Unreal Nature

February 28, 2013

Drown Him In the Garden

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:19 am

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

… Think of the infinite work done by science to found a unitary system across the chaos of its pages, as numerous as grains of sand. Knowledge beats to a systolic, then diastolic rhythm, hesitates, balanced in time, passing from one phase to the other, between the hope of a universe and the irreducible pluralism of a world, between a systematic whole and the irrepressible growth of difference. As though it could not bring itself to leave the earth or garden, with its thousand species, for the lure of the desert.

Think of the impossible work done by the philosopher — caught in architectural, logical, desert systems — in resuscitating the body of the countryside and the countryside of the body vitrified beneath language, so as to create a world from the explosion of fragments. Happiness requires the landscape to hold its own beneath the pale ochre of the desert, as the body holds out against the machine, or the young girl against the greybeard; stubborn grass grows under the cracks in the expressway, myriad angels flinch at times under the domination of the architect God of the universe but drown him in the garden of their eye-spangled wings; the pleasures of the multi-coloured banquet hold their own against the grey cameo of the abstract word. Empiricism carries the unforgettable memory of gardens.

… The landscape expresses the page of pages quite precisely, by doubling or exponentially increasing the pagi. A book can be shut, completed, a labyrinth, well or prison; the landscape page of pages, always open, displayed, free, readable, stretched out, unfolded, uncovered … This fragile book is the one we should pursue.

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




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:18 am

… It is the liberation of the artwork from the cramped intentionality of the singular artist that ensures the continuing presence of the origin in the unfolding of the work, and it is the graceful failure of the artist that is required to keep this origin in play. To fail without grace is to lose sight of the origin, obscured or displaced by the success of the work.

This is from The Philosophy of Improvisation by Gary Peters (2009):

… What would a successful improvisation be? The claim being made here is that success should not be measured against a consensual goal or têlos that drives the work ever urgently toward a communicative conclusion. On the contrary, an imputed consensus is the origin of the work, but one that is destroyed by the working of that work. Indeed, one could go further and suggest that the primary aim of free-improvisation is to ensure that this ongoing and endless destruction is not short-circuited by the finished artwork or by any spurious community promoting an ideology of oneness. The care for the work, one that overrides the more trivial concerns of intersubjectivity, is a care for the work’s beginning, not its end; as such, it will ever be ready to destroy the work in an attempt to preserve what Heidegger describes as the openness of that beginning.

… For good or ill, free-improvisation, like all improvisation, is riddled with competitiveness and, as Ben Watson in his book on the history of free-improvisation puts it, “the idea that the ego can be transcended is obviously a convenient ideology for collectives. The problem is that, in a highly competitive scene, it’s invariably absolute humbug.” Whether or not competition is perceived as a problem will depend on the understanding of the improvisational project and the place and nature of subjectivity within that project.

… Although fundamentally competitive, Theatresports is almost exclusively focused on the work and the working of the work rather than on the performers. The competition is between one work and another, rather than one performer and another. Performers are “judged” in relation to their skill in keeping the work working, open, and mobile rather than in response to any display of individual performative virtuosity or dialogical prowess. Indeed, many of Johnstone’s techniques are designed precisely to block the emergence of too easily assumed dialogical relationships within the unfolding of the work, particularly where the quest for dialogue is driven by a fear of what he calls the “alteration” necessary for good improvisation. Recognizing that “frightened improvisors keep restoring the balance for fear that something might happen,” Johnstone devotes much time and space to the art of tilting, that is, of tilting the balance that is ever in danger of being achieved in an improvisation, by introducing destabilizing material into the emergent dialogue, thereby “demolishing” or “devastating” it.

Johnstone’s primary concern is with the “art of making things happen,” the happening of the artwork, which for him means regarding every moment of a performance as anticipatory, as the beginning of a future yet to come. As he says, players are “working well” when “they’re giving the audience the ‘future’ that it anticipates,” which is not the same as giving them what they expect. Anticipation does not simply want fulfilment; it wants a future that is itself anticipatory, a future that retains its futurity — anticipation feeds on anticipation. To “work well,” then, the improvisor must enter into some form of dialogue with the audience, but as a listening to the silent anticipation of that audience rather than to its rowdy interjections and reckless judgments; a silence that, as the originary sense of a collective beginning, can be “heard” in the work too, as a silence that is further endangered by the dialogics of the work itself and the desire to make it a work. Improvisors are “working well,” Johnstone continues, when they “care about the values expressed in the work,” which, when stripped of any unwelcome moral overtones, should remind us that care for the work takes precedence over any intersubjective engagement, and that the “values expresses” in free-improvisation concern above all the value of ensuring that things continue to happen. Once understood thus, the competitiveness of Theatresports, and perhaps all free-improvisation worthy of attention, can be welcomed and encouraged to the extent that it is placed in the service of the work rather than of the competitors. This is why the virtuosity of the improvisor should not be measured in terms of technical mastery but rather, in relation to an ability to create or mobilize strategies that keep the work happening, even if this requires sacrificing oneself and one’s precious hard-won talents to the continuance of the work — the virtuosity of sacrifice.

