Unreal Nature

July 31, 2012

Worth a Sacrifice

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:58 am

… How can you name that place between intention and “sensible” form? How can you name that spot where you would like your illuminating presence to be seen, when your appearance attracts nothing but a transparent stare?

This is from the Introduction to The Sonic Self: Musical Subjectivity and Signification by Naomi Cumming (2000):

In his book, Musical Elaborations, Edward Said (1991) argues that musical performances are extreme occasions, where virtuosic soloists intimidate a submissive crowd into a state of angst at knowing their performative inferiority. In many phases of my life, playing the violin has been an extreme occasion — but not of this kind. At first it was not so much the act of playing that impressed itself upon my memory. Of more formative importance was the extreme effort taken to make lessons possible. Playing music was worth a sacrifice. It was a central value in life. Neither impediments of health nor of geography were allowed to get in its way.

… I was a severely asthmatic child. In midwinter I was carried from the house [in South London] covered in a blanket, like a canary, to emerge blinking in the violin teacher’s room, having tried hard to obey instructions not to breathe while being transported through the cold night air.

A few years later, as an immigrant in a small logging town in the hills of southern Victoria (Australia), I was driven to violin lessons fifty miles away, across the “black spur” — the southernmost tip of the Great Dividing Range that runs down the eastern coast of Australia. It was a treacherous, winding road, through forested country, with strange-looking tree ferns on either side. I arrived carsick and disoriented, to play out of tune.

A year after immigration, I was sent to boarding school in a provincial city (Geelong). There I found no other child had ever seen a violin. Playing was an oddity and a source of social alienation, like my British accent.

In the following, Cumming is talking about two of the teachers that she had as a young adult: Claude Dunand “a French-Egyptian graduate of the Paris Conservatory and Juilliard,” and Démon Sebistik, “a well-respected European violinist and pedagogue”:

… For Dunand, the performer’s emotional life had first to be developed and then to be expressed “through” the violin. Invasive conversations and an incitement to introspection were the result. For the other teacher, whose ideas were more sophisticated even if  vague, a student’s subjective states could be manipulated directly by altering his or her technical means of producing expressive sound. He rarely entered into direct discussion of the emotions he heard embodied in a work, but instead focused on features of its execution, to create an expressive result.

Most striking in each case was that the teachers extended their role beyond the transmission of technical skills, or even of formal and stylistic understanding, to include a challenge to emotional life, and rationality, in the name of musical interpretation. Each believed that for a performer to communicate music’s expressive content he or she would require a specific kind of emotional understanding, particularly when playing works in a Romantic style. To be trained as a violinist was then not simply to learn the violin, but to be “formed” as an interpreting musician, in a disciplined process that demanded confrontation with personal expressive lack. Dunand’s way of confronting this lack was simply naïve. Sebistik’s approach was more calculated. As they could not fully articulate the relationship of bodily states, emotional experience, and qualities of sound, all these teachers could do was to push students to a point of crisis, making them confront the gap between any “interior” state they might feel in contemplating a work, and the expressive content heard by others in their performances. Neither introverted self-analysis nor a momentous effort to produce the sound in the “right” way could be successful in bridging the gap, though both activities would be engaged in at length by students in the solitary practice rooms. Somehow a connection was supposed to “happen” in a moment of spontaneous combustion, where interiority made its way into sound.

When visiting London in 1991 I stopped at a subway station and heard for the first time a repeated and weighty injunction from a stern male voice, coming from on high, “Mind the Gap! Mind the Gap!” He could have been a prophet of fundamental ontology. How can you name that place between intention and “sensible” form? How can you name that spot where you would like your illuminating presence to be seen, when your appearance attracts nothing but a transparent stare? How can you name the terror of a dream when you think you sing, but no sound will come from your violin? How do you “mind the gap” you cannot find?




July 30, 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:27 am

Night Thought
by Gerald Jonas

Trying to fall asleep
is like trying the catch
yourself unawares, or trying
not to think of something,
or trying to fall
in love or out of love.
Some things will not yield.
Trying not to think of something
is like trying to fall
asleep, or trying to catch
yourself unawares, or trying
to fall in or out of love
with someone who will not yield.
Yielding is like not thinking
of something or someone,
and without yielding
there is no catching yourself
unawares, and no falling
in love or out of love,
and trying to yield
is like trying to fall
asleep, or trying not to.

by Louise Bogan

Where have these hands been,
By what delayed,
That so long stayed
Away from the thin

Strings which they now grace
With their lonely skill?
Music and their cool will
At last interlace.

