Unreal Nature

January 25, 2013

Expect the Audience

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 9:22 am

… It seems to me that a number of established [avant-garde] filmmakers don’t take boredom into consideration; they expect the audience to make quite a few steps up to them.

… I read recently that by the age of twenty-one the average American has seen something like 350,000 ads. What seems incredible is that despite seeing all these little films, we develop no film education from the experience.

This is from A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers by Scott MacDonald (1988). This interview is with Bruce Conner:

MacDonald: Your films are often very dense … . When I first saw Mongoloid, I looked at it one way, but with repeated viewings I’ve come to see more and more of the imagery. Each viewing tends to foreground different elements of what’s there.

Conner: Well, I try to make films that have a character that can be conveyed in one viewing. Hopefully there are other things that work on the viewer the second time, the third time, the fifth time. Most of my films are very short. If you blink too much, you miss most of the movie. …

MacDonald: There’s a very dense passage about two-thirds of the way through Mongoloid. It took me a day to note down all the little one-frame, two-frame, three-frame bits of material. I couldn’t believe how much happened in thirty seconds.

[ … ]

MacDonald: … In Take the 5:10 to Dreamland we see a series of disparate, rather static, images. Valse Triste is also very quiet, but in a number of sequences you choreograph movement through a series of images. Take the 5:10 to Dreamland is one of the quietest films I’ve ever seen; it tends to put me into a state of being half awake, or half asleep.

Conner: That’s my intention. I was trying to deal with that state without making a totally boring film. I don’t know if you run into many filmmakers who are concerned with whether or not they’re boring their audience. It seems to me that a number of established filmmakers don’t take boredom into consideration; they expect the audience to make quite a few steps up to them.

Valse Triste and Mongoloid were the last films I made before America Is Waiting. They have entirely different audiences, as far as I can see. Mongoloid is popular with younger crowds — the people who are putting on film society programs. It’s rented a lot but doesn’t get much commentary in writing. Valse Triste gets more commentary in writing; it’s shown in film festivals and purchased for audiovisual collections. It seems popular with people my age. It’s a nostalgic treatment of their own childhood. Recently a review about it in Film Comment said it was the best film at the New York Film Festival, including all the feature films. The reviewer was my age. Often the audience for Valse Triste doesn’t see any humor in Mongoloid, and the people who are interested in Mongoloid couldn’t care less about Valse Triste.

MacDonald: I have a nine-year-old and an eleven-year-old, and when I was looking at Mongoloid this summer, they would come running whenever they heard a note of the soundtrack. They would ask over and over, “When are you going to show Mongoloid again?” I wasn’t sure why they were so taken with it, but they couldn’t stay away.

Conner: It’s got a lot of funny stuff in it. I think it’s a fascinating movie for kids, but I’m not sure how many kids are going to be allowed to look at it. As far as I know, it’s not on kiddie programs at museums.

MacDonald: Something that’s struck me about your films, and America Is Waiting certainly adds to this, has to do with advertising. Everybody knows the power and subtlety of advertising, yet it’s studied very little. Your films are some of the few I know that are as dense as ads. Obviously they’re not selling anything, but, like ads, they hit you on many levels at once. The similarity seems clearest to me in the subtleties of rhythm. What do you feel about that kind of media manipulation? Is  it something that you’ve been particularly conscious of and have learned from?

Conner: Cosmic Ray and Looking for Mushrooms (1965) used to get rented by advertising agencies. …

MacDonald: Cosmic Ray was the first film that made me conscious of the similarity.

Conner: So in a way, I might be guilty of some of that tendency in ads to get as much information as possible into a short period of time. I’m aware of the way that people are manipulated by television advertising, so much so that I can’t stand to watch the stuff. My wife and son seem to be oblivious, they find it difficult to understand why I don’t want to watch television. I destroyed my TV set two years ago.  …

MacDonald: I read recently that by the age of twenty-one the average American has seen something like 350,000 ads. What seems incredible is that despite seeing all these little films, we develop no film education from the experience.

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




January 24, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:37 am

… This is the very first story: this. This is the body and blood of the word itself. Could this be a mere word?

