Unreal Nature

January 31, 2013

The Sum of All Childhoods

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:09 am

… Empiricism resurfaces from deep within us: from the sum of all childhoods, from the deep well-spring of deprivations that sentences can never fill.

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

… Garden or boarding school? A fork in the road of child-rearing: the leafy, thorny shrubbery echoing with the sounds of bullfinches or wasps, threaded with mingled odours, or the four-square courtyard, asphalted and geometric, where little kids face each other off in the atrocious first struggle for dominance?

… If you wish to train an army of statues socially dedicated to the struggle for dominance, give them a poor, dry lexicon, as hard as wood and as cold as iron, studded with technical jargon like an endless refrain, form their senses through these words, give them access to the given through this language: a concrete courtyard, a monotonous dormitory and grey education, foul-smelling and well-disciplined, through the prism of their grammar books. As they begin their existence, children will shield their eyes when they raise them towards the patch of sky visible at the top of the well shaft which is their school-prison; we did not need Plato’s cave to teach us how painful sunlight can be during our foolish, studious childhood.

If you form their words through the senses, amidst the hawthorn and primrose, if rose, in all its declensions, can be related to the exploding, fragrant bouquet of shapes and hues, if you build their language through the given, then anything can happen. Even a poet. Even a happy adult; even a wise one. Even a philosopher mathematician, free to laugh at the mechanical, fossilized rigidity of intellect, and careful to maintain a distance between the senses and language, for the sake of the safety and vitality of both of them.

[ … ]

… But a phantom enters behind the automaton, a ghost of sorts. What could be returning to haunt us like a reproach, beneath language, if not empiricism?

We get along quite will without it, what is it doing here?

… Yet stubborn empiricism resurfaces, doubtful that the menu tastes as good as the meal itself, that the analysis on a label quenches your thirst as well as the contents of the bottle; only ever devouring lists and books between meals. It does not confuse love and loving words. Born of war and deprivation, it is hungry; it is always thirsty, a child of poverty. … Nor can it get along without things: it comes from the country, and remains flabbergasted by the flashing signs of the city. Empiricism resurfaces from deep within us: from the sum of all childhoods, from the deep well-spring of deprivations that sentences can never fill.

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



Bleeding Into Thought

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:07 am

… Feeling is affect bleeding into thought …

… To feel power is to feel force, to be captivated by force and to capture that captivation.

… The terminus is not what you think you knew, not the idea you thought you had, not the way you expected to express yourself — it is a movement of thought pulled forth from the relations of tension …

… The terminus is not an end point but the energy of a beginning.

This is the final post from Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy by Erin Manning (2012):

… The plane of composition through which articulation eventually emerges is populated by the thought of the work, its inner rhythm. Deleuze and Guattari call this inner rhythm a “block of sensation.” “We paint, sculpt, compose, and write with sensations.” Blocks of sensation are forces that compose thought’s durational attitude.

… Editing from within seeks to create space-time, not simply reproduce it. “Rhythm is determined not by the length of the edited pieces [of a film], but by the pressure of the time that runs through them” (Tarkovsky). Editing from within is rhythmic editing that foregrounds the time-pressure inherent in experience. Time-pressure is a block of sensation.

[ … ]

… Don’t mistake feeling with emotion. Emotion is the rendering of an affect, feeling is its force.

… Feeling is a pulsion to think, a sensitivity that situates thought in the world: through feeling, thought’s affective tonality is foregrounded. Feeling is affect bleeding into thought, activating complexities on the verge of expression. At the threshold of thought as creation, feeling provokes an aperture for that which has not yet been thought. Thought is a lure for feeling that prearticulates the virtual inflections of its incipient expression.

… Feeling is power’s “compulsion of composition” (Whitehead). this compulsion to compose is an aesthetic drive, a will toward sensation, a will to power. The will to power is not about individual power. The will to power activates the potential of a force to move a body to its limit. Power is a lure for feeling. Before Nietzsche called it the Will to Power, he called it the “feeling of power.”

… To feel power is to feel force, to be captivated by force and to capture that captivation.

… A concept takes form at the threshold of expression. It cannot be defined according to categories of judgment. Judgment is a theory of coherence “concerned with a conformity of two components within one experience” (Whitehead). The concept does not judge or evaluate the work: it values the work’s rhythmic pressure. The concept is a gear-shift mechanism that acts on blocks of sensation, oscillating between thought and articulation. It pulsates between the actual and virtual realms. On the virtual stratum, concepts propel the becoming-event of thought: they feel its force. On the plane of composition, concepts articulate the dynamic form of prearticulation: they express the feeling of force. Concepts make multiple sense. “There is no event, no phenomenon, word, or thought which does not have multiple sense. … A thing has as many senses as there are forces capable of taking possession of it” (Deleuze).

… Concepts emerge in tandem with the forces’ struggle for valuation within the work. The concept is an elastic point in the passage from the virtual — thought — to the actual — articulation. Concepts inflect thought toward expression.