Now, with great ease, and slow,
The thumb, the finger, the strong
Delicate hand plucks the long
String it was born to know.

And under the palm, the string
Sings as it wished to sing.

I have mixed feelings about the Bogan poem. I like what she’s after, but, for me, the thing doesn’t really quite get airborne.



The Left Wrinkles

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:26 am

… this utterance of the philosophers [of science] contains an unwarranted assumption, to wit, that whereas man’s capacity for intellectual abstraction is ever widening, his visual imagination is fixed and circumscribed. Here the philosophers are reckoning without the host, since our visualizing powers are determined for us not by them but by the men who paint.

… the art of the last half-century may well be schooling our eyes to live at ease with the new concepts forced upon our credulity by scientific reasoning.

This is from the collection Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg (2007; 1972). The following is from the essay ‘The Eye is a Part of the Mind’ first published in 1967:

… There are ten ways, say the Chinese academicians, of depicting a mountain: by drawing wrinkles like the slashes of a large axe, or wrinkles like the hair of a cow’s hide; by brush-strokes wrinkled like a heap of firewood, or like the veins of lotus leaves. The rest are to be wrinkled like the folds of a belt, or the twists of a rope; or like raindrops, or like convoluted clouds, etc.

With rigorous training the Ming painters could, and did, acquire a dazzling proficiency in drawing the right wrinkles so as to evoke some long-assimilated and familiar facts about natural panoramas. They had mastered the skill of applying certain academic tricks for the drawing of mountains — but this is most emphatically not the same as skill in drawing actual mountains. The mechanical, the uncreative element lies not therefore in imitating nature, but in academicism, which is the passionless employment of preformed devices. Representation in art is the fashioning of graphic symbols to act as analogues for certain areas of visual experience. There is every difference between this fashioning of symbols, this transmutation and reduction of experience to symbolic pattern, and the use of symbols ready-made. In works that seem to duplicate a visible aspect of nature we must therefore distinguish between the recitation of a known fact and the discovery thereof, between the dexterous use of tools and their invention.

… The so-called naturalism of certain nineteenth-century academicians was worthless because it was impelled by precept and by meritorious example, instead of by pure visual apprehension. These men never imitated nature; they copied earlier imitations and applied  those formal principles which, they believed, had made their models so effective. That they sometimes painted from life is, of course, beside the point; for they still saw life in the aspect which their vision was conditioned to expect. Thus the malady of Victorian art (and of some lingering official art today, notably in Soviet Russia) is not naturalism, nor literal representation, but the presumption to create living art out of impulses long dead and mummified; which ailment is not confined to realistic art. For academicism will blight non-objective figurations and abstractions as readily as illustrative, anecdotal pictures.

… In realistic art, then, it is the ever-novel influx of visual experience which incites the artist’s synthesizing will, summons his energies, and so contributes to the generations of esthetic form. And this perhaps explains why periods of expanding iconography, of deepening observation and growing imitative skill so often coincide with supreme esthetic achievement. When the limits of the depictable in nature suddenly recede before the searching gaze, when earlier works come to seem inadequately representative of truth, then the artist’s power multiplies.

… It remains to speak of so-called non-objective art. Here surely all connection with the outer world is cut. The forms that here emerge mean nothing, we are told, but private states of feeling; and, for the rest, they are pure form, a music for the optic nerve. The following passage from Ortega y Gasset (“On Point of View in the Arts,” Partisan Review, August 1949) may serve as an example of the common view: “Painting,” Ortega writes, “completely reversed its function and, instead of putting us within what is outside, endeavored to pour out upon the canvas what is within: ideal invented objects. … The [artist’s] eyes, instead of absorbing things, are converted into projectors of private flora and fauna. Before, the real world drained off into them; now they are reservoirs of irreality.”

This seems to me an open question still. For we are forced to ask: by what faculty of mind or eye does the artist discover and distill the forms of his private irreality?

