Unreal Nature

October 25, 2012

Gating and Braking

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:10 am

… it is often observed that everything that the trainee does not tell their supervisor is what really went on in the session.

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

… Identification and internalization remain incompletely understood. Can exploring the dynamics of vitality forms lead to better understanding? What is it about another that we identify with? Is it what they do, or why they do it, or how they do it? It is all three. Nevertheless, how it is done is often the most mysterious and least explained.

… It is always remarkable to see/feel yourself walking and moving like your father or mother, or making the same facial expression while tilting your head a certain way, or sighing audibly in a way that they do or did. That sigh is not any sigh. What most makes it particular is its dynamic features — the force and duration of expiring the air, the tension of the vocal chords and the opening of the mouth, the attack, the fade-out, etc. (Recall that mirror neurons apply to unseen vocal chord movements as well as to visible gestures.) Every sigh has a beginning, middle, and end with a stress somewhere along the timeline. To “take in” another’s sigh one has to have been inside their skin. Identification and internalization are in this sense more complete immersions in another’s dynamic experience than empathy needs to be. Without the vitality forms, identification and internalization would be like rules of action, not a felt immersion.

… We see many acts performed by others every day. We attribute motives to them. We observe the manner in which they are accomplished. We grasp the context. But why do we care? How is the what, why, and how of any particular act lit up and selected as worth “taking in,” to internalize, or identify with, or empathize with? If this question cannot be answered, all the rest would lose much of its clinical value.

The act of another to be identified with must belong to that other specifically. It must carry their personal signature. It cannot be any member of a class of acts. The vitality of the forms of the actions of the other must be specific to them. It is what gives it its uniqueness.

Even more serious, without a selection process we would be constantly captured and inundated by the behavior of others in our presence. Our mirror neuron system would be the prisoner of other people’s motor neuron systems. Some gating and braking mechanism must operate.

The selection of a specific other to identify with is primordial. That person must have a special relationship with us. We cannot get away from this notion. There must be a way that the behavior of the other has more value because of who they are to us, in reality or imagination. We must love, hate, respect, fear, admire, be attached to, or be dependent on them, (i.e. be in an important relationship with them). Their presence, then, had a special value (conscious or unconscious). This value is built up over previous experiences with the other, or the other’s prototype. These accumulated experiences link the other to motivational and emotional centers. They are “charged” by virtue of this linkage. They become “charged others.” Their presence alone will cause some activation of the arousal, motivational, and emotional centers associated with them.

[ … ]

… It is crucial to remember that the most transforming and curative element in psychotherapy is the experience of the therapeutic relationship, not the theoretical approach or the technical maneuvers.

… In speaking about the process of supervising young therapists in training, it is often observed that everything that the trainee does not tell their supervisor is what really went on in the session.

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



October 24, 2012

Igenuousness Twice Removed

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:30 am

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

Flaubert’s kind of impersonality, contracted and difficult, still affirmed the validity of the narrative mode: to tell is to show, to let be or make exist, without there being reason — despite the great doubts one may already have had — to question oneself about the limits and the workings of the narrative order. Thomas Mann knows very well that we have lost our naïveté. He therefore tries to restore it, not by passing over illusion in silence but, on the contrary, by producing it, by making it so visible that he can play with it, just as he plays with the reader and in so doing draws him into the game. Thus with his great sense of the narrative feast, Thomas Mann succeeds in restoring it as a feast of narrative illusion; giving back to us an ingenuousness twice removed, that of the absence of ingenuousness.

Photographers should think about that.

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



Memories of Dancing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:30 am

… memories of dancing are always associated with pleasure and with loss as though the rest of the woman’s life can be measured against such moments.