… Taking form always begins with the terminus. The terminus is not an end point but the energy of a beginning. The terminus kick-starts the process of articulation.

… “Whatever terminates that chain was, because it now proves itself to be, what the concept ‘had in mind'” (James). The terminus is not what you think you knew, not the idea you thought you had, not the way you expected to express yourself — it is a movement of thought pulled forth from the relations of tension that make up the passage from prearticulation to the concept to enunciation. Expressibility is the terminus of a thought in motion, its incipient directionality: the terminus is rarely where you thought it would be.

… Begin with the interval and admit it into experience. Rethink what counts as art, as practice, as thought, as writing, as politics. The relation is as real as anything else — it is the associated milieu through which all else comes into contact.

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



January 30, 2013

The Same Latent Powers

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:02 am

… material imagination … needs a substance in order to understand an action.

…  liturgic rites of benediction exorcise and neutralize whatever malevolent element may be hiding in its depths, curb its demoniacal powers, and, awakening in it powers which are more suitable …

This is from Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter by Gaston Bachelard (1983):

… Though forms and concepts harden rapidly, material imagination still remains an active power. It alone can revitalize traditional images endlessly; it is the one that constantly breathes new life into certain old mythological forms. It gives life back to forms by transforming them, for a form cannot transform itself. It is contrary to its nature for a form to transform itself. If we encounter a transformation, we may be sure that material imagination is at work behind the metamorphosis. Culture transmits forms to us too often in mere words. If we knew how to rediscover, in spite of culture, a little natural reverie, a little reverie about nature, we would understand that symbolism is a material power. Our personal reverie would very naturally reform atavistic symbols because they are natural symbols. Once more I must emphasize that a dream is a natural force. As we will have occasion to note again, no one can know purity without dreaming. No one can dream it forcefully, without seeing the mark, the proof, the substance of it in nature.

… For the modern mind the difference between pure and impure water is entirely a rational matter. Chemists and hygienists are responsible for that; when a sign over the water faucet designates drinkable water, the final word has been spoken, and every scruple vanishes. A rationalistic thinker meditating on an ancient text — with limited psychological knowledge, such as our classical education so often produces — brings his precise knowledge like a recurrent light to the data in the text. … He forgets that knowledge thought to be “direct” is a part of a system that can be very artificial; he also forgets that the “knowledge of natural phenomena” is closely connected with “natural” reveries. It is these reveries that a psychologist studying the imagination must unearth.

… Who, for instance, does not feel a special irrational, unconscious, direct repugnance for a dirty river? For a river dirtied by sewers and factories? We deeply resent this great natural beauty’s being ruined by men. Huysmans plays on this repugnance, this rancor, to heighten the tone of certain imprecatory phrases, to make certain of his scenes truly demoniacal. For example, he expatiates upon the despairing attitude of Bièvre today, dirtied by the City: “That river in rags,”:

that strange river, that dumping-ground for filth, that bilge which is the color of slate and melted lead, frothing, here and there, with greenish eddies, starred with muddy spittle, which gurgles on the sluice gate and is lost, sobbing in the holes of a wall. In places, the water seems crippled and eaten away with leprosy; it stagnates, then stirs its flowing soot and takes up its journey again, slowed down by mire … The Bièvre is nothing but a moving dung-heap.

… foul water can be loaded with an infinite number of evil spells. It can be cursed; that is, through it, evil can be put in active form. In doing this, we satisfy the requirements of material imagination, which needs a substance in order to understand an action. In water thus cursed, a sign is all that is necessary: what is evil in one aspect, in one of its characteristics, becomes evil as a whole. Evil is no longer a quality but a substance.

… In the dialectical theme of the purity and impurity of water, this fundamental law of material imagination acts in both directions, guaranteeing the eminently active nature of the substance: one drop of pure water suffices to purify an ocean; one drop of impure water suffices to defile a universe. Everything depends on the moral direction of the action chosen by material imagination. If it is dreaming of evil, it can propagate impurity, can cause the diabolical seed to bloom; if it dreams of good, it will have confidence in one drop of pure substance and be able to cause its beneficial purity to shine forth.

… these remarks fail to get to the heart of the problem of a relationship between purification and natural purity. … Let it suffice for us to evoke an intuition that casts some doubt on this natural purity. Thus, while studying the Spirit of Liturgy by Romano Guardini, Earnest Seillière writes:

Consider water, for example, so perfidious, so dangerous too, in its movements and gyrations which resemble incantations or spells, in its eternal unrest. Well, then, liturgic rites of benediction exorcise and neutralize whatever malevolent element may be hiding in its depths, curb its demoniacal powers, and, awakening in it powers which are more suitable to its (good) nature, discipline its intangible and mysterious powers which they put in the service of the soul, all the while stifling what is magical, engaging and bad in it. Anyone who  has not experienced that, insists our poet of Christian ceremonies, does not understand Nature: but liturgy penetrates its secrets and shows us that in it are sleeping the same latent powers as are in the souls of men.