… Wittingly, or through unconscious exposure, the non-objective artist may draw permission for his imagery from the visual data of the scientist — from magnifications of infinitesimal textures, from telescopic vistas, submarine scenery, X-ray photography. Not that he renders a particular bacterial culture or cloud chamber event. The shapes of his choice are recruited in good faith for their suggestiveness as shapes, and for their obscure correspondence to his inner state. But it is significant how often the morphology he finds analogous to his own sentient being is that which has revealed itself to scientific vision. It is apparently in these gestating images, shapes antecedent to the visible, that many abstract painters recognize a more intimate manifestation of natural truth.

… Even such divergent thinkers as A.N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell join hands when they declare that the abstractions of contemporary science have irrevocably passed beyond man’s visual imagination. “Our understanding of nature has now reached a stage,” says J.W.N. Sullivan, “when we cannot picture what we are talking about.”

But this utterance of the philosophers contains an unwarranted assumption, to wit, that whereas man’s capacity for intellectual abstraction is ever widening, his visual imagination is fixed and circumscribed. Here the philosophers are reckoning without the host, since our visualizing powers are determined for us not by them but by the men who paint. And this our visual imagination, thanks to those in whom it is creative, is also in perpetual growth, as unpredictable as the extension of thought.

Thus the art of the last half-century may well be schooling our eyes to live at ease with the new concepts forced upon our credulity by scientific reasoning. What we may be witnessing is the gradual condensation of abstract ideas into images that fall within the range of sensory imagination. Modern painting inures us to the aspect of a world housing not discrete forms but trajectories and vectors, lines of tension and strain. Form in the sense of solid substance melts away and resolves itself into dynamic process. Instead of bodies powered by muscle, or by gravity, we get energy propagating itself in the void. If, to the scientist, solidity and simple location are illusions born of the grossness of our senses, they are so also to the modern painter. His canvases are fields of force; his shapes the transient aggregates of energies that seem impatient to be on their way.

… So much then for the dissolution of the solid in contemporary art; the substantial object has been activated into a continuing event. As for space, it is  no longer a passive receptacle, wherein solid forms may disport themselves, as once they did in Renaissance or nineteenth-century art. In modern paintings — barring those which are nostalgic throwbacks to the past — space is an organic growth interacting with matter. There is a painting by Matta Echaurren, entitled Grave Situation, in which long tensile forms stretch through a space generated by their motion — a space which at the same time inflects the curvature of their path.

Roberto Matta Echaurren, Grave Situation, 1946

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



July 29, 2012

Insofar As

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:47 am

…  if we admit that “something becomes,” it is easy, by employing Zeno’s method, to prove that there can be no continuity of becoming. There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming.

… Your acquaintance with reality literally grows by buds or drops of perception. Intellectually and on reflection, you can divide these into components, but as immediately given, they come totally or not at all.

This is from Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts by Isabelle Stengers (2011). The adjective “atomic” as used in the following means “of or forming a single irreducible unit or component in a larger system” [from the OED]. In the italicized quotes below, [SMW] means that it’s taken from Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World:

… What explains did not have the power to explain “in principle”: it obtained this power in fact. Yet this fact is relative to the endurance of the pattern, to the mode of taking into account, insofar as it has succeeded in enduring.

In other words, we should not celebrate the sun as a source of life, but the endurance of a mode of pattern that makes the properties of solar light exist for the plant, these properties that henceforth infect us as well, since the mode of pattern proper to our experiential apparatus has produced its stable signification, which can be articulated in terms of a function. As a dynamics of successful infection required by the order or nature, the endurance of modes of pattern that refer to one another does not allow us to describe the way an event is prehension “for itself,” even as it participates in a world from which it is inseparable.

… the atomic character or duration must be affirmed, against the idea of a temporal flux indefinitely divisible down to the fiction of an instant without thickness.

… The concept of realization must designate what occurs for and by itself. Actuality is therefore not situated “in time”: it situates itself, that is, it produces its situation. In short, it is “epoch-making,” in the sense in which we use this expression when we designate an event qua creator of the possibilities of questioning and describing it.