This is from the essay ‘Dance Narratives and Fantasies of Achievement’ by Angela McRobbie found in the collection Meaning in Motion, ed. Jane C. Desmond (1997):

[ … ]

Dancing, where the explicit and implicit zones of socialized pleasures and individualized desires entwine in the momentary discovery of the “reason of the body” … is undoubtedly one of the main avenues along which pop’s sense travels. [Ian Chambers, Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture, 1985]

A sociology of dance would have to step outside the field of performance and examine dance as a social activity, a participative form enjoyed by people in leisure, a sexual ritual, a form of self-expression, a kind of exercise and way of speaking through the body. Historians of working-class culture have acknowledged the place occupied by dance in leisure and the opportunities it has afforded for courtship, relaxation, and even riotous behavior. Unfortunately, in most cases the nature and form of the dance remains in the background, something more enjoyed by women than by men and therefore marginal to the real business of working-class life. This imbalance is slowly being redressed by American social historians like Elizabeth Ewen, who  has attempted to chart the various histories of immigrant and working-women’s leisure in the early years of the century. However, in this country it remains an uncharted ground coming through only in fleeting references in oral history or in collections like Sheila Rowbotham and Jean McCrindle’s Dutiful Daughters. Even here memories of dancing are always associated with pleasure and with loss as though the rest of the woman’s life can be measured against such moments.

… Geoff Mungham is the only sociologist who has turned his attention to the more mundane aspects of social dancing. In Youth in Pursuit of Itself he locates the importance of dancing in the life-cycle of working-class girls for whom getting a husband at a relatively young age is a social and economic imperative, and for whom also the dance hall provides the main opportunity for finding a possible partner. Like Richard Hoggart he sees the enthusiasm of young girls for dancing and having a good time as a “brief flowering” before they settle down to the hard work of being a wife and mother. For older working-class women memories of those good times sometimes burst through the surface as they take to the dance floor on the odd night off, or at the “girls’ night” at the local pub. Ann Whitehead graphically describes this kind of married women’s leisure in her classic study of rural life in Herefordshire. But beyond these fleeting comments and fleeting images, and since Mungham’s essay on dance hall culture, there is and has been very little else.

… A trivialized or feminized form? A ritual without resistance? A sequence of steps some steps removed from the active, creative core of youth cultural activity? Chambers mentions a range of dance styles by name: the shake, the jerk, the northern soul style of athletic, acrobatic dance, as well as the break dancing and “body popping” associated with black youth. He also makes connections between white youth culture dancing and the black music and dance from which it has continually borrowed. But he is faced with the same difficulties which seem to have beset other sociologists when it comes to locating the movements in the context of the culture. He evades the issue by referring to the “rich tension of dance” and then going on to engage more critically with the music.

Chambers’s work is important because it recognizes the centrality of dance in leisure and it makes connections between dance and African-American music, suggesting that it is this, and in particular soul music, which has provided the corporeal language for white youth culture dancing over the past forty years. Chambers is certainly not blind to gender dimensions in dance. Indeed, he articulates a sharply differentiated means of experiencing dance according to gender. Dance for girls represents a public extension of the private culture of femininity which takes place outside the worried gaze of the moral guardians and indoors in the protected space of the home. Male youth stylists, however, take to the floor within the direct ambiance of the subculture, hence the dominance of boys in the northern soul scene, or in black jazz dancing, break dancing, and so on. Chambers also seems to suggest that because boys in youth subcultures have been closer to the music in a technical sense so too have they been closer to the dance. The problem with this is that it posits a static and sexually divided model which is not in fact reflective of the active involvement of both girls and boys in dancing and in the various club cultures (in particular the recent “Acid House” phenomenon). Chambers’s analysis is the outcome of an approach to dance conducted through the medium of music and musical taste where boys have undeniably been at the controls and where girls have been in the background. Such an emphasis lets the author off the hook in relation to dance itself. “But dancing is itself an obscure reality, the not-so-innocent refuge of many a social secret.”

McRobbie goes on to examine the girls’ novel Ballet Shoes, the film and TV series Fame, and the movie Flashdance. She concludes, at the end:

… it would be possible to attribute the success and popularity of these fictions with preteen girls to these factors — that they continually and repetitively explore the dynamics of moving into a more independent space which carries with it the promise of achievement while simultaneously holding at bay the more adolescent dynamics of sexual success where a whole other set of competencies come into play. In these fictions the physical body seems to be speaking in a register of its own choice.



October 23, 2012

Strong Beauty

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 am

… When I do what is called “thinking,” muttering to myself, I never use words like God or Faith, and they are in no way premises for my behavior.

