their enthusiasm. Often crude, compulsive, and unsure of their responses, they nonetheless grasp the vanguard’s work quickly and straightforwardly. They support and buy art with a terrifying mixture of awkward avidity (“Wow, does that swing!”), suspicion (“Is he nice to me for my money?”), cheap bargaining tactics (“I’ll take six paintings at half-price!”), and a deep sense of inherited guilt for their parents’ philistinism. (Giotto’s Arena Chapel, we are told, was an atonement for its donor’s sins; art lovers today may spend cash to redeem their country’s art-less past). But such contrasts of intention are not appreciably different from what artists themselves experience, so the point need not be pressed.

On the whole, this widening interest in art stimulates the practice of art, as statistics amply confirm. Not only does it echo a pluralistic esthetics, but it also suggests that the range of reasons people now have for being interested in contemporary art is sufficient for art to be admitted to the public domain. Not all artists can benefit from all these reasons, but artists are in a position to turn the welcome signs to their advantage; for, in any case, people are taking advantage of artists.

Essentially, the task is an educational one. Artists are faced with an involved public, willy-nilly. It is not bent on hating them, and it is better to be loved well than loved to death. The duties of instruction in love fall primarily to artists themselves. Their job is to place at the disposal of a receptive audience those new thoughts, new words, new stances even, that will enable their work to be better understood. If they do not, the public’s alternative is its old thoughts and attitudes, loaded with stereotyped hostilities and misunderstanding.

Traditionally such responsibility has belonged to critics and, to some extent, dealers. A division of labor was considered appropriate when art was assumed to be an entirely private matter. Intermediaries emerged to tell audiences in words what the artist was doing in images. But, as I pointed out earlier, today’s artists are sharing this job at the urging of their own representatives. Indeed, they have done so well at it that the public, still afraid of being foolish in its new-found culture, will have its doubts allayed only by a reassuring word from the horse’s mouth. Such artists no longer merely represent authority-as-creator; they are going to be urged more and more to become creator-as-authority.

It seems evident that the days when dealers and critics launched artists into orbit, while they played the uncontaminated genius, are drawing to a close.

My previous post from Kaprow’s book is here.



June 26, 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:14 am

… The scope of unwritable effects of speech, in maintaining authority, in asserting need, in communicating personal emotion, is in truth enormous.*

This is from Is Language a Music?: Writings on Musical Form and Signification by David Lidov (2005):

… We will never say we can explain music by regarding it as merely a direct expression of the feelings of the musicians who make it or, for its listener, merely an object of attachment or a stimulus of feeling. Music is not that simple even in music therapy or when used as a background fix. Nevertheless, I will keep on the table the idea that immediate evocation of emotion in music is an orienting moment of its discourse. There are orienting moments of emotional expression in speech, as well, but we may not see a deep parallel there. In speech, we might argue, directly contrary to Rousseau, the direct expression of emotion is a “rider” tacked onto a bill of goods with a more abstract content. In music, the evocation of emotion can constitute a kernel from which abstraction proceeds.

… I compare music and language, first, with regard to their capacity to realize inflected and articulated structures; second, in relation to their simplest elements of reference; third, with respect to their manner of elaborating structure and meaning (forming what I call discourse); and finally I touch on a vast subject that greatly exceeds the scope of this essay, the differences in cultural function of music and language.

… An inflection of sound is a shape of continuous change imposed on it, like a swell or an acceleration or a pitch blend. Articulation implies a point of division. An articulation is either one distinct segment of sound or the point of division of the stream between two distinct sounds or the action of dividing sounds into distinct units. (Inflection has another technical meaning in linguistics, irrelevant to the present discussion, which refers to variations of words such as in the inflections of verbs to show tense.)

I emphasize this opposition between inflected continuity and articulated divisions because the key move that sent structural linguistics into high gear a hundred years ago was to ignore continuity in favor of articulated segments. The latter have appeared more tractable to logical investigation and more distinctive. The same strategy holds considerable sway in music studies. It is in our interest to be aware that it is problematic. Ignoring continuity is more problematic for music than for language, an important difference that I must flesh out.