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

… The attention given to the senses, respectfully, in their own right and not as embryonic, inchoative knowledge differentials, is best expressed through myth: Hermes, Pandora; or fairy tales: Cinderella, the unicorn; or the arts: Orpheus, the muses; or religion. And suddenly we are sitting down in the company of old friends, around the oldest table in the world, where Ulysses once sang for King Alcinous, where Jupiter made the pitcher flow endlessly, where Socrates debated till morning with Agathon, where death refused Don Juan’s invitation to drink, suddenly we are sitting down to eat at Lazarus’ home, where Mary Magdalene washed Christ with precious nard, thus giving him his name, we even commemorate the Last Supper, where wine was changed into blood, and constantly replicate the last meal at Emmaus, the host having long since left us, although he remains present for having given us, after his departure, the gift of tongues, by which I mean language.

The logos cannot express the attention we pay to the senses: its formulations precise or confused, always inadequate and risible; its formulations in chemistry, physiology or anthropology abstract, always theoretical — does anyone know of an aesthesiology? It forks away from the logos, and veers towards myth.

[ … ]

… This [the wine] is where the life of language is resolved, its relationship to this concentrated, totalized given, exploding inside each person’s body. This is where the redemption of the body through the word is consummated, the whole body condensed there: material, inert, sensitive, living, individual, social, collective. This is where the word captured it with a word. Redeemed the world and history at the cost of its body, for the price of a word. Someone with the gift to do so could speak this inaugural act fully and rigorously, but he who did so made a solemn and unparalleled pronouncement: this is my body, this is my blood. Those with the gift of the gab fall silent here: this — everything that can be designated, shown, that can make sense of be perceived by senses — is the body or blood of the word itself.

From this moment on, the given will only ever give itself in and through langauge.

We commemorate. As soon as we say this, the word is born, it has captured or redeemed everything. We leave behind the ancient shore and move on to the Good News — Noël! — but immediately we forget this event without parallel, we forget that we are speaking, the word dies having just redeemed things and men. In that moment we move from ancient religions to our religion, from creeds of the senses to that of the word, from the body to speech, from philosophies of experience to those of language, this story is a day old, or ten years old or nearly two thousand years old, or as old as the forgotten moment when the world buried itself under language through the word of him who became man by saying it. This is the very first story: this. This is the body and blood of the word itself. Could this be a mere word?

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




“Was that life?”

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:35 am

… Their art does not represent a landscape. It undoes it to redo it, feeling with its inner movements, catching its tendencies in the passing, dancing their force.

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

… “The same object, the same phenomenon, changes sense depending on the force which appropriates it” (Deleuze). Force is appetition: hunger for expression. The appetition of an event is the insatiability of its potential. The shift from appetition to form is never a completed passage. In the work’s final form, the force of its potential can still be felt. This is the work’s diagram. The diagram of the work in-gathers the work’s feeling. Whitehead calls the final fact of the work the decision of emphasis. This is how the work satisfies its becoming.

… “Existence begins in every instant: the ball There rolls around every Here. The middle is everywhere. The path of eternity is crooked” (Nietzsche).

[Aboriginal] Dreaming is both actual occasion and extensive continuum, the world as it happens and the world as it envelops its happening. Law and event, experience and force of apparition. Dreamings cycle time. Their determinacy is a matter of fact, their indetermination their appetition. Force for expression makes itself felt in the Dreaming’s infinite desire to take form once again.

… There is no final state,  no point of adherence where the fact becomes itself once and for all. The Dreaming’s matter of fact is the potential of life to continue to become. “That the present moment is not a moment of being or of present ‘in the strict sense,’ that it is the passing moment, forces us to think of becoming, but to think of it precisely as what could not have started, and cannot finish, becoming” (Deleuze). The Dreaming has no ultimate identity: it is that out of which relationscapes are born.

… “Now I am nimble, now I fly, now I see myself under myself, now a god dances with me” (Nietzsche). To paint with country “in mind” is to paint from the sky, to paint-with the world emergent. Aboriginal artists have always painted as though from above with the ground “in mind,” feeling the world through its incipient movements rather than asking it to emerge fully formed. Theirs is a form of perception that activates the “drops,” catching them in a collective net of creative undoing. Their art does not represent a landscape. It undoes it to redo it, feeling with its inner movements, catching its tendencies in the passing, dancing their force.