Final post from the essay ‘Beyond My Horizon’ by Paul Goodman, first published in 1972:

… The type of self-giving love is grown-ups’ love of children. The unique gift that children give us is the opportunity to do for them, with no claim of return, therefore no resentment, therefore no guilt. It is depressing that this glaringly obvious fact is not told in the stories of God the Father, that He has a lot to be grateful for because of His creatures.

… Beauty mild is lively, but strong is terrible. When a strong beauty is just to see or hear but not desire, it makes me cry because paradise is lost — and there is nothing to do. If it is something to desire, then it is at peril that I resist what attracts me, however dangerous, unavailable, inappropriate, or perverse I may judge it to be. I must love it and suffer rather than be bored and caged as the horizon closes in. I cannot choose my paradise to be convenient, moral, or prudent. Pursuing the beautiful, I become still more inept.

… The difficulties of the world, said Kafka, are mathematical. Given the spreading of space in all directions on a plane, it is infinitely more probable that our paths will diverge than converge. That you will be out when I phone, and I will be out when you ring my bell — indeed, as Kafka points out, I was on my way over to your place. If several conditions are necessary for success, and each is moderately probable, the likelihood of their combination is wildly improbable. At every relay the message is distorted, and we did not speak the same dialect to begin with, but just enough of the same language so that we thought we were communicating. An unexpected stress, a lapse of attention, makes me vulnerable to other stresses, breakdowns, and accidents, so the rate of mishap is exponential. You get a flat tire and pull over, and step out over the edge and break a leg. These are the facts of life, no?

They are the facts of life for those who cannot abstract, who have only concrete and finite experience, like Kafka and me. We cannot take the vast numbers of possibilities as collective facts to manage, assigning them the infinite numbers of Aleph, Beth, and Gimel. We cannot soar off the ground covered by our own two feet in order to survey the landscape. Since we have no values except in the tendency of what we are doing, we cannot make a plan of action to a far goal; we have no such goal, just the reality that we are dissatisfied.

… In my politics — anarchist, decentralist, planning to leave out as much as possible, strongly conservative of simple goods that in fact exist — I have hit on a principle: Given the mathematical improbability of happiness, for God’s sake don’t add new obstacles.

… To Adam, I conjecture, the givenness of Creation was more apparent; everything happened to him for the first time. He lived in surprise. The givenness of Creation is surprise. But one cannot be surprised in the way one chooses to be surprised.

[ … ]

… When I do what is called “thinking,” muttering to myself, I never use words like God or Faith, and they are in no way premises for my behavior. When I talk to other people, I sometimes use them, but not authentically; I might use such language, as I have said, to facilitate earnest conversation with a believer, though I am not a believer; or I might use it to cut short a boring conversation with an unbeliever, when I am too tired to explain myself better. When I write, however, I readily use this vocabulary and apparently seriously. How is this?

In [Goodman’s book] Defense of Poetry, I suggest a possible reason: “Maybe it is that when I think or talk to myself, I am embarrassed; but when I write, I am not embarrassed” — since writing is my free act. But there could be a simpler reason, more prima facie, more what it feels like; I use this language because it is a poetic convention, a traditional jargon, like wearing old clothes because they are comfortable. It means nothing.

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



In Some Rare Moments

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 am

… In some rare moments, deserving the name of “encounter,” a person might “stop in their tracks” and “listen” to the environment.

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

… The possibilities of a personalized tone, or of a gestural shaping of a notated figure, need not be actualized in any given performance, and only a very small alteration in a performer’s movement can, in any case, lead to a loss of the desired effect. (When Derrida chooses to describe signs as relating to “absence” rather than “presence,” he captures this sense of a sign as yielding a content that it somehow cannot secure.) More importantly, the very possibility of a personal tone yields the counter-possibility of an impersonal one, which takes up the kinds of onset noise, frictional attributes, or alterations in tone available on an instrument and exploits them deliberately to avoid the illusion of a personal voice. If the “personal” is lost, but the memory of “voice” remains, the quality being heard becomes one of an “other” who might seem “strange,” “other-worldly,” or “ethereal.” A sense of encounter with the non-personal, or supra-personal, can thus be created by playing with the possibilities of “personal” sound.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] An example using even human voices could be found in the vocal practice of some English choirs, such as the King’s College Choir under David Wilcocks during the 1970s. Purity of tone and an absence of vibrato here contribute to a construction of what might be heard as the “spiritual” — not as an ineffable presence that descends magically upon the choristers (reinforcing the “angelic” look endowed by frilly robes) but as a quality of sound that belongs to an absence of the overt signs of “subjectivity” or “emotionality.” Similar effects can well be emulated on a violin. As a topos of sound production, this way of performing with  heightened control of the signs of subjectivity is indicative of a desire to present human potentialities that transcend the “personal.” Music has subverted the boundary of materiality and the humanly personal by creating an instrumental “voice.” Now it subverts a further boundary — that between the personal and its supposed limitations — by endowing its many voices with qualities that eschew the “subjective,” and transcend the expressive potential of an untrained human voice.