A sound stream may be regarded as continuous “by definition” if we acknowledge silences as pauses or rests as part of the stream. Insofar as the sound stream is correlated with a stream of attention, this makes perfect sense. What interests us is not the physics of continuity but both the experience of the sound and our conceptualization of it — the two not necessarily fully coinciding. In both language and music we attend to a chain of articulations, notes, phrases, words, and syllables, but there is something more. We are also caught up in the continuous inflections of the speaking voice, if it is personal or expressive, and the continuous stream of the voice may appear as independent of its words as a river is of the boats it carries. The pianist hopes to get this effect, too, and the cellist is supremely confident that she will.

Modern linguistics, as a science, seems generally to ignore the aspects of language which cannot be studied as systematic articulations. To say this is almost to say that linguistics ignore what we call the musical side of speech — the feeling tones and gestural character of speech. In part, the bias is the bias of writing, the prejudice of regarding what can be written as more essential to the medium than what cannot be. The scope of unwritable effects of speech, in maintaining authority, in asserting need, in communicating personal emotion, is in truth enormous. If these effects seem “not of the essence” in language, it may be also because compelling methods to study them are not in view. But there is another, better reason for the bias, the recognition of what language and only language can do. That special function has to do with particular types of reference (which, however, are not easy to specify). Those referential functions which can be fulfilled by writing and which are thus fulfilled by systematic articulations have a great claim to priority. Nevertheless, to regard this special capacity as the essence of langugae, as Saussure did, is logically indefensible, hides the density, prevalence, and human importance of other, expressively referential functions of language, and also needlessly handicaps the comparision of language and music.

… In its elementary references, language is most characteristically a system of articulated sounds correlated with articulated objects (gestalts), while music, a deeply continuous medium, is correlated with the continuities of the kinesphere as felt in proprioception, not as seen. Musical reference, sustained by principles of tension, direction, energy, motion, and inertia, begins with indices, not symbols. The indexical elements are only a point of departure. Elaborated music and language form discourses that convey attitudes and broadly resonant models of experience. When they are considered in their complexity, some of the distance that separates music from language is traversed.

… “Discourse” is a word used variously in semiotic, cultural, and linguistic theory. I adopt the word in a special sense to indicate those elaborated signs that we can understand as representations of active thought, signs of thinking. I don’t merely mean signs that require lots of thinking to be invented, as a  truck or a wristwatch does. I mean signs that evoke for us an image of mentality in its vacillations and unpredictable but rarely random unfoldings. The most radical and most interesting turn in composition in the last half century made it clear that not all music, old or new, aims to do this, but my initial motivation to explore musical semiotics came out of a tradition that did, and my personal interest has always been to understand how music can appear to think out loud.

… Music is very different from languages in its devices and strategies of discourse — I can hardly think of any way to propose an orderly comparison in such a heterogeneous territory — but the capacity of each to represent thinking suggests a unity among them.

… In representing ourselves and our communities, music participates in ideology. Insofar as we start out from representations of felt somatic states, we can note that music has a solipsistic** bias, be it the solipsism of first person singular or plural. Music abounds in idealized images of sociality (necessarily idealized because solipsistic). The range is enormous — camaraderie in Dixieland, innocuous anarchy in Cage and Cowell, fraternal triumph in Beethoven, intimate friendship in Schumann, congregational devotion in Bach’s great passions, and so on. We have here a big difference from language, which objectifies ideology as a contest. We see others and objectify them, but in proprioception any “other” belongs to an undifferentiated environment, an exterior. This principle holds even in genres which promote differentiation of character. In a sonata we don’t  hear the tonic theme as first persona and the dominant theme as third person. Both invite a participatory identification. The “other” here is, at least initially, another side of the self. Music has power to mobilize a community in promoting its identity or arousing its will to action, a power that may surpass language in this respect (we feel mobilization in our muscles) but fewer resources to identify an other. I think this difference underlies the instability of ideological interpretations of music.