In realization the potentiality becomes actuality. But the potential pattern requires a duration [sc. to become actuality]; and the duration must be exhibited as an epochal whole, by the realization of the pattern [ … ] Temporalization is realization. Temporalization is not another continuous process. It is an atomic succession. Thus time is atomic (i.e., epochal), though what is temporalized is divisible. [SMW]

At this stage, the reader might be tempted to try to imagine this “atomic time,” and perhaps more successfully than I have been able to. In any case, this is no intuition of time — quite the contrary. The impossiblity of appealing to intuition with regard to an atomic time goes without saying, since we run into the “specious,” constructed character of the intuition of continuity, as analyzed by William James. Whitehead’s thesis does not have the vocation of leading us to an authentic relationship to lived time, but here as always, of resisting the power of abstraction.

… One could always describe any duration as including shorter durations, or any realization as including a series of distinct realizations, or again, any adoption of a position as including a series of successive positions. And one would finally arrive at a continuous series that prohibits what is being realized from being said to be “epoch making,” producing a present that “adopts a position,” irreversibly, with regard to the future. No adoption of a position would finish happening, unfolding in expectations and sub-expectations, and the sole actuality would then be the continuity, indefinitely divisible, of change that the function in fact describes. Whitehead repeats this in Process and Reality:

The extensive continuity of the physical universe has usually been construed to mean that there is a continuity of becoming. But if we admit that “something becomes,” it is easy, by employing Zeno’s method, to prove that there can be no continuity of becoming. There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming. The actual occasions are the creatures which become, and they constitute a continuously extensive world. In other words, extensiveness becomes, but “becoming” is not itself extensive. Thus the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism. [PR]

The two registers on which the event had to be expressed — individual and community, unification “for itself” and “for each of the others” — are thus relegated to two disjunct questions: that of what becomes, and that of the continuity that is brought into existence (constituted) by becomings that are themselves “atomic.”

… The limits of the notion of organism are in fact similar to those of the notion of function: both define a being not “for itself,” but insofar as it endures. What varies from science to science is the “insofar as.” A biological function cannot be assimilated to a physico-mathematical function. It is not defined in terms of variables, but rather in terms of varieties that result from sorting operations, thresholds, and discriminations, in short, judgments. Thus, the definition of a sense organ constitutes a judgment with regard to what the organ defines as “sensible.” This, moreover, is what constitutes its “value,” the risky success that makes it an organ.

… Endurance is the key term for the philosophy of the organism. It allowed Whitehead to hope for a coherent conception of the order of nature, enabling in particular the designation of the “misplaced concreteness” that “materialism” has conferred upon physical abstraction. Yet Pandora’s box has now been opened, for with the atomicity of time it is henceforth the specious present that becomes the prototype of “what is realizing itself.” In Process and Reality, moreover, it is right in the midst of the discussion of Zeno’s paradox that William James makes his appearance.

The authority of William James can be quoted in support of this conclusion [the epochal theory of time]. He writes: “Either your experience is of no content, of no change, or else it is of a perceptible amount of content or change. Your acquaintance with reality literally grows by buds or drops of perception. Intellectually and on reflection, you can divide these into components, but as immediately given, they come totally or not at all.” [PR]

Has Whitehead killed determinism? Tune in next week …

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





July 28, 2012

Anxious / with an internal myriad / movement

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:54 am

This Henry Moore quote is taken from Five British Sculptors: Work and Talk by Warren Forma (1964):

… One of the things I would like to think my sculpture has is a force, is a strength, is a life, a vitality from inside it, so that you have a sense that the form is pressing from inside trying to burst or trying to give off the strength from inside itself, rather than having something which is just shaped from outside and stopped. It’s as though you have something trying to make itself come to a shape from inside itself.

[This post’s title is taken from today’s other post.]

My most recent previous Moore quote is here.




From Inside Itself

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:53 am

The Brick
by Paul Roche

By itself and from a distance
…… its redness is cinnabar and hard,
…… contusing the air.
It thrusts away space with a small,
brute displacement,
…… and yet it is there — contained.
It lines its lines with and against
and in
…… the great box of the sky
…… through all the unperceived laminations
…… of reality.

Put it nearer
…… and it impinges on the air
…… with angular assertion.
It invades all contours,
…… breaks down the continuum,
…… thrusts itself into the molds
of height and weight and latitude.
Its shadow is its own:
…… a procrustean block
…… wedged out of tetragon blackness.