… In some rare moments, deserving the name of “encounter,” a person might “stop in their tracks” and “listen” to the environment. To do so is not necessarily to assume a voice speaking from behind the landscape. It is, rather, to become attentive to the land, for what it seems to present. It is to enter a relationship in which the humanly “personal” does not hold power, and the desire to project one’s own subjective states onto the land around is rebuffed somehow by the very alien nature of what is given, and yet it is still possible to have the sense of being “addressed.”

… Consider an “encounter,” in its generic sense — an experience in which some element of personal meeting is evident, its impact on an experiencing Subject made evident in an ongoing sense of having been challenged or “addressed.” Now consider an encounter with the “other” in a feature of the land. Does it not remain a very strong case? There, on the cusp between the personal and the environmentally material, the “land” seems to make a demand, to assume the position of one with a voice.

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



October 22, 2012

The Shutters Close

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:57 am

These are the middle three verses (out of seven) from:

by Peter Kane Dufault

[ … ]

Time plasm. There’s a neat
notion, if lunatic,
like — Who was it who said
our souls make an aspic
for the moon to eat?
He saw Man as aphid
in an ant-heap zodiac.

Well, who knows what stocks
of men the moon needs?
She does drag out of us
dreams, longings, certain tides
in the blood, paradox —
being Ishtar, libidinous,
and Dian, light-of-maids.

Maybe time’s the stuff
a moon eats. The white
meat of desire, the dark
of regret, a meat
Universe had none of
till mind reached fore and back —
and, to immortals, sweet.

[ … ]

This is the fourth Roman-numeralled segment (of seven) from:

Still Pond, No More Moving
by Howard Moss

[ … ]


Who is painting the barn door?
Who is painting the painter there,
Summer after summer,
The summer plucked from the year?
But there is that one summer
When old age, like a stick
Thrown for a retriever
Who does not bring it back,
Keeps drifting farther out
Till it’s no longer seen —
One mountainside slides down,
One city street slams shut,
A piece of the sea is gone.

[ … ]

You Know
by Jean Garrigue

You know those rose sherbets,
The gathering of evening around the leaves,
The suffusions of such tinctures of heavens
On the shorn meadows, the suèdes going gold,
And the delicious checkerboard squares
Taking on every strain of the light;
And you know how the shutters close,
How the rocks, wedged in between trees,
Turn rose,
And somebody blue in the grasses
Makes the gold leap, and how the washed skies
Glitter like scales.
So do cheeks, eyes, on fire
With the stilled clarity of the rose of air,
And we get on the bus,
Taking the last of it down with us.

by e.e. cummings

who are you, little i

(five or six years old)
peering from some high

window; at the gold

of november sunset

(and feeling: that if day
has to become night

this is a beautiful way)



Images Start

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:56 am

…  there are moments, even in a wordy culture like ours, when images start from no preformed program to become primary texts. Treated as illustrations of what is already scripted, they withhold their secrets.

This is from The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 2nd edition, by Leo Steinberg (1983, 1996):

… Surprisingly constant is the gesture of the self-touch in many-figures scenes of Entombment or Lamentation. That the lay of the hand in these instances is a “gesture” indeed seems to me undeniable, since no motion of limbs in Christ’s body, whether doing or suffering, can be other than willed. This much at least the divine nature in the Incarnation ensures. As the incarnate Word deigned to gestate in a virgin womb and exited without giving injury; as Christ ascended the cross and there spread his arms in worldwide embrace; as in his death, laid on his mother’s lap, he gently fingers a fold of her garment, and, being entombed, repels corruption, so also his disposition of hands, even in death, is at all times volitional and ostensive. Medieval and Renaissance artists understood that the hands of the dead Christ will not plunge where the living divinity would refrain. Yet in their images of the aftermath of the Passion, Christ’s hand falls again and again on the genitals — in small-scale illuminations, in painted altarpieces, in monumental sculptural groups.