* Apologies to all poets. Lidov wrote it, not me.

** I know, I know, you don’t need a link; you know what solipsistic means. But somebody else might not.  <<< [laborious joke]



June 25, 2012

Beyond Our Tiny Night

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:25 am

Fly In December
by Robert Wallace

In an old, dark house —
where the thick light held us
bowled in glass —

looping from nowhere, furious he came
pirouetting, hurling
a black, drunken aim,

zanging, unzipping the halves of the air
all afternoon and evening,
singing black in eye and ear

at the dog, at me, at the light,
bitter, rude, a piece of night,

or, overhead, rode invisibly
in the terrier’s shouldered, worried glance
on some vague journey

through doors into the other rooms,
back, wrestling
whatever angel he held, or doom:

death, the sweetness gone, the loss of summer.
At midnight, he stopped
suddenly, letting the windows remember

the late snow falling to and fro
again, the furry
stars that burn in lovely agonies as they go

beyond our tiny night.
star — breath — flower! — knot

that won’t pull loose to dying,
does he see
at last what is always too late for deriding

perched somewhere, dumb,
watching in a hundred eyes or — blind? —
having let it come?

…………… In the old, dark house
we have settled down for the night,
somehow, the three of us.



What We Do

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:24 am

… Abstract they are only to those who seek their prototypes among forms of external knowledge. But the kingdom of González is within you, and his types are the internal aspirations of your body and mine.

This is from the collection Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg (2007; 1972). The following is from the essay ‘Gonzalez‘ first published in 1956:

… Watching them [the sculpture of González at MoMA] over these past years I sometimes wondered at the old saw which declares beauty to be only skin-deep — and which thinks itself profound, whereas it is in fact particularly shallow. For the proverb acknowledges only the beauty of closed, compact forms as they reveal themselves in patent surfaces. It hails from a baby-stage of thought which relates to things by dabbling and paddling, and which cannot conceive without grasping.

There exists another order of bodily beauty which has nothing to do with the surfaced physique; it is the beauty which our body borrows from the bend of a baroque staircase as it molds the path of our climb; in which a driver participates as he rounds a well-banked curve in the road. It is the beauty of a gesture which even a misshapen limb might describe, or which a skater unfolds in the duration of motion. It is the beauty of the diagonal you make striding into the wind; of the lean upright you draw when you stretch your full height; of all those lines of force which traverse the felt interiors of the body. And it is a beauty which flows more intimately from the sources of freedom and life, depending little on accidents of superficial structuration, and so much more on what we do.

This beauty is the theme of Julio González — one of the great sculptors of our time. His figures of sheet metal, iron rods, and strips are insistently human, and as representational as empathy makes them. Abstract they are only to those who seek their prototypes among forms of external knowledge. But the kingdom of González is within you, and his types are the internal aspirations of your body and mine.

Torso, 1936 [image from MoMA]

… In Degas, as in Rodin, the human form as a stable system seems doomed beyond hope of endurance.

What happened after that we know. Our body became not the hero but the victim of life. If it survived in our art, it was by submitting to an inhuman rigidity, a demonic possession, or as the accident of impersonal physical forces. We got the dissections of the Cubist sculptors, the primitivist fetishes of one school, and the glassy constructs of another. We admired the foetal biomorphs of Arp (to whom “Art that upholds the vanity of man is sickening”) and the pebbled, ocean-worn anatomies of Henry Moore. In the hushed forms of Brancusi we watched the unexperienced purity of Platonic ideas; and in the figures of Lachaise a ballooning buoyancy which never appertained to man. Deprived of its own pride, the human body borrowed virtues from all alien things — much as primitive man, conscious only of his physical inadequacy, must appropriate the swiftness, potency, or antlered radiance of his totem animals.

Those sculptors who continued to present the figure in traditional classic array paid for indulging their nostalgia by losing significance. Why this should be we don’t precisely know, but have seen it happen even to Maillol and Despiau — there is a drowsiness about their forms which fails to tax our sensibility where we are most awake.

… the kind of kinesis [González] imputes to man tends to be proud, free, energetic, eliciting no pity or recoil but admiration.

