Unreal Nature

September 30, 2012

Whence the Choice Emerges

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:09 am

… They do not dictate how they are to be questioned, but they are a respondent in the authentic sense only insofar as the person framing the question has undertaken the means to “prepare” them to answer.

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

… In physics, forces and fields, which are vectorial, designate the interdependent character of a reality, in which everything that occurs refers to something else. As for energy, it is a scalar quantity, and is required by measurement: every act of measure implies an exchange of energy. In the correspondences Whitehead is suggesting here, physics, confronted by diverse experimental situations and the power and constraints of mathematics, has therefore created a distinction that can be generalized. In this generalization, what physics characterizes as an individual, defined as localizable by the role it plays in energetic exchanges, will designate “individuals qua feeling their world,” or concrescence qua taking a determinate position with regard to what it has received or, more precisely, coming into existence qua this taking of position, and therefore inseparable from what has become “their” world.

The problem dominating the concrescence is the actualization of the quantum in solido. [Whitehead, Process and Reality]

With this description of a “quantum” that is indivisible and yet extensive, in the sense that, as we shall see, it atomizes an extension that it presupposes and confirms, Whitehead has raised to a metaphysical power the characterization William James proposed of the specious present (a characterization that had interested Niels Bohr to the highest degree). The specious present is always evaluated from the viewpoint of its completion — it will have been of such-and-such a thickness — since every characterization “during” this interval would constitute an interference that would force the present to topple into the past. To express it in a way that evokes relativity: concrescence in the formal sense, as long as it is not completed, as long as it has not produced its own position, corresponds to an “elsewhere.” It does not belong to the past of any other entity, and no other quantity can take it into account.

… Physical time does not matter only to our objective descriptions of the world. The latter are always social, always presupposing a twofold endurance. As Bergson said, we must wait for the sugar to melt, and this waiting implies the continuity of an articulating relation, presupposing the endurance of Bergson, who waits, and that of what he calls “sugar,” which is capable of existing in a crystalline form or of testifying to its liquid existence by the sugary taste taken on by tea. Yet these descriptions require an important cosmological feature: the fact of a solidarity between the world and ourselves in the unison of “at the same time.”

[ … ]

… formalism has, in fact, exacerbated the hiatus between vectorial and scalar, by opposing the continuity of a “functional reality” to the discrete character of measurements, and introducing the need for a “choice” of measurement. It has, in other words, given measurement a “decisive role,” indicating a completely new articulation between the scalar qualities issuing from this measurement, and the “vectorial reality” with regard to which measurement is carried out. And to say “decisive role” is obviously to open up the possibility of conceiving an actuality whose value might not be the ratification of a previously settled choice. To risk this possibility, however, one must, of course, be situated as close as possible to physico-mathematical technical innovation, that is, as far as possible from controversies over the interpretation of formalism.

In fact, the very possibility of attributing a “decisive role” to measurement is associated with the introduction of the new physico-mathematical notion of an “operator.” Paying due attention to this notion guarantees us against any untimely intrusion of speculation, for the relevance of operators has today been generalized to all physico-mathematical laws.

… Whereas the formulation of the usual physical laws defined their object as inseparably uniting the two features necessary to satisfy physicists — observable (scalar) definition and functional (vectorial) definition — the intervention of the notion of operator in the formulation of these laws presupposes that these two features be treated separately. Scalar quantities, defining possible observations, are henceforth relative to the action of an operator on a function, which means that the “functional being” to which measurement as an operant question is addressed is not defined “in itself” in the terms of an answer. The general character of the hiatus that Whitehead emphasized is thus inscribed within the formalism itself. The “physical reality” introduced by the language of operators is no longer what is to be described “in itself,” but what “answers” the operant question.

… The answer obtained must be capable of being authenticated; that is, must not be able to be disqualified as an “artifact,” qua produced by an operation incapable of defining what it is addressing as the “reason” for its result. In other words, what “answers” must be a “respondent,” in the sense of “guarantor” of the question’s relevance. What the physicists have created is thus their own way to distinguish between a “good” and a “bad” question.

[ … ]

… the world is not what answers to the subject, nor the respondent for what the subject “knows”; it is that which, vectorially, “operates” what the subject is to feel.

… in quantum mechanics it is impossible to make all the questions that can be raised, all the physical quantities that can be measured, converge toward a being that would be guarantor for the relevance of them all. This is why, in quantum mechanics, operators are not just one mode of representation among others but a necessity. Physicists are forced to admit not only that there is no answer without a question, but also that no question is the “right one,” independently of the means they have taken (preparation) to be able to receive a determinate answer to this question and not to another one.

