Unreal Nature

August 31, 2012

Just So

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:23 am

… his aim was not to render as skilfully and accurately as possible what he thinks he sees, but to grasp and illustrate the forces at play. As Kemp says, ‘Each painting is, in a sense, a proof of Leonardo’s understanding.’

This is from Curiosity: How Science Became Interested In Everything by Philip Ball (2012):

… it is a mistake (often made) to turn Leonardo into a modern scientist. For one thing, his experimental programme is incontinent: an outpouring of questions, apparently listed simply in the order in which they popped into his head. This is merely a ledger of phenomena, uncontained by any fundamental hypothesis about how nature behaves. It is well-nigh impossible to imagine emerging from this programme a unified picture of how [for example] fluid flow occurs, like the one that scientists possess today. Rather, if Leonardo had been at liberty to investigate each of his questions, he would have gathered together a roster of particulars, none of them obviously deducible from the others: a body of facts, not an explicatory framework.

Leonardo drawing [found here]

This is not because Leonardo had an ill-disciplined mind — at least it was not simply because of that. Leonardo could not draw up a coherent research agenda because there was no philosophical tradition of doing so. Worse, the prevailing (scholastic) tradition was to take precisely the route that Leonardo chose, to divide and subdivide, making ever finer distinctions between the categories of things and questions. What distinguishes Leonardo was not the method he used to approach the nature of water flow, but the fact that he considered these things worth studying in the first place: not that he was obsessive in drawing up his lists, but in the object of his obsession.

Leonardo was also set apart from the scholastics by having Neoplatonic sympathies. Thinking about the behaviour of the seas and skies and the circulation of water between them, he was constantly aware of the relationship that Renaissance champions of this ancient tradition perceived between the macrocosm and the microcosm: it was more than metaphor when he called rivers the ‘blood of the earth.’ This belief in an inner unity of the diverse forms and effects of nature encouraged his use of analogy: light becomes akin to rippling water, and water to hair and smoke.

Leonardo drawing [found here]

Leonardo’s Neoplatonism explains why he was not in the end quite the faithful recorder of nature that he is commonly made out to be. His flow forms are idealized, exaggerated so that they resemble more closely the patterns of wavy and braided hair — connections all but invisible to ignorant eyes, yet which reveal to the adept the deep structure of the world. To art historian Martin Kemp, these sketches are ‘an intricate synthesis of observations and theoretical constructions, with neither separate from the other.’ Leonardo’s fascination with hidden forms is not exactly that of the scientist as we would recognize it, but that of the philosopher who believes that nature is inherently creative and that the artist only mimics her inventiveness. Painting, said Leonardo, is ‘a subtle inventione which with philosophy and subtle speculation considers the nature of all forms.’ Particular phenomena — specific kinds of flow, for example — were to be understood not as explicit realization of some underlying mathematical process so much as capricious variations on it.

Leonardo believed that the artist can hope to make a convincing depiction of nature only by penetrating beneath the caprice — his aim was not to render as skilfully and accurately as possible what he thinks he sees, but to grasp and illustrate the forces at play. As Kemp says, ‘Each painting is, in a sense, a proof of Leonardo’s understanding.’ Recognizing that few artists will have the patience (or perhaps the aptitude) for such dedicated observation, Leonardo concedes that ‘At this point … the opponent says that he does not want so much scienza, that practice is enough for him in order to draw the things in nature.’ But that would leave one skating over the surface of the world, bewitched by arbitrary invention and ephemera: ‘The answer to this is that there is nothing that deceives us more easily than our confidence in our judgments, divorced from reasoning.’

Leonardo drawing [found here]

Leonardo doesn’t always mean what we might like to imagine. Take his reliance on ‘experiment.’ In the Renaissance this word was often more or less synonymous with ‘experience’: not the kind of carefully planned, often highly constrained and artificial procedure used by scientists to explore a particular phenomenon in isolation from others and to test a hypothesis about how it happens, but rather a simple raw observation of nature. From the seventeenth century, the scientific experiment came increasingly to be an abstraction from and a manipulation of what happens ‘naturally,’ precisely because the natural situation typically involves so many complicating factors and influences that interpretation becomes difficult. This widening gap between nature and the laboratory was to prove controversial.

And Leonardo does not propose to use experiment as we do today, for testing hypotheses. Rather, it supplies a means to identify what it is that reason must explain. ‘First,’ he declares, ‘I shall test by experiment before I proceed further, because my intention is to consult experience first and then with reasoning show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way.’ This could easily provide a prescription for the tautologies and Just So stories that hamper the natural philosophy of antiquity: although the theory must accord with what we experience, it can nonetheless be formulated with armchair logic and reasoning.

