Unreal Nature

April 30, 2013

We Tasters

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:13 am

… That ‘chicken’ can (be the) taste of ‘everything else’ is but a reminder of how abstracted, statistical and synthesizable ‘chicken’ has become … ”Figur[ing] out what to make chicken taste like’ is just one aspect of the technical information-gathering needed to produce a growing range of chickenized products.

… Taste has the power to create a sensory bridge to a living reality ‘outside the matrix,’ one which implies an ecology of inclusion and relationship between culture and nature; one that promotes the activity of knowing as accessible, engaging and corporeal, rather than one pre-tuned for reception.

This is from the essay ‘Taste in an Age of Convenience: From Frozen Food to Meals in ‘the Matrix” by Roger Haden found in the collection The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink edited by Carolyn Korsmeyer (2005):

… It has often been stated that once nutritional needs are met, the capacity of food to take on a plethora of culturally specific meanings pushes it beyond its role as nutrient and into that of being a ‘language’. In the pursuit of profit and through various media, commercial enterprise has exploited the fact that food is a mode of communication, one which continues to drive the sale of new food products. The sense of taste has been configured within such a context.

[ … ]

About 90 percent of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed food … since the end of World War II, a vast industry has arisen in the United States to make processed food palatable. Without this flavour industry, the fast-food industry could not exist. [Schlosser]

 This industry was engendered in the 1960s with the development of new technologies for commercial use (principally, mass spectroscopy and gas chromatography) which eventually enabled scientists to create thousands of artificially produced colouring and flavourings. So-called ‘natural food flavours’ could thereby be chemically copied. While product labels which boasted ‘natural flavour’ might have reassured consumers, this information could also be misleading, since the chemical reproduction of natural flavours capitalized on a loophole in labeling laws. With chemical solvents used to isolate a natural food’s flavour compounds, that flavour could then be replicated. Sold under the appellation of ‘natural flavour,’ any number of artificial tastes could, technically speaking, be added to any food (the latter being treated as merely a substrate). Furthermore, a base-product like milk could be flavoured, texturized, cooked, whipped, aerated or frozen, while other food items, like soy beans, could be used to create various ‘milk’ products — a process industry would call interconversion.

… Displacing any reasoned sensory engagement with food are the food-related discourses we willingly — but often unreflectively — enter into at the surface of things. In terms of taste, advertising mantras promise that products will deliver on pleasure, sensation and satisfaction, yet semiotically, they also trade on fears, phobias and anxieties linked to such issues as weight, health, beauty and social status. The ultimate cost of this mediation by advertising — between us, our food and our sense of taste — is that the total complement of possible gustatory experiences (which both nature and culinary craft provide) is circumscribed by contrived and prescriptive standards of taste set by media constructions of ‘health and ‘beauty.’

… The ‘commodification of sensation’ is a phrase suggestive of how the fragile, ‘chemical’ history of taste is being usurped by simulations, as the focus is tightened on the immediacy of thrilling sensations. Chemical additives simulate the qualities of tastes, textures and other gustatory sensations, as the experience of tasting an actual food, of thinking about that food and of the way it tastes, becomes an impossibility. Ultimately, such contrivance not only detracts from the appreciable diverse pleasures and healthful benefits gained through savouring flavours and foods; it also subtracts from the very possibility of knowing-through-taste.

… Our palates and tongues are ‘dumbing down,’ no longer able to judge or enjoy the living vitality and potential flavour variance of foods produced outside the networks of the industrial-commercial matrix. Combined in so many processed foods, the obliterating power of sugar, salt and fat (a seemingly perennial taste triumvirate) are complemented by cheep ‘filler’ and artificial flavour. Such foods seem designed to replace gustatory sensitivity with a taste bud ‘thumping’ [quoting a KFC commercial]. With recourse to high-speed data-processing of consumer-sourced information and to lab statistics based on tests using bionic ‘noses’ and ‘tongues,’ food product research, development, design and marketing strategies rapidly advance. Well synchronized, the invention, processing, packaging, transportation and retailing of food products takes place within a seamless web of operation which also produces taste.

… Within our present-day matrix, the interconversion of foods by ‘machines’ — that is, our own technologies of food, flavour and image synthesis — makes of food a substrate: a base product to which is added not only taste, texture, vitamins or ‘functions,’ but also added values: the signs of convenience, health or ‘sexiness’ — everything our minds need.