The “agreement” between physics and metaphysics, if it is to be renewed, will not concern only operators, which mark the taking-into-account within the very syntax of the physical theory of the hiatus that had inspired Whitehead. It will require the abandonment of the “initial datum,” because this datum had the power of proposing, if not of imposing, its perspective on the entity that appropriates it, and because, in terms of knowledge, it is precisely this power that quantum entities lack. They do not dictate how they are to be questioned, but they are a respondent in the authentic sense only insofar as the person framing the question has undertaken the means to “prepare” them to answer.

… The conceptual transformation that witnesses the disappearance of the initial datum as the source and explanation of relevant novelty may be interpreted as granting to relevance the meaning it receives in some of our most important experiences: when a gesture, a question, a suggestion give rise to their respondent without having “deserved” it. Not the frustrated insistence of the “You ought to understand,” but the true miracle, celebrated by the concord of two voices — Okay, now I understand / now you understand — in the most radical absence of guarantees that this concord designates something that is “the same.” What was to be understood did not preexist the understanding, and belongs only to the person who understands.

… the “correlated universe” is not unified, but may be characterized by a multiplicity of “correlations,” relations that are “non-localizable,” for they are not defined between terms but rather by repercussions and repercussions of repercussions: a reciprocal immanence that entangles harmonies and dissonances, convergences and divergences, captures and diversions. Each element refers to others and is a reference for others, but each time in a way that is particular, possibly qualified only by the type of pattern or the “defining characteristic” that designates a “social fact.”

… [analogously, in language] the “usages” are not cases among which one has to choose, like the various possibilities of translation presented by a dictionary. Instead, they should evoke what these possibilities are made to bring about, the perplexed and undivided nebula whence the choice emerges: “this is the word that fits.”

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




September 29, 2012

Four-Dimensional Silence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:34 am

” … There in the white flat silence I began for the first time to feel a slight sense of shame for what we were proposing to do. Did we really intend to invade this silence with our trucks and bulldozers and after a few years leave it a radioactive junkyard?”

This is from Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (1998). This book is a combination of what was originally four separate books; today’s extracts are from what was Basin and Range (1981):

Deffeyes is a big man with a tenured waistline. His hair flies behind him like Ludwig van Beethoven’s. He lectures in sneakers. His voice is syllabic, elocutionary, operatic. He has been described by a colleague as “an intellectual roving shortstop, with more ideas per square metre than anyone else in the department — they just tumble out.” His surname rhymes with “the maze.” He has been a geological engineer, a chemical oceanographer, a sedimentary petrologist. As he lectures, his eyes search the hall. He is careful to be clear but also to bring forth the full promise of his topic, for he knows that while the odd jock and the pale poet are the white of his target the bull’s-eye is the future geologist. Undergraduates do not come to Princeton intending to study geology. When freshmen fill out cards stating their three principle interests, no one includes rocks. Those who will make the subject their field of major study become interested after they arrive. It is up to Deffeyes to interest them — and not a few of them — or his department goes into a subduction zone. So his eyes search the hall. People out of his course have been drafted by the Sacramento Kings and have set records in distance running. They have also become professors of geological geophysics at Caltech and of petrology at Harvard.

Kenneth Deffeyes

Deffeyes’ own research has gone from Basin and Range sediments to the floor of the deep sea to unimaginable events in the mantle, but his enthusiasms are catholic and he appears to be less attached to any one part of the story than to the entire narrative of geology in its four-dimensional recapitulation of space and time. His goals as a teacher are ambitious to the point of irrationality. At the very least, he seems to expect a hundred mint geologists to emerge from his course — expects perhaps to turn on his television and see a certified igneous petrographer up front with the starting Kings.

… When I asked Deffeyes what one might expect from a close inspection of roadcuts, he said they were windows into the world as it was in other times. We made plans to take samples of highway rock.