… Material imagination dramatizes the world in its depths. It finds in the depth of substances all the symbols of inner human life.

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




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:01 am

… without … the “willed awareness of the mountain peak,” the leap had better be performed in the circus, jumping over chairs or over people’s heads, because it only astonishes by its skill and cannot affect the heart.

This is from Next Week, Swan Lake: Reflections on Dance and Dances by Selma Jeanne Cohen (1982):

Virtuosity, epitomizing the dancer’s mastery of the ordinary impediments to human movement, is a palpitation of the heart for the fan and a pain in the neck for the theorist. “Wow!” screams the aficionado as the dancer leaps (after performing a far more difficult feat of balance quite unnoticed by the audience). “But my dear,” intones the purist, “there was no dramatic motivation for that display. Simply playing to the gallery.”

“Bravo!” shrieks the watcher of the thirty-two fouettés which Fokine termed “the most hateful invention of the ballet.” He wrote those words in 1916; in 1942 he choreographed Bluebeard — which included a passage of thirty-two fouettés.

Does virtuosity lie in the actual skill demanded by the movement or in the appearance of skill? Can virtuosity serve drama or will it necessarily distract the viewer from more “serious” concerns? Is virtuosity today still virtuosity tomorrow? Is virtuosity necessary? Is virtuosity even — good?

… The virtuoso dancer is often accused of usurping the territory of the athlete, stressing quantity instead of quality, for aiming to set a  numerical record rather than presenting a persona to charm the audience with its beauty or move it with an emotional portrayal.

[David] Best argued that a proper art form “must at least allow for the possibility of the artist’s comment, through his art, on life situations and this is not possible in diving, skating, trampolining and gymnastics.” While Best was willing to grant aesthetic values to sports, he was not willing to accept them as art forms.

[Louis Arnaud] Reid did not call gymnastics an art; it has artistic elements, but this is not its dominating purpose; therefore it is not art. Would a change in purpose that is unknown to the audience make the difference between nonart and art? If I turn on the television set in the middle of a program and if the bottom of the picture is cut off and I don’t see the skates, if I just see people moving beautifully in time and space — what would lead me to conclude that this is not art?

bull-leaping fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete

… Today the image for some choreographers is deliberately pedestrian. The key is antivirtuosity. The appeal is to the kind of person who does not desire to soar above the crowd but to be one of it. Sally Banes notes that, beginning in the 1960s, “there was freedom to express all the faux pas dancers must repress and mask in ‘normal’ performance — such as stumbling or forgetting … they ate, hummed, walked away from a group activity, explained to the audience what was going on.” There was freedom to stumble, but there was  no freedom to shine in a bravura feat. Marcia Siegel has suggested that such dancers appeared as people “like us almost.” But this was not the exclusive image of the time. Arlene Corce, reviewing Balanchine’s dancers of that decade, remarked that they “have no age — they’re divine.”

According to the standards of Edward Bullough the choreographers of the postmodern dance err by erasing the aesthetic distance between the audience and themselves, while Balanchine rightly maintains it. Bullough believed that awareness of distance was necessary to aesthetic appreciation. The theatre generally is vulnerable in this respect, because the very physical presence of the performers tends to narrow the gap; they seem too much “like us almost.” In what he called the “higher forms of dancing,” Bullough found that “technical execution of the most wearing kind makes up a great deal for its intrinsic tendency toward a loss of Distance.” Paul Bouissac has analyzed the solution to the problem as proposed by the circus acrobat who accentuates his difference from the audience with a costume that erases the outlines of his muscles, and with his smile, his courtly mode of social behavior. Most important, of course, is his display of technical accomplishment which, with its expertly hidden mechanics, demonstrates his biological superiority to the mere mortals who observe him. Display of virtuosity would seem to achieve the same kind of goal for dance. But Balanchine’s ballets generally do not display virtuosity.

Most of the works of Balanchine do not exhibit the skills of his dancers, do not frame the feats of technical prowess for the audience to admire, but rather absorb them in what Denby called a “continuity of impetus.” The ongoing momentum, the steady flow of phrasing, envelop the potentially bravura passages so that they are not isolated for exhibition (barring a deliberate touch of vulgarity as in Stars and Stripes). The dancers remain distinct from the audience because their movements seem determined only by the choreographic form, untouched by the exigencies of the real world. Balanchine’s ballets use skill but they are not about skill; they are about Valéry’s “most subtle essence of music and movement”; they are about the “state of dancing.”

Fokine hated the fouetté of his day because, since it was such a novelty, it was bound to distract the audience from any thoughts of drama. He objected to it also because it was so difficult that the dancer had to step out of character to set all her attention on the accomplishment of the physical task. But in 1942 when Fokine choreographed Bluebeard, the thirty-two fouettés were no longer a novelty to the audience and they held no terrors for Irina Baronova. As Bluebeard’s sixth wife — and, she hoped, his last — Baranova cornered Alica Marakova, who seemed headed for the status of number seven, whipping her across the stage in a series of thirty-two furious fouettés. These were not about skill; they were about jealousy.