In a deeply ironic way, Lévi-Strauss’s dictum that food must be good to think about before it is good to eat reasserts itself at the cutting edge of contemporary taste relations. That ‘chicken’ can (be the) taste of ‘everything else’ is but a reminder of how abstracted, statistical and synthesizable ‘chicken’ has become: battery chickens engineered to industry specifications; the manufacture of various synthetic chickenized products; even the adoption of ‘chicken’ as a signifier — word, image or artificial taste. Since for most, chicken means chicken (if it tastes like ‘chicken’ then it is chicken), the media-brokered equality between words, taste and things remains the undergirding support of our particular ‘matrix.’ ‘Figur[ing] out what to make chicken taste like’ is just one aspect of the technical information-gathering needed to produce a growing range of chickenized products.

… taste is yet the corporeal register of a complex communication of living, flavoursome things which have now been overdetermined by semiotic ‘cookery’ and industrial interconversion.

The flavourless foods of battery production and the processed industrial flavours of the laboratory, mark the absence of real taste. By comparison, living food and flavour and the sense of taste, represent a biologically established nexus of pathways from which such knowledge took form, but which now has been undermined. Given that living food is assimilated by all organisms, including humans, the under-utilization of taste as a corporeal mode of knowing, linked to the gustatory qualities of natural foods, is a serious matter.

… Without engaging with taste as a mode of knowing in its own right , means experiencing sensory taste as a gustatory effect; as taste sensations cut off from any real knowledge of the morsel which transports them. Taste has the power to create a sensory bridge to a living reality ‘outside the matrix,’ one which implies an ecology of inclusion and relationship between culture and nature; one that promotes the activity of knowing as accessible, engaging and corporeal, rather than one pre-tuned for reception. Sea, sun, air, soil and water produce food and taste within interconnected living systems in which humans have evolved and often thrived; by our own efforts, we have learned how to enjoy the fruits of taste relations. The sensory mode we call taste is surely one ‘flavoured’ by culturally variable, yet corporeally robust, inter-sense relationships and linked perceptions, as much as by natural and culinary histories, cultural discourses, ideas and beliefs, and by food production and consumption practices. As Neo [of the movie The Matrix] must learn he is a fake before he can be real, so too as tasters we must also learn how taste is, and has been, constructed before we might benefit from re-engagement with the chains of forces and processes which link taste to a living and organic reality.

My most recent previous post from this collection is here.



April 29, 2013

Release the Striking Arm

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:25 am


This is one fragment from the beginning, and one from near the end of the very long poem:

by Howard Nemerov


This is about the stillness in moving things,
In running water, also in the sleep
Of winter seeds, where time to come has tensed
Itself, enciphering a script so fine
Only the hourglass can magnify it, only
The years unfold its sentence from the root.

[ … ]


There is a threshold, that meniscus where
The strider walks on drowning waters, or
That tense, curved membrane of the camera’s lens
Which darkness holds against the battering light
And the distracted drumming of the world’s
Importunate plenty. — Now that threshold,
The water of the eye where the world walks
Delicately, is as a needle threaded
From the reel of a raveling stream, to stitch
Dissolving figures in a watered cloth,

[ … ]



Instructions For Use of This Toy
by Howard Nemerov

… is worked this way. Release the striking arm
(marked A on diagram) by means of the
End ratchet on the cylinder marked B.
Slight humming noises should not cause alarm,
But if explosions, or loud coughing sounds,
Seem to be coming from the diaphragm,
It might be well to disengage the cam
Before examining the guards for grounds.

So far so good. The automatic trail
Guide bracket post should be secured against
Vibration of the flange, but do not fail
At any time to keep the wire tensed
That in the event of fire throws the switch
(marked Jettison) that breaks the circuit which …

[both first and last ellipses are in the original]





Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:24 am

…  truly ‘creative’ work is dependent on changing the meaning of what we see, a process which is impossible without an understanding of those structures which construct meaning.