[ … ]

Deffeyes became excited as we approached Hook Mountain [in New Jersey]. The interstate had blasted into one toe of the former peninsula, exposing its interior to view. Deffeyes said, “Maybe someone will have left some zeolites here. I want them so bad I can taste them.” He jumped the curb with his high-slung Geology Department vehicle, got out his hammers, and walked the cut. It was steep and competent, with brown oxides of iron over the felt-textured black basalt, and in it were tens of thousands of tiny vugs, a high percentage of them filled with pearl-lustred crystals of zeolite. To take a close look, he opened his hand lens — a small-diameter, ten-power Hastings Triplet. “You can do a nice act in a jewelry store,” he suggested. “You whip this thing out and you say the price is too high. These are beautiful crystals. Beautiful crystals imply slow growth. You don’t get in a hurry and make something that nice.” He picked up the sledge and pounded the cut, necessarily smashing many crystals as he broke their matrix free. … “You have to destroy them in order to preserve them. They contain aluminum, silicon, calcium, sodium, and an incredible amount of imprisoned water. ‘Zeolite‘ means ‘the stone that boils.’ If you take one small zeolite crystal, of scarcely more than a pinhead’s diameter, and heat it until the water has come out, the crystal will have an internal surface area equivalent to a bedspread. Zeolites are often used to separate one kind of molecule from another. They can, for example, sort out molecules for detergents, choosing the ones that are biodegradable. They love water. In refrigerators, they are used to absorb water that accidentally gets into the Freon. They could be used in automobile gas tanks to absorb water. A zeolite called clinoptilolite is the strongest adsorber of strontium and cesium from radioactive wastes. The clinoptilolite will adsorb a great deal of lethal material, which can then store in a small space. When William Wyler made The Big Country, there was a climatic chase scene in which the bad guy was shot and came clattering down a canyon wall in what appeared to be a shower of clinoptilolite. Geologists were on the phone to Wyler at once. ‘Loved your movie. Where was that canyon?’

In this next scene, Deffeyes and McPhee are now in the Basin and Range terrain of Nevada:

… Supreme over all is silence. Discounting the cry of the occasional bird, the wailing of a pack of coyotes, silence — a great spatial silence — is pure in the Basin and Range. It is a soundless immensity with mountains in it. You stand, as you do now, and look up at a high mountain front, and turn your head and look fifty miles down the valley, and there is utter silence. It is the silence of the winter forests of the Yukon, here carried high to the ridgelines of the ranges. “It is a soul-shattering silence,” the physicist Freeman Dyson wrote of southern Nevada in Disturbing the Universe. “You hold your breath and hear absolutely nothing. No rustling leaves in the wind, no rumbling of distant traffic, no chatter of birds or insects or children. You are alone with God in that silence. There in the white flat silence I began for the first time to feel a slight sense of shame for what we were proposing to do. Did we really intend to invade this silence with our trucks and bulldozers and after a few years leave it a radioactive junkyard?”

Last week’s McPhee is here.



September 28, 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:22 am

‘… man’s wits require not the addition of feathers and wings, but of leaden weights.’

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

… There is no evidence that Bacon’s method was ever used by him or anyone to discover anything; indeed, Bacon made not a single significant scientific discovery himself. The important point, however, was not the details but that it is a quasi-mechanical step-by-step (algorithmic) process, so that anyone could conduct it, without recourse to inspiration or intellectual genius. ‘Our method of discovering the sciences,’ wrote Bacon, ‘merely levels men’s wits, and leaves but little to their superiority, since it achieves everything by the most certain rules and demonstrations.’ You don’t need to be clever, but merely careful and thorough. This — and not Bacon’s own quasi-vitalistic, occult conception of nature — is what separates his philosophy from that of the natural magicians such as Paracelsus, Cardano or Della Porta, for all of whom scientific understanding was a privilege conferred by the possession of exceptional intellect or insight which made one a conduit for the almost Gnostic revelation of truths.

In other words, [Bacon’s] Novum Organum democratizes science. Indeed, it positively demands that discovery be assigned to legions of plodders who patiently collect all the data while lacking the imagination to leap to conclusions. ‘I am emphatically of the opinion,’ Bacon wrote, ‘that man’s wits require not the addition of feathers and wings, but of leaden weights. Men are very far from realizing how strict and disciplined a thing is research into truth and nature, and how little it leaves to the judgment of men.’ The implication is that science must be institutionalized and professionalized: there should be what amounts to a ‘knowledge industry’ dedicated to churning out scientific understanding just as bakers make bread.

… If one must become encyclopaedic in canvassing nature that should not reflect a voracious appetite so much as a diligent attitude. When Bacon’s successors used ‘curious’ as a term of praise for natural philosophers, it was often with this connotation: the cura here as ‘care’ rather than inquisitiveness or zeal.

… [Science historians] Daston and Park describe the empirical science of the late seventeenth century as ‘grainy with facts, full of experimental particulars conspicuously detached from explanatory or theoretical moorings.’ Most importantly, these facts were often not motivated by a question of the sort ‘I wonder why/if/how …’ Their proliferation encouraged a suspicion that anything might happen — and if so, how could one hope to construct an explanation?