… It is the liberation of the artwork from the cramped intentionality of the singular artist that ensures the continuing presence of the origin in the unfolding of the work, and it is the graceful failure of the artist that is required to keep this origin in play. To fail without grace is to lose sight of the origin, obscured or displaced by the success of the work.

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



February 27, 2013

Roots, Drinking the Sky

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:18 am

… As seen by angels, the tree’s crowns perhaps / Are roots, drinking the sky

This is from Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement by Gaston Bachelard (1943; 1988):

… If we read the history of efforts to imitate Icarus, we will find many examples of materialistic thinkers who believe that participating in the nature of feathers is the same thing as participating in flight. For example, Father Damian, an Italian living at the court of Scotland, tried to fly in 1507 using wings made out of feathers. He took off from the top of a tower, but fell and broke his legs. He attributed his fall to the fact that some rooster feathers had been used to make the wings. The rooster feathers showed their “natural affinity” for the barnyard despite the presence of truly aerial feathers which, if they alone had been used, would have guaranteed him success in flying up toward the sky.

In accordance with my method, let me follow these examples of materialism based on the cruder alimentary processes with a more literary, more refined example. It is one which, in my opinion, brings the same image into play. In Paradise Lost, Milton suggests a kind of vegetal sublimation which, throughout its development, prepares a series of progressively more ethereal foods.

So from the root
Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
More airy, last the bright consummate flow’r
Spirits odorous breathes: flow’rs and their fruit,
Man’s nourishment, by gradual scale sublimed,
To vital spirits aspire, to animal,
To intellectual; give both life and sense,
Fancy and understanding, whence the soul
Reason receives …
Time may come when men
With angels may participate, and find
No inconvenient diet, nor too light fare;
And from these corporal nutriments perhaps
Your bodies may at last turn all to spirit
Improved by tract of time, and winged ascend
Ethereal, as we …

Vico has said: “Every metaphor is a myth in miniature.” Here we see that a metaphor may also be physics and biology, to say nothing of a dietary plan. Material imagination is truly the plastic mediator that joins literary images and substances. By expressing ourselves materially we can put all of life into poems.

… In the infinite space of the skies, Shelley inhabits a palace made of “fragments of the day’s intense serene” with “moonlight patches.”

… I want to create the impression that it is light itself that carries and cradles the dreamer. In the realm of dynamic imagination, this is one of the roles played by abundant light filled with round mobile shapes, where there is nothing that can pierce or cut. Then light, the true sister of shade, carries shade in its arms.

And, day and night, aloof, from the high towers
And terraces, the Earth and Ocean seem
To sleep in one another’s arms, and dream
Of waves, flowers, clouds, woods, rocks, and all that we
Read in their smiles, and call reality.

On the suspended island, all the imaginary elements — water, earth, fire and wind — mingle their flowers by means of aerial transfiguration. [ … ] Aerial life is real life: earthly life, on the other hand, is an imaginary, ephemeral and distant life. Woods and rock are indeterminate, fleeting, dull objects. Life’s true home is the blue sky; gentle breezes and perfumes nourish the world. How well Shelley would have understood this Rilkean image:

As seen by angels, the tree’s crowns perhaps
Are roots, drinking the sky;
And in the earth, the deep roots of a beech
Seem silent summits.

… Aerial beings all know quite well that their very substance flies easily and naturally, with no movement of wings. They “drink / With eager lips the wind of their own speed.” Motion, more than substance, is what is immortal in us.

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



A Second Reality

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:17 am

… The game is ruined by the nihilist who denounces the rules as absurd and conventional, who refuses to play because the game is meaningless.

This is from Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois (1958; 1961):

Huizinga defines play as follows:

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.

Such a definition, in which all the words are important and meaningful, is at the same time too broad and too narrow. It is meritorious and fruitful to have grasped the affinity which exists between play and the secret or mysterious, but this relationship cannot be part of the definition of play, which is nearly always spectacular or ostentatious. Without doubt, secrecy, mystery, and even travesty can be transformed into play activity, but it must be immediately pointed out that this transformation is necessarily to the detriment of the secret and mysterious, which play exposes, publishes, and somehow expends. In a word, play tends to remove the very nature of the mysterious. On the other hand, when the secret, the mask, or the costume fulfills a sacramental function one can be sure that not play, but an institution is involved. All that is mysterious or make-believe by nature approaches play: moreover, it must be that the function of fiction or diversion is to remove the mystery; i.e. the mystery may no longer be awesome, and the counterfeit may not be a beginning or symptom of metamorphosis and possession.