His irons sway with the déhanchement of a gothic madonna or lift themselves with an alerted swagger like Donatello’s St. George. His life-size Angel (1933), for all its delicate allusion to the praying mantis and the dragonfly, is but the active principle sucked from the stone-carved angel who mounts guard by the New Tower of Chartres. The lithe metallic undulations of his Woman Combing Her Hair scaffold and imply the flesh of Aphrodite.

Woman Combing Her Hair, 1936 [image from MoMA]

… It is this that is new in González — to have seen the human body in its strength, while employing a contemporary, subcutaneous vision. He has, as it were, earned the right to use that theme again, because he has discovered it from a new vantage point. Like all modern artists, he knew that the world as it shows itself to sight and touch is a comparatively narrow sector of experience, that there are areas of awareness open, for instance, to our kinesthetic nerves. Tuned to their signals, González‘ shapes seem determined by an inward apperception of dynamic functions, never by the look of forms externalized and thingified.

… In the lovely Woman with a Mirror, the leg-and-pelvic space is swept by a fertile shape which is both seedpod and thigh, but more than either — the trajectory of a caress.

Woman with a Mirror, 1936

… so often when the subject of the human form in contemporary art comes up, the alternatives are posed in terms of a return, or a refusal to return, to the figure. González shows a modern art that does not go back to the figure, but goes forward to encounter it at the next station.

… In view of his unsurpassed craftsmanship and his gift and ultimate genius as a sculptor, it is a strange fact that González did not recognize his vocation till well past his fiftieth year. His early life was misdirected into painting, and most of his sculptures before 1934 are of essentially biographic interest.

… In its stylistic indecision a bronze like the Spanish Mask of 1930 is painful to see. Roberta González, the sculptor’s daughter, has given us some hints of the self-doubt which racked her father during those long years. But in the works of the early thirties, the new technique is explored and begins to point at expressive purpose — though they retain a gawky, virginal naiveté (like the Woman with a Basket of 1931 and the Standing Figures of the following year).

There comes a breath of confidence — and crudity — with the stick-figured Prayer and the Dancer with Disheveled Hair; and the first sign of an intense personal vision breaking through in the Maternity of 1933, the Angel, and the series of small heads. The greatness of González rests finally on some dozen works produced during a four- or five-year spurt, works into which the man of sixty hammered his long-abeyant youth.

Head, 1935 [image from MoMA]

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



June 24, 2012

On the Cat’s Face

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:09 am

… The scientific enterprise, like living beings themselves, like common sense itself, requires a world in which discerning a sense-object, we can anticipate, without being wrong too often, certain features of what only declares itself in experience as discernible.

… the event is what it is because the object is what it is, and objects are what they are because events are what they are.

This is from Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts by Isabelle Stengers (2011). In the italicized quotes below, [CN] means that it’s taken from Whitehead’s The Concept of Nature:

… we may think that a butterfly does not really have the perceptual experience “of a world,” and that its flight responds to what we would call “detection,” not to the experience of the signs of the world that sense-objects represent for us. Yet when its flight is oriented in the direction in which what is detected increases in intensity, there most often occurs, fortunately for it, an encounter with what we call a flower, what we, for our part, identify as an active condition for the ingression of the odor, and what, for it, will be a concrete, delectable experience, the eventuality of which was presupposed by its life as a butterfly.

To cite the example of the butterfly as an experience involving detection rather than perception does not mean to designate it as an automaton, but to call it to witness to understand a “scientific object” that declares itself to be independent of the percipient event. The butterfly, whatever its own experience may be, testifies to the flower as a physical object. A specific flower, in the sense in which we recognize it as an object — say, there’s that rose again! — may well be illusory — another hologram! And what attracts the butterfly may be a lure set by an entomologist. Yet the butterfly, human disappointment, and the very notion of a lure celebrate the trust that, “by going to take a closer look,” we will most often discover what plays the role of an active condition in the ingression, both of what the butterfly detects and of what we perceive as odor and color.