Francis, meet Emily (whouldn’t that be an interesting encounter!):

[untitled poem by Emily Dickinson]

Renunciation – is a piercing Virtue –
The letting go
A Presence – for an Expectation –
Not now –
The putting out of Eyes –
Just Sunrise –
Lest Day –
Day’s Great Progenitor –
Renunciation – is the Choosing
Against itself –
Itself to justify
Unto itself –
When larger function –
Make that appear –
Smaller – that Covered Vision – Here –

[This poem is not in Ball’s text.]

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



September 27, 2012

Mixed Blood

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:35 am

… Who, after all, would dare affirm that they are not of mixed blood?

This is from The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies by Michel Serres (2008, 1985):

… All dualism does is reveal a ghost facing a skeleton. All real bodies shimmer like watered silk.

… The variety of sight, basted with large tacking stitches on to the variety of hearing, these sewn temporarily to each other, and each one separately and both together tacked on to those of taste, smell and touch, piece by piece and in no particular order, working towards the definitive garment which never eventuates, forms components which are seen and which, on occasion, clash with the resulting variety or with a neighboring one: the goat’s beard beneath the nostrils of a horse attracts attention, the neck beneath the narwhal’s horn causes surprise. This is how we originate and how we are formed: a slapdash piece of work, subject to the vagaries of time and the blunders of brief opportunities. At times our skin, a hasty and untidy construct, happy from some fortunate encounter, resembles the chimera, with inexpertly attached fragments: a chin adorned with strange hairs, or pasterns not matching the hooves. Our upbringing or environment, the chain formed by the chance assembly of our genes, makes weird half-breeds of us, variables on a globally stable pattern. Our time does not end in a system, but in a rough-cut and patchwork rag. All women differ, the goat, the mare and narwhal differ, all women come together in the woman in the sixth tapestry, the mare, narwhal and goat come together, the unicorn brings about the required totalization, the woman wears the animal skin. We are all dressed in fabulous skins, assuming the guise of enigmatic sphinxes. The skin varies, discrete, continuous, inexpertly sewn, horned. It varies: woven, historiated, tattooed and legendary.

Desire“, the sixth of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series

… witness the issue of tigers and lions, ligers and tigons, thus named according to the species of the male or female. There is protest about genetic manipulation. But any genesis is party to such manipulation, any individual, any organism can call itself a sphinx or unicorn. Who, after all, would dare affirm that they are not of mixed blood? On the blue island or red plain you see a rabbit, a leopard, or a heron in flight. The identity that you attribute to them is a sign of your ignorance: each one is the result of cross-breeding. I reproach myself for not knowing enough about the varieties of rodents, waders or panthers; about hybridization. The marvellous thing about the tapestry is that it consists entirely of crossings, otherwise, how could it be woven?

My previous post from Serres’s book is here.



Real-World Reach

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:34 am

… a specific reach … is accomplished by a “soft assembly” of different forces … that are fitted to the exact local situation at the moment of reaching (i.e. a “real-world” reach, not an abstract one as given by language). There are thus hundreds of reaches.

This is from Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development by Daniel Stern (2010):

… We move all the time, both physically and mentally. If our mind and body were not in a constant process of change when awake, we would not feel alive and vital. I am writing about dynamic changes that occur constantly. Our respirations rise and fall over a cycle that repeats every three or four seconds. Our bodies are in almost constant motion: we move our mouth, twitch, touch our face, make small adjustments in head position and orientation, alter our facial expression, shift the direction of our gaze, adjust the muscular tone of our body position, whether standing, sitting, or lying (if awake).

… Seeing a dead person is immediately shocking because they do not move, nothing moves, and even the almost subliminal vibrations of tonicity stop. We grasp this in a glance with peripheral vision. Without motion we cannot read in or imagine mental activity underneath, or thoughts, emotions, or “will.”

… Similarly, when a mother goes “still face” while facing her infant, i.e. not moving her face at all, not even with slight expressions, a baby, or even a neonate, becomes upset within seconds.

… One of the meanings of this concept is that all acts (mental and physical) must take on a temporal shape while they are being enacted. If they did not, our experience of the human world would not be incarnated — it would be unrecognizable.

(Uh oh. This is not looking good for still photography.)

… If one had to deal with each dynamic element separately (its speed, intensity, temporal contour, etc.), the process would require much integrative work with the fragments and would be inefficient. Some Gestalt that integrates the many dynamic elements needs to be interposed between the stimuli and the subjective experience as acted upon so as to streamline the process of adaptation. This Gestalt is the dynamic form of vitality. The situation is no different from our passing over phonemes to grasp a word, or passing over words to capture the sense of a phrase, or being unaware of the evaluation checks when appraising an emotion.