Property is exchanged, but  no goods are produced. What is more, this exchange affects only the players, and only to the degree that they accept, through a free decision remade at each game, the probability of such transfer. A characteristic of play, in fact, is that it creates no wealth or goods, thus differing from work or art. At the end of the game, all can and must start over again at the same point. Nothing has been harvested or manufactured, no masterpiece has been created, no capital has accrued. Play is an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money … As for the professionals — the boxers, cyclists, jockeys, or actors who earn their living in the ring, track, or hippodrome or on the stage, and who must think in terms of prize, salary, or title — it is clear that they are not players but workers.

… It happens only when the players have a desire to play, and play the most absorbing, exhausting game in order to find diversion, escape from responsibility and routine. Finally and above all, it is necessary that they be free to leave whenever they please by saying: “I am not playing any more.”

In effect, play is essentially a separate occupation, carefully isolated from the rest of life, and generally is engaged in with precise limits of time and place. There is place for play: as needs dictate, the space for hopscotch, the board for checkers or chess, the stadium, the racetrack, the list, the ring, the stage, the arena, etc. Nothing that takes place outside this ideal frontier is relevant. To leave the enclosure by mistake, accident, or necessity, to send the ball out of bounds, may disqualify or entail a penalty.

… The confused and intricate laws of ordinary life are replaced in this fixed space and for this given time, by precise, arbitrary, unexceptionable rules that must be accepted as such and that govern the correct playing of the game, If the cheat violates the rules, he at least pretends to respect them. He does not discuss them: he takes advantage of the other players’ loyalty to the rules. From this point of view, one must agree with the writers who have stressed the fact that the cheat’s dishonesty does not destroy the game. The game is ruined by the nihilist who denounces the rules as absurd and conventional, who refuses to play because the game is meaningless. His arguments are irrefutable. The game has no other but an intrinsic meaning. That is why its rules are imperative and absolute, beyond discussion. There is no reason for their being as they are, rather than otherwise. Whoever does not accept them as such must deem them manifest folly.

… The game consists of the need to find or continue at once a response which is free within the limits set by the rules. This latitude of the player, this margin accorded to his action is essential to the game and partly explains the pleasure which it excites.

… games are not ruled and make-believe. Rather, they are rules or make-believe.

… the preceding analysis permits play to be defined as an activity which is essentially:

  1. Free: in which playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion;
  2. Separate: circumscribed within limits of space and time, defined and fixed in advance;
  3. Uncertain: the course of which cannot be determined, nor the result attained beforehand, and some latitude for innovations being left to the player’s initiative;
  4. Unproductive: creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, ending in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game;
  5. Governed by rules: under conventions that suspend ordinary laws, and for the moment establish new legislation, which alone counts;
  6. Make-believe: accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality, as against real life.



February 26, 2013

The Best We Can

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:34 am

… Doing the best one can with what one has is a recipe, not, as may at first be thought, for smug mediocrity but for constant advance into new territory, since those who persist in doing the best they can with what they have will get better, will find new nuances of relationship, and new skills with which to articulate them.

Final post from Musicking: The Meaning of Performing and Listening by Christopher Small (1998):

… As a first-year zoology student in university, I learned to dissect dead animals of various kinds. We were told before our first lab session that we were to bring sketch pads and pencils in addition to our scalpels, forceps and scissors; and when we had finished our dissections, the lab assistant told us that we were to draw the dissections we had just done. When several of the students protested that they could not draw, the reply came back, implacably, “Draw it.” “Can’t I bring a camera and just photograph it?” “Draw it.” So we set to and somehow managed to produce drawings that represented, with various degrees of clarity and accuracy, the relationships of the sundered animal tissues we had on the tables before us.

As we went on, from worms to insects to starfish and finally to rats and rabbits (undergraduate zoology in those days was almost entirely comparative anatomy), I found I got better at drawing, and I even began to enjoy and to be a little proud of that part of my work. But I began to realize also that the aim of the drawing was not to produce artistic masterpieces; it was simply a way of learning to look and to see relationships. Its value lay not so much in the finished drawing (if I did treasure one or two particularly good efforts, it was more as a reminder of a job well done) as in the act of looking and drawing, as a technique in the complex and difficult task of learning to understand not only the relationships of the internal organs of each species I was studying but also the second-order relationships between analogous and homologous organs in the various species, classes and phyla, and even some third-order relationships between second-order relationships.