According to Nicolas Giuduci, Vladimir Jankélévitch claims that musical virtuosity is self-inflating — faster, still faster, infinitely faster. Historically each achievement extends the point at which the feat can thrill. As the artist adds more onto more, he tries to give his act cosmic dimension, but actually this attempt is futile, for sheer multiplicity leads only to homogenization. The limit becomes the norm, quality is submerged in quantity, and the result is decadence.

What can determine the boundary? We may thrill to thirty-two fouettés, but as they approach sixty-four they begin to bore us.

… Transfiguration, [says] Volynsky, always requires height (and he seems to mean this both literally and figuratively). No transfigurations occur over a cup of tea, though they may take place with a glass of wine, which can make the spirits soar. The dancer who is not transfigured in flight, who does not exult in high places, lacks artistic fire. The true classic dance is exultation. This desire to soar upward (again both literally and figuratively) is natural to the human being, which accounts for our understanding and feeling of soaring along with the dancer.

Volynsky adds a further point: without this aspiration, without what he calls the “willed awareness of the mountain peak,” the leap had better be performed in the circus, jumping over chairs or over people’s heads, because it only astonishes by its skill and cannot affect the heart.

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



January 29, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:44 am

… (Money is called ‘bread.”)

This is from Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman (1956, 2012):

… Despite having minority traditions of their own, our present poor are absolute sheep and suckers for the popular culture which they cannot afford, the movies, sharp clothes, and up to Cadillacs. Indeed, it is likely that the popular culture is aimed somewhat at them, as the lowest common denominator. I do not mean that this is not a reasonable compensation, like the Englishman’s liquor and the Irishman’s betting on the horses. Everybody has got to have something, and so poor people show off and feel big by means of the standard of living. But in these circumstances it is immensely admirable that the Beat Generation has contrived a pattern of culture that, turning against the standard culture, costs very little and gives livelier satisfaction. It is a culture communally shared, in small groups. Much of it is handmade, not canned. Some if it is communally improvised. We shall speak later about the limitations of this procedure and the weakness of its products; but the fact of it, of a culture that is communal and tending toward the creative, is so capital that it must  have a future, and it is worth while to study its grounding and economy.

[ … ]

… Suppose, then, that with pretty good awareness our scarred young man is now confirmed poor. He must still face the problem of vocation and money. On these points the writers of the Beat Generation are confused. For one thing, they have a false notion that the kind of artistic activity that proliferates among the Beats is art, and gives the justification of art as a vocation. It is not art but something else, and they do not behave as if they were justified by it. (We shall return to this later at length.)

The problem of money, again, seems simple, but is not. In voluntary poverty the problem is to get enough to subsist. (Money is called ‘bread.”) But how? In his book The Holy Barbarians, Lawrence Lipton gives a considerable list of jobs that Beats take, generally temporarily. The principle is that anything will do. A fellow might work in the organized system, e.g., dressing a window at Macy’s; but, it is argued, he would not thereby be in the Rat Race, because he just wants “bread” and will quit. Naturally, Macy’s didn’t know this when they hired him, so he’s using them, not they him. This might come to pretending to conform rather elaborately, for the system is total; e.g. a fellow will get the job if he shaves off his beard. Work is no different from shoplifting. One plays roles and is hip. (Money is now called “loot.”)

What is not understood in this form of reasoning is that playing roles and being hip in this way is very nearly the same as being an Organization Man, for he doesn’t mean it either. Obviously the Holy Barbarian is here on shaky ground. Getting his “loot,” he is an exploiter of labor, but only a little bit. (The integral aim of useful man’s-work is not mentioned by Lipton.)

Let me make a close analogy — so close that it is probably an identity — between the job in voluntary poverty and the service in wartime that a pacifist can agree to perform. Nearly any civilian job that a man does advances the war. If he picks beans he replaces a farmer for the war factory. Pacifists have commonly accepted such a job as attendant in a hospital, which is understaffed anyway. This is not a petty problem, for when the evil, as they see it, is general and close-knit, it is necessary to preserve one’s personal integrity if only to influence the future when the emergency is past. Anyone who does not understand this and the hairsplitting involved, will not understand ingenuous youth. During the last great war many a young fellow went to a conscientious-objecter’s camp in order to avoid war work, and then left the camp in disgust and went to jail because the camp work was boondoggling.

Among some of the Beats, such a principle of integrity is clearly operating in the choice of job. To recapitulate an earlier paragraph in this chapter: Many of the humble jobs of the poor are precisely not useless (or exploiting). Farm labor, hauling boxes, janitoring, serving and dish washing, messenger — these jobs resist the imputation of uselessness (or exploitation) made against the productive society as a whole. These are preferred Beat jobs. For one thing, in them no questions are asked and no beards have to be shaved. Nor is this an accidental connection. Personal freedom goes with unquestioned moral utility of the job, for at the level of simple physical effort or personal service, the fraudulent conformity of the organized system sometimes does not yet operate; the job speaks for itself.

