Unreal Nature

June 30, 2013

Begin with Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:44 am

… Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brain works.

This if from a talk ‘Lewis Thomas, Montaigne, and Human Happiness’ given by Howard Nemerov. The first paragraph explains the circumstances of this piece:

None of you is likely to mistake what follows for the Third Annual Thomas Hall lecture in Biology; nor, unhappily, is the title “On Nature’s Mistakes” any longer applicable, unless one of them is being exhibited before you at this very moment. Nevertheless, my thanks to Tom Hall and the Department of Biology for letting me fill in by saying a few things about Lewis Thomas, who has been prevented by illness from addressing us this morning.

… I came pretty close to  not reading The Lives of a Cell in the first place, just because, being a snob, I thought it might be a touch too popular. But curiosity won out, and I started reading, and was hooked. After the first, the title essay, I warned myself to take the book easy: one essay a night, I told myself, would be the only way to do fairly by such a work; so of course during the first night I read through the whole damn thing, about thirty brief essays; and the second night I did the same, and the third night the same again.

By that time even I knew I was beginning to be interested in Dr. Thomas, and as soon as The Lives of the Cell appeared in paperback I ordered it for my class, as I expect to do with The Medusa and the Snail as well, when that gets into paperback. What the class was doing playing hookey from Great Literature and reading a work described as “Notes of a Biology Watcher” is an interesting question chiefly because I can’t answer it. But many years ago a student did a tutorial with me in which we read not whole books but a few sentences; our thoughts about the few sentences made up the tutorial hour; whereupon the student gave me this enlightened definition of reading, “I see what reading is,” she said. “It’s putting together what you’ve got with what it says.”

… Music is one of the big and constant analogies for our author. The other two are bugs and words.

Now I suppose that if I started out to give you a lecture on termites and suddenly began talking about language, you would charitably conclude that my senility was showing, or that I had merely confounded entomology with etymology. And you’d probably be right; it’s one of the unforeseen disabilities of teaching as a profession that when senility sets in it happens in public. But when Dr. Thomas does it, somehow, he makes the resemblance work strikingly to illumination:

… but if you think about the construction of the Hill by a colony of a million ants, each one working ceaselessly and compulsively to add perfection to his region of the structure without having the faintest notion of what is being constructed elsewhere, living out his brief life in a social enterprise that extends back into what is for him the deepest antiquity (ants die at the rate of 3-5 percent per day; in a month or so an entire generation vanishes, while the Hill can go on for sixty years or, given good years, forever), performing his work with infallible, undistracted skill in the midst of a confusion of others, all tumbling over each other to get the twigs and bits of earth aligned in precisely the right configurations for the warmth and ventilation of the eggs and larvae, but totally incapacitated by isolation, there is only one human activity that is like this, and it is language.

We have been working at it for what seems eternity, generation after articulate generation, and still we have no notion how it is done, nor what it will be like when finished, if it is ever to be finished. It is the most compulsively collective, genetically programmed, species-specific, and autonomic of all the things we do, and we are infallible at it. It comes naturally. We have DNA for grammar, neurons for syntax. We can never let up, we scramble our way through one civilization after another, metamorphosing, sprouting tools and cities everywhere, and all the time new words keep tumbling out.

If one had to pick a single motto for the procedures of this kind of analogical, several-leveled and four-voiced kind of thought, it might be Dr. Thomas’s saying — about every relation in the universe — “I suggest … we turn it around.” Instead of trying to have thoughts about music, start with music as the model for thought. Ants and termites are not miniaturized human beings, but human societies have remarkable resemblances to insect societies. We make language in rather the way termites build their mounds. And so on:

Counterpoint is but one aspect of the process of combination, separation, recall, and recombination. Dance is only one aspect of the movement. The darting forward to meet new pairs of notions, built into new aggregates, the orbiting and occasional soaring of massive aggregates out of orbit and off into other spaces, most of all the continual switching of solitary particles of thought from one orbit into the next, like electrons, up and down depending on the charges around and the masses involved, accomplished as though by accident but always adhering to laws — all these have the look of music. There is no other human experience they can remind one of.