… What is felt through the Dreaming is the force of life, asking of life that it manifest itself again: “Was that life?” asks Nietzsche. “Well then! One more!”

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



January 23, 2013

The Cradle

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:01 am

… All images are absent, the sky is empty, but the movement is there, living, smooth, rhythmic, in a movement scarcely perceptible and quite silent. Water carries us. Water rocks us.

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

… The imaginary does not find its deep, nutritive roots in images; first it needs a closer, more enveloping and material presence. Imaginary reality is evoked before being described. Poetry is always vocative: It is, as Martin Buber would say, in the Thou category before being in the That category. Thus the Moon is, in the poetic realm, matter before being form; it is a fluid that penetrates the dreamer. Man in his natural elemental poetic state:

is not disquieted by the moon that he sees every night, till it comes bodily to him, sleeping or waking, draws near and charms him with silent movements, or fascinates him with the evil or sweetness of its touch. He does not retain from this the visual representation, say, of the wandering orb of light, or of a demonic being that somehow belongs to it, but, at first, he has in  him only the dynamic, stirring image of the moon’s effect, streaming through his body.

… All our literary education has been limited to cultivating formal imagination, clear imagination. On the other hand, since dreams are most often studied only for the development of their forms, no one realizes that above all they mime the life of matter, that their life is strongly rooted in the material elements. With a succession of forms we do not have what we need for measuring the dynamics of transformation. The best that can be expected is a description of this transformation from the outside, like a pure kinetics. This kinetics cannot appreciate forces, drives, and aspirations from within.

… Of the four elements, water is the only one that can rock. It is the rocking element. This is one more feature of its feminine make-up: it rocks like a mother. The unconscious does not formulate Archimedes’ principle; it lives it. In his dreams of the bather who is not looking for anything, who does not wake up shouting “Eureka” — like a psychoanalyst astonished by the smallest discovery — who finds night “his own setting,” loves and knows the lightness acquired in water. He enjoys it directly, like a dream-knowledge, that knowledge, as we shall see, which opens up an infinity for him.

The drifting bark gives the same delights, brings up the same reveries. It gives, says Lamartine with no hesitation, “one of the most mysterious sensual pleasures in nature.” Innumerable literary references easily prove to us that the enchanting bark, the romantic bark, is, in certain respects, a rediscovered cradle. During long, calm, carefree hours, lengthy hours when, lying in the bottom of a lone bark, we contemplate the sky, to what memory do you give us over? All images are absent, the sky is empty, but the movement is there, living, smooth, rhythmic, in a movement scarcely perceptible and quite silent. Water carries us. Water rocks us. Water puts us to sleep. Water gives us back our mother.

… It is near water and on water that we learn to sail on clouds, to swim in the sky.

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




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:00 am

… Something more than pure usefulness is involved.

… What happened? Is grace no longer necessary?

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

… David Levin in “Balanchine’s Formalism” argues that the graceful dancer seems to suspend his earthly self, appears to be weightless, uplifted, released into verticality from his earthbound, horizontal base.

Another persisting attribute is control, a quality easily associated with discipline and consequently — though not necessarily — with virtue. Noting that grace always provokes respect or admiration for the graceful person, Archibald Alison remarked in 1790 that this occurs because grace gives evidence of self-command, the possession of a lofty character governed by high principles that restrain movement. No violent or intemperate gesture can be graceful, and all gestures — regardless of what emotion they express — are graceful if they appear significant of self-command. Grace, indeed, is never evident in movement that lacks composure and temperance, not in steps that are hurried or disordered as if by anxiety. For Schopenhauer a half century later, grace consists “in every movement being performed and every position assumed, in the easiest and most appropriate and convenient way, and therefore being the pure, adequate expression of its intention, or of the act of will, without any superfluity, which exhibits itself as aimless, meaningless bustle, or as wooden stiffness.”