… Similarly in musicking; our exploration, affirmation and celebration of relationships does not end with those of a single performance, but can expand to the relationships between one performance and another …

… Speaking and musicking, as we have seen, resemble one another in many ways, but they differ also, in even more important ways, especially in the power that musicking gives to articulate human relationships, in all their multilayered and multiordered complexity and quicksilver changeability, in ways that words cannot do.

But if everyone is born capable of musicking, how is it that so many people in Western industrial societies believe themselves to be incapable of the simplest musical act? If they are so, and it seems that many genuinely are, it must be either because the appropriate means for developing the latent musicality have been absent at those crucial times of their lives when the nervous system is still in the process of completing its formation (those who are deprived of speech opportunities at that crucial time also never fully develop their speech capacities) or more often, I believe, because they have been actively taught to be unmusical.

… If the number of young people of student age who have passed through my classes is any indication, there must be millions of people in Western industrial societies who have accepted the judgment passed upon them and classed themselves as unmusical and even as sometimes called “tone-deaf.” Where that odious term came from I do not know, and what it can really mean I am not sure. I can only assume that it means something like “unable to distinguish one pitch from another,” but if that is so it must be a very rare and socially crippling affliction, since anyone unable to distinguish pitches would be unable to speak or to understand speech. The ability to speak and to understand speech depends in fact on a very sophisticated pitch discrimination, not only in order to recognize the formants that distinguish one vowel sound from another but also, and just as important, to recognize the very complex forms of  vocal information and inflection that are used in the most ordinary conversations, which we have seen to be an essential element in the articulation of relationships.

… If the function of musicking is to explore, affirm, and celebrate the concepts of ideal relationships of those taking part, then the best performance must be one that empowers all the participants to do this most comprehensively, subtly and clearly, at whatever level of technical accomplishment the performers have attained. Such subtlety, comprehensiveness and clarity do not depend on virtuosity but reflect, rather, the participants’ (that is, both performers and listeners) doing the best they can with what they have.

In this sense the word best applies not only to technical skill but also to all the other relationships of the performance, which is carried out with all the loving care and attention to detail that the performers can bring to it. Doing the best one can with what one has is a recipe, not, as may at first be thought, for smug mediocrity but for constant advance into new territory, since those who persist in doing the best they can with what they have will get better, will find new nuances of relationship, and new skills with which to articulate them.

… From our examination of the ceremony of a symphony concert we have seen that not all musical performances expand or alter our concept of the pattern which connects. Most performances, in fact, merely confirm our feelings about the pattern and of our place in it; it is, of course, most comfortable that way. The audiences that attend the average symphony concert are not seeking any such expansion, are not looking for new experiences that will expand their concept of the relationships of their world. Rather, they are seeking confirmation of a habitual pattern of relationships.

We need not, however, despise performances that merely serve to confirm those habitual patterns. They are needed if we are to reassure ourselves that this is how the world really is and that this is our place in it, that our values, our idea of the pattern which connects, are real and valid. But we also need performances that expand our concepts of relationships, that present relationships in new and unfamiliar light, bring us to see our place in the world from a slightly different point of view.

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




February 25, 2013

Upon the Stream

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:28 am

This is the first and third (of three) pairs of verses from:

Long-Legged Fly
by William Butler Yeats

That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post.
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

[ … ]

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.



With What Is Possible

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:27 am

…  the role of the art instructor is to enable the student to connect his particular way of seeing with what is possible. … He can help the student to keep from closing doors and making assumptions …

This is from Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966-1990 by Joseph Kosuth (1991). This is from the title piece, ‘A Short Note: Art, Education and Linguistic Change’ first published in 1970:

… Up until the very recent past it has been assumed that if one wanted to speak as an artist he had to speak in the ‘correct’ language. That’s how we knew he was an artist and what he made was art or meant to be art. Whatever was done, it had to be done within that language. One reason for this was the notion that art was defined by its morphological characteristics. This means that the arena of artistic activity was arbitrarily arrived at by the demands of primarily non-art functions. That is, to put it simply, by the decorative needs of architecture. A further confusion in this regard was the prevalent notion that there was a conceptual connection between art and decoration and taste.

In art before the ‘modern’ period the language form was the carrier of “the depiction of religious themes, portraiture of aristocrats, detailing of architecture” and so on. The modern period brought an end to art’s invisibility and first painters and then sculptors began to focus on art’s language — not as a means, but as an end. While art was still being conveyed by the use of the same language form (painting and sculpture) it was vastly different from earlier ‘art’ because the ‘art condition’ became singularly identified with the language form itself. Up until ten years ago the modern period was about really only this one thing: the myriad uses of art’s language as art. Focusing on art’s language was the one immediate way to make art and only art without the confusion of subject matter or a new language form which might be interesting in their own right.