But on the other hand, such jobs, being hard and useful, are the most miserably exploited. … Taking such a job, a man loses his freedom, he never stops working. He is used and made a fool of by the system, and this is in itself dishonorable. This is the dilemma of voluntary poverty in our society: either to compromise one’s integrity (but then why bother?), or to be abused and made a fool of.

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



A Certain Detachment

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:43 am

… their expressionless faces concentrated on a piece of paper on a stand before them, while their listeners sit motionless and equally expressionless listening to the sounds.

This is from Musicking: The Meaning of Performing and Listening by Christopher Small (1998):

… it is the theater that has been the source and location of most of the technical innovations in Western concert music ever since the time of the first Italian practitioners of what they called dramma per musica — drama not just with but through music (what we today call opera) — in the early years of the seventeenth century.

… As the singers became actors, so the composers became dramatists, and they struggled to master those techniques of pacing and timing of events, of controlling tension and relaxation, of working toward a climax and resolution that are the essence of dramatic art. Their musical representation of the relationships and the spectators’ understanding of them were assisted by the fact that the representation was at the same time being acted out on the stage, supported by all the visible artifices and devices of the theater; only later, when the significance of the musical gestures became thoroughly understood by audiences, would they be used in the more abstract dramas of concert music.

It is not to be wondered at that the development of total harmony began in earnest with the beginnings of opera, for it was tonal harmony, with its ability to create in a listener tensions and frustrations, desire and fulfillment, to delay resolutions and to tease expectations, that served their purposes most fully. The parallel between, on the one hand, the cycle of arousal, climax and resolution that occurs in the tonal-harmonic process and, on the other, the cycle of sexual arousal and satisfaction was not lost on those early masters of the opera, or on their audiences, even if later generations have tended to forget or obscure it. They exploited it uninhibitedly. They aimed their music unashamedly, to an extent that we today, with our politer musical manners, find hard to imagine, at their listener-spectators’ solar-plexus.

In the new art of musical representation the musicians drew upon the ancient association between bodily movement and music, between musical and physical gesture. There was little that in itself was new about that; music for dance has always drawn upon parallels between musical and bodily gestures; at its most elementary, slow music for slow movements and fast for fast, strong accents for stamping, staccato for leaping, legato for glides, rising melodies for upward movement, falling for downward, and so on. Even these parallels are of course not literal; music does not move in the literal sense and so cannot be literally slow or fast, nor are tones literally high or low, melodies rising or falling, in anything but the metaphorical sense. Even in the dance the relationship between physical and musical gesture is always metaphorical and has to be learned.

What was new in the early seventeenth century was, first, that the musical gestures were abstracted from physical movement so that the listeners no longer moved their bodies but sat and watched and listened, and, second, that the musical gestures represented not an emotional state itself nor a temperament but the type of physical gesture, both bodily and vocal, with which the emotional state or the temperament was associated. The musical gesture represented metaphorically the physical gesture that the audience recognized as belonging to that state. It thus had to be constructed at one remove, and the masters of that first brilliant explosion of the new art form worked through conscious striving, exchange of ideas, polemics and a good deal of trial and error, to perfect the representation.

[ … ]

… This suggests that there is no such thing in the Western concert tradition as “absolute music,” that is, a musical work that exists purely to be contemplated for the abstract beauty of its patterns of sound. On the contrary, to take part in a performance of a concert work, whether as performer or as listener, is to take part, no less than if one were in a theater, in a dramatic representation of human relationships, which is no less real for giving its characters neither local habitations nor names. Nor are those dramatic meanings which the listener and the performer take from the piece as it is performed “extra-musical.” On the contrary, they are the musical meaning of the piece. The drama is built into the relationships and is not to be dismissed as external to or imposed upon the real musical meaning.

It is therefore no coincidence that the development of purely instrumental pieces — instrumental pieces, that is, that were aimed at a listener who was supposed to sit and contemplate them — also began only with the inception of the stile rappresentativo  in the early seventeenth century. Apart from that intended for dancing, there was no purely instrumental music before then; it had no reason to exist. It was only after the representational style became established, also, that abstract dance pieces, dances that were meant not to be danced to but merely contemplated, began to appear, generally in those dance suites that served social purposes of polite entertainment similar to those which were later served by the early symphonies.

Representation requires, of composer, performer and listener alike, a certain detachment from what is being represented, a certain analytical frame of mind, in order to divine the characteristics of what is being represented or embodied in sound. In addition, since there is no point in representing only to oneself, it presupposes the existence of listeners who are not only separate from the musicians but are prepared to maintain an attitude of detachment in order to appreciate the qualities of the representation.