This is from Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966-1990 by Joseph Kosuth (1991). This bit was first published in 1981:

This work [his Cathexis] attempts to understand the conditions of content, with, finally, the process of understanding those conditions becoming the ‘content’ of the work. By ‘content,’ of course, I refer not to meaning as a kind of instrumentality, but rather, ‘what are those conditions which permit the construction of meaning?’ The material of this work is relations, and to establish those relations ‘things’ are used. The desire is to construct the work (the meaning it makes as art) below the surface of the fragments of other discourses (systems of meaning). The re-making of meaning with given parts (a combination of ‘found,’ made, and mis-used) is meant to cancel parts of some meanings with parts of other meanings, permitting the viewers to trap themselves on one of various surfaces (not unlike a kind of labyrinth) and assume the meaning of the whole within an eclipse by a part …

… When viewed ‘normally,’ the fictive space of [a traditional] painting permits the viewer an entrance to a credible world; it is the power of the order and rationality of that world which forces the viewer to accept the painting (and its world) on its own terms. Those ‘terms’ cannot be read because they are left unseen: the world, and the art which presents it, is presented as ‘natural’ and unproblematic. Turning the image ‘upside-down’ stops that monologue, one no longer has a ‘window to another world,’ one has an object, an artifact, composed of parts and located here in this world. One experiences this as an event, and as such it is an act which locates and includes the viewer. As an event it is happening now (in the real time of that viewer) because the viewer, as a reader, experiences the language of the construction of what is seen. That cancellation of habituated experience which makes the language visible also forces the viewers/readers to realize their own subjective role in the meaning-making process.

… The meaning of the whole, finally, is not a ‘picture,’ but the knowledge acquired from the path of that process which makes any picture visible. In perception the eyes are no more important than what they see, because it is the mind which organizes the function of both, and the kind of meaning of what is seen has been established long before one looks. Making ‘something new to look at’ is a futile and empty act if its only audience is the eyes. It is within those structures of the process of the making of meaning where any ‘creative’ work is done, for while there is endless repetition in our visual world, productive work comes from that which has been made meaningful from all sources, and it is the structures of relation between these sources which give meaning, not just to the forms of art, but to the whole of our perceptual world. It is through the kind of meaning we make of that world that we define ourselves, as our actions shape what is there to be perceived. As artists our task is clear although not simple: truly ‘creative’ work is dependent on changing the meaning of what we see, a process which is impossible without an understanding of those structures which construct meaning. Formal regurgitations within a recent history of taste which presumes old and familiar meanings are ultimately consumed and forgotten. That which becomes part of the shared history and culture of a community are those ruptures of given meaning which intersubjectively locate a people.

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



April 28, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:33 am

…  the camera stands to the sea as, throughout this story, the artist has stood to experience, in a morally heroic yet at the same time dubious or ridiculous or even impossible relation of form to all possibility …

This is from the essay ‘Composition and Fate in the Short Novel’ (1963) found in A Howard Nemerov Reader (1991). In this segment, Nemerov is writing about Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which I hope you’ve read:

… When Aschenbach dies, there by the shore, we are told that the weather was autumnal, the beach deserted and not even very clean; suddenly we are given this: “A camera on a tripod stood at the edge of the water, apparently abandoned; its black cloth snapped in the freshening wind.” That is all, our attention is given to Tadzio, Aschenbach’s death soon follows, the camera is never mentioned again.

Crudely speaking, this camera is unnecessary and no one could possibly have noticed anything missing had the author decided against its inclusion; yet in a musical, compositional sense it exquisitely touches the center of the story and creates a resonance which makes us for a moment aware of the entire inner space of the action, of all things relevant and their relations to one another.

Our sense of this is mostly beyond exposition, as symbolic things have a way of being; but some of its elements may be mentioned. About the camera by the sea there is, first, a poignant desolation, the emptiness of vast spaces, and in its pictorial quality it resembles one of the earliest images in the story, when Aschenbach, standing by the cemetery, looks away down the empty streets: “not a wagon in sight, either on the paved Ungererstrasse, with its gleaming tramlines stretching off towards Schwabing, nor on the Föhring highway.” Both pictures are by Di Chirico*. The camera’s black cloth reminds us of the gondola, “black as nothing else on earth except a coffin,” and the repeated insistence on black in that description; also of the “labor in darkness” which brings forth the work of art. For we perceive that the camera stands to the sea as, throughout this story, the artist has stood to experience, in a morally heroic yet at the same time dubious or ridiculous or even impossible relation of form to all possibility, and that at the summer’s end, in the freshening wind, the camera is abandoned. It would be near forgivable, so full of Greek mysteries is this work, if we thought the tripod itself remotely Delphic.