Similarly Herbert Spencer claimed that grace occurs when a certain action is achieved with the least expenditure of force. The movements of the arms in dancing, he noted, are not simply decorative, on the contrary, they facilitate the general action. [Raymond] Bayer argued that grace involves the suppression of useless, sterile, contagious, involuntary movement; only necessary energy is expended. Nothing moves unless the dancer wants it to move. For Jean-Paul Sartre, grace is the “moving image of necessity and freedom.” The hand exists in order to grasp, but it manifests its freedom through the unpredictability of the exact shape of its gesture. Control enables the dancer to quell any unnecessary motion but simultaneously allows a little license in design that does not interfere with the proper rendering of the action. Something more than pure usefulness is involved.

We may well be suspicious, for, despite its efficiency, graceful movement does not look utilitarian. In 1762, Lord Kames attributed grace to motion that is agreeable to the eye apart from any consideration of its appropriateness as a means to an end. A century later, Léon Dumont noted that the Greeks called condiments graces; they were pleasing but unnecessary to nutrition. He admitted that grace can occur in useful movements, however, as long as the manner of accomplishing the task appears to be more important than the result. The notion that grace is generally distinct from practicality has persisted: “Function and grace are combined in this set of four dessert bowls of clear crystal,” Bergdorf Goodman’s 1979 Christmas catalogue announced triumphantly.

“It may be remark’d,” wrote Hogarth in the mid-eighteenth century, “that all useful habitual motion, such as are readiest to serve the necessary purposes of life, are those made up of plain lines … graceful movements in serpentine lines are used occasionally, and rather at times of leisure, thus constantly applied to every action we make. The whole business of life may be carried on without them, they being properly speaking, only the ornamental part of gesture.”

… Bayer found grace in the dancer’s play within structure, and John Cage elaborated: “Clarity is cold, mathematical, inhuman, but basic and earthy. Grace is warm, incalculable, human, opposed to clarity, and like the air. Grace … is used to mean the play with and against clarity of rhythmic structure.” In music and dance, he found clarity and structure always together, “endlessly and life-givingly, opposed to each other.”

… Bayer stressed the importance of broderies — the petite batterie, the rond de jambe, and especially the fouetté, a true embellishment, with the free leg entwining around the support, like a climbing plant in a serpentine ascent around a still center. He delighted in gratuitous ornamentation, in appoggiaturas. Grace, he declared, is the transfiguration of the mechanics of dance.

… [Archibald] Alison found a higher degree of grace in movements that express serenity and self-possession in cases of danger, but only when “they do not degenerate into tricks of mere agility, or unnatural postures.” Dumont, too, warned that the dancer must perform with ease the most perilous jumps, the most astonishing extensions, the most difficult pirouettes, complicated entrechats, extravagant evolutions — and during all this a smile of ease never leaves his lips, for without the appearance of ease he would cease to be graceful, which means he would cease to dance.

Or so they were saying up to the 1930s. After then the notion of grace in dance seems to occur principally in the writings of journalists who can apparently think of nothing more specific to say about last night’s ballerina, or in the derogatory remarks of some advocates of contemporary experimental dance who find grace anachronistic. What happened? Is grace no longer necessary?

… [For Merce Cunningham] As far as appearance was concerned, grace in its various traditional senses was neither demanded nor prohibited; it could be appropriate to some ways of exploring movement and not to others. Of course some of the invisible qualities of grace were needed; control was essential if the dancer was not to distort the movement qualities that were the essence of what Cunningham wanted to display. But the choreographer had only occasional use for lightness, made considerable use of straight lines, and — because he favored chance over emotional continuity — frequently presented movement that was fragmented rather than flowing. Nor was Cunningham interested in broderies; he was more concerned with uncluttered, subtle variations and juxtapositions of lines and textures that could be distinctly perceived. “Grace,” he once said, “comes when the energy for the given situation is full and there is no excess.” To illustrate, he cited Julia Child in the kitchen.