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



August 30, 2012

From a Yolk

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:33 am

… the same activation contour experienced in the collision of two cars may also present itself, for example, in a coming together of musical notes.

This is from Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts by Brian Massumi (2011):

… Movement has the uncanny ability, in the words of experimental phenomenologist Albert Michotte, “to survive the removal of its object.” For example, Michotte might show you a screen with a dot and a circle. The dot starts moving toward the circle. Then just before the dot is about to hit the circle, it disappears. That is what, objectively speaking, you will see. But that is not what you will feel you saw. You report “that the dot disappears while its movement continues right up to the circle, and then is lost ‘behind’ it.” … This is actually not-seeing something — yet directly experiencing it in vision all the same. This is a category all its own: a felt extension of vision beyond where it stops and ‘behind’ where it stays; a perceptual feeling, without the actual perception. Sight furthered, following its own momentum. To the point that it is only felt: not in perception but as perception.

[ … ]

… We are presented with a double existence whenever we perceive a movement involving a change of state. With the dot, the change was a disappearance. With the [billiard] balls, it was causal, an impact effecting a launch. It could be any number of things, as well: for example, a “tunneling” (one object ‘seen’ to pass behind another and come out the other side); an “entraining” (one object approaching another and dragging or carrying it off); an “ampliation” (a relay or spread of movement); an attraction, repulsion, or resistance; or, suggestively, an “animation” (a self-propulsion). The variations are endless. But what they all have in common is that accompanying a plurality of forms or a combination of sensory inputs there is a felt-perception of something unitary: a continuing across that seamlessly links the separate elements or inputs as belonging to the same change.

A continuing-across is by nature a nonlocal linkage, since all of the separate elements participate in it simultaneously from their individual positions. It is a “well-known fact” that these seamless linkages “do not show any observable resemblance” to the objective combinations involved. How could they? The linkage is what the objects share through their combination: implication in the same event. The felt perception of continuing movement is qualitative because it directly grasps the changing nature of the shared event ‘behind,’ ‘across,’ or ‘through’ its objective ingredients and their observable combinations. It is, simply: relationship. Directly perceptually-felt; “nonsensuously” perceived.

… Behind, across, or through repetition, the perceptually-felt movement exemplifies itself as a species of movement-feeling. It is now a self-exemplifying quality of movement beholden to neither car [in a collision/accident] nor ball, as indifferent to the cuestick as to the traffic light, inhabiting its own qualitative environment, in migratory independence from any given context. Pure self-qualifying movement: an autonomy of launching.

… This serial, objective ordering hinged on the visible form of the object, is what Michotte calls a “world-line.” World-lines bring identity to difference: the object’s visible form is recognizably conserved across the series of events composing its historic route.

It happens all the time that we jump from one world-line to another, re-feeling an activation contour in its migratory independence as it reappears in different objective combinations, from balls to cars to any number of things. It is possible to jump world-lines to “yoke extremely diverse events” in perceptual feeling. This yoking can operate across great distances in objective time and space. A nonsensuous linkage, through its resemblance to itself, can bring an extreme diversity of situations into proximity with each other according to the quality of movement — the activation contour or shape of change — they nonsensuously share. The nonsensuous similarity between distant events brings changes — differencings — qualitatively together. World-lines bring identity to difference. Nonsensuous similarity between world-lines bring differencings together. The yoking of events through nonsensuous similarity brings differencings together, cutting across world-lines and the identities conserved along them. This transversal linkage between world-lines composes a universe of migratory nonlocal linkage exhibiting an autonomous order all its own: an order of manners of movement, of qualities of moving experience.

[Daniel] Stern makes the point that these operative traces are amodal, meaning they are not in one sense mode or another. Nonsensuous, they can jump not just between situations but also between sense modes. If the activation contour that is the signature of the movement-quality is a rhythm of seamlessly linked accelerations and decelerations, increases and decreases in intensity, starts and stops, then the same activation contour experienced in the collision of two cars may also present itself, for example, in a coming together of musical notes. The operative traces that are activation contours are in no way restricted to vision. They link events of vision to other-sense events.

“Amodal” is a more robust concept for this than the more usual “cross-modal transfer.” The term cross-modal is used to refer to a “transfer” between different sense modes — forgetting that what comes and goes between them, what actively appears in their interstices as the perceptual feeling of their co-occurring, is itself, strictly speaking, in no mode. It is the direct perception of what happens between the senses, in no one mode. All and only in their relation. Purely nonsensuous. Abstract. What is felt abstractly is thought. The perceptual feeling of the amodal is the fundamentally nonconscious thinking-feeling of what happens between.