In the past few years artists have realized that their traditional language is exhausted and unreal. Whether it is because its roots go too far back to a world so completely different from our own that the old language, as art, isn’t believable or real anymore, or whether it is because all of the ‘limits’ have been reached, is difficult to know. We do now realize that anything can be art. That is, any material or element in any sense can be made to function within an art context. And that in our time quality is associated with the artist’s thinking, not as a ghost within the object.

Ideally, in the new art each artist creates his own language.* This was necessary for art to become a kind of ‘pure science’ of creativity — the new artist must not only construct new propositions, but attempt to create a whole new idea of art. And only if he manages to do this has he really made any individual contribution.

What effect will this change in art have on the educational needs of the artist? The change is of course a radical one. Previously, when all artists used the same language, it was possible to predict what tools he would be using in the fashioning of that language. Since everyone seemed to know, if not what art was, at least the forms it would take, it was possible to set up a fairly rigid learning situation that all of the students would be subjected to equally. And it was assumed that the best students were the ones who acquired the necessary information the fastest. In retrospect, we can now see that the best students didn’t turn out that way in the modern period. Even within the confines of the old language, the work of the modern masters upon early exposure was usually ‘ugly,’ usually ‘didn’t look like art,’ and was also usually subjected to a great deal of ridicule — with intimations that it was either a fraud or a joke.

Nonetheless, most present day art schools are still based on the assumptions inherited from the 19th century, and most art educators are either uneasy about or openly hostile to students disinterested in the grammar lessons of the old language. Even in those schools that allow experimentation in the advanced years, the tone set for learning about the traditional modes of art in the earlier years is a moralistic one — implying that for one to be a true artist technical knowledge of painting and sculpture is mandatory. In reality, however, painting and sculpture courses are like laboratory art history studies. Actually studying painting and sculpture is not unlike learning Latin. Latin is useful for information (particularly to historians) but separate from the reality the young art student lives and thinks in.

But if the ‘real world’ is one of complete freedom, one where the artist not only plays the game alone, but makes up his own rules as well, is it even feasible to attempt to maintain an institution of learning for the artist? I believe it is. But only if the art educator can separate the ‘art’ from the ‘art history’ in every possible sense.  The most important role, if not the only role, now of the art school is to consider (metaphorically) the courses as ‘books,’ and run the school as a ‘library.’ The students are old enough to explore the ‘books’ and ‘read’ at their own pace. Technicians should be available for those students that need that sort of specific information, but the role of the art instructor is to enable the student to connect his particular way of seeing with what is possible. He can’t tell a student what art is because that will be up to the student to decide. He can help the student to keep from closing doors and making assumptions, and help him eliminate wasted time by informing him of known facts about his particular arena of activity.

[*Kosuth footnotes that with: “Or, in the case of lesser artists, accept as his own one recently formed.”]

My previous post from Kosuth’s book is here.



February 24, 2013

Correlative Coinvention

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:31 am

… in this case, the definition of the ability to measure something is not arbitrary, it creates the very object it measures.

… capture always implies the possibility of “reciprocal capture,” the correlative coinvention of two mutually referring identities. What physicist will the second law give birth to?

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

… In an article from 1849, Thomson compared Carnot to Joule: Joule claimed that nothing is lost in nature, that energy is never destroyed, and yet Carnot’s ideal output implied that, when heat flows directly from a warm body to a cold body, the mechanical effect it might have produced is lost. In such cases, what else is produced in place of that lost effect? Thomson concluded that there could be no theory of heat until the question was answered.

[ … ]

… I have discussed the state function defined by Clausius at some length for two reasons. [ … ] Carnot’s work, completed by Clausius, is entirely focused on the manipulation, control, and production of measurement, although, at the same time, it also demonstrated the invention, the free and entirely counterintuitive production of meaning implied by the creation of certain types of measurements. We can, of course, measure anything, unilaterally decide to use the same type of measurement for the activity of laborers and the motion of the Galilean ball. But we then have no way of establishing a relationship between the measurement and “what” is being measured. In the case of the ball and other mechanical objects, this relationship appears, on the contrary, fully determined: the mechanical object is defined as measurable, defined by the equivalence used for the measurement. In the case of energy transformations, however, measurability is in no way a “given,” it must be created, fabricated from whole cloth; in this case, the definition of the ability to measure something is not arbitrary, it creates the very object it measures.