… Twyla Tharp sauntered onto the stage, body slouched, arms hanging loosely, as if she were heading for the local bistro after a hard day’s work. But the feet and legs were engaged in the most complex maneuvers — incredibly swift changes of weight and direction, sudden shifts in dynamics and rhythmic patterns. These required control. The body moved with fluidity and it looked free, artless, though not particularly elegant, dignified or light. It was not called graceful because by now the term had taken on connotations that never belonged to it before: simpering, affected, fussy. The word had become, and remains, somewhat suspect.

Yet we continue to admire those aspects of the real grace that pertain even to contemporary dance: control, precision, freedom, the appearance of spontaneity, flow. And we continue to admire the balletic skill that enables the dancer to exhibit these qualities in the face of mounting choreographic demands. Graceful is almost inadequate to describe the fleet passage of the Balanchine dancer through a series of intricate broderies or in the suave conquest of a long and ornate configuration of traveling steps. The mastery goes by practically unnoticed because other considerations have taken precedence — elegance of line, subtlety of phrasing, musicality. The concept keeps changing.

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



January 22, 2013

To What Shall They Give Themselves

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:47 am

… It asks for what we can’t give, but it is in this direction we must go.

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

… If there is nothing worth while, it is hard to do anything at all. When one does nothing, one is threatened by the question is one nothing? To this insulting doubt, however, there is a lively response: a system of values centering around threatened grownupness and defensive conceit. This is the so-called “threatened masculinity,” not in the sense of being called a girl, but of being called, precisely, “boy,” the Negro term of insult. With this, there is an endless compulsion to prove potency and demand esteem. The boys don’t talk about much of interest, but there is a vast amount of hot rhetoric to assert that oneself is “as good as anybody else,” no more useless, stupid, or cowardly. For instance, if they play a game, the interest in the game is weak: they are looking elsewhere when the ball is served, there are lapses in attention, they smoke cigarettes even while playing handball. The interest in victory is surprisingly weak: there is not much glow of self-esteem. But the need for proof is overwhelming: “I won you, didn’t I? I won you last week too, didn’t I?”

During childhood, they played games with fierce intensity, giving themselves as a sacrifice to the game, for play was the chief business of growth, finding and making themselves in the world. Now when they are too old merely to play, to what shall they give themselves with fierce intensity? They cannot play for recreation, since they have not been used up.

The proving behavior is endless. Since each activity is not interesting to begin with, its value does not deepen and it does not bear much repetition. Its value as proof quickly diminishes. In these circumstances, the inevitable tendency is to raise the ante of the compulsive useless activity that proves one is potent and not useless. (This analysis applies equally to these juveniles and to status-seeking junior executives in business firms on Madison Avenue.)

It is not surprising then, that, as Frederick Thrasher says in The Gang, “Other things being equal, the imaginative boy has an excellent chance to become the leader of the gang. He has the power to make things interesting for them. He ‘thinks up things for us to do.'”

[Doesn’t that description kind of remind you of the behavior in online forums?]

[ … ]

… Positively, the delinquent behavior seems to speak clearly enough. It asks for what we can’t give, but it is in this direction we must go. It asks for manly opportunities to work, to make a little money, and have self-esteem; to have some space to bang around in, that is not always somebody’s property; to have better schools to open for them horizons of interest; to have more and better sex without fear or shame; to share somehow in the symbolic goods (like the cars) that are made so much of; to have a community and a country to be loyal to; to claim attention and have a voice. These are not outlandish demands. Certainly they cannot be satisfied directly in our present system; they are baffling.

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



Taking Part

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:46 am

… The relationships we most intimately desire are all around us, brought into existence by all those who are taking part, even if the only person who appears to be taking part is a jogger with a Walkman or a solitary flute player in the African night.

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

… if “to music” is not just to take part in a discourse concerning the relationships of our world but is actually to experience those relationships, we need not find it surprising that it should arouse in us a powerful emotional response. The emotional state that is aroused is not, however, the reason for the performance but the sign that the performance is doing its job, that it is indeed bringing into existence, for as long as it lasts, relations among the sounds, and among the participants, that they feel to be good or ideal relationships.