Similarly, how can we process from a general category of action (walking, smiling) to someone’s specific walk or smile that carries the signature of their own unique vitality? We now know that many categories of action that we previously thought of as fairly fixed motor patterns, or representations or schemas, such as reaching to grasp an object, are not so fixed. Thelen & Smith (1994) have shown how a specific reach by an infant is accomplished by a “soft assembly” of different forces, speeds, hand orientations, limb extensions, and muscle groupings that are fitted to the exact local situation at the moment of reaching (i.e. a “real-world” reach, not an abstract one as given by language). There are thus hundreds of reaches. And so it is with forms of vitality.

… Will multisensoriality prove to be ubiquitous not only at the level of single neurons (Stein & Stanford, 2008), regardless of the anatomical region in which they are found, but at higher organizational levels as well? Will the functional anatomy of the brain have to be radically changed, and if so, what are the consequences for psychology?

My previous post from Stern’s book is here.



September 26, 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:26 am

…  the theater will be less the place where marvelous phantoms stir than the still vaster site where real or nearly real men and women, the spectators, will not lose themselves in dreams, but rather rise up to thought …

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

… When he enters the auditorium of a theater, he is horrified and grieved by the spectacle of those fascinated people who listen but do not hear, who stare but see nothing: sleepwalkers immersed together in a dream that stirs them, deprived of judgment, bewitched and fundamentally insensible. (Is it really this way? Is not the spectator rather often frivolous, that is, only slightly interested, as incapable of fascination as of attention?)

No matter; this is indeed the kind of influence that the author, the actor, and the director would like to exert. If the actor performs well, he will identify with his character and powerfully attract souls; not in the manner of a man who is real, but as a dreaming force or an unreal existence in which we, the others seated below in our seats, will for an instant incarnate our  hopes and actualize our dreams in order to satisfy them passionately, without peril and without truth. This participation and sympathy, this almost revolting contact between merged sensibilities, these immediate relations in which nothing is in relation, this manner of loving without love are what seem to have offended Brecht from the outset; and all the more so inasmuch as, with their expressionist disorder and brutality, his first works have recourse to incantatory means that provoke, it is true, more resistance than adherence.

Then why does he persist in writing and working only for the theater, where failure seems to him more honorable than this sort of success? Probably because he has a malevolent gift for theater; perhaps because an artist and a writer feel all the more called to exercise an art the less they can bear it as it is; because there is in Brecht a great concern for being in relation with the world of men, for telling them what he knows, but, even more, for listening to them and leading them to the threshold of speech. For him the theater will be less the place where marvelous phantoms stir than the still vaster site where real or nearly real men and women, the spectators, will not lose themselves in dreams, but rather rise up to thought and soon have their say.

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



Thirty-two Fouettés Short of Perfection

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:25 am

“If in the Black Swan pas de deux the ballerina cannot adequately perform all thirty-two fouettés, may she replace them with other brilliant steps?”

This is from ‘Idealists, Materialists, and the Thirty-Two Fouettés’ by Jack Anderson (1975):

… From all the possible movements of which persons are capable, someone selects the limited number of movements which comprise a particular dance. But having summarized the obvious, difficulties still arise, since one can regard the movements in any dance in two distinct — and, at their extremes, nearly irreconcilable — ways. For convenience, I shall call these positions the Idealist and the Materialist, and I use the terms solely in the sense I define here, without reference to other meanings they may possess in philosophy or theology.

Idealist dancegoers regard a dance as the incarnation in movement of ideas or effects; typically, Idealists may not mind that in different productions of what is ostensibly the same ballet steps are changed, provided that the alterations express the same idea, produce the same effect, or illumine the work’s central concept. The Materialist, in contrast, regards a dance as an assemblage of specific steps (or, in the case of improvasatory or indeterminate pieces, specific instructions for deliberately unforeseeable steps) from which ideas or effects may be derived. Therefore the Materialist can maintain that it is possible for two productions of the same work to employ identical steps and yet be different in effect — a familiar example being the way in which some ballerinas offer a birdlike Odette, while others emphasize her humanity. To cite a more recent example, there is Emilia in Limón’s “The Moor’s Pavane.” In conversation, Pauline Koner, the role’s creator, said that she deplores those dancers who stress what one critic admiringly calls Emilia’s “evil abandon,” for both she and Limón wanted Emilia to be a warm-hearted confidante. But a Materialist spectator might countenance such an interpretation, provided that steps remain unaltered, for the interpretation would suggest that the steps are capable of many emotional colorations, just as in the theater Hamlets have ranged from pale neurasthenics to stalwart men of action.

poster from the movie

… Most contemporary ballets are regarded in Materialist terms. Who would think of doing “his own” version of, say, “Undertow” or “Ballet Imperial”? Tudor and Balanchine themselves may constantly fuss with their ballets: Tudor may assign one ballerina a double role in “Undertow,” while Balanchine may redo the mime and scrap the décor and even the very title of “Ballet Imperial.” But, as the authors of the works, their changes are comparable to a poet’s revisions. No one else, though, would dream of touching these ballets.