I suggest, then, that we turn it around. Instead of using what we can guess at about the nature of thought to explain the nature of music, start over again. Begin with music and see what this can tell us about the sensation of thinking. Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brain works. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind. The Art of the Fugue is not a special pattern of thinking, it is not thinking about any particular thing. The spelling out of Bach’s name in the great, unfinished layers of fugue at the end is no more than a transient notion, something flashed across the mind. The whole piece is not about thinking about something; it is about thinking. If you want, as an experiment, to hear the whole mind working, all at once, put on The St. Matthew Passion and turn the volume up all the way. That is the sound of the whole central nervous system of human beings, all at once.



June 29, 2013

The Juice

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:06 am

Skarfe up the tender Eye of pitiful Day

This is from Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson (1947; 1966):

… one may know what has been put into the pot, and recognize the objects in the stew, but the juice in which they are sustained must be regarded with a peculiar respect because they are all in there too, somehow, and one does not know how they are combined or held in suspension.

… People suspect analysis, often rightly, as the refuge of the emotionally sterile, but that is only to say that analysis is often done badly. In so far as such a destruction occurs because you have used your intelligence it must be accepted, and you may reasonably expect to become interested in another poem, so that the loss is not permanent, because that is the normal process of learning to appreciate poetry.

As for the belief in Atmosphere, about which I shall make some inadequate remarks, it may be viewed as a third deduction from the belief in Pure Sound. Critics often say or imply casually that some poetic effect conveys a direct ‘physical’ quality, something mysteriously intimate, something which it is strange a poet could convey, something like a sensation which is not attached to any one of the senses. This may only be a statement of how they themselves applied their conscious attention when reading a poem; thus a musical chord is a direct sensation, but not therefore unanalysable into its separate notes even at the moment of sensing. It can be either felt or thought; the two things are similar but different; and it requires practice to do both at once. Or the statement might, one cannot deny, mean that there has been some confusion of the senses. But it may mean something more important, involving a distinction between ‘sensation’ and ‘feeling’; that what the poet has conveyed is no assembly of grammatical meanings, capable of analysis, but a ‘mood,’ an ‘atmosphere,’ a ‘personality,’ an  attitude to life, an undifferentiated mode of being.

Probably it is in this way, as a sort of taste in the head, that one remembers one’s own past experiences, including the experience or reading a particular poet. Probably, again, this mode of apprehension is connected with the condition of the whole body, and is as near as one can get to an immediate self-knowledge. You may say, then, that any grammatical analysis of poetry, since it must ignore atmosphere, is trivial; that atmosphere is conveyed in some unknown and fundamental way as a by-product of meaning; that analysis cannot hope to do anything but ignore it; and that criticism can only state that it is there.

This belief may in part explain the badness of much nineteenth-century poetry, and how it came to be written by critically sensitive people. They admired the poetry of previous generations, very rightly, for the taste it left in the head, and, failing to realize that the process of putting such a taste into a reader’s head involves a great deal of work which does not feel like a taste in the head while it is being done, attempting, therefore, to conceive a taste in the head and put it straight on to their paper, they produced tastes in the head which were in fact blurred, complacent, and unpleasing. But to say that the consequences of a critical formula have been unfortunate is not to say that it is untrue or even unusable; it is very necessary for a critic to remember about the atmosphere, chiefly because he must concentrate on the whole of the poem he is talking about rather than on the particular things that he can find to say.

… I shall try to recommend this opinion by giving what seems to me a striking example; a case, that is, where an affective state is conveyed particularly vividly by devices of particular irrelevance. Macbeth, in these famous lines, may easily seem to be doing something physiological and odd, something outside the normal use of words. It is when he is spurring on his jaded hatred to the murder of Banquo and Fleance.

…………………………..Come, seeling Night,
Skarfe up the tender Eye of pitiful Day
And with they bloddie and invisible Hand
Cancel and teare to pieces that great Bond
That keepes me pale.
…………………………..Light thickens, and the Crow
Makes Wing to th’ Rookie Wood.
Good things of Day begin to droope, and drowse,
While Night’s black Agents to their Prey’s doe rowse.
Thou marvell’st at my words, but hold thee still;
Things had begun, make strong themselves by ill:
So prythee go with me.

The condition of his skin (By the pricking of my thumbs Something wicked this way comes), the sense of being withdrawn far within his own flesh (like an old lecher, a small fire at his heart, all the rest on’s body cold), the sense that the affair is prosaic, it need not be mentioned, and yet an occasional squawking of the nerves (Hobbididance croaks in Tom’s belly), in short the whole frame of body, as I read the lines, is lit up and imposed upon the reader, from which Macbeth lashes his exhausted energies into a new, into the accustomed, readiness for murder.