Nine inches from the eye,
…… it contradicts itself,
…… changes its gender,
…… burgeons with tiny inconsistencies
of texture:
…… the smoothness is not smooth,
…… the redness is more than red,
…… the hardness is vulnerable.
It is feminine in the loss of its
muscular and total squareness.

Here the gravity of its presence
…… is passive,
…… waits for the support
…… of the ground on which it lies.
Here it is inert,
…… virginal and fecund,
…… anxious
…… with an internal myriad
movement —
…… the prey of forces.
And millions of atoms
…… are its children.

This next is from Butterfly, by Jean-Pierre Vesco (text) and Paul Starosta (photographs), (2000):

… Suddenly, it abandons its former indolent existence of eating and sleeping and pours its energies into a new set of tasks that have to be carried out in a very precise order. The larva knows that it has to move fast because it only has a few hours in which to complete Nature’s schedule. If it fails to meet the deadline, there is no second chance. If it misses out a stage, it cannot complete the next one and faces certain death.

Its first task is to find a quiet, sheltered, and above all discreet place to undergo this transformation. Larvae are not accustomed to getting changed in public. Some species choose to bury themselves, others wrap themselves in a silk cocoon. Ours, like nearly all butterflies, stays in the open. As soon as it finds a suitable place, it becomes motionless and starts to weave a silken cloth, not on the leaf this time, but underneath it. It makes the fibers thicker in the center so as to create a little cushion. Then it turns over, clings on with its last pair of hindlegs, and hangs upside down.

papilio macheron, “swallowtail”: the caption to this photograph reads “When the time comes to pupate, papilio larvae have a choice of color depending on their surroundings: green if surrounded by leaves, brown or gray on a tree trunk.”

After two days in this awkward position, the larva sheds its skin once again, but the creature that emerges bears no resemblance to its former self. Without head and legs, it is no longer a larva and, although still the same being, has taken on a different form with a different name: the larva has turned into a pupa. Before our astonished eyes, the future gradually emerges from the past, as the young pupa sloughs off its old, and now useless, skin. Actually, the skin is not entirely useless just yet because it allows the pupa to remain suspended in mid-air. But this blind, infirm creature, with no visible means of holding on to anything, must now find its own way of attaching to the leaf. It must extricate the tip of its body that is covered with tiny, curved spines, called the cremaster, and plant it in the silken cushion that it wove as a larvae. This is a very dangerous maneuver because for a few seconds the pupa is attached to the old skin only by a tiny part of the abdomen. Yet with its life literally hanging by a thread, it never, or hardly ever, slips up. As soon as the cremaster is free of the old skin, the pupa plants it in the silk with surprising agility, wriggles around to drive it in further and lies back motionless with exhaustion. This marks the beginning of a period of austerity that will last for weeks or months. The pupa can neither move nor eat and barely breathes. Yet within that apparently lifeless shell the most extraordinary process of transformation is at work, as the little larva that was born, grew, shed its skin and pupated, now changes for the last time.

papilio dardanus: the caption to this picture reads: “Spot the pupae; there are two of them. They resemble the leaves down to the tiniest detail, being flat in shape and darker on the upper side than the underside.” [hint: look for silken “guy wires”]

… Before this final birth, there are certain warning signs. One or two days before the imago emerges, the pupa gradually changes color. On the sides, the designs and colors of the wings grow visible through the now transparent casing. A few more hours and everything will be in place for the final scene. The long-awaited event is about to happen. Once again, the skin of the pupa bursts near the head revealing the first glimpses of the imago: the nape of the neck, the back, and the base of the wings. Moving very carefully, it extracts its legs, antennae, and proboscis. So far, it is only half way out and still upside down. Then it pulls itself up quite abruptly, clings onto the cocoon, and extracts itself completely.