*The text has it as Di Chirico, but I can’t help thinking he meant De Chirico.



April 27, 2013

What Do You Make of It?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:00 am

… We start, on any occasion, with some old version or world that we have on hand and that we are stuck with until we have the determination and skill to remake it into a new one.

This is from Ways of Worldmaking by Nelson Goodman (1978):

… Where we can never determine precisely just which symbol of a system we have or whether we have the same one on a second occasion, where the referent is so elusive that properly fitting a symbol to it requires endless care, where more rather than fewer features of the symbol count, where the symbol is an instance of properties it symbolizes and may perform many interrelated simple and complex referential functions, we cannot merely look through the symbol to what it refers to as we do in obeying traffic lights or reading scientific texts, but must attend constantly to the symbol itself as in seeing paintings or reading poetry. This emphasis upon the nontransparency of a work of art, upon the primacy of the work over what it refers to, far from involving denial or disregard of symbolic functions, derives from certain characteristics of a work as a symbol.

Quite apart from specifying the particular characteristics differentiating aesthetic from other symbolization, the answer to the question “When is art?” thus seems to me clearly to be in terms of symbolic function.

… To say what art does is not to say what art is; but I submit that the former is the matter of primary and peculiar concern. The further question of defining stable property in terms of ephemeral function — the what in terms of the when — is not confined to the arts but is quite general, and is the same for defining chairs as for defining objects of art. The parade of instant and inadequate answers is also much the same: that whether an object is art — or a chair — depends upon intent or upon whether it sometimes or usually or always or exclusively functions as such. Because all this tends to obscure more special and significant questions concerning art, I have turned my attention from what art is to what art does.

A salient feature of symbolization, I have urged, is that it may come and go. An object may symbolize different things at different times, and nothing at other times. An inert or purely utilitarian object may come to function as art, and a work of art may come to function as an inert or purely utilitarian object. Perhaps, rather than art being long and life short, both are transient.

The bearing that this inquiry into the nature of art has upon the overall undertaking of this book should by now have become quite clear. How an object or event functions as a work explains how, through certain modes of reference, what so functions may contribute to a vision of — and to the making of — a world.

[ … ]

… Once in a while, someone asks me rather petulantly “Can’t you see what’s before you?” Well, yes and no. I see people, chairs, papers, and books that are before me, and also colors, shapes, and patterns that are before me. But do I see the molecules, electrons, and infrared light that are also before me? And do I see this state, or the United States, or the universe? I see only parts of the latter comprehensive entities, indeed, but then I also see only parts of the people, chairs, etc. And if I see a book, and it is a mess of molecules, then do I not see a mess of molecules? But, on the other hand, can I see a mess of molecules without seeing any of them?

[ … ]

… “Well, what’s before me?” That’s the question I begin with here, and I must confess that the answer to this, too, is “That depends …”, and one thing it depends on heavily is the answer to still another question: “What do you make of it?”

… We start, on any occasion, with some old version or world that we have on hand and that we are stuck with until we have the determination and skill to remake it into a new one. Some of the felt stubbornness of fact is the grip of habit: our firm foundation is indeed stolid. Worldmaking begins with one version and ends with another.

… With all this variety, attention usually focuses on versions that are literal, denotational, and verbal. While that covers some — though I think far from all — scientific and quasi-scientific worldmaking, it leaves out perceptual and pictorial versions and all figurative and exemplificational means and all nonverbal media. The worlds of fiction, poetry, painting, music, dance, and the other arts are built largely by such nonliteral devices as metaphor, by such nondenotional means as exemplification and expression, and often by use of pictures or sounds or gestures or other symbols of nonlinguistic systems. Such worldmaking and such versions are my primary concern here; for a major thesis of this book is that the arts must be taken no less seriously than the sciences as modes of discovery, creation, and enlargement of knowledge in the broad sense of advancement of the understanding, and thus that the philosophy of art should be conceived as an integral part of metaphysics and epistemology.