It seems to me that to say that a sad piece of music makes on feel sad or a happy piece makes one happy is a crude simplification of the complex of emotional states that is, in fact, evoked by taking part in a good performance (the word good, of course, raises all sorts of questions that I shall be discussing later). There is elation there and joy, even occasionally triumph, produced no doubt by having experienced, in our own bodies and senses, relationships that we feel to be right and in accord with our idea of the pattern that connects. This, we feel, is how the pattern of the world really is, and this is where we really belong in it.

… if we think about music primarily as action rather than as thing and about the action as concerned with relationships, then we see that whatever meaning a musical work has lies in the relationships that are brought into existence when the piece is performed.

[ … ]

… Our relationships specify us, they change as we change, and we change as they change. … We feel that [the relationships in musicking are] how the world really is when all the dross is stripped away, and this is where we really belong in it. It is as if — no, not as if but directly is that — we have been allowed to live for a while in the world as it ought to be, in the world of right relationships. The exploration and the affirmation need not be, and in fact usually are not, conscious and certainly cannot be expressed in words, but the celebration can be, and usually is, so expressed, if not during the performance then after it.

… Metaphor … is not a “mere” anything but a principle mode by means of which we come to understand our experience.

The best we can do is to create metaphors that will help us understand rightly our feelings and actions and thus live well in the world.

… It is not true, as is often said, that music is the most abstract of the arts. On the contrary, to music is to take part in the most concrete and  least mediated of all artistic activities. The relationships we most intimately desire are all around us, brought into existence by all those who are taking part, even if the only person who appears to be taking part is a jogger with a Walkman or a solitary flute player in the African night.

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



January 21, 2013

To Reconcile / Waking with Sleeping

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:47 am

At the Bomb Testing Site
by William Stafford

At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense,
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.

by Muriel Rukeyser

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:47 am

… Today, advanced capitalism requires such self-scripting from most of us — to project a self-image fitted for each new interview, to adapt a skill set for each new job, in effect, to be screen-tested on such improvised capabilities at every turn.

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

“I was an old-fashioned artist compared to him,” Roy Lichtenstein once remarked of Andy Warhol, and it is true that Warhol does not aim to assimilate his images from low sources to the parameters of high painting, and thus to maintain the values of pictorial unity and aesthetic totality under the pressures of mass culture, as Lichtenstein and Hamilton do. … [I]n his move to distress his images and viewers alike, he dispenses with most conventions of good composition and proper spectatorship alike.

[ … ]

… The punctum in Warhol … arises less through content than through technique, especially through the “floating flashes” of the silk-screen process, the engineered accidents (the slipping of the register, the streaking of the image, and so forth) that appear as the ink is squeezed onto the canvas and the screen is repositioned. One more example of this effect: there is a punctum for me in Ambulance Disaster (1963-64), at least in one version of the three. The source image is a particularly gruesome UPI photo of a fatal accident involving two ambulances. But the punctum arises less from the dead woman slumped over the ambulance door in the upper half of the canvas than from the obscene stain that effaces her head in the same image in the lower  half — a stain that was an accidental upshot of the silk-screen process.

[ … ]

Warhol suggests that different natures … speak to different photographic genres and camera setups. He was especially intrigued by the particular nature that speaks to the movie camera, which is a primary concern of his films; in fact, both psychological vicissitudes of self-imaging and the technological training of the modern subject are most evident there, and nowhere more so than in his 472 known Screen Tests, produced between 1964 and 1967.

frame from Screen Test: Jane Holzer, 1964

Made with a sixteen-millimeter Bolex camera on a tripod, each Screen Test is the given length of a hundred-foot roll of film, just under three minutes in the shooting, and each was to follow these guidelines (which were often disobeyed): a stationary camera, with no zooming in or out, and a centered sitter, face forward, full in the frame, and as motionless as possible. Conceived as filmic portraits (they were initially called “stillies”), the Screen Tests are, in effect, photo-booth pictures, mug shots, and publicity stills rolled into one.

… “Somehow we attract people who can turn themselves on in front of the camera,” Warhol once commented on his films. “In this sense, they’re really superstars. It’s much harder, you know, to be your own script.” Yet many Screen Tests attest precisely to the difficulty of this turning on, this self-scripting, and the sheer duress of filmic iconicity and coherent presence becomes the principal subject.