Just as the spectator stands outside the picture, looking into it, so the listener listens to the piece from outside. Unlike most of the world’s musicking, including earlier kinds of European musicking, the piece does not draw the listeners in as participants but keeps them at a distance as spectators. It is already complete, and they have nothing to contribute to its nature, nothing to do in fact but contemplate the performance.

… This is the great paradox of the symphony concert, that such passionate outpourings of sound are being created by staid-looking ladies and gentlemen dressed uniformly in black and white, making the minimal amount of bodily gesture that is needed to produce the sounds, their expressionless faces concentrated on a piece of paper on a stand before them, while their listeners sit motionless and equally expressionless listening to the sounds.

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



January 28, 2013

One Is One

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:12 am

This is the first verse, and a portion from the middle of the long poem:

The Far Field
by Theodore Roethke

I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel,
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,
Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,
And no lights behind, in the blurred side-mirror,
The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,
Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,
Where the car stalls,
Churning in a snowdrift
Until the headlights darken.

[ … ]

— Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
I’ll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.

[ … ]

The following is probably too strong for a Monday morning (or most any other morning, noon or night), but here it is anyway; the last verse (of four) from:

In a Dark Time
by Theodore Roethke

[ … ]

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I ?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

I have linked to the PoemHunter’s full versions of these even though their copies always seem to contain at least one, and often many, typos that distort the poem in question.



Reflected Light

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:11 am

… “All that I am trying to do in each picture is to bring together the most disparate and mutually contradictory elements, alive and viable, in the greatest possible freedom. No Paradises.”

This is from The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, and Ruscha by Hal Foster (2012):

… The Duchampian term for planned arbitrariness is “canned chance.” John Cage elaborated this notion in postwar music, of course, and under his influence, many others experimented with it too, usually in order to shift the work away from the intentions of the composer or artist toward the circumstances of its listener or viewer — to render it more objective, open, and active. Especially strong in the 1960s, this concern was evident in such de-skilling operations as the appropriation of media imagery in Pop paintings and the use of industrial fabrications in Minimalist objects; a related move was the use of banal photographs, as in such photo books by Ed Ruscha as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963). Early on, Richter followed this line. “I hate the dazzlements of skill,” he stated in 1963; painting from photos was “the most moronic and inartistic thing that anyone could do.” [and which he therefore did] This is a tendentious statement from a virtuoso painter, but its aesthetic of indifference is more than a cool pose: the partial disconnection between work and self, effected by his photographic datum as much as by his quasi-mechanical facture, provides Richter with a desired defense, and we might speculate about why this protection is important to him.

Eight Student Nurses, 1966

… “Something has to be shown and simultaneously not shown,” Richter has said of his blur … “in order perhaps to say something else again, a third thing.” This statement conjures up a contradictory structure of recognition and disavowal, exposure and concealment, one that is familiar from psychoanalytic accounts not only of sexual fetishism but also of any screen memory, any protective displacement of a traumatic sight. The Freud texts on these subjects highlight charged spots or scenes of brilliance that, though bound up with traumatic sights, often serve to obscure them, and sometimes the Richter blur seems occlusive in this way too, when it possesses a paradoxical brightness. Similarly, the blur can evoke a psychic deformation of the visual field, one that “wilds” the image, and not just tames it, that intensifies our gaze, and not just sublimates it.

Frau Marlow, 1964

… “Painting concerns itself, as no other art does, exclusively with semblance (I include photography, of course).” Yet access to the semblance of the world is not given; according to Richter, the painter must “repeat” it or, more exactly, “fabricate” it. In his “Creative Credo,” Paul Klee declared famously, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” Richter would agree: the truly difficult task is to make the visible visible, that is, to capture “reflected light” as we experience it today …

… For Richter the photograph alone cannot deliver semblance because “the camera does not apprehend objects, it sees them.” This is not to say that the photograph is not deeply implicated in contemporary appearance; on the contrary, it provides much of “the reflected light” of the modern world, and, again, it is this mediated light that Richter paints, with his artificial colors suspended in gelatinous layers, into many of his surfaces. Hence, his is less a critique of the society of the spectacle as such (he dismisses such critique, too quickly, as ideological) than a phenomenology of mediated appearance, of this Schein-ing of the modern world, of how it looks for us. The semblance that concerned Friedrich, say, was one of a nature still imbued with the light of God; its luminosity was still numinous. The semblance that concerns Richter is one of a “second nature” (to evoke again a salient term introduced nearly one hundred years ago by Georg Lukács), a culture-become-nature bathed in the glow of the media, a semblance permeated with photographic, televisual, and digital visualities, one that is photogenic in the sense developed above. “Photographs are almost nature,” Richter has commented, and many of his “natural” subjects are given as mediated with colors variously faded (as in old snapshots), saturated (as in magazine ads), or entirely artificial (as in pixellated images); indeed, some of his subjects, as in the Moonscapes (1968), exist for us only as mediated. A few early paintings also resemble images captured from television; in this respect, the blur can evoke the horizontal smear of television screens and video monitors, too. Moreover, as early as the 1970s, a few abstractions anticipated the bizarre dimensions of digital space, neither deep nor shallow but somehow both at once.