… Some depictions and descriptions .. do not literally denote anything. Painted or written portrayals of Don Quixote, for example, do not denote Don Quixote — who is simply not there to be denoted. Works of fiction in literature and their counterparts in other arts obviously play a prominent role in worldmaking; our worlds are no more a heritage from scientists, biographers, and historians than from novelists, playwrights, and painters. But how can versions of nothing thus participate in the making of actual worlds? The inevitable proposal to supply fictive entities and possible worlds as denotata will not, even for those who can swallow it, help with this question. Yet the answer, once sought, comes rather easily.

“Don Quixote”, taken literally applies to no one, but taken figuratively, applies to many of us — for example, to me in my tilts with the windmills of current linguistics. To many others the term applies neither literally nor metaphorically. Literal falsity or inapplicability is entirely compatible with, but of course no guarantee of, metaphorical truth; and the line between metaphorical truth and metaphorical falsity intersects, but is no more arbitrary than, the line between literal truth and literal falsity.

… We have seen earlier that what does not denote may still refer by exemplification or expression, and that nondescriptive, nonrepresentational works nevertheless function as symbols for features they possess either literally or metaphorically. Serving as samples of, and thereby focusing attention upon, certain — often upon unnoticed or neglected — shared or shareable forms, colors, feelings, such works induce reorganization of our accustomed world in accordance with these features, thus dividing and combining erstwhile relevant kinds, adding and subtracting, effecting new discriminations and integrations, reordering priorities. Indeed, symbols may work through exemplification and expression as well as through denotation in any or all of the various already mentioned ways of worldmaking.

… What a portrait or a novel exemplifies or expresses often reorganizes a world more drastically than does what the work literally or figuratively says or depicts; and sometimes the subject serves merely as a vehicle for what is exemplified or expressed. But whether alone or in combination, the several modes and means of symbolization are powerful instruments. With them, a Japanese haiku or five-line poem by Samuel Menashe can renovate and remodel a world; without them, the moving of mountains by an environmental artist would be futile.

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




April 26, 2013

Ambition Is a Dangerous Thing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:01 am

… How can you work when you’re desperately trying to get into a whole different school of fish? Bigger, fatter, uglier fish that lead bigger, fatter, and more comfortable lives.

This is from A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers by Scott MacDonald (1992). This is from his interview with Cauleen Smith:

[ … ]

MacDonald: Might it be fair to say that Chronicles is an attempt to visualize your struggle with the many heritages you are part of: your heritage as an African-American, as a suburbanite [Smith was born in Riverside], as a filmmaker, as an independent filmmaker, and that the multilayered nature of the film represents the complexity of the mixture of personality and cultural influence you can’t help but try to come to grips with? Or to put it more simply: could we say that your film is a clear expression of the ambiguity of the experience of living and working in America?

Smith: Chronicles was really fun to make in part because it was truth and out-and-out lies combined, written history and oral history combined. It’s my theory, I guess, that black women have always been doing incredible things throughout history and that we’ve been able to do these things in part because no one pays much attention to us. While you can feel — I hate to use the word — disempowered by being invisible. I think a lot of women have been resourceful in making invisibility a shield that protects them while they do and experience amazing things. Chronicles was an homage to all the accomplished black women in global history who are not documented anywhere.

I think it’s interesting that everybody likes the line “I’m gonna make my own goddam tapes and play them for myself.” This always inspires a chuckle. No one seems to hear the hunger there. The ambition. And ambition I believe is a dangerous thing if it isn’t controlled and fed steadily, and carefully. There is a layer beyond the different aspects of history and identity in the movie. How can you work when you’re desperately trying to get into a whole different school of fish? Bigger, fatter, uglier fish that lead bigger, fatter, and more comfortable lives. There’s a part of me that’s in awe of the power of my ancestors and all that we have accomplished and survived, and there’s a part of me that wants to turn into the very thing that I struggle against.. If someone is going to control my image, I want to be there. But I wonder how to get there without becoming bloated and flatulent and sitting in a mansion watching myself on TV.

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



April 25, 2013

My Disquiet

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:26 am

… If it wobbles or hesitates, am I still thinking?

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

… Visit the environment. Traverse circumstances floating like crowns around the instance or substance, around the axis of the act. Make use of what is cast aside. Describe the parasites in signals, the collective or the living: it is always to be found eating right next to you.