Zebrák Lamentation (Bohemian), Lamentation, c. 1510

… The gesture is too pointed and too oft-repeated to disregard, or to dismiss as a verastic portrayal of what dying men are said to do in their throes.

Whether normal or not in actual death situations, a dead man’s hand cupping his genitals forms no part of standard iconographic traditions. We find no such posture in the Dying Gauls of Pergamene sculpture; nothing like it among the felled combatants of Baroque battle scenes; or in Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs; nor in the thousands of actors and extras who feign death in the movies. Civilian corpses, from plague victims to heroes, likewise avoid the gesture — except only certain tomb figures housed in sanctified spaces. And these are of a date well past the invention of the motif. The gesture in its origin shortly before the mid-14th century is proper only to representations of Christ, and for some sixty years to none other. Only by the end of the 14th century do we see it adapted to representations of Adam, and to high-dying princes and prelates whose tomb effigies rehearse Christ’s own posture.

German Pilon Shop, Entombment, c. 1540-54

To me it now seems that the dead Christ touching his groin is visualized in the totality of a promise fulfilled. His Passion completed, he points back to its beginning, much as his blood runs from the last wound back to the first — as if to say, consummatum est. In the joining of first and last, the Passion is brought to perfection.

And we need look for no other meeting when we encounter the gesture of Northern Pietà groups of the 15th century. In rare instances, it is the Madonna’s hand that rests on the loincloth — in reminiscence perhaps of Mary’s role as protectress of Jesus’ infancy. But whether the act is performed by the mother or by the living godhead in the corpse of the Son, or jointly by both, its sign character is apparent.

Illumination from the Petites Heures de Jean de Berry, Entombment, c. 1380-85

A sign it remains in a 15th-century Flemish subgroup of the type known as the Trinity, or Throne of Grace. Normally, in these visionary images, the Second Person is posed upright, indicating with the right hand the last wound received. But the works I have in mind differ from the more common type in directing the Father’s left hand to the Son’s groin. Like the symbolic “blood hyphen,” the two pointing hands span the Alpha and Omega of the Passion, the ostentatio genitalium complementing the requisite ostentatio vulnerum. We are shown once more that the incarnate Word died in a full-fraught man, triumphant over both sin and death; his sexuality vanquished by chastity, his mortality by Resurrection.

Swabian, Throne of Grace with Saints, c. 1510

[ … ]

… The field that I have tried to enter is unmapped, and unsafe, and more far-reaching than appears from my present vantage. [ … ] I have risked hypothetical interpretations chiefly to show that, whether one looks with the eye of faith or with a mytholographer’s cool, the full content of the icons discussed bears looking at without shying. And perhaps from one further motive: to remind the literate among us that there are moments, even in a wordy culture like ours, when images start from no preformed program to become primary texts. Treated as illustrations of what is already scripted, they withhold their secrets.

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



October 21, 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:29 am

Philosophy may not neglect the multifariousness of the world — the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to the cross.

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

… It requests no mourning, no renunciation that is not addressed specifically to the “excess of subjectivity” attested by the adventures of faith, and of the rationality in which speculative philosophy itself takes its place. Nor does it demand either the renunciation of the “thou” required by prayer, or of the respondents, molecules and neurons, required by the scientists who undertake to study the brain of people who pray. It simply proceeds to add a divine experience, “including everything without restriction,” not limited by the abstractions that doom neurons and prayer to enter into conflict. Infinite divine experience “saves” what has determined itself thus and not otherwise, but in the mode of conceptual realization that transforms every contradiction, every disjunctive alternative “either … or” into so many consequences of “thus and not otherwise.” This does not mean that the incompatibilities are nullified, but neither are they ratified. They acquire the problematic status that propositions never lose, the “perhaps” with regard to which every entertainment is determination, true or false, but whose exhibition pertains to intellectual feeling.