Now instead of thinking of the path of an object along a world-line, think of a body traveling its life-path from situation to situation, recognized object to recognized object, encounter to encounter. That life-path is a world-line intersecting with those of objects, but following its own orientation. At each encounter along the way, an activation contour nonsensuously self-detaches. At each step, operative traces declare their independence, making themselves amodally available for yoking diverse events, across distances in space and time, and across registers of experience. Each trace joins others, accumulating in a qualitative universe all their own.

Up until now in this account, there has been an implicit presupposition of an already constituted subject of experience observing objects as they encounter each other and enter into combination. In a word, there has been a supposition of a self. But selves emerge. We are not born into “the” world. We are thrown into worlding. Amodal experience, and the qualitative universe of nonsensuous similarity it composes, are active in the constitution of the self worlding. The qualitative order plays an active role in that constitution.

“Life-path” makes my New Age allergies act up but it’s unavoidable in Massumi’s descriptions. In addition, I’m not convinced of “purely nonsensuous” and “no mode.” I doubt there is such a thing as a nonsensuous thought unless you exclude memory (which I believe is never amodal), and without memory, there could be no “linkage” or “yoking.” However, I still like the main concept he’s working over, especially the idea: “linkage, through its resemblance to itself, can bring an extreme diversity of situations into proximity.”

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



August 29, 2012

Wider Than the Sky

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:46 am

… since madness itself — of whatever sort — is only a language of a particular kind …

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

… “We have too many things and not enough forms. This is what tortures those who are conscientious.” [Flaubert]

… he clearly sees the truth of language in this “too many things” and this “not enough forms,” and he regards this lack as the writer’s reason for being since the writer is called upon to make up for it through labor, skill, and cunning. “Too many things,” “not enough forms,” a poverty he deplores since it obliges him to give only limited expression to so much wealth. This corresponds to Lévi-Strauss’s hypothesis that art is essentially reduction, the elaboration of a reduced model. Except that, far from feeling distressed by this, Lévi-Strauss cheerfully describes all the advantages afforded by the reductive power of both the plastic arts and (as he implies) language. (“Being smaller, the totality of the object seems less formidable; because it is quantitatively diminished, it seems qualitatively simplified; this quantitative transposition increases and diversifies our power over a homologue of the thing.”)

… even if the number of structures is finite, that is, if there are only a defined number of kinds of relations, as long as one of them is such that it expresses (contains) the infinite, Flaubert’s statement can be turned around the other way, and one ought not complain that there are “too many things,” but rather “never enough things”: now the universe in its entirety does not suffice to fill the Danaids’ barrel.

… At this point we come very close to Wittgenstein’s problem, as corrected by Bertrand Russell: every language has a structure about which we can say nothing in this language, but there must be another language that treats the structure of the first and possesses a new structure about which we cannot say anything, except in a third language — and so forth.

matryoshka dolls [image from Wikipedia]

… One is inevitably tempted to ascribe the obsession involved in this process to the perversity of some kind of madness, and in this there is nothing scandalous; but since madness itself — of whatever sort — is only a language of a particular kind, and one we will endeavor if we are learned to transpose into another, we will be doing no more, however vigilant we may be, than simply — blindly — embarking in our turn on this navigation that ends neither in a harbor nor in some shipwreck: all of us delivered over, with more or less pomposity or simplicity, to the play of displacement without place, of redoubling without duplication, of reiteration without repetition — processes that fold into and unfold within one another infinitely and without moving, as though the word that is in excess could in this way be exhausted.

This “one ought not complain that there are “too many things,” but rather “never enough things” is surely a cue to include some Emily Dickinson (that is not in Blanchot’s text):

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For – hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As Sponges – Buckets – do –

The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –

… which third verse Helen Vendler (affectionately) describes as “Dickinson’s sacrilegious worship of the Syllable.”

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



The Water the Wheel Does Not Need

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:45 am

… Pantomime is the energy it takes to turn the water-wheel; dance is the gay, spectacular splash of the excess water, the water the wheel does not need.