… We think in theses, affirmations, equilibria, systems, thinking or pondering means quite literally weighing, weighing up. I think therefore a balance exists. I could not think without it. There exists a statue or system. A thesis, an antithesis, a point around which the beam of the balance resolves their exchange or agreement or does not resolve their inequalities. If it wobbles or hesitates, am I still thinking? If it lacks constancy, fluctuates, if it keeps on deviating from stability … Montaigne expresses excellently the locality of non-thought by the double balancing act of doubt and the eternal wobble of the world in its course. I cannot think without referring to stability in general.

… The unthinkable equals the unstable. The unknowable is equivalent to fluctuation. Identity remains the explicit or implicit condition of science. We must be able to repeat what is said, find the statue again in the same place, recognize the thesis, solid, affirmed, unchanged, repeat the experiment — determined, determinist, as stable as a terminus.

That being the case, the said work consists in recognizing the stable in the unstable, equilibrium in movement, the spinning top upright as it whirls around, the system stable even when it is animated by a variety of irregular rhythms — the invariant in variation.

I think if and only if I take my disquiet into places where ponderation brings with it risks.

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



That Which Eludes History

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:25 am

… Power circulates through the collective actions of such improvisation. It never has the opportunity to … alight … . Power is repeatedly “taken by surprise” so that it can never embed itself …

This is from the essay ‘Taken By Surprise: Improvisation in Dance and Mind’ by Susan Leigh Foster found in the collection Taken By Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader edited by Ann Cooper Albright and David Gere (2003):

… The improvising dancer tacks back and forth between the known and the unknown, between the familiar/reliable and the unanticipated/unpredictable.

The known includes the set of behavioral conventions established by the context in which the performance occurs, such as those of a street corner, a proscenium theater, or a lecture. … The known also includes an individual body’s predisposition to move in patterns of impulses established and made routine through training in a particular dance tradition as well as the body’s predilection for making certain kinds of selections from a vocabulary or sequence of movements. … The known includes that which has already occurred previously in the performance of improvising.

The unknown is precisely that and more. It is that which was previously unimaginable, that which we could not have thought of doing next. Improvisation presses us to extend into, expand beyond, extricate ourselves from that which was known. It encourages us or even forces us to be “taken by surprise.” Yet we could never accomplish this encounter with the unknown without engaging the known.

… The improvised is that which eludes history.

… Historical inquiry has neglected to question how certain actions slide easily across representational fields into the historical record and others are persistently unnoticed. It has tried to ignore actions resistant to written description. What would history look like if it were to acknowledge the fact of improvisation?

… How could the attempt to include the improvised alter the course of historical inquiry? Are there ways to write about improvisation that establish its significance and impact without leaching from it the wonderment and critical awareness that its unexpectedness produces?

… Within the meager discourses describing the experience of improvisation that history has left us, the terms mind and body often stand in for the known and the unknown. We read of improvisation as the process of letting go of the mind’s thinking so that the body can do its moving in its own unpredictable way. But this description is an obfuscation, as unhelpful as it is inaccurate; surely, all bodily articulation is mindful. Each body segment’s sweep across space, whether direct or meandering, is thought-filled. Each corporeal modulation in effort thinks; each swelling into tension thinks; each erratic burst or undulation in energy thinks. Each accented phrasing or accelerating torque or momentary stillness is an instance of thought. Conceptualized in this way, bodily action constitutes a genre of discourse.

If, then, bodily articulation is mindful, what quality of mindfulness does improvisation hope to transcend? The capacity to evaluate and censor? Even these faculties remain active during improvisation. Improvisation involves moments where one thinks in advance of what one is going to do, other moments where actions seem to move faster than they can be registered in full analytic consciousness of them, and still other moments where one thinks the idea of what is to come at exactly the same moment that one performs that idea. Still, both the changing of the course of things and the riding of that course through its course are mindful and bodyful. Rather than suppress any functions of mind, improvisation’s bodily mindfulness summons up a kind of hyperawareness of the relation between immediate action and overall shape, between that which is about to take place or is taking place and that which has and will take place.

We also read in the discourses on improvisation allegations that improvisation, because of its bodily spontaneity, requires no technique. This, too, is a muddled and wrongly cast charge. Improvisation makes rigorous technical demands on the performer. It assumes an articulateness in the body through which the known and the unknown will find expression. It entails a vigilant porousness toward the unknown, a stance that could only be acquired through intensive practice. It depends upon the performer’s lucid familiarity with the principles of composition. (After all, to improvise is to compose extemporaneously and composition is an arrangement into proper proportion or relation.)