Its wings seem so small and its body so fat that it is hard to believe this butterfly will ever fly. Patience. A miracle is about to take place before your very eyes. The wings start to grow. They are a bit crumpled, admittedly, but there is no doubt that they are growing, and quickly too. In just a few minutes, they have reached full size, but remain as floppy and soft as gossamer. To be on the safe side, the imago examines its wings before taking flight. It furls and unfurls them, tests their strength, make sure they can support its bodyweight. Now the wings are almost ready, and the butterfly spreads them in the sunlight. They are brand new and in perfect condition.

papilio neophilus [close-up detail]

And yet, moments from birth, this newborn butterfly is already old. However beautiful and young it may seem, its birth has driven it closer to death. From this point forward, trapped in its adult shell, it can grow no more. In hatching, butterflies and moths fulfill their destiny and embark on a fleeting but vital future whose purpose is common to all living beings: the perpetuation of the species.



July 27, 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:11 am

… What if one were to try to give that impossible, out-of-this-world vantage point a local habitation and a name inside this world? What, in other words, if one were to open up a space in the world in which there was no air, and therefore no world?

This is from The Matter of Air: Science and Art of the Ethereal by Steven Connor (2010):

… In seeking to understand our physical composition and that of our world, we have turned to air. We know our bodies, minds and social forms through its light mirror. Human beings have always believed themselves to be in part airy, and have often wanted to believe that their essential part — their spirits, as they have liked to call them — are aeriform. And yet, in their clinging humility, human beings have viewed the idea of a literal translation into an airy condition with suspicion. For airiness also signifies delusion, insignificance, even madness. When Marx and Engels declared that, under capitalism, ‘all that is solid melts into air,’ they were being prescient, but not approving. Others, more recently, have been inclined to accept this dissolution not as a degradation, but as a fundamental evolution in the system of human relations, though one that would require us to think anew about what we meant by foundations and fundamentals. Michel Serres notes that:

[t]he system’s ‘matter’ has changed ‘phase’, at least since Bergson. It’s more liquid than solid, more airlike than liquid, more informational than material. The global is fleeing towards the fragile, the weightless, the living, the breathing.

[ … ]

… How does one study a substance that is everywhere? Normally, an object of study is something that is, following the etymology of the word, ‘thrown before,’ or set out in front of the investigator. To study an object, one must pick it out from its surroundings, and concentrate it in one place. How was one to make the air such an object? How was the air to be picked out of its surroundings, when air was ambiance itself? How was the air to be brought before one, when it was of necessity and at all times all about? An object, a body, as it might more commonly have been called in the seventeenth century, must exist in a space of observation. How can the substance that seems to have the function of filling space, and so seems to approximate to space itself, itself be set out in space? This would mean trying to isolate it from itself. Since the air was everywhere in the world it was coextensive with it, and trying to see round the air was like trying to see round the world. Until one could travel out of the world, and therefore out of the air (and people began to wonder more and more concretely about this possibility during the 1600s), it seemed that such a vantage point would never be attainable.

But there was another way. What if, rather than trying to roll the air up into a ball that one could look at from the outside, one were to produce a space of observation — an air-lock — within the very space of the air? What if one were to try to give that impossible, out-of-this-world vantage point a local habitation and a name inside this world? What, in other words, if one were to open up a space in the world in which there was no air, and therefore no world?



July 26, 2012

Whenever It Gets the Chance

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:14 am

… ‘the world can be expected to produce order whenever it gets the chance.’

This is from the end of Branches which is the third of the three book series, of Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts by Philip Ball (2009):

… Most of the patterns [in Nature] that I have described appear suddenly. One moment there is nothing; then you turn the dial of the driving force up a notch, and everything is abruptly different. Stripes appear; or dunes, or pulsations. This seems to be the nature of most symmetry-breaking processes: they happen all at once. In that respect, they resemble phase transitions in equilibrium thermodynamics.

… there is a threshold that, once crossed, leaves the entire system prone to a change in state. Just the same is true for many pattern-forming processes. Convective patterns … appear above a threshold heating rate, and vortices in fluid flow above a threshold flow rate. The path of a crack goes crazy above a particular crack speed.

In addition, the change in state during an equilibrium phase transition may involve a breaking of symmetry. Crystalline ice has an ordered molecular structure (in fact it has many ordered structures), while liquid water is disorderly at the molecular scale. Again, you could be forgiven for thinking that symmetry is therefore broken during melting, but in fact it is the other way around: symmetry is broken during freezing, because whereas the liquid state is isotropic (all directions in space are equivalent) the crystal structure of ice identifies certain directions as ‘special.’