This first is from an essay ‘The Purism of Étienne Decroux’ by Eric Bentley first published in 1950. Decroux is advocating mime as opposed to dance, which he disparagingly describes as (among other things) “the weakest of the arts, the one that can’t exist alone — like potatoes, the weak vegetable, a parasite on meat!” I don’t agree with him about dance — or about potatoes — but enjoy the following anyway:

… [Decroux speaking] ” … you have fallen into a cardinal error in thinking of pantomime and dance as akin. They are opposites. Dance is abstract and based on music. Pantomime is concrete and based on life. Dance flows like a stream; pantomime moves with the natural plunge and lunge of the muscles. Dance is soaring and vertical, pantomime earth-bound and horizontal. The dancer works with the leap, the mime with the walk. The dancer deals in symmetric patterns, exact repetitions, regular rhythms, as music enjoins; the mime in asymmetry, variation, syncopation, the rhythmic patterns of speech and natural body movement. Dance comes from excess of energy. When a bear paces to and fro in his cage, he is finding the symmetric patterns of the dance in the usual way. A dancer is a man taking a walk — whereas a mime is a man walking somewhere, to a destination. Pantomime is the energy it takes to turn the water-wheel; dance is the gay, spectacular splash of the excess water, the water the wheel does not need. Watch dancers on the stage pretending to carry a grand piano. They rejoice in the hollowness of the pretense. They trip along. The piano has no weight. Now watch mimes going through the same act. They present precisely the weight of the piano by indicating the strain it occasions.”

The following is from an essay ‘Edgar Degas and the Dance’ by Theodore Reff first published in 1978:

… The struggles of the young dancers — or “rats,” as the very young ones were commonly called — their unceasing efforts to master a difficult art, their daily round of exercises and lessons, clearly fascinated Degas, who must have compared these strenuous efforts with his own as an artist. In literally hundreds of paintings, drawings, and prints, he shows dancers straining and twisting at the practice bar, or rubbing aching muscles and joints, or bent over double to tie a slipper, or in unguarded moments of fatigue stretching or yawning or scratching themselves. … It was just this dichotomy in Degas’ vision of the ballet and the theater that appealed to his wordly contemporaries, writers such as Champsaur who, in L’Amant des danseuses, describes pictures based on Degas of the dancer on stage “in the splendor of her somewhat artificial beauty, in her glorification under electric lights,” but also backstage, “breathless with fatigue, her features sagging, the muscles of her calves and thighs bulging, the lines of her body graceless and almost brutal. … ” Like the laundress pressing down hard on her iron or yawning, overheated and exhausted, like the street-walker waiting on the café terrace in a torpor, the dancer in Degas‘ work is often an embodiment not of feminine charm but of the lower-class woman’s struggle for survival, burdened and deformed by her labors. Yet nothing is more characteristic of his achievement than the way in which he extracts from such scenes of awkwardness and distress — and here the pictures … of a bather precariously balancing herself as she washes or lying in a strangely undignified position on the floor also come to mind — images of transcendent beauty. To create beauty out of urban dreariness was essential to his naturalist conception of modern art.

The ballet, then, had a dual attraction for Degas: it was at once realistic and artificial, like the Opera or the theater itself. He could respond with equal interest to the pathos of the dancer’s daily existence and the magic of her momentary glory on stage.

Edgar Degas, Danseuses à la barre, 1876

… The classical ballet was for Degas a supreme example of formal, disciplined, even artificial beauty. The dancer’s steps, the movements of her body and arms and legs, down to the smallest inflections of her hands and feet, were part of an elaborate ceremony, mastered through years of exercise and rehearsal, and were thus a living demonstration of the superiority of art to nature. To the creator who never tired of saying, “No art is less spontaneous than my own; what I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters,” the classical ballet, whose steps had been invented and named at the court of Louis XIV and had changed little in the following two centuries, despite the innovations introduced in the Romantic period, was bound to seem an ideal source of inspiration. It is the conventional and classical aspect of the ballerina’s appearance and performance that distinguishes Degas’ Danseuses à la barre of 1876 from the young couples in modern dress dancing informally in Renoir’s exactly contemporary Moulin de la Galette.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bal du moulin de la Gallette, 1876



August 28, 2012

Like Whole Animals

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:33 am

… What an extraordinary psychotic characteristic of human nature to need to reconstruct the world in this way!

This is from Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry by Paul Goodman (1971):

… Finally, there is what might be called the religious meaning of poetical language. Poetry as a life wager. Creating another world, instead of living this one.