I have tried by these almost irrelevant quotations to show how much work the reader of Shakespeare is prepared to do for him, how one is helped by the rest of his work to put a great deal into any part of it, but this seems to explain very little. Various similar sound effects or associations may be noted; there is a suggestion of witches’ broth, or curdling blood, about thickens, which the vowel sound of light, coming next to it, with the movement of stirring treacle, and the cluck of the k-sounds, intensifying a suggestion, too, of harsh, limpid echo, and, under careful feet of poachers, an abrupt crackling of sticks. The vowel sounds at the end make an increasing darkness as the crow goes forward. But, after all, one would be very surprised if two people got the same result from putting a sound-effect into words in this way.



June 28, 2013

“What did you do today?”

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:15 am

… “I listened to winds all day: high winds, low winds, warm winds, cold winds, buffeting winds, wind through trees.”

This is from A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers by Scott MacDonald (2006). This is from his interview with Alan Berliner:

[ … ]

MacDonald: … What I remember most about you from your [SUNY] Binghamton years when you worked as my projectionist when I was first doing research on alternative cinema, is that you seemed almost a kind of “monk.” You came out of that generation that made monkishness, in the service of cinema, a noble enterprise — and you took that kind of service very seriously. Watching you,  it seemed to me that it just takes some people longer than others to live fully enough to be able to step out of life and say something about their experience. I relate to this because I’ve always been very slow in developing confidence as a teacher, as a scholar. There are some things I do quickly, but with intellectual things, I always feel I’m behind.

We want to be on the wave, surfing the “big new moment,” but I’m always a little too slow to actually hit the wave. I never know what’s going on until it’s already passed me and I’m standing knee-deep in the ocean as the wave spreads up the beach. Being slow used to frustrate me, embarrass me; but I’ve come to understand — if you can stand this metaphor for another moment — that I love the beach, and that I can get a good view of the beach from many positions.

Berliner: The fullest appreciation for what’s going on at any particular “wave” in history always demands multiple perspectives in both space and time. You need reports from people on the shore; testimony from people whose boats are capsized by the wave; the view from people high above the beach, watching on nearby cliffs. What about the vantage point of someone hiding underwater? I don’t think there’s any proprietary advantage of being “on the wave” per se. In fact, that’s the only place from which you can’t really see the wave, at least not until some time has passed.

[ … ]

MacDonald: [After college] How did you find work?

Berliner: My friend Ross Levinson, a violin teacher, gave me the name of one of his students, a woman named Emma Morris, who was working as an assistant film editor in New York. Ironically, had I been in a position to choose a part of the film industry in which to make a living, I wouldn’t have chosen editing; I wanted to shoot film, to be a maker of images. But after meeting Emma, I took her list of possible job opportunities — places she’d worked in the past — and arranged them in alphabetical order, which is how ABC Sports, specifically a television program called The American Sportsman, became the target of my very first New York City job-search telephone call. To my utter surprise, the guy on the other end of the line said, “Come on in and we’ll talk.”

I didn’t know shit about the film industry. Here I was, having just graduated from art school … I hadn’t made a film in two years! I had no idea there was such a thing as industry protocol, an official way of doing things. I  knew none of the lingo, the code words, the way people talked in real editing rooms. To be perfectly honest, I was applying for an assistant editing job without even knowing what an assistant editor did. I didn’t even know enough to put together a phony résumé.

But I got lucky. For reasons that I still don’t quite understand, Ted Winterburn, the supervising editor, called me two days later and told me that he had created a job for me. Not as an assistant editor but as a sound-effects librarian. At that time, The American Sportsman had what must have been one of the largest and most authentic collections of sounds from nature ever assembled: winds, rivers, oceans, jungles, forests — any and every kind of animal you could imagine — gathered from all over the world.

My job, or, as I thought of it, “my assignment,” for the first nine months was to sit alone in a room every day, put on headphones, and listen. After I gave each sound its own identification number, I then had to annotate its distinctive qualities: in effect, use words to make “aural images,” so that other people could make intelligent use of the library in the future.