… The question, “Is Whitehead a theistic philosopher?” — raised in the United States but not in Europe — is not to be too easily dismissed. Whitehead presents himself as the philosopher who comes after William James. It is thus permissible to wonder to what extent Whitehead is not also the heir to James’s God. However, this hypothesis entails an initial test. To inherit James’s God also means to inherit the struggle William James fought against any confusion between the theistic viewpoint and what he called the Gnostic siren song, the philosophical-mystical temptation to situate mankind’s fate and vocation in the perspective of a final cosmic reconciliation:

… in which the reality to be known and the power of knowing shall have become so mutually adequate that each exhaustively is absorbed by the other and the twain shall become one flesh, and in which the light shall somehow have soaked up all the outer darkness into its own ubiquitous beams. [William James, ‘Reflex Action and Theism’]

… The Whiteheadian God, however, has taken on meaning in a speculative construction that may be seen as a humorous version of the Gnostic vision. His construction does indeed accomplish the Gnostic ideal of “reconciliation,” but it accomplishes it by rendering it “trivial” in the mathematical sense, for it is an ideal realized by every occasion, whatever it may be.

[ … ]

… To combat pious, conformist, or hateful opinion is part of the risks of philosophy, but the test Whitehead proposes for philosophy is to fight it by “saving” it, by addressing it as if it were capable of participating in the adventure. Christians, Stoics, Nietzscheans, Kantians are all accepted together, with the co-presence of the others being part of the test for each. The irresponsibility of Cain, the creature of creativity, when he refuses to be his brother’s keeper, and the responsibility that makes Quakers tremble when they live each of their acts as what conditions cosmic becoming: the point is not to oppose them, but to situate them in a mode such that their coexistence may be not a contradiction to be resolved but a fact to be celebrated.

There is a greatness in the lives of those who build up religious systems, a greatness in action, in idea and in self-subordination, embodied in instance after instance through centuries of growth. There is greatness in the rebels who destroy such systems: they are the Titans who storm heaven, armed with passionate sincerity. It may be that the revolt is the mere assertion by youth of its right to its proper brilliance, to that final good of immediate joy. Philosophy may not neglect the multifariousness of the world — the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to the cross. [Whitehead, Process and Reality]

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



October 20, 2012

Took and Gone

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:04 am

… They took what they took and were gone …

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):

… It was dawn at the summit. We had been awake for hours and had eaten a roadhouse breakfast sitting by a window in which the interior of the room was reflected against the black of the morning outside while a television mounted on a wall behind us resounded with the hoofbeats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger. Five A.M. CBS’s good morning to Nevada. Waiting for bacon and eggs. I put two nickels in a slot machine and got two nickels back. The result was a certain radiance of mood. Deffeyes, for his part, was thinking today in troy ounces. It would take a whole lot more than two nickels to produce a similar effect on him. Out for silver, he was heading into the hills.

… We were off on dirt roads now with a cone of dust behind us, which Deffeyes characterized as the local doorbell. He preferred not to ring it. This talkative and generous professor — who ordinarily shares his ideas as rapidly as they come to him, spilling them out in bunches like grapes — was narrow-eyed with secrecy today. He had stopped at a courthouse briefly, and — an antic figure, with his bagging sweater and his Beethoven hair — had revealed three digits to a county clerk in requesting to see a registry of claims. The claims were coded in six digits. Deffeyes kept the fourth, fifth, and sixth to himself like cards face down on a table. He found what he sought in a book of claims. Now, fifty miles up the valley, we had long since left behind us its only town, with its Odd Fellows Hall, its mercantile company, its cottonwoods and Lombardy poplars; and there were no houses, no structures, no cones of dust anywhere around us. The valley was narrowing. It ended where ranges joined. Some thousands of feet up the high face of a distant and treeless mountain we saw an unnaturally level line.

“Is that a road?” I asked him.

“That’s where we’re going,” he said, and I wished he hadn’t told me.

Deffeyes, in order to consult maps, had turned over the wheel to me.