In the aboriginal language, we saw, there might be a blurring between lexicon and grammar, between denotative names and meanings given by formal devices. Likewise, in some primitive languages there is a very large number of acceptable sounds, clicks, explosive noises, and musical notes, and there might be a blurring between what are words and what are mere echoes and exclamations. Both these blurrings occur, in a more sophisticated way, in poems. But in poems there is an even more important ambiguity, an ambiguity of semantics: What is language and what is being talked about? This is usually posed as the question, “Does poetry mean anything?” or “Is the ‘meaning’ of a poem  just the poem itself?” or “Can a poem be paraphrased?” Let me repeat from previous chapters some passages that bear on this question:

All speech is assertive. … Poetry is also assertive, but it does not say sentences about reality and sometimes does not use the common code. Rather, it goes about the business more directly, by tying down more reality in its complicated structures than is possible in ordinary sentences and by trying to make the poem itself more like a real thing.

Poets have rarely regarded their speech as communication, but usually as a physical thing. In classical literary theory, poems are imitations; and the discussion of imitations is usually how to make them “like whole animals,” as Aristotle put it, self-subsistent and internally coherent.

Speaking is such that there comes to be a world made of signs. Meantime these same signs are functional for biological and community survival, personal well-being, and intellectual growth. And we cannot simply sort out the two aspects, for the functional use of words requires that people believe in their meanings, and this belief is in the speaker and hearer — it is not in the relation of the signs and the designates.

The words that are parts of a poem are not nonsense syllables. The poet believes they have meaning, and he wants to use just these words and not others. Nor does he do this just to “express himself”; he is making a public statement, and he feels the strongest responsibility — it is his only responsibility — to make the statements “clear,” though hardly ever to a particular audience, even when it is a declaration of love. By this activity he lives through, and brings into the public forum, an occasion that is important to him; and he does this as a human being, he is not assuming the role of “being a poet.” In short, all parts of the discourse are real, real speech, except that, unlike in the aboriginal language, the poem has no real referent, it is a complex-word that closes on itself. A poet simply doesn’t care if what he says is true, at least as propositions are true.*

Also, poetry is not rhetoric. An audience that is not a particular audience is not a respondent at all. Thus, the only test of the relevance of his poem is whether or not he carries it off. Does it hang together? Does it have magnitude or is it trivial? Is it interesting or boring? Is it believable? But poetic credibility is not a semantic relation; it depends on how the poet manages the words. A poem lacks verisimilitude — “incredulis odi,” as Horace says — not because its propositions are fantastic — most poetic sentences are anyway lies, fictions, platitudes, or exaggerations — but because it does not carry the hearer along.

What an extraordinary psychotic characteristic of human nature to need to reconstruct the world in this way! And sometimes to manage to reconstruct it and make it stick.

On the one hand, one thinks of Flaubert and the farm family: “They have the right of it.” On the other, there was Beethoven unbelievably miserable, but he must have been something like happy during those hours of exploding energy and long song when he was not there.

[* As a poet, I like to compose with accurate observations and true propositions, but this is not to inform or persuade anybody. It is because true propositions lie heavier on the page — I can’t just push them around: it’s like carving wood rather than modeling clay.]

The footnote which I have put in square brackets is in the original (though with a tiny little “4” instead of an asterisk, and minus the brackets).

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



With Other Moving Bodies

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:32 am

… I assume that it is a basic psychological proclivity not to hear sound as an uninterpreted quality, but to hear it as bearing information that is adaptively useful.

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

… The classical player Itzhak Perlman impresses with the depth and verve of his sound as he plays a Jewish theme, “Firn Di Mekhutonium Aheym,” with all the force of his Romantic vibrato. Duncan Chisholm appears as a “fiddle player from Wolfstone, a Celtic rock band that produces an interesting fusion of traditional Irish style with modern rock.” His sound is exhileratingly fresh in its spare and edgy quality. A “cutting-edge” player creates some electronically modified violin sounds, tantalizing in their ethereal “presence.” … These “living” sounds have complex timbral characteristics as an inseparable part of their aural presentation. Timbre is like the wrinkles of their “skin,” the surface without which the body of vibration could not possibly be heard. It is “in the sound,” as part of its presenting quality, before a deliberative process has taken place to examine the associations it brings. Because distinctive timbres cannot be identified with simple alphabetic labels, as pitches can, or named with nouns that belong to them alone, their description has to find a different linguistic mode. That is why they are most often pointed at with words for action and quality, words that modify the description of a neutral “sound.” … The sounds are “warm” or “cool,” “gentle” (in legato) or “assertive” (in strong attack). They might be “cool and distant,” without vocal nuance, or, in sul ponticello (playing with the bow on top of the bridge), “thin and edgy.”