The scientific enterprise, like living beings themselves, like common sense itself, requires a world in which discerning a sense-object, we can anticipate, without being wrong too often, certain features of what only declares itself in experience as discernible.

The concrete facts are the events themselves [ … ] to be an abstraction does not mean that an entity is nothing. It merely means that its existence is only one factor of a more concrete element of nature. So an electron is abstract because you cannot wipe out the whole structure of events and yet retain the electron in existence. In the same way the grin on the cat is abstract; and the molecule is really in the event in the same sense as the grin is really on the cat’s face. [CN]

The Cheshire Cat as portrayed in Tim Burton’s 2010 film Alice in Wonderland [image from Wikipedia

Sense-objects, as soon as they are defined as “what” we perceive, “that sound,” “that smell,” which we recognize “quite apart” from the passage of nature, are abstractions. Here, abstraction implies what are called the sense-organs, but it refers to the ultimate authority constituted by the mind, in its guise of the extraction of what is perceived, separated from the event we are aware of in perception. And abstraction is, of course, not arbitrary: it indicates a foothold that is generally reliable, and in this sense its respondent must be a “fact” of nature. To be sure, both the discernible and the discerned differ from animal species to animal species, but each time they constitute a wager with regard to what matters, with regard to that whose neglect entails the death penalty.

… The gravitational force proposed by Newton created a scandal because it “acted at a distance.” It might, perhaps, have sufficed to impose the abandonment of localization, of the idea that the primordial scientific characterization of the sun, and of the earth, as well, is to be where they are. The historical fact is that physicists have instead made do with a mathematical formulation that affirms, at the same time, that a massive body is defined by precise spatial coordinates, and that nevertheless other bodies, defined by their mass and their distance, intervene in the calculation of its motion, a double definition that does without the notions of adventure or activity. As far as “chemical forces” are concerned, they, in contrast, were deduced from the activity of a mixture of reagents as such. Yet their activity is attributed not to a scientific object, a particular molecule, but to a global mixture. Chemical forces say nothing about the molecule’s adventures; they qualify “relations” specific to two chemical reagents, but this qualification, since it is independent of the localization of the molecules, does not allow this localization to be questioned. Since Faraday, however, the electromagnetic field has exhibited properties irreducible to those of a force “between” two charged and localized bodies. And, as a second surprise, this field has, since the end of the nineteenth century, been associated with the presence of electrons in motion, capable of being localized and endowed with a charge. In this case, the problem is fully deployed at last. The mode of ingression of the scientific object “electron” questions localization as a primordial, “objective” property.

A scientific object such as a definite electron is a systematic correlation of the characters of all events throughout all nature [ … ] The electron is not merely where its charge is. The charge is the quantitative character of certain events due to the ingression of the electron into nature [ … ] the electron is the systematic way in which all events are modified as the expression of its ingression [ … ] We may if we please term the mere charge of the electron. But then another name is required for the scientific object which is the full entity which concerns science, and which I have called the electron. [CN]

Unlike its charge, the electron does not let itself be localized, any more than the cat whose Carrollian grin I can see. Not only does mathematical physics thus testify against the ideal of simple localization associated with the theme of the bifurcation of nature, but it confirms what ingression obliges us to think: the event is what it is because the object is what it is, and objects are what they are because events are what they are.

… Even if mathematical physics one day came to confirm what ingression affirms, if some day a theory should be formulated that really does articulate particles and fields, that is, redefines these two physico-mathematical notions on the basis of the problem of their articulation, this would be a matter of science, not of the generality Whitehead called “ingression” For this new theory, whatever may be its interest, would deal exclusively with situations where the ideal of the exactness of mathematical physics is relevant, in particular the ideal definitions of point and instant. Such a theory would still be an abstraction: there is no such thing as nature at an instant, all events have a duration, and all durations have a thickness.

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



June 23, 2012

A Constant Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:07 am

… all that is really needed is response to the carvings themselves, which have a constant life of their own, independent of whenever and however they came to be made, and remain as full of sculptural meaning today to those open and sensitive enough to receive it as on the day they were finished.