Correlatively, the measurement defined by Clausius entails requirements and obligations. And this is precisely the difference between Clausius and Thomson. For both men, not all energy transformations are equal, and the “second law of thermodynamics” makes nonequivalence explicit. Thomson, however, sought to apply this nonequivalence to processes themselves, as was the case in mechanics. As with conservation, the degradation of energy was supposed to characterize processes “in themselves.” Nonequivalence was supposed to be “objective” in the sense that it didn’t obligate the physicist to anything in particular, being “dictated” by phenomena. Clausius, for his part, reinvented the Lagrangian tradition transmitted to Carnot by clarifying the requirements and obligations of rational measurement, justified by a state function and, therefore, the power of the = sign. If all energy transformations are not equal, it is because only reversible transformations satisfy the requirements needed to define the appropriate state function. Rational measurement requires the reversible ideal. And — and this is the new factor differentiating mechanics from thermodynamics — it obligated the physicist to be conscious that he was a manipulator, an active participant in the definition of equivalence. The “change of state” measured by Clausius has nothing to do with the spontaneous transformations produced in nature. On the contrary, it implies that all spontaneous “natural” evolutions have been eliminated. Whereas the ideal is defined by the absurdity of a machine whose operation would produce a gratuitous increase of temperature differences, thereby confirming a world in which temperature differences are spontaneously equalized, this leveling off , like any spontaneous change, cannot be described. The description takes as its only objects transformations driven by outside manipulation, pseudo-changes wherein the system is in fact constrained by the  manipulator to transition from one equilibrium state to another that is infinitely near.

If, as Kant claimed, the Copernican revolution marks the point where scientists now ask questions, and subjects phenomena to their categories, there is, in the case of thermodynamics, no profound mystery about such submissions: the Copernican judge needs hands, he has to fabricate, here pilot, the subjected “object.” The reversible transformation is a human artifact and its artificial character has nothing to do with purification (smoothing the inclined plane, polishing the billiard balls, traveling to the Moon, where there is no air) and everything to do with creation.

The second reason has to do with the confrontation for which the “Carnot cycle” will be the arena, and entropy the prize.

… even though entropy may be a generalized state function, conserved through any cycle, ideal or not, its definition does not confer any power on the physicist once the cycle is no longer ideal. More precisely, the only power the physicist can claim is the power to define the sign of uncompensated heat, dQ’ > 0, and this power reflects what everyone knows: that uncompensated heat corresponds to a loss. The reverse case, where compensated heat is negative, would correspond to the “absurdity” of perpetual motion of the second kind, the free increase of temperature differences. But the loss can only be established or evaluated with respect to the ideal cycle, and is not connected to any description, realistic or fictional, of the processes responsible for its production. Therefore, the fact that irreversible energy transformations always result in an increase in entropy is simply another way of saying that they are always defined as a loss with respect to the reversible ideal.

Entropy, then, is a rather strange state function. It appears to subject every transformation to the “rational” logic of state functions, but doesn’t correspond to any definition, or any systematic relationship among measurable variables, this relationship being limited only to those cases where the transformation is reversible.

… the question of the ability to give a positive meaning to the increase in entropy corresponds to the introduction of a new actor, which will now occupy center stage: thermodynamic equilibrium.

… The definition of the state of equilibrium differs profoundly depending on whether we are speaking of mechanics or thermodynamics. The mechanical state of equilibrium is defined by a minimum of potential energy [think of a pendulum], but every dynamic state can also be characterized by a determinate value of that potential energy and no dynamic state is privileged. On the other hand, we cannot generally characterize a given thermodynamic situation by a corresponding value of its thermodynamic potential. Only the extreme case of potential, characterizing the equilibrium state, is defined. Therefore, only the equilibrium state corresponds to a state in the proper sense of the term, namely, one that is characterized, by means of the corresponding potential, in terms of the variables (pressure, temperature, etc.) that define the system. The increase in entropy during an irreversible change toward equilibrium (and more generally the change in thermodynamic potential between nonequilibrium initial state and the final state of equilibrium) can no more be measured than Clausius’s entropy. Only the sign of the change is defined.

… The irreversible increase of entropy no longer represents the fact that natural processes can’t be made dynamically equivalent without manipulation, it is now see as if it were “positively” describing the contrast between those natural processes and dynamic changes.

How are we to understand an “irreversible” change? How should we interpret the increase in entropy? Such questions are, as I hope I have shown, relative to an authentic history rather than the logical development of a problem that would have “resulted” from the first unification of natural processes under the umbrella of the conservation of energy. More specifically, such questions point out what can be called a “capture operation.” As we saw earlier, Engels hoped that the conservation of energy would introduce a crisis into physics, which refused to consider the operation of measurement on which it depended, and would force it to confront the qualitative difference among various forms of “motion.” My comments here have shown if not why, at least how this question as such failed to become a historical subject for physics.