To interpret the signification of sounds in an acoustic instrument is not, then, to deal just with abstracted pitches, in their nuanced alteration, but with pitched sounds of definite timbre, duration, and context. If you hear the sound as constant or interrupted, in tune, sharp, or flat, you are noticing simple aspects of its duration or frequency, and “representing” it in the mind (in the sense used by cognitive science), with reference to a standardized grid … . But what about when you hear it as the index of an action or as a tone of voice? Sounds may come bearing the mark of actions, or as suggesting voices of various emotional tone. Taking a semiotic view … I assume that it is a basic psychological proclivity not to hear sound as an uninterpreted quality, but to hear it as bearing information that is adaptively useful. In a natural environment, such information could be about the location and movement of objects, the position and attitude of another living thing, the affective state of another as bidding affection or retreat. “Mental representations” of sound are not, then, aural recordings of pure acoustic properties, but assessments of a sound’s source and connection with other moving bodies, whether inert or living.

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



August 27, 2012

Think of It as Milk, and Drink It Slowly

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:24 am

These are three verses (out of ten) from:

Piano Practice
by Howard Moss

[ … ]


Seizures are occurring. Despite snow-lightning,
The black keys are bent on mountain climbing —
All of it against a doctor’s warning.
Soon they’re descending like the black dots of
A wirephoto in transmission. An
Erotic black wing hovers up above.


Bach is more like opening an ember
And digging hard into the heart of fire.
The heart of fire is another fire.
When it comes to Mozart, just say nothing.
Think of it as milk, and drink it slowly.
Slowly you will taste the cream of angels.


This black and white’s deceptive. Underneath
The spectrum rages. Did you ever see
The calmest waters quickly come to life
Because a minnow’s tinfoil flash in sun
Had rent them suddenly? It came. And went.
We take two thousand takes before we print.

[ … ]

These are the last two verses (of four) from:

by Alastair Reid

[ … ]

Arriving in rainbows of oil-and-water feathers,
they fountain down from buttresses and outcrops,
from Fontainebleau and London,
and, squat on the margins of roofs, with a gargoyle look,
they note, from an edge of air, with hooded eyes,
the city slowly lessening the sky.

All praise to them who nightly in the parks
keep peace for us; who, cosmopolitan,
patrol and people all cathedraled places,
and easily, lazily haunt and inhabit
St. Paul’s, St. Peter’s, or the Madeleine,
the paved courts of the past, pompous as keepers —
a sober race of messengers and preservers,
neat in their international uniforms,
alighting with a word perhaps from Rome.
Permanence is their business, space and time
their special preservations, and wherever
the great stone men we save from death are stationed,
appropriately on the head of each is perched,
as though forever, his appointed pigeon.



Forever, If Possible

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:24 am

… the story of one figure’s progress through chance, error, discovery, damage, and salvage — this story, which tends to become the chief theme of Rodin’s art, is all confessional and more unashamedly private than any manifest erotic content.

Last post from the collection Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg (2007; 1972). Continuing from the previous two weeks, the following is from the essay ‘Rodin’ first published in 1963:

Rodin’s human body may be a fissured whole, or an agglutination of disparate, even incongruous parts. An unpredictable alternation of organic joints and abrupt disjunctions lends his great original works a charge of desperate, jerky energy, or suggests tragic exposure to forces both outside and within to which the will has no access. And, as a corollary, those works which like the nude Balzac studies, express a triumphant will — for them to maintain their body’s cohesion is work all-absorbing, the kind of intrinsic work that goes on perpetually in a closed fist.

From an old humanist point of view, Rodin’s figures suggest loss of wholeness, of classic serenity or self-possession. From a political viewpoint they are plainly unfit to serve as public monuments. They are too troubled, too private, and too perilously exposed to uncertainty. They imply that all cohesion is hybrid; that the association of a hand with a wrist, of an ill-fitting thigh with a loin, of a figure with its supporting base, a body with a repeat of itself, a child with its mother, or a man with a maid — that all are equally provisional and episodic.

… He is the first whose sculpture deliberately harnessed the forces of accident. It began, he tells us, with the mask of the Man with Broken Nose, his early masterpiece of 1863, which became a mask only by accident. The jury of the 1864 Salon rejected it. But for Rodin it predicted an eventual pattern of partnership with disaster and chance, of watching the accidental and letting accident write the work’s story. “Chance,” he wrote in Les Cathedrales, “is a great artist.” And again: “More beautiful than a beautiful thing is the ruin of a beautiful thing.”

Man with Broken Nose, 1863

… Accident is one of Rodin’s resources for doubling the energy charge of his work. Breaks, cracks, and losses are violent. They imply the intractable and unforeseen, and that the artistic will drives its decisions against the brutal nonchalance of insensate matter.