… Now far above the basin, we were on the thin line we had seen from below, a track no wider than the truck itself, crossing the face of the mountain. It curved into reentrants and out around noses and back into reentrants and out to more noses. I was on the inboard side, and every once in a while as we went around a nose I looked across the hood and saw nothing but sky — sky and the summits of a distant range. We could see sixty, seventy miles down the valley and three thousand feet down the mountain. The declivity was by no means sheer, just steep — a steepness, I judged, that  would have caused the vehicle, had it slipped off the road, to go end over end enveloped in flame at a hundred yards a bounce. My hands slid over the wheel. They were filmed in their own grease.

The equanimitous Deffeyes seemed to be enjoying the view. He said, “Where did you learn to drive a truck?”

“Not that it’s so god-damned difficult,” I told him, “but this is about the first time.”

… We turned a last corner, with our inner wheels resting firmly on the road and the two others supported by Deffeyes‘ expectations. Now we were moving along one wall of a big V-shaped canyon that eventually became a gulch, a draw, a crease in the country, under cottonwoods. In the upper canyon, some hundreds of acres of very steep mountainside were filled with holes and shafts, hand-forged ore buckets, and old dry timbers. There were square nails in the timbers. An ore bucket was filled with square nails. “Good litter,” Deffeys said, and we walked uphill past the mine and along a small stream into the cottonwoods. The stream was nearly dry. Under the cottonwoods were the outlines of cabins almost a century gone. Here at seven thousand feet in this narrow mountain draw had lived a hundred people, who had held their last election a hundred years earlier. They had a restaurant, a brewery, a bookstore. They had seven saloons. And now there was not so much as one dilapidated structure. There were only the unhappy cottonwoods, looking alien and discontented over the moist bed of the creek. Sixteen stood there, twisted, surviving — most of them over four feet thick. “Those cottonwoods try an environmentalists soul,” Deffeyes said. “They transpire water like running fountains. If you were to cut them down, the creek would run. Cottonwoods drink the Humboldt. Some of the tension in this country is that miners need water. Getting rid of trees would preserve water. By the old brine-and-mercury method, it took three tons of water to mill one ton of ore. There was nothing like that in this creek. They had to take the ore from here to a big enough stream, and that, as it happens, was a twelve-mile journey using mules. They would have gone out of here with only the very best ore. There was probably a supergene enrichment here over a pretty good set of veins. They took what they took and were gone in six years.”

We walked back down to the mine, below which the stream — in flash flood once or twice a century over several million years — had cut the deep sharp V of its remarkably plunging valley. A number of acres of one side had been used as a dump, and Deffeyes began to sample this used ore. “They must have depended on what they could see in the rock,” he said, “If it was easy to see, they got it all. If it was complicated and gradational, they couldn’t differentiate as well, and I think they threw it here.” The material was crumbly, loose, weathered, unstable underfoot, a pyramid side of decomposing shards. Filling small canvas bags at intervals of six feet, he worked his way across it. With each step, he sank in above his ankles. He was about two hundred feet above the stream. Given the steepness of the ground and the proximity of all the loose material to the critical angle of repose, I had no trouble imagining that he was about to avalanche, and that he would end up in an algal pool of the trickling stream below us, buried under megatons of unextracted silver. The little stream was a jumble of boulders, testimony of the floods, with phreatophytes around the boulders like implanted spears. Deffeyes obviously was happy and without fear in the world.

… To make a recovery operation worthwhile, he said, he would have to get five ounces of silver per ton. The figures would turn out to be better than that. Before long, he would have a little plastic-lined pond of weak cyanide, looked after by a couple of technicians, down where the ore from this mine had been milled. A blue streak in the tailings there would come in at fifty-eight ounces a ton — richer than any tailings he had ever found in Nevada. “You put cyanide on that ore, the sliver leaps out of it,” he would say. “I have enough cyanide here to kill Cincinnati. People have a love-hate relationship with cyanide. Abelson showed that lightning acts on carbon dioxide and other atmospheric components to make hydrogen cyanide, and hydrogen cyanide polymerizes and later reacts with water to form amino acids, which are the components of proteins — and that may be how life began. Phil Abelson is an editor at Science. He’s a geochemist, and he worked on the Manhattan Project. To get the silver out of here at an acceptable price, you need small-scale technology. You need miniaturized equipment, simple techniques. In the nineteenth century, they made sagebrush fires to heat the brine to dissolve the silver chloride. When mercury picked up the silver, they knew they had ‘the real stuff’ from the squeak. A mercury-and-silver mixture is what the dentist uses, and when he mashes it into your tooth it makes the same squeak.”