… This body, instigatory as well as responsive, grounds the development of consciousness as a hyperawareness of relationalities. Each next moment of improvising, full of possible positionings, develops its choreographic significance as all participants’ actions work to bring the performance into proper proportion or relation. During this playful labor, consciousness shifts from self in relation to group, to body in relation to body, to movement in relation to space and time, to past in relation to present, and to fragment in relation to developing whole. Shared by all improvisors in a given performance, this embodied consciousness enables the making of the dance and the dance’s making of itself.

Power circulates through the collective actions of such improvisation. It never has the opportunity to dwell in a specific joint of the body, or alight at the site of a particular individual, or hunker down among a portion of the group. Power is repeatedly “taken by surprise” so that it can never embed itself within a static structural element that would allow it to flex into hierarchies of domination and control. In improvisation, power can only keep on the move, running as fast as it can to partner, to empower performers, never overcoming them.

Improvisation empowers those who witness it as well as those who perform it. Watching improvisation, consciousness expands out of passive reception of an event and toward active engagement in the actual making of the event. Viewers participate along with the performers in the open field of possible choices and the performers’ construction and selection of those choices through which meaning is determined.



April 24, 2013

Growing Light

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:54 am

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

[ … ]

Thus we live in a most strange dilemma
between the distant bow and the too piercing arrow.
[from Rilke’s Groves]

The bow — the past that impels us — is too distant, too old, too out-of-date. The arrow — the future that entices us — is too fleeting, too isolated, too ephemeral. The will needs more vivid designs of the future, and more compelling ones of the past.

… in order to set ourselves up as the moving force that synthesizes from within both being and becoming, we must experience within ourselves the actual feeling of growing light. To move with a motion that involves the whole being in the developing stages of lightness, is already the transformation of any moving being. We must be an imaginary mass in order to feel ourselves the autonomous creator of our own becoming.

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



Not Ants

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:51 am

… ‘The true Grasshopper sees that work is not self-justifying, and that his way of life is the final justification of any work whatever.’

This is from The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits (2005; 1978):

It was clear that the Grasshopper would not survive the winter, and his followers had gathered round him for what would no doubt be one of their last meetings. Most of them were reconciled to his approaching death, but a few were still outraged that such a thing could be allowed to happen. Prudence was one of the latter, and she approached the Grasshopper with a final plea. ‘Grasshopper,’ she said, ‘a few of us have agreed to give up a share of our food to tide you over till spring. Then next summer you can work to pay us back.’

‘My dear child,’ responded the Grasshopper, ‘you still don’t understand. The fact is that I will not work to pay you back. I will not work at all. I made that perfectly clear, I thought, when the ant turned me away from his door. My going to him in the first place was, of course, a mistake. It was a weakness to which I shall not give in again.’

‘But,’ continued Prudence, ‘we don’t begrudge you a portion of our food. If you like, we will not require you to pay us back. We are not, after all, ants.’

‘No,’ replied the Grasshopper, ‘you are not ants, not any more. But neither are you grasshoppers. Why should you give me the fruits of your labour? Surely that would not be just, when I tell you quite clearly that I will not pay you back.’

‘But that kind of justice,’ exclaimed Prudence, ‘is only the justice of ants. Grasshoppers have nothing to do with such “justice.”‘

‘You are right,’ said the Grasshopper. ‘The justice which is fairness in trading is irrelevant to the lives of true grasshoppers. But there is a different kind of justice which prevents me from accepting your offer. Why are you willing to work so that I may live? Is it not because I embody in my life what you aspire to, and you do not want the model of your aspirations to perish? Your wish is understandable, and to a certain point even commendable. But at bottom it is inconsistent and self-defeating. It is also — and I hope you will not take offence at my blunt language — hypocritical.’

‘Those are hard words, Grasshopper.’

‘But well meant. My life, you must understand, was not intended to be a sideshow, yet that seems to be what you want to make of it. You should value me because you want to be like me, and not merely so that you can boast to the ants that you are an intimate of the Grasshopper, that oddity of nature.’

‘We have never done that, Grasshopper!’