… capture always implies the possibility of “reciprocal capture,” the correlative coinvention of two mutually referring identities. What physicist will the second law give birth to? How will she be able to determine what she requires of the “irreversible processes” to which her practice is now addressed, the kind of processes that force her to confront a dilemma: either she subjects them to thermodynamic measurement, thereby eliminating the irreversibility that singularizes them, or she treats them as irreversible, but can then describe them only from the point of view of the equilibrium state to which they lead under certain conditions. [ … ] Which of these now divergent values will she advance: realism or a construction that celebrates the singularity of cases wherein description and reason coincide?

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




February 23, 2013

Community Resource

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:52 am

… Conceptually, metagenomics implies that the communal gene pool is evolutionarily important and that genetic material can fruitfully be thought of as the community resource for a superorganism or metaorganism, rather than the exclusive property of individual organisms.

This is from Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology by John Dupré (2012). This particular chapter was co-written with Maureen O’Malley:

… Metagenomics — also called environmental genomics, community genomics, ecogenomics, or microbial population genomics — consists of the genome-based analysis of entire communities of complexly interacting organisms in diverse ecological contexts.

… Metagenomics has amplified insights into and questions about the genetic heterogeneity of populations and the genomic mosaicism of individuals. Understanding this genomic variability requires a deeper understanding of evolutionary processes and the mechanisms of genetic exchange and recombination. Metagenomics naturally aligns with an area of investigation that is sometimes called ‘horizontal genomics’ because both are concerned with the plethora of mobile genetic elements available to microbial communities and with the ways in which the metagenomic resources they inherit are shared and utilized.

The metagenomic role of gene cassettes provides an interesting example of how such study is being pursued. Gene cassettes are intergenomically mobile genes that are integrated into genomes in units called integrons. Such cassettes usually carry genes for environmental emergencies, such as antibiotic assaults on prokaryote communities, rather than genes for everyday function. Cassettes, and the integron elements in the host genome that allow the cassettes to be inserted and expressed (or excised), are efficient  mechanisms for the movement and expression of genes within and between species, and are implicated heavily in antibiotic resistance. Gene cassettes were originally studied individually but a metagenomic perspective allows them to be treated as a ‘floating’ evolutionary resource of high diversity and widespread activity that exists independent of individuals and is likely to have a high impact on bacterial genome evolution.

Although the extent, types, and precise effects on the metagenome of mobile resources (cassettes, as well as all the genetic material available for exchange to greater or lesser degrees by conjugation, transformation, and transduction) still require much more research, the conceptual implications for evolutionary understanding are already powerful, particularly because such studies back up extensive work done on lateral gene transfer and recombination processes. Metagenomic analysis supports and extends the earlier unexpected findings of comparative microbial genomics, which contradicted the dominant eukaryo-centric paradigm of vertical inheritance and mutation-driven species division that give rise to a single Tree of Life. Rather than focusing on individual organismal lineages, such metagenomic studies enable a shift in scientific and philosophical attention to an overall evolutionary process in which diverse and diversifying metagenomes underlie the differentiation of interactions within evolving and diverging ecosystems. Conceptually, metagenomics implies that the communal gene pool is evolutionarily important and that genetic material can fruitfully be thought of as the community resource for a superorganism or metaorganism, rather than the exclusive property of individual organisms.

[ … ]

… A final critical point about metaorganisms is that they are paradigmatically dynamic entities and therefore very clear illustrations of the ultimate necessity of a process-oriented approach to biological investigation. None of the entities that constitute organisms, or which organisms constitute, are static. Genomes, cells, and ecosystems are in constant interactive flux: subtly different in every iteration, but similar enough to constitute a distinctive process. The greatest significance of this point is perhaps that its appreciation will prevent us from taking too literally mechanistic models of biological processes. A good machine starts with all its parts precisely constructed to interact together in the way that will generate its intended functions. The technical manual for a car specifies exactly the ideal state of every single component. Though the parts of a machine are not unchanging, of course, their changes constitute a relentless, unidirectional trend towards failure. As friction, corrosion, and so on gradually transform these components from their ideal forms, the function of the car deteriorates. For a while these failing components can be replaced with replicas, close to the ideal types specified in the manual, but eventually too many parts will have deviated too far from the ideal, and the car will be abandoned, crushed, and recycled. No such unidirectional tendency towards failure characterizes biological processes: although perhaps all organisms die in the end, many exhibit high levels of stability for centuries and millenia.