Deffeyes‘ methodology would depend on more than sagebrush and sound. In time, he would have a portable laboratory there, size of a two-hole privy, and in it would be, among other things, a sliver single-ion electrode and an atomic-absorption spectrophotometer. He could turn on a flame, close two switches, and see at once the amount of silver in a sample. For a short while, he would have a five-pound ingot of raw silver on the floor, propping open the door. When he was finished with his pond, he would withdraw the cyanide and turn it into a marketable compound known as Prussian blue. He would cover his pond with dirt and sow it with crested wheat.

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



October 19, 2012

Passions and Foibles

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:37 am

… In that levelling of signification, that denial or privilege to any thing or substance, one might easily have detected profanity.

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

… The problem is that, because science produces knowledge that is, for the most part, dependable and precise, we tend to believe there must be a dependable, precise method for obtaining it. This is the legacy of Bacon’s dream of a ‘new organon’ that would grind facts into underlying principles. But the truth is that science works only because it can break its own rules, make mistakes, follow blind alleys, attempt too much — and because it draws upon the resources of the human mind, with its passions and foibles as well as its reason and invention. This is clearer to see when we look back at the beginnings, because we can afford more indulgence towards the failure of the early pioneers to practise what they preached, and because we can see how they muddled through, and because that muddling through is confirmed by history and does not remain a matter of faith. But unless we are prepared to take this lesson away from the history of science, that history is worth very little.

That was the conclusion of a chapter that culminated in a lengthy discussion of the well-known history of Hooke’s and Boyle’s air pump/vacuum experiments. The next chapter is on microscopy:

… Gazing at the thousands of lens-like formations on the fly’s eye, Hooke sensed the dizzying infinite scope of God’s power:

there may be as much curiosity of contrivance in every one of these Pearls, as in the eye of a Whale or Elephant, and the almighty’s Fiat could as easily cause the existence of the one as the other; and as one day and a thousand years are the same with him, so may one eye and ten thousand.

This is the awesome vista of Milton’s Paradise Lost through the other end of the telescope, as it were: an endless expanse converging on infinity’s inverse.

If that situation presented the natural philosopher with the happy prospect of finding riches wherever he looked, it also eroded any distinctions about where one should look — there was, in the meanest of lodgings, in the dust on the shelf and the putrefaction of the ill-tended larder, more than enough fare to occupy the curious mind for days and weeks. And none of this unpromising stuff was quite what it seemed to the raw senses. ‘Even in those things which we account vile, rude, and coarse,’ said Hooke, ‘Nature has not been wanting to shew abundance of curiosity and excellent Mechanisme.’

In that levelling of signification, that denial or privilege to any thing or substance, one might easily have detected profanity. Those of a suspicious inclination might even imagine that the microscopists were unduly drawn towards the lowliest of matter, to cinders and decay, to urine and faeces, spittle and sperm. (To investigate the ‘gravel’ found in urine, Hooke apparently went scooping deposits out of urinals.) To find such things worthy of ‘serious examination’ could seem not merely perverse but perverted. Meanwhile, the most lofty object might be found under the microscope to be reduced to something shabby and ill-formed; when Hooke investigated samples of miniature writing, wherein the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments and other biblical extracts were written so small as to be illegible to the naked eye, he ‘discover’d of what pitifull bungling scribbles and scrawls it was compos’d.’

All this exposed how poor a fabricator man is when examined close up. Hooke’s characterization of a printed full stop [i.e. a period] as being ‘like a great splatch of London dirt’ seems more a judgement than a description. The edge of the keenest razor is revealed as a ragged, pitted line, something better suited to harsh butchery than to clean incision. The tip of a needle is not a sharp point but a blunt and pitted cone, while the hairs, bristles and claws of insects are ‘many thousands of times sharper.’ … John Wilkins commented after reading Micrographia that in comparison to the works of nature, ‘the most curious works of Art, the most accurate engravings or embossments, seem such rude bungling deformed works as if they had been done with a Mattock or a Trowel.’

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



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