… Idealist principles can menace works which have heretofore occupied an honored place in a repertoire. The classics — first “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” and now “Giselle” — are gradually eroding. The influence of Soviet ballet may be partly responsible, for the Russians since Gorsky have stressed ideas for dancing and remain fond of separating the functions of scenarist and choreographer. Such modern ballets as “Spartacus” and “The Stone Flower” have been repeatedly rechoreographed, each time by someone who tries to reveal more clearly than his predecessors the essence of the scenario and score. Similarly, the Soviets use the classics as though they were the dance equivalent of Greek myths, the stories of “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty” serving each new choreographer in the same way that the Electra myth has served playwrights from Aeschylus to O’Neill.

A few non-Soviet modern ballets have also been so regarded. Some years ago when Festival Ballet revived Fokine’s “Scheherazade” with moderate success, a critic wrote that he thought greater success might have been possible if the ballet had been rechoreographed, the critic apparently considering “Scheherazade” not as steps by Fokine, but as an idea for a ballet.

… Staging ballets might be less vexing if dance possessed a universally accepted system of notation. Yet there are dancegoers who may secretly rejoice that such a system does not exist. These fans insist that, rather than consisting of steps which may produce effects, a dance consists primarily of effects embodied in steps. Therefore steps may be altered if comparable effects are gained. According to this theory, one might contend that while Camargo, in her time [the 18th century], astounded audiences with entrechat quatre, any revival of Camargo ballet (granting, for purposes of argument, the possibility of such a thing) should contain not entrechat quatre, which no longer astounds, but some other flashy step. This would then be called preserving the ballet’s spirit, if not its letter.

But would it be? For who today can view the eighteenth century so unaffected by the artistic and social upheavals which have transpired since then that he can create choreography which would in all ways be equivalent to genuine choreography of the period? And just what shall our modern Camargo do, if not entrechat quatre? Thirty-two fouettés, perhaps? An obvious anachronism! Yet what step would not be?

… Our present willingness to tolerate extensive changes in extant works may be a hangover from the old attitude that dance is not really an important art — that, finally, it does not matter what is danced, provided the results are diverting. Yet in our century dance has gained enormous artistic significance, and so what is danced surely matters as much as how it is danced. If no two productions of any work in the performing arts can ever be exactly the same, the work itself should possess some sort of solid identity and integrity.

Until the time when dance acquires a sense of its own identity, we are left with our original question about the Black Swan: To fouetté or not to fouetté?

Idealists will not hesitate to permit the ballerina to substitute steps, while Materialists would caution against the substitution. Conceivably, the ballerina, reluctant to look less than dazzling, might go ahead and change the steps anyway. Even so, her artistic conscience ought to be reminding her that she still remains at least thirty-two fouettés short of perfection.



September 25, 2012

Teaching People to Speak

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:59 am

…  if we start from actual communication … we will be struck by the flexibility of native speech. It will seem more a natural than a conventional behavior, more a creative adjustment than an algorithm or a pattern of culture.

This is from Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry by Paul Goodman (1971). This chapter is titled ‘Format and Empty Speech’:

… By “format” I mean imposing on the literary process a style that is extrinsic to it.

… Format is not like censorship that tries to obliterate speech, and so sometimes empowers it by making it important. And it is not like propaganda that simply tells lies. Rather, authority imposes format on speech because it needs speech, but not autonomous speech. Format is speech colonized, broken-spirited. It is a use of speech as social-cement, but it is not like the small talk of acquaintances on the street in their spontaneous style; it is a collective style for a mass. So in appearance it is often indistinguishable from the current literary standard. But in actual use it is evident from the first sentence that it does not tell anything.

… In Newspeak, George Orwell was shooting at not quite the right target. He was thinking of control of speech by the lies and propaganda of crude totalitarian regimes; but I doubt that this is humanly feasible. (In the end the State is bound together by simple fright, not brainwashing.) The government of a complicated modern society cannot lie much. But by format, even without trying, it can kill feeling, memory, learning, observation, imagination, logic, grammar, or any other faculty of free writing.