… Analysing biological processes into things is necessarily to make an abstraction. Life is not composed in a machine-like way out of unchanging individual constituents. Genomes, cells, organisms, lineages are all assemblages of constantly changing entities in constant flux. Unlike the case of a machine, the stability of life processes is not maintained by the constant interactions of unchanging parts, but by dynamic, self-sustaining, and self-repairing processes. There is no doubt that mechanistic investigations of life processes have provided profound insights, and this very fact is enough to show that quasi-mechanistic elements are fundamental constituents of life processes. But there are limits to how far conventional mechanistic investigations can take us in understanding the dynamic stability of processes at this hierarchy of different levels. Such understanding will require models that incorporate both the capacities provided by mechanistic or quasi-mechanistic constituents, and the constraints and causal influences provided by properties of the wider systems of which these constituents are parts.

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




February 22, 2013

Where You Feel at Home

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:14 am

… When you enter a whole world where you feel at home. A world for which you care. Or, a world which takes you over, possesses you, obsesses you …

This is from A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers by Scott MacDonald (1992). This is from his interview is with Jonas Mekas:

[ … ]

Mekas: The end of the war found us in Germany. Two shabby, naive Lithuanian boys, just out of forced labor camp. We spent four years in various displaced persons camps — Flensburg, Hamburg, Wiesbaden, Kassel, et cetera — first in the British zone, then in the American zone. There was nothing to do and a lot of time. What we could do was read, write, and go to movies. Movies were shown in the camps free, by the American army. Whatever money we could get we spent on books, or we went into town and saw the postwar German productions. Later, when we went to study at the University of Mainz, which was in the French zone — we commuted from Wiesbaden — we saw a lot of French films.

The movies that really got us interested in film were not the French productions, but the postwar, neorealistic German films. They are not known here — films by Helmut Käutner, Josef V. Baky, Wolfgang Liebeneiner, and others. The only way they could make films after the war in Germany was by shooting on actual locations. The war had ended, but the realities were still all around. Though the stories were fictional and melodramatic, their visual texture was drab reality, the same as in the postwar Italian films.

Jonas Mekas [image from Wikipedia]

[ … ]

Mekas: … Marie Menken helped me to be at peace enough to leave much of the original material [of Mekas’s films] just as it was.

And John Cage. From him I learned that chance is one of the great editors. You shoot something one day, forget it, shoot something the next day and forget the details of that. … When you finally string it all together, you discover all sorts of connections. I thought at first that I would do more editing and not rely on chance. But I came to realize that, of course, there is no chance: whenever you film, you make certain decisions, even when you don’t know that you do. The most essential, the most important editing takes place during the shooting as a result of these decisions.

Before 1960 I tried to edit the material from 1949 to 1955. But I practically destroyed it by tampering with it too much. Later, in 1960 or 1961, I spent a long time putting it back to the way it was originally. After that I was afraid to touch it, and I didn’t touch it until 1975.

MacDonald: It’s in the fifth reel of Lost Lost Lost that you seem, for the first time, to be back in touch with rural life and with the land.

Mekas: Yes, that’s where the “lost lost lost” ends. I’m beginning to feel at home again. By reel six one cannot say that I feel lost anymore; paradise has been regained through cinema.

MacDonald: It’s the paradise of having a place where you can work and struggle for something that you care about?

Mekas: When you enter a whole world where you feel at home. A world for which you care. Or, a world which takes you over, possesses you, obsesses you, and pushes all the other worlds into the shadow. Still, I don’t think that I’ll ever be able, really and completely, to detach myself from what I really am, somewhere very deep: a Lithuanian.

MacDonald: Reel five is exhilarating in its use of light and texture. And you take some chances by allowing yourself to be very vulnerable: you allow yourself to look foolish.

Mekas: I realized I was taking chances. I have to give credit here again — one is always taking lessons — to Gregory Markopoulos. Gregory had taken chances that I thought wouldn’t work, but he always managed to pull through. … I learned from Gregory that what seems embarrassingly personal soon after a film is made, later comes to be part of the content, and not embarrassing at all.

Another lesson came from Dostoyevsky, from a statement of his that I read when I was fifteen or sixteen and which I have never forgotten. A young writer complained to Dostoyevsky that his own writing was too subjective, too personal, and that he would give anything to learn to write more objectively. Dostoyevsky replied — this is my memory; I may have adapted it totally to my own purpose; it’s not a quotation — “The main problem of the writer is not how to escape subjectivity, but rather how to be subjective, how really to write from one’s self, to be oneself in language, form, and content. I challenge you to be subjective!” It is very difficult to be openly subjective. One has to keep within formal limits, of course; one must not wallow in subjectivity. Perhaps I come very close to that sometimes. …

My previous post from MacDonald’s book is here.



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