Warhol looks ahead to our moment of a capitalist society in which testing and training are pervasive. … Today, advanced capitalism requires such self-scripting from most of us — to project a self-image fitted for each new interview, to adapt a skill set for each new job, in effect, to be screen-tested on such improvised capabilities at every turn. In the Screen Tests in particular, and at the Factory generally, people were treated as so much capital to be shaped and reshaped, and this flexibility is now demanded of most subjects in a neoliberal economy. “Production thus not only creates an object for the subject,”Marx writes in a celebrated line in the Grundrisse (1854-61), “but also a subject for the object,” and this remains the case for our own mode of production. In this respect, Warhol does not demonstrate the final dissolution of the subject, as some critics claim, so much as he explores its continual construction and deconstruction.

Yet, finally, Warhol does not simply conform to this “new spirit of capitalism”; in fact, he might be understood to resist it, however obliquely, in two ways at least. First, although failure can be the outcome of any test, it often appears to be the purpose of Warhol. Can anyone — sitter or viewer — be said to pass his screen tests?

… Second, Warhol not only distresses the images; at times he seems to distress the imaginary as such, that psychic space in which, according to Lacan, we misrecognize ourselves. It is in this space that ideology operates on us most effectively; in fact, in his influential account of ideology, Louis Althusser adapted the Lacanian definition of the imaginary to suggest how we misrecognize the social world at large in this way (in his famous formula, ideology proposed imaginary resolutions to real contradictions). In some respects, this misrecognition occurs most perfectly in classic cinema, which some theorists describe as hypnotic and others as fetishistic. According to the first view, film places us in a condition of semiconscious suggestibility, while according to the second view, it allows us to deny the reality of the apparatus of the movie in order to believe the illusion of its story. In his Screen Tests, Warhol breaks both hypnotic and fetishistic effects of this filmic capture. In his still work too, Warhol disturbs, more radically than any other Pop artist, the operations of the imaginary and the ideological. In this light, Lichtenstein was right: he is an old-fashioned artist compared to Warhol, for like Hamilton, Lichtenstein remains a painter of modern life, whereas in Warhol, that modernity overwhelms painting, and the tableau tradition dedicated to the autonomous subject lies in ruins.

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



January 20, 2013

The Power of Fiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:48 am

… [Before Poincaré, astronomers] began with a “Keplerian,” two-body problem and calculated the perturbations associated with the presences of other bodies. … [After Poincaré], the possibility of moving from a general recognition of the powerlessness in the face of integration of the majority of the equations of change in dynamics to the identification of what stands in the way of integration, once again illustrates the power of fiction …

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

… The reversible change of state invented by Carnot “mimics” a dynamic evolution, but mimics it in the way a puppet mimics the spontaneous movement of a living thing. Conversely, with the equations of motion formulated by William Rowan Hamilton, dynamics would come to share the perfection of the ancient cosmos, of the circular movement of the stars conceived as free, spontaneous, and perfectly determined and intelligible.

… Shouldn’t the physicist be free to select as “true,” and no longer as a convenient fiction, those modes of description that express her problem in its simplest and most beautiful formulation? Conventional mechanical description might then be merely the darkened and deformed reflection of a primordial mathematical truth that provides movement with its luminous and intelligible simplicity. Forces would then be merely phenomenological, determined by our point of view of phenomena, and it is the syntax itself, the language that articulates the different points of view, that could alone lay claim to the value of an obligating truth.

A new type of realism here becomes possible, without which twentieth-century physics is incomprehensible. Lagrange’s heirs diverge, for this realism now disqualifies, as a scaffolding that can be eliminated whenever the problem has been stated, all functions, force or work, that recall human questions and may serve as “common ground” between physicists and engineers. While Carnot’s mime tied the identity of the system to the manipulation of an operator, Hamilton’s mathematical poem would create a link between truth and beauty that in itself becomes a source of obligation, unbinding the description from contingencies such as observation and measurement.