The incorporation of accident is also a way of holding the sculpture down in a private world. The objective anatomy of the hale human body is a public thing, after all, like the constitution of a civil code. But the story of one figure’s progress through chance, error, discovery, damage, and salvage — this story, which tends to become the chief theme of Rodin’s art, is all confessional and more unashamedly private than any manifest erotic content. And perhaps Rodin’s ultimate significance for our time is simply that he turned the direction of sculpture around. Nineteenth-century sculpture was Baudelaire’s “tiresome art,” dedicated chiefly to conventional communal goals. Rodin restored to inward experience what had been for at least a century a branch of public relations.

His real theme then is the intimacy of gestation, every available means being used to maintain a given figure as a telescoped sculptural process. Whatever vicissitudes a work in progress can undergo are sealed into the form. The wet rags that are wrapped around clay to keep it moist leave their textures imprinted on the bare chest of the great Marcelin Berthelot bust.

Marcelin Berthelot, 1906 [image from Wikipedia]

… And since this practice of preserving portions of clinging mold combines with the habits of fragmentation and graft, it follows that Rodin never really knows beforehand how many limbs a particular figure, when finished, will have or lack; how many rough chunks of redundant plaster that he refused or neglected to chip away will encumber it; how much the figure’s shape will reflect a preformed anatomy, and how much will be owed to automatism and accident. The anatomy of the schools is no longer the privileged determinant of human form since what is exhibited is not the likeness of human bodies but the process of their transformation in art.

What he avoids above all is the finishing touch, his secret dream being to keep every work going like a stoked fire — forever, if possible.

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



August 26, 2012

Now and Then

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 11:42 am

For some mysterious reason, I have wanted to do the “Now and Then” series that I’m currently working on all at once rather than one by one. By that I mean that I’ve been working through the various processes of all 58 (the number in the series) stage by stage rather than completing all stages on one before moving to the next. I think I conceptualize the whole series as “one” with each picture being reverberations or variations of/on the single theme. Or something like that. Anyway, I’m now at the “rolling up” point where I am doing the last stage on each, which means I seem to be finishing one per day; even though I’ve been working on them *all* since whenever it was that I finished up the GeoMetry series.

These five are the first that are “done.” They aren’t my favorites. They’re just the first in the numerical order of the base files which determines the order in which I’m working my way through them:



Our Trust

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:09 am

…  Everything that exists, in the sense that we can undertake to describe it, or even to explain it, has first, and prior to any explanation, succeeded in existing. Our trust exhibits the success to which we owe our existence as thinking beings, a success that nothing guarantees. It has the character of a wager, but a wager with nothing behind it, on the basis of which it could be dissected. The organism expresses the task of thought: not to judge, but to learn to appreciate.

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

… Creativity … has the neutrality of metaphysics, and obliges the philosophy that defines it as “ultimate” to take the risk that is proper to empiricism: to affirm all that exists, all that happens, all that is created qua irreducible to a reason higher than the decision to exist, to happen in this and in no other way, to affirm and exhibit such-and-such a value and no other. And if everything we have to deal with at each instant, including ourselves, must be said to be first and foremost an “accident” of creativity, all that is to be thought, including the hypothesis that we have to do with a cosmos, must first be greeted with equanimity as a new and interesting exemplification of creativity.

… * …

… As an ultimate, creativity obliges the thinker to affirm that all the verbs used, “to characterize,” “to have to deal with,” “to describe,” themselves presuppose creativity. As soon as a situation matters enough for us to be tempted to see in it an “example of creativity,” the generic terms “one” and “many”* will have been specified, and thought will be conditioned by specialized categories, those that matter for this situation. Once again, this specification is not a screen, and does not separate us from an inaccessible truth. It is neither a source of nostalgia nor an object of denunciation, nor, above all, the instrument of a critique of the fallacious character of all explanation. If creativity intervened as a critical instrument, it would be characterized, enabling such-and-such a position to be defined against such-and-such another, whereas both are just as much its accidents. As a constraint, the neutrality of creativity thus has as its first effect to turn us away from the temptation always constituted for thinkers by a position that affirms itself to be “neutral,” defining them as “not participating” in a debate, which they will then be able to adjudication. In Whitehead’s speculative philosophy, there is no position of adjudicator, or else every “creature of creativity” is the carrying out of an adjudication, and adjudicators themselves are the one as unifying the many.*

Correlatively, creativity obliges us to think of conditions. There is not, nor can there be, any tension between creativity and conditioning, nor even between novelty and explanation, for novelty is inseparable from the way something is explained by something, the way of being is conditioned by what Whitehead often calls its “social environment.” Nothing is more alien to Whitehead than the strategy of Descartes’ “radical doubt,” which undertakes to make a clean sweep of any inference that could be recognized as fictive or mendacious but forgets all that is presupposed by this very approach, including the fact that his decision and his research presuppose, at the very least, words to formulate the legitimate reasons to reject, one after the other, everything that is no longer to be believed.