‘I believe you. But you might as well have done so if you can believe that your proposal is a good one. For it amounts to working because I will not. But the whole burden of my teaching is that you ought to be idle. So now you propose to use me as a pretext not only for working, but for working harder than ever, since you would have not only yourselves to feed, but me as well. I call this hypocritical because you would like to take credit for doing something which is no more than a ruse for avoiding living up to your ideals.’

At this point Skepticus broke in with a laugh. ‘What the Grasshopper means, Prudence,’ he said, ‘ is that we do not yet have the courage of his convictions. The point is that we should not only refuse to work for the Grasshopper, we should also refuse to work for ourselves. We, like him, should be dying for our principles. That we are not is the respect in which, though no longer ants, we are not grasshoppers either. And, of course, given the premise that the life of the Grasshopper is the only life worth living, what he says certainly follows.’

‘Not quite, Skepticus,’ put in the Grasshopper. ‘I agree that the principles in question are worth dying for. But I must remind you that they are the principles of Grasshoppers. I am not here to persuade you to die for my principles, but to persuade you that I must. We ought to be quite clear about our respective roles. You are not here to die for me, but I for you. You only need, as Skepticus put it, the courage of my convictions up to a point; that is, courage sufficient to approve rather than to deplore my death. Neither of you is quite prepared to grant that approval, though for different reasons. You, Prudence, because, although you believe the principles are worth dying for, you do not believe they need to be died for; and you, Skepticus, because you are not even sure that the principles are worth dying for.’

‘Although,’ replied Skepticus, ‘I believe you to be the wisest being alive — which is why I have never left your side during the whole summer of your life — I have to admit that I am still not convinced that the life of the Grasshopper is the best life to live. Perhaps if you could give me a clearer vision of the good life as you see it my convictions would approach yours, and my courage as well. You might do this by one of the parables for which you are justly esteemed.’

‘Parables, my dear Skepticus,’ replied the Grasshopper, ‘ought to come at the end, not at the beginning, of serious inquiry; that is, only at the point where arguments fail. But speaking of parables, you may be sure that the ants will fashion one out of my career. They will very likely represent my life as a moral tale, the point of which is the superiority of a prudent to an idle way of life. But it should really be the Grasshopper who is the hero of the tale; it is he, not the ant, who should have the hearer’s sympathy. The point of the parable should be not the ant’s triumph, but the Grasshopper’s tragedy. For one cannot help reflecting that if there were no winters to guard against, then the Grasshopper would not get his come-uppance nor the ant his shabby victory. The life of the Grasshopper would be vindicated and that of the ant absurd.’

‘But there are winters to guard against,’ Prudence protested.

‘No doubt. Still, it is possible that with accelerating advances in technology the time will come when there are in fact no winters. We may therefore conclude that although my timing may be a bit off, my way of life is not wrong in principle.’

‘The operation was successful but the patient died,’ put in Skepticus.

‘No,’ replied the Grasshopper,’ it’s not quite like that. That my way of life may eventually be vindicated in practice is, now that I think of it, really beside the point. Rather, it is the logic of my position which is at issue. And this logic shows that prudential actions (e.g. those actions we ordinarily call work) are self-defeating in principle. For prudence may be defined as the disposition 1) to sacrifice something good (e.g. leisure), and 2) to reduce the number of good things requiring sacrifice — ideally, at least — to zero. The ideal of prudence, therefore, like the ideal of preventive medicine, is its own extinction. For if it were the case that no sacrifices of goods needed ever to be made, then prudential actions would be pointless, indeed impossible. This principle, knowledge of which I regard as an indispensable first step on the path to wisdom, the ants seem never even to have entertained. The true Grasshopper sees that work is not self-justifying, and that his way of life is the final justification of any work whatever.’

‘But surely,’ replied Skepticus, ‘you are carrying your point to an unreasonable extreme. You talk as though there were but two possible alternatives: either a life devoted exclusively to play or a life devoted exclusively to work. But most of us realize that our labour is valuable because it permits us to play, and we are presumably seeking to achieve some kind of balance between work input and play output. People are not, and do not want to be, wholly grasshoppers or wholly ants, but a combination of the two; people are and want to be (if you will forgive a regrettably vulgar but spooneristically inevitable construction) asshoppers or grants. We can, of course, all cease to work, but if we do then we cannot play for long either, for we will shortly die.’

To be continued …



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