Thus equilibrium phase transitions, like the abrupt transitions that characterize much of pattern formation, are spontaneous, global, and often symmetry-breaking changes of state that happen when a threshold is crossed.

Some of these transitions involve straightforward rearrangement of one state into another. But there are classes of both equilibrium and non-equilibrium transitions that offer a choice of two alternatives for the new state, which are equivalent but not identical.. Think of the formation of convection roll cells. Adjacent rolls turn over in opposite directions, but any particular roll could rotate either one way of the other as long as all the others switch direction too. Above the convection threshold, there is a choice of two mirror-image states. Which is selected? Clearly, there is nothing to favour one over the other, and the issue is decided by pure chance. The same is true of the rotation of plughole whirlpools, unless some small outside influence tips the balance.

… The situation is like a ball perched on top of a perfectly symmetrical hill: it is unstable at the top and has to roll down one side or the other, but which way it goes is unpredictable and at the mercy of imperceptible disturbances.

[ … ]

… One of the attractive justifications of the theory of maximal entropy production is that it offers a rationalization of why ordered patterns may appear far from equilibrium. This, it is worth reminding ourselves once more, is a highly counter-intuitive phenomenon: we might expect systems driven out of equilibrium to dissolve into chaos. What is more, it appears to (although in fact does not) challenge the second law of thermodynamics, which insists that entropy and thus disorder must increase. And indeed, if we are now insisting that not only does entropy increase but it tends to do so at the maximum rate, why should there be a prescription for order rather than its opposite? The answer, according to Jaynes’s theory of entropy maximization, is that ordered states are more effective than disordered ones at producing entropy. To put it another way: suppose a system has accumulated a lot of energy and ‘needs’ to discharge it.

[line break added by me to make this easier to read online] A rather literal expression of that situation is the build-up of electrical charge in a thundercloud, which may be released by passing electrical current to the ground. One way this could happen is for the charge to hop out onto droplets of moisture or dust in the air, and for these to gradually diffuse down to the ground. That is a slow process. What often happens instead, of course, is that the charge grounds itself all at once in a lightning bolt, creating one of the branching patterns we encountered in this book. Lightning, the dielectric breakdown of air, provides a ‘structured channel’ for the release of the electrical energy at the maximal rate of entropy production. As the physicist Roderick Dewar puts it, ‘far from equilibrium, the coexistence of ordered and dissipative regions produces and exports more entropy to the environment than a purely dissipate soup.’ And so, according to Rod Swenson of the University of Connecticut ‘the world can be expected to produce order whenever it gets the chance.’

[image from Wikipedia]

Morowitz and Smith argue that the early Earth was a storehouse of energy ‘needing’ to be dissipated. In particular, there may have been plentiful hydrogen and carbon dioxide: two molecules that release energy when they react, but which do so only very slowly on their own. Primitive living organisms would have supplied a way for this to happen, ‘fixing’ carbon dioxide into organic matter through reactions that use electrons extracted from hydrogen. Similarly, some geological environments generate molecules rich in electrons and others hungry for them; but only living cells would let this transfer proceed at an appreciable rate. In other words, life may have appeared on the early Earth as a kind of lightning conductor, using order to speed up entropy production. In that picture, say Morowitz and Smith, ‘a state of the geosphere which includes life [was] more likely than a purely abiotic state.’



Suddenly There

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:14 am

This is from The Affect Theory Reader edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (2010). Today’s essay is ‘Worlding Refrains’ by Kathleen Stewart:

… Everything depends on the feel of an atmosphere and the angle of arrival. Anything can feel like something you’re in, fully or partially, comfortably or aspirationally, for good or not for long. A condition, a pacing, a scene of absorption, a dream, a being abandoned by the world, a serial immersion in some little world you never knew was there until you got cancer, a dog, a child, a hankering … and then the next thing — another little world is suddenly there and possible. Everything depends on the dense entanglements of affect, attention, the senses and matter.