… Nothing holds together independently of a decision, which is played over again each time with regard to the “how,” with regard to the way it will hold together.

The ontological principle will place the rational pole of Whitehead’s system under a constraint that forbids it any facility, any shortcut to the transcendence of what might claim to be indubitable, to go without saying, holding together by itself, without risk, without adventure. The principle will demand reasons, while forbidding that the slightest authority be conferred upon reasons. If you’re looking for a reason, you are looking for an actual element that conditions creativity, but don’t forget that the very way this element conditions creativity affirms this creativity just as much, for it is the decision through which what has produced itself as “one”* has produced its reasons that has determined the actual role played by this conditioning.

… Trust is inseparable from thought as such: it does not refer to an opinion, whether historical or subjective. Nor will it ever be reducible to some functioning of the brain. The brain will never explain trust, for every explanation, by the brain or by something else, first of all manifests in principle the trust of those who have undertaken to explain. Trust can be killed by disqualifying words, by dominant opinions, by the accidents of life, but trust itself is not accidental. Trust is on the side of the “right,” of what is presupposed by every explanation.

The organism is a way of expressing this trust, because it conjugates existence and success. Nothing is “no matter what,” secondary, epiphenomenal, superstructure, anecdotal, with regard to something more general. Everything that exists, in the sense that we can undertake to describe it, or even to explain it, has first, and prior to any explanation, succeeded in existing. Our trust exhibits the success to which we owe our existence as thinking beings, a success that nothing guarantees. It has the character of a wager, but a wager with nothing behind it, on the basis of which it could be dissected. The organism expresses the task of thought: not to judge, but to learn to appreciate.

[ … ]

… My readers have been warned. If they are fascinated by the heroic grandeur of refusal, and despise compromises; if they deplore the fact that the radical demands of every new position are recuperated by what was supposed to be subverted; if “to deconstruct” is a goal in itself for them, and scandalizing self-righteous people is a testimony to truth; if they oppose the pure to the impure, the authentic to the artificial; if they cannot understand how the most “unplatonic” of philosophers situated himself as a “footnote” to the text of Plato … let them close this book. Never will they see celebrated in it the power of truth that is verified by the destruction of false pretenders. They will therefore find in it only disappointments and reasons for contempt.

I’ve taken the following Whitehead quote (asterisked* in the above) out of where it appears in the sequence of extracts above and given it, below, because I feared it might make you go all cross-eyed trying to sort out what he’s saying (which is quite lovely) — and to perhaps suddenly remember that you meant to clip your toenails this morning and you’d best be off to do it right now …

… *”Creativity,” “many,” “one” are the ultimate notions involved in the meaning of the synonymous terms. These three notions complete the Category of the Ultimate and are presupposed in all the more special categories.

The term “one” does not stand for “the integral number one,” which is a complex special notion. It stands for the general idea underlying alike the indefinite article “a or an,” and the definite article “the,” and the demonstratives “this or that,” and the relatives “which or what or how.” It stands for the singularity of an entity. The term “many” presupposes the term “one,” and the term “one” presupposed the term “many.” The term “many” conveys the notion of disjunctive diversity”; this notion is an essential element in the concept of “being.” There are many “beings” in disjunctive diversity [ … ]

“Creativity” is the principle of novelty. An actual occasion is a novel entity diverse from any entity in the “many” which it unifies [ … ]

“Together” is a generic term covering the various special ways in which various sorts of entity are “together” in any one actual occasion. Thus “together” presupposes the notions “creativity,” “many,” “one,” “identity,” and “diversity.” The ultimate metaphysical principle is the advance from disjunction to conjunction, creating a novel entity other than the entities given in disjunction. The novel entity is at once the togetherness of the “many” which it finds, and also it is the one among the disjunctive “many” which it leaves; it is a novel entity, disjunctively among the many entities which it synthesizes. The many become one, and are increased by one [ … ]

Thus the “production of novel togetherness” is the ultimate notion embodied in the term “concrescence.” These ultimate notions of “production of novelty” and of “concrete togetherness” are inexplicable either in terms of higher universals or in terms of the components participating in the concrescence. The analysis of the components abstracts from the concrescence. The sole appeal is to intuition. [PR]

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




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