… The Galilean equality distributed what can be referred to as cause and what can be referred to as effect. This time, the equations distribute what are entitled to be called independent variables, which will then be referred to as “canonical variables” of the system. And it shouldn’t be surprising to discover — playing the role of fulcrum for the canonical transformations that ensure the transition from a representation in terms of canonical variables to another representation — a new construct that both presupposes and embodies the power of the = sign. This construct is the Hamiltonian of the system. It is simply the energy (sum of Lagrange’s potential energy V and the old active force, T, now known as kinetic energy) expressed in terms of canonical variables. A “canonical” transformation, generating a new representation of the system in terms of new “canonical” variables, must satisfy one constraint only: the Hamiltonian, expressed in terms of the new variables must retain the same value. As such, in the case of the Hamiltonian, canonical transformations achieve the most dramatic exhibition of the triumph of mathematical fiction over intuition.

… It is by means of the Hamiltonian that the changes of position and velocity are reciprocally defined. And — its crowning achievement — to the extent that any dynamic change by definition conserves the Hamiltonian (that is, energy), we can, if we wish, claim that change over time is itself nothing more than a continuous change in an observer’s point of view of a system that would itself remain invariant. As if it were the “observer” who was evolving over time, ceaselessly changing variables as her point of view changed.

… Causal equality was the point of departure for the adventure of dynamics. Here, it has been endowed with such power that any trace of “cause” has been absorbed to the benefit of the triumph of invariance as such. Represented in terms of cyclical variables, the different degrees of freedom of a system evolve independently, each according to its own law, without the existence of one affecting the other in any way. [ … ] But causality has been absorbed only by assuming the status of a definitional principle: the “potential” that represents the interactions between the components has been incorporated into the very definition of the variables. The change in each degree of freedom of the system is autonomous because its very definition already takes into account the totality of the system. This, then, is the perfect physical-mathematical realization of the world of Leibnizian monads, which can simultaneously be said to be causa sui and a faithful local expression of the universe they compose together.

Why is the representation in terms of cyclical variables so important? For two distinct reasons. On the one hand, it creates new beings of such great simplicity, such elegant autonomy that it is difficult not to be tempted by the idea that the transformation is veridical, that it gives expression to a “pure” reality, unshackled by the contingencies of our mode of understanding. The physicist then becomes a kind of Platonist: having left her cave and her distorting games with shadow and light, she contemplates a finally reunited beauty and truth. But cyclical representation also represents the triumph of the physicist in another sense: the possibility of constructing the cyclical representation of a system and the integrable nature of the equations that characterize it are, in one sense, synonymous. Once the Hamiltonian equations have been integrated, that is, once the explicit law yielding the variation over the course of time of each of the independent variables has been made explicit, the transition to cyclical representation become’s child’s play. Conversely, if this representation can be constructed, the integration of the equations is child’s play.

But can this Grail always be found? Can a cyclical representation always be constructed? If this ever turns out not to be the case, the road that leads from writing the equations to their solution cannot be determined. Will such an impossibility have the power to obligate physicists? Can’t it be claimed, rather, that the problem is “merely technical,” that the sun shines outside the cave, even if the road that allows us to escape from the kingdom of appearance remains impracticable?

… The representation of a dynamic system as “a perturbed integrable system,” which can be used to formulate the problem of integration, cannot — and this point needs to be emphasized — be reduced to the procedure used by astronomers ever since Newton. In the hands of astronomers, this procedure corresponded to an intuitive construction of the problem: one began with a “Keplerian,” two-body problem and calculated the perturbations associated with the presences of other bodies. But, with Poincaré the representation of the “perturbed” system, that is, how the perturbation that couples the degrees of freedom of the integrable reference system is defined, no longer has any “intuitive” meaning. The perturbation has no meaning independent of the problem of integration. [ … ] It cannot be conceived independently of the nonlocal, fictive definition that every cyclical representation embodies. In other words, the possibility of moving from a general recognition of the powerlessness in the face of integration of the majority of the equations of change in dynamics to the identification of what stands in the way of integration, once again illustrates the power of fiction, the power to reinvent the statement of a problem in terms that exhibit the singularity of what it is that allows the problem to be formulated.

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




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