This pervasive mediation of the world is a central dilemma of lyric painting after Warhol. [ … ] Understood as a type of sign, the Pop simulacrum might be taken to undercut the referential claims of traditional representation no less than the metaphysical claims of modernist abstraction. Yet Richter does not simply surrender painting to the simulacral order of our image world, as Warhol often does: sometimes just as Richter wrests an auratic quality from banal reproductions, so too does he produce a piercing referentiality out of flimsy representations … . In this way, more emphatically than his Pop peers, Richter insists on painting as a medium that can still reflect on the nature of semblance. Once more, Kracauer is pertinent here: “In order for history to present itself,” he writes in his 1927 essay, “the mere surface coherence offered by photography must be destroyed.” Similarly, for Richter, “the picture is the depiction, and painting is the technique for shattering it,” which is to suggest that the photograph delivers a resemblance (it merely “sees” objects) that the painting can — indeed must — open up so that semblance might be revealed (“apprehended”).

… “All that I am trying to do in each picture is to bring together the most disparate and mutually contradictory elements, alive and viable, in the greatest possible freedom. No Paradises.”

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



January 27, 2013

“If We Could … “

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:58 am

…  the best antidote … may be to give them a presence as creatures captivated by their own creations, by the aesthetic harmony of physical-mathematical factishes whose power they experience, and to point out the difference between the power of fiction brought about by the = sign and the power of the reduction that denies and disqualifies.

This is from Cosmopolitics I by Isabelle Stengers (2003):

… Every “if we could” reflects a decision about obligations. Its function is to state that between one simple reference situation — “when we can” — and another where this is not the case, the difference standing in the way creates no obligation, no inventive necessity, no new risk for the practice that requires the power expressed by the “we can.” “It’s the same thing, only more complicated.” This expression always indicates that the relation of resemblance between two situations has been transformed into a principle of judgment. To that judgment corresponds the evocation of an imaginary practice that would actualize the resemblance and would thus cause the obstacle to disappear.

To refuse or deny an obligation is quite different from “believing,” from being inhabited by a vision of the world. Refusal or denial situates us within an open history, as the rejected obligation could have been, can be, or will possibly be recognized. Believing refers to a much weightier causality that transforms history into destiny, and causes past, present, and future to resonate.

[ … ]

… Have I succeeded in taking a step toward an ecology of practices? Have I managed to weaken the intuitive power of the concept of a state, as expressed through different versions of the same refrain: “If we could fully describe an instantaneous situation (the neuronal brain, or even a society), we could deduce its behavior over time”? Have I brought into existence a new interest in the question “what happened to the physicists?”

… If one of the implications of the ecology of practices is to bring about the mode of presence among us of different practices and their practitioners, this distinction is important. Without it, it is hard to understand the inventive character of the practice of those physicists who, in the name of a unitary vision of a world intelligible in terms of laws, forge increasingly audacious categories with great freedom, increasingly at odds with shared concepts of space, time, and causality. We must interpret Hamilton’s experiment, his discovery of the “mathematical poem” constituted by Lagrange’s Mechanics, in the strongest sense possible. The faith in mechanics and, more specifically, in the body of laws that have inherited its mathematical structure is not a simple “ideological” drift of experimental invention. It does not reflect the temptations of the power brought about by the reduction of nature to a vulgar automaton. It is addressed to a creation whose primordial characteristic is beauty. To denounce Planck’s faith or Weinberg’s would be inappropriate. To reveal their methodological errors would be redundant. Rather, it is as poets that we should address them.

Nonetheless, they are strange poets indeed, for the power they have of asking questions that, by right, should be of interest to all  humans, of making discoveries on our behalf, and announcing the truth of the shared world, obviously constitutes one component of their passion. For that reason, we cannot simply call them poets and must follow the way in which such power has been constructed. But the best antidote against the fascination exercised by the power of physics may be to give them a presence as creatures captivated by their own creations, by the aesthetic harmony of physical-mathematical factishes whose power they experience, and to point out the difference between the power of fiction brought about by the = sign and the power of the reduction that denies and disqualifies.

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




January 26, 2013

The Extra-Nuclear Goo

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:41 am

… There is a vision of the cell as a nugget of information suspended in a soup of dumb and formless goo …

This is from Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology by John Dupré (2012):

… Surely within the practice of genetics and genomics, as within any human practice with even a minimal intellectual content, there are arguments. For instance:

This gene codes for the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin
If we insert it into the genome of this plant, the plant will produce BT toxin
BT toxin poisons insect pests
Therefore, if we insert this gene into this plant, the plant will poison insect pests.

This argument is plausible, if a bit enthymematic. One premise that might start to flesh it out is:

If we insert a gene for x into a (living) genome then that genome will produce x.