I remember coming home from work, and friends would ask me, “What did you do today?” “I listened to winds all day: high winds, low winds, warm winds, cold winds, buffeting winds, wind through trees.” “What did you do today?” “Today I listened to rivers: the Ganges River, the Yangtze River, the Tigris River, and other assorted brooks, streams, and creeks from around the world.” “What did you do today?” “Well, this entire week I’ve been listening to footsteps: footsteps through grass, through leaves, on sand, snow, gravel, metal, wood, on linoleum, on carpet; people wearing high heels, sneakers, shoes, barefoot; one person, two people, five people, crowds of people … ” It was an incredible education in close listening and  the ability to recognize nuances of difference between sounds that were often only slightly dissimilar, not to mention the ways that sound — and especially the layering of sound — can change the way we look at images. It was the perfect job for me. And, best of all, many of those sounds eventually became part of my own personal sound library.

While all that was going on, quietly, secretly, without blowing my cover, I got to observe and eventually learn what an assistant editor actually did, so that by the time they came and offered me an assistant editing job — after the sound library project was finished — I knew just what to do and how to do it. Within a year I became a full-fledged sound editor. To this day, no one has a clue that I knew nothing when I first walked in the door.

[ … ]

Berliner: … even if we forget the drama, about the Laurel and Hardy aspect of our relationship, the fact is that my father was easily the most compelling person in my life. I found it almost impossible to accept the overwhelming sadness of this man. For more than twenty-five years, Scott, my father’s way of saying hello was, “I have a terrible headache,” “My eyes hurt.” “I didn’t sleep at all last night.” To be honest, I couldn’t get on with my own life until I somehow dealt with the story of this wounded man who also happened to be my father. I had to make a film about him.

Of course, the guy was also a salesman at one time, and a well-liked salesman at that; you can’t be a salesman if you don’t have good people skills. In his own peculiar way he was not only charming but also sensitive, intelligent, and articulate. But he was also the most stubborn son of a bitch you ever met. And while his resistance in Nobody’s Business might be described as cynical or stoical, it also has s strong degree of integrity.

I was going to make the film despite — though sometimes I think it might have been because of — his intense resistance. To his credit, he allowed me to make the film the way I needed to make it. It’s raw, but it’s honest, and as a result, Nobody’s Business is the film of mine that most people connect with. It’s been shown on television all over North America, Europe, in Asia, even in the People’s Republic of China!

There are so many ironies. It’s a film about him, despite him. He’s a “hero” because he refuses to be a hero. He reveals as much about himself through his resistance to telling his life story as anything I could ever say about him. What’s sad can be funny, but often what’s funny is funny because it’s also so sad. In the end, it’s really the strength of his character that allows people to admire him and feel sorry for him, to laugh with him and at him, to judge him and feel compassion for him — all at the same time.

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



June 27, 2013

(It Can Be Very Difficult, Lying)

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:56 am

… from the point at which truth and falsehood mingle without warning: the true (striking, absolute) and the false (colorful, brilliant, of the order of Desire and the Imaginary) → the novel would be poikilos, many colored, variegated, daubed, speckled, covered with paintings, pictures, an embroidered, complicated, complex garment …

This is from The Preparation of the Novel by Roland Barthes (2003). These are from Barthes’s lectures given between 1978 and 1980 at the Collège de France:

… The Moment of Truth is not an unveiling; on the contrary, it’s the sudden bursting forth of the uninterpretable, of the last degree of meaning of the after which there’s nothing more to say, hence its affinity with the haiku and the Epiphany [of Joyce] → the two levels (that of the subject who’s suffering and that of the subject who’s reading) only come together around an idea: Pity. I know, a very bad word: who’d dare to speak of pity nowadays (in a newspaper, for example)! It would be just about acceptable if we were talking about pity for an animal. But pity is an old word: it’s written affect in that it justifies catharsis, that is to say: Tragedy.

Moment of Truth = the Thing itself is affected by the Affect; not imitation (realism) but affective coalescence; historically, we’re in the realm of pre-Socraticism, of a thinking that’s other: pain and truth are active — not reactive (ressentiment, sin, contestation) → Moment of Truth = Moment of the Intractable: we can neither interpret nor transcend nor regress; Love and Death are here, that’s all that can be said.