All the world is a bloom space now. A promissory note. An allure and a threat that shows up in ordinary sensibilities of not knowing what compels, not being able to sit still, being exhausted, being left behind or being ahead of the curve, being in history, being in a predicament, being ready for something — anything — to happen, or orienting yourself to the sole goal of making sure that nothing (more) will  happen. A bloom space can whisper from a half-lived sensibility that nevertheless marks whether or not you’re in it. It demands collective attunement and a more adequate description of how things make sense, fall apart, become something else, and leave their marks, scoring refrains on bodies of all kinds — atmospheres, landscapes, expectations, institutions, states of acclimation or endurance or pleasure or being struck or moving on. Affect matters in a world that is always promising and threatening to amount to something. Fractally complex, there is not telling what will come of it or where it will take persons attuned.

“Bloom space” is the repeated refrain of this essay — and yet Stewart never mentions Leopold or Molly.

My most recent previous post from this collection is here.



July 25, 2012

The Absence of Absence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:29 am

“How can we live without the unknown before us?” … there is something that summons us; a difficulty that, holding us in its sight, nonetheless steals away in a nearly reassuring form. It has to be sought.

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

… By a simplification that is clearly abusive, one can recognize in the entire history of philosophy an effort either to acclimatize or to domesticate the neuter by substituting for it the law of the impersonal and the reign of the universal, or an effort to challenge it by affirming the ethical primacy of the Self-Subject, the mystical aspiration to the singular Unique. The neutral is thus constantly expelled from our languages and our truths.

“How can we live without the unknown before us?” In the evidency of this question-affirmation there is something that summons us; a difficulty that, holding us in its sight, nonetheless steals away in a nearly reassuring form. It has to be sought. The unknown is neutral, a neuter. The unknown is neither object nor subject. This means that to think the unknown is in no way to propose it as “the not yet known,” the object orf a knowledge still to come, any more than it would be to go beyond it as “the absolutely unknowable,” a subject of pure transcendence, refusing itself to all manner of knowledge and expression. [ … ] Research — poetry, thought — relates to the unknown as unknown. This relation disclosed the unknown, but by an uncovering that leaves it under cover; through this relation there is a “presence” of the unknown; in this “presence” the unknown is rendered present, but always as unknown. This relation must leave intact — untouched — what it conveys and not unveil what it discloses. This relation will not consist in an unveiling. The unknown will not be revealed, but indicated.

(In order to avoid any misunderstanding, we should make clear that if this relation with the unknown sets itself apart from objective knowledge, it does so no less from a knowledge that would arise out of intuition or a mystical fusion. The unknown as neutral supposes a relation that is foreign to every exigency of identity, of unity, even of presence.)

… In very precise terms, this means that the unknown in the neuter, does not belong to light, but rather to a region “foreign” to the disclosure that is accomplished in and through light. The unknown does not fail before a gaze, yet it is not hidden from it: neither visible nor invisible, or, more precisely, turning itself away from every visible and every invisible.

These propositions risk having no meaning unless they achieve their end, which is to put into question the postulate under whose sway all Western thought stands. Let me again recall this postulate: knowledge of the visible-invisible is knowledge itself; light and the absence of light are to furnish all the metaphors for the means by which thought goes out toward that which it proposes to think.

[ … ]

— Then it would be in speech — in the interval that is speech — that the unknown, without ceasing to be unknown, would indicate itself to us such as it is; separate, foreign?

— Yes, speech; but nonetheless only insofar as it responds to the space that is proper to it. ‘How can we live without the unknown before us?’ The unknown excludes all perspective; it does not remain within the circle of sight, it cannot belong to a whole. In this sense, it also excludes the dimension of a ‘going out ahead.’ The unknown of the future with which we can have a prospective relation is not the unknown that speaks to us as unknown; on the contrary, it cannot but hold in check and ruin every hope of a future.

— Then ought we say that to offer oneself to the experience of the unknown is to put oneself radically to the test of the negative or of a radical absence?

— No, we cannot say this. With the thought of the neutral the unknown escapes every negation as it does every position. Neither adding to nor withdrawing anything from what affirms it, it is neither negative nor positive. The unknown does not find its determination in the fact that it either is or is not, but only in the fact that relation with the unknown is a relation that is not opened by light or closed by light’s absence. … [T]o live ‘authentically,’ ‘poetically,’ is to have a relation with the unknown as such, and thus to put at the center of one’s life this-the-unknown that does not allow one to live ahead of oneself and, moreover, withdraws every center from life.

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



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