… In any period, powerful artists are likely to go way out and become incomprehensible. They abide by the artistic imperative to make it as clear as possible, but they are not deterred by the fact that the audience doesn’t catch on. They do not want to shock the audience, but the audience just gets lost — and bored. Thayer comments on the first performance of Eroica:

Some, Beethoven’s particular friends, assert that it is just this symphony which is his masterpiece, that this is the true style for high class music, and that if it does not please, it is because the public is not cultured enough artistically to grasp all these lofty beauties. After a few thousand years have passed, it will not fail of its effect. … A man shouted down from the gallery, “I’ll give another kreutzer if the thing will but stop!”

Yet pretty soon, it made itself an audience, it taught people to speak, as Merleau-Ponty puts it well. On hindsight, the incomprehensible of genius almost always turns out to be in the mainstream of tradition, because the artist took the current style for granted,  he worked on the boundary of what he knew, and he did something just more than he knew.

… Long schooling increasingly attempts to socialize to the common code. Suburban life and mass consumption of mass-produced commodities extend the socialization into every detail of life. Communications engineers tailor speech to make transactions more efficient. Linguists devise ingenious formulas for the automatic translation of foreign languages. The general Theory of Communications asserts that noiseless exchange of accurate information is the order, value, and meaning of the universe. And people feel that by language one can no longer communicate anything.

… “communication” means that the speakers touch one another. Their speech has made a difference to how they organize their experience. A good sign of it is that they henceforth use their own words differently. The essence is not the exchange of “information”; the information must form, re-form, the speakers. For this, the public constancy of the code is a disadvantage. To put it paradoxically, the aim of communication is to alter the code.

… The use of words is itself a creative act, somewhat physical, that produces meanings that did not exist in prior thought. People are more changed by changing their patterns of words than their thoughts. Good speech, colloquial or literary, is more meaningful than thought, not less, because it is part of a richer human situation, the dialogue of persons.

I realize that it is awkward and inelegant to define communication as I here propose; it is hard to build on it a precise Theory of Communications. It brings back the speakers and respondents as persons rather than exchangers of bits of information. If the speakers are free agents, we cannot know them through and through. What they do is probably not arbitrary, but their causes are outside the speech event and partly outside the realm of signs altogether. It is not possible to tell beforehand what sentences will be “meaningful” for communication. It is possible, even frequent, that it is some unnoticed nuance or connotation of the signs, or a fleeting gesture, even a “misunderstanding,” that in fact communicates, rather than the common code or the prefabricated representations.

… in linguistic research, if language is isolated as an independent object of study, it will seem to be a constant code; but if we start from actual communication and ask what part language is playing in it, we will be struck by the flexibility of native speech. It will seem more a natural than a conventional behavior, more a creative adjustment than an algorithm or a pattern of culture.

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



In the Work

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:58 am

… A volitional drive towards action, frustrated by the novel or indeterminate, leads to a reflective or emotional response before action can resume.

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

… “I am not a denizen of obscure, abstract depths — a diver after cosmic conceptions and unconfirmable hypotheses. I am content to snorkel along the surface, peering down just a bit to be bewitched by the pleasing patterns of luminous fish and the quiet swaying of colorful coral.” [Leonard Meyer] objected to what he saw as “an almost obsessive concern with the nature of unity in music” and drew attention to the importance of stylistic change. Meyer’s skepticism about theories that find hidden depths of structural coherence, beyond the colorfully variegated surface of a work, had led him to place emphasis, in his own theoretical work, on exploring the conditions which create patterning on the “surface” of the music (to continue the diving metaphor), and to investigate the means by which these patterns have changed historically. From his earliest work (1956) he had recognized that approaching diachronic change in a musical style demanded tolerance for uncertainty, both in listening to music and in formalizing its properties, but in all his writings he chose to interpret this uncertainty as a source of meaning, rather than of abject concern. The presence of change might threaten the accuracy of a listener’s stylistic expectations and habits of response, but it also provides a challenge to reconsider dispositional traits. Moments of affective reaction or simple puzzlement then become, upon reflection, the occasions of rationalized meaning. Stylistic change might problematize any synchronic representation of tonality, and determine that even a relatively enduring pattern is mutable, but the moment of uncertainty, when a listener finds him- or herself confronted by a novel patterning, itself brings to light the patterns of understanding that have governed the predictions to that point. These patterns are not arbitrary, but habits of listening that are stylistically formed.