This premise shows us that the argument, whether or not plausible, is not sound. For the missing premise is certainly false. There are lots of reasons for this falsity. One of the most interesting involves the familiar redundancy of the genetic code. Amino acids, the constituents of proteins, are coded for by as many as six different base-pair triplets. However, different organisms tend to use different triplets preferentially and will be disproportionately equipped with extra-nuclear equipment for reading the preferred codons. Consequently they may be very bad at transcribing a gene from a distantly related organism. More simply, whether a sequence is transcribed will depend very much on where it ends up in the genome, on its spatial relations to other genes, especially promoter and suppressor sequences, and even to other structures in the cell. Current techniques for inserting genes into alien genomes are thoroughly hit or miss as far as where the genes end up.

Another reason that the gene may fail to produce the toxin is that the plant may die before it has a chance to do so. If the inserted gene should land in the middle of a sequence of the genome vital for the plant’s functioning then the plant will not function. Inserted genetic material may also have a range of effects on the host organism distinct from those intended (pleiotripy), and these may be harmful or fatal.

The relevant moral of these genomic factoids is that genomic events are diverse and specific. One familiar model of scientific argument, that most closely connected to mathematical ideas of proof and demonstration, essentially involves generalization — traditionally thought of as scientific laws — and generalization is a risky business in biology generally and genetics in particular. The simple example just discussed illustrates the difficulty. The attempt to convert such simple generalizations into exceptionless laws would be extremely difficult if not impossible. Such considerations lead naturally to the conclusion that there are few if any laws that apply to genes.

Dupré fills out his argument with material that has already been covered in previous posts from this book (the text is a collection of what were originally independent papers). I’m not going to repeat those arguments here. Jumping to his conclusions:

… So my proposal is for an atheoretical pluralism similar to that which I advocate for [the categorization of] species: a gene is any bit of DNA that anyone has reason to name and keep track of. Genes may be proper parts of other genes; they may overlap; they may have non-contiguous parts, perhaps on two or more chromosomes. And, as illustrated for the case of developmental defect genes, ‘gene’ may even refer to a functionally connected class of DNA segments. My conclusion is that there are genes — an important point given how much people talk about them — but that the price of this is conceding that it doesn’t take much to be a gene. Not much, but not nothing either. I am assuming that genes are real material entities. Many of the genes discussed by behavioral geneticists for instance, may well not even meet this minimal condition.

… The great diversity of the subject matter of biology calls for the most central terms not to be those in terms of which laws can be formulated, but rather those which are tolerant enough in their reference to bridge the divides between the various phenomena in which local communities of researchers may be interested. There are, I suppose, some general truths about DNA that make it possible for DNA to constitute genes, but there are lots of ways for bits of DNA to be genes of various kinds, and all of these depend on the relations between bits of DNA and other things to which they are related.

It is, as I have noted, hardly a novel suggestion that the view of science as the search for universal laws is of little or no relevance to biology, but the extent to which this suggestion  has been reinforced by recent developments in genetics has not yet been fully appreciated. Indeed, it is still sometimes imagined that the annoying failure of biology to generate law-like generalizations is a consequence merely of its continuing concern with complex and variable structures, and its concomitant failure to get down to the real action at the molecular, and ultimately even moree fundamental, levels.

One moral of my preceding remarks is just that no such consequences result as we investigate the inner structures of biological things. On the contrary, what we find as we become more familiar with molecular processes is a diversity of structure and action quite comparable with that which we find at more complex levels. We are far from approaching the few simple laws that earlier theorists imagined might reduce complexity and diversity to order and uniformity.

My argument here is not in any simple way anti-reductionist. It is clear in genetics that enormous illumination and insight has come from our ability to investigate and describe molecular processes. It is, however, anti-reductionist in the sense of rejecting the hierarchical view of nature often associated with reductionism. Knowledge of different levels of organization is complementary, not competing. The molecular view is not a superior view to, say, the cellular view, and one that in principle should render the latter obsolete. And the reason for this is simply that the molecular view is not even separable from the cellular view. There is no possibility of specifying the behavior or function of bits of DNA independently of a detailed description of the biological context in which they exist. Minimally this context will include further genomic and cytological information. Sometimes the relevant context will be much broader, including physiology, ecology, and even sociology. And of course this dependence on context is a large part of why what may look very similar — strings of DNA — may nevertheless prove to be so diverse.

There is a vision of the cell as a nugget of information suspended in a soup of dumb and formless goo, a notion that still seems common in popular presentations of biology, and this vision perhaps best represents the remaining aspirations of hierarchical reductionism. The extra-nuclear goo, in this vision,, is no more than the minimal context necessary for the expression of the structure inherent in the DNA.

But in reality the exra-nuclear goo is as structural, as rich in information, as is the nuclear DNA. The sorts of things bits of DNA can do involve diverse reactions with particular chemicals and structures in the cell. Biochemistry only becomes molecular biology when it is embedded in cytology. Lower-level knowledge cannot possibly displace higher-level knowledge.

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




Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.