This is from Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations edited by Alan Wilkinson (2002). The first segment below was originally published in The Listener in April of 1941:

… I do not much like the application of the word ‘primitive’ to art, since, through its associations, it suggests to many people an idea of crudeness and incompetence, ignorant gropings rather than finished achievements. Primitive art means far more than that; it makes a straightforward statement, its primary concern is with the elemental, and its simplicity comes from direct and strong feeling, which is a very different thing from that fashionable simplicity-for-its-own-sake which is emptiness. Like beauty, true simplicity is an unselfconscious virtue; it comes by the way and can never be an end in itself.

The most striking quality common to all primitive art is its intense vitality. It is something made by people with a direct and immediate response to life. Sculpture and painting for them was not an activity of calculation or academism, but a channel for expressing powerful beliefs, hopes, and fears. It is art before it got smothered in trimmings and surface decorations, before inspiration had flagged into technical tricks and intellectual conceits. But apart from its own enduring value, a knowledge of it conditions a fuller and truer appreciation of the later developments of the so-called great periods, and shows art to be a universal continuous activity, with no separation between past and present.

All art has its roots in the ‘primitive,’ or else it becomes decadent, which explains why the ‘great’ periods, Pericles’ Greece and the Renaissance for example, flower and follow quickly on primitive periods, and then slowly fade out. The fundamental sculptural principles of the Archaic Greeks were near enough to Phidias‘ day to carry through into his carvings a true quality, although his conscious aim was so naturalistic; and the tradition of early Italian art was sufficiently in the blood of Masaccio for him to strive for realism and yet retain a primitive grandeur and simplicity.

‘The Venus of Brassempouy’ (French: la Dame de Brassempouy, meaning “Lady of Brassempouy”, or Dame à la Capuche, “Lady with the Hood”). It’s about 25,000 years old. Discovered in France and preserved in the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale near Paris. [image from Wikipedia; this is an example of my choice; it is not one of the items Moore was looking at]

… At the end of the upstairs Egyptian galleries [in the British Museum] were the Sumerian sculptures, some with a contained bull-like grandeur and held-in energy, very different from the liveliness of much of the early Greek and Etruscan art in the terracotta and vase rooms. In the prehistoric and Stone Age room an iron staircase led to gallery wall-cases where there were originals and casts of Paleolithic sculptures made 20,000 years ago — a lovely tender carving of a girl’s head, no bigger than one’s thumbnail, and beside it female figures of very human but not copyist realism with a full richness of form, in great contrast with the more symbolic two-dimensional and inventive designs of Neolithic art.

And eventually to the Ethnographical room, which contained an inexhaustible wealth and variety of sculptural achievement (Negro, Oceanic Islands, and North and South America(, but overcrowded and jumbled together like junk in a marine store, so that after hundreds of visits I would still find carvings not discovered there before.

… all that is really needed is response to the carvings themselves, which have a constant life of their own, independent of whenever and however they came to be made, and remain as full of sculptural meaning today to those open and sensitive enough to receive it as on the day they were finished.

The following is from an interview with Moore by William Fagg that took place in 1951:

How can we counteract the impact of European aesthetic concepts on the tribal artists? How would you set out to convince a school of tribal artists of the value of their traditional style, as compared with the European concepts of photographic realism which threaten it?Is there any hope for the preservation of these primitive values?

I do not believe that it is any use to try to keep primitive art going or to shield the African artist from outside influences. All that we can do is to see that all the good tribal sculpture is preserved from destruction so that it can be put on show … to teach young artists what real vitality is. Nowadays artists have a greater opportunity than ever before of studying all the great traditions in the history of art, and working their way through them until they find their own style; at first, they may imitate Picasso, or primitive art, or the painters of the Renaissance, but eventually, if they have it in them, they will find their own way. So with the young African artists. What they have to learn from tribal art is not how to copy the traditional forms, but the confidence that comes from knowing that somewhere inside them there should be the vitality which enabled their fathers to produce these extraordinary and exciting forms.



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