… Habitual forms of response are the active embodiment of “beliefs,” or states of settled judgment, about some aspect of the world. Dewey, taking up this viewpoint, suggests that when habits, also named by him as “instincts,” are frustrated by a collision with some aspect of the world that contradicts their established form, conscious thought or emotional response will arise. He places emphasis on the “uncertainty” that is inevitable when the indeterminacy of some state of affairs makes established habits of reaction inadequate. A volitional drive towards action, frustrated by the novel or indeterminate, leads to a reflective or emotional response before action can resume. This pattern informs the substance of Meyer’s aesthetic theory.

… In the process of listening, a subject “lives through” in time the state of not knowing, or of having to wait for a moment of fulfillment whose timing cannot be judged ahead, even if it is “expected” to occur at some point. Such a waiting and anticipation, with frustration of goals, could be taken superficially as the occasion for an affective response (such as annoyance or startle) in the listener, but the claim being made by Meyer is more interesting than that, as it points to the response as indicative of an affective moment in the work. It would be easy to read Meyer’s reference to “expectancy” or to states of “uncertainty” as a confusion of the mental and the structurally given. Continuities implied as part of a structural process are followed “expectantly” and processes whose outcome is relatively indeterminate (when heard in time, without hindsight) are heard in a state of some “uncertainty.” Are these not states of mind, rather than a moment in the unfolding of a musical process? To make this kind of split between the musical knower and the moment known is, however, to perpetuate an assumption that what is “given” in music is a material entity, free in its characteristics from the markers of mentality. [ … ] If it is an emotionally charged feeling of seeking some end that a given listener experiences, that may be his or her most effective way of “knowing” the music (in a weakly conceptual way) without necessarily naming what is known. In this kind of case, a “feeling” is not some purely private matter, whose content can be unraveled only by seeking further  information about the individual concerned. It is a state that has been semiotically constructed by the ordering of the music’s contrapuntal and tonal process.

… To identify the features of indeterminacy that form the shadow side of any knowledge is the job of contextually sensitive analysis — in any field. General structures do not contain or predict the particularities of a work, but leave a space for its individuation. It is here, when idealized abstractions meet the full gamut of conflicting features, that their own potentialities are either softened or enhanced. “Uncertainty” is thus written into theoretical competence as a necessary part of understanding the nature of generality and of the particular in a work. It is part of what it is to be open to the new.

Once the role of indeterminacy is understood, the recognition that “desire” or “wilfulness” are general properties of tonal signification, not in themselves capable of individuating a given passage, can become the impetus for analytical discussion in which the possible senses of context are further explored. The generalized potentialities of tonal unfolding allow for a wide range of different kinds of contextual signification, and of response, all of which can be accessible to others. In an analytical forum, these responses can be made explicit and begin to form the range of “tenable opinions” about a work’s content. They are neither fully determined by the music, nor purely personal, but the space of negotiation in between.

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



September 24, 2012

As If Salt

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:47 am

This is from the beginning of:

by Alastair Reid

Never to see ghosts? Then to be
haunted by what is, only — to believe that glass
is for looking through, that rooms, too, can be empty,
the past past, deeds done,
that sleep, however troubled, is your own?
Do the dead lie down, then? Are blind men blind?

[ … ]

The Ghost
by Hilary Corke

What makes permeable the ghost?
Madam, you haunt me but a young month old
And already I see the gray clock through your breasts
And, when I hold you, air
Is in my fingers or cold water at most.
How little rubbing wears the brave nap bare;
You are like old flags of honor hung in naves
Through which we see the stained glass and the vault.
Why, all goes thin and savor flies the salt.

And you in April were sure flesh in my arms;
In May,
Only an eddying in the furniture.
And who can say but time’s philosopher
Whether this fading in the lover’s palms
Grieves or relieves him? Only I note this much,
That there are those who spring from a rare stem
And grow more strange and solid at each touch —
Whom I have known, but you were not of them.

This is slightly more than half of:

The Lost Ingredient
by Anne Sexton

[ … ]

Almost yesterday, pushing West, I lost
ten Utah driving minutes, stopped to steal
past postcard vendors, crossed the hot slit
of macadam to touch the marvelous loosed
bobbing of The Salt Lake, to honor and assault
it in its proof, to wash away some slight
need for Maine’s coast. Later the funny salt
itched in my pores and stung like bees or sleet.
I rinsed it off in Reno and hurried to steal
a better proof at tables where I always lost.

Today is made of yesterday, each time I steal
toward rites I do not know, waiting for the lost
ingredient, as if salt or money or even lust
would keep us calm and prove us whole at last.



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