… Indeed, the Novel (since it’s a question of the novel), in its grand and extended continuity, can’t sustain the “truth” (of the moment): that’s not its function. I see it as an interweaving (= Text), a vast, extended canvas painted with illusions, fallacies, made up things, the “false” if we want to call it that: a brilliant, colorful canvas, a veil of Maya punctuated by, scattered with Moments of Truth that are its absolute justification; those moments: Rari (Rarus: scattered): apparent rari (nantes) → When I produce Notations all of them are “true”: I never lie (I never make anything up), but the point is: I don’t produce a Novel; it’s not that the Novel would start out from falsehood but rather from the point at which truth and falsehood mingle without warning: the true (striking, absolute) and the false (colorful, brilliant, of the order of Desire and the Imaginary) → the novel would be poikilos, many colored, variegated, daubed, speckled, covered with paintings, pictures, an embroidered, complicated, complex garment; etymology of pingo [to paint], to embroider with different threads, to tattoo; cf. pigmentum > Indo-European peik, to decorate, either with writing or by applying color → the poikilos of the novel = a heterogeneity, a heterology of Truth and Falsehood.

Perhaps, then: managing to write a novel (such is the prospect — the vanishing point — of our lecture course) comes down to conceding to lie, to being capable of lying (it can be very difficult, lying) — to telling that second-order and perverse lie that consists in mingling truth and falsehood → Ultimately, then, the resistance to the novel, the inability to produce a novel (to engage in the practice of writing one), would be a moral resistance.

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




June 26, 2013

Its Own Ruin

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:32 am

This is from The Experience of Freedom by Jean-Luc Nancy (1993; 1988):

… Hasn’t thinking decided, at the most intimate point of its decision for decision, in favor of the “grace” of existence, and not of the fury of essence? (And moreover, since it is henceforth time to ask the following: can we speak of “grace” and “fury,” of “healing” and of “ruin,” without having allowed a decision to be made by language, whereas what is at stake is allowing every decision as such, in its freedom, to decide for one or the other side of what is equally “concealed” in being? For if the existent can decide on ruin and on its own ruin, and if this possibility is inscribed in the very being of existence, such a decision is no less what also ruins the decision in its existential essence.)

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



Flexible and Creative Ways

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:31 am

… Is it not possible to think of the adaptive function of play as being quite intrinsic and independent of its usefulness for other more extrinsic forms of survival?

This is from The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith (1997):

… What seems obvious about play, whether that of animals, children, or adults, is that it is a very exciting kind of activity that players carry on because they like doing so. It doesn’t seem to have too much to do with anything else. Yet, as this work will attest, it is typically interpreted as having value not just for itself but because of other functions that it serves in individual development and group culture. For example, in the general literature about child development, most theories hold that play is some form of adaptation, or that it provides for some useful development. The main concern is to show that increases in the complexity of play skill — physical, mental, imaginative, or social — lead to increases in some parallel kind of human growth or adaptation. This subordination of intrinsic play functions to other extrinsic developmental functions occurs apparently because the theories are primarily concerned with child socialization and maturity, and children’s civilized progress in general. As a result, their broader sentiments about child development carry over into their attitudes toward play, which then become as much determined by the rhetoric of progress as by any empirical data about the causal value of play itself.

… The main tenet of the rhetoric of progress is that adulthood and childhood are quite separate, childhood being innocent, nonsexual, and dependent. It is said that children’s and adult’s play are also quite different, that of children being open, or creative, and that of adults being closed, or recreative. The desire for children to make progress in development and schooling has led to play’s being considered either a waste of time (the view of educational “conservatives”) or a form of children’s work (the belief of educational “progressives”). The one view is that play is not usefully adaptive, the other is that it is.

[ … ]

… In general those who have studied the remarkable realm of animal play have felt that it must be of some profound evolutionary significance. After all, the levels of the play’s complexity are paralleled by increasing brain size. Surely there must be a connection between the one and the other, scholars aver. Nevertheless, numbers of those who have studied play in an evolutionary, biological, ethological, or comparative psychological perspective are skeptical about the state of our knowledge of the play-evolution relationship.

… Michael Lewis says, in the Smith symposium, “The importance and meaning of play, at least for humans, would appear to be in its affective, function; in a word, play is fun. In fact, I would like to argue that the chief function of play is its positive affective quality, a combination of fun and whimsy, which distinguishes this activity from all others, even other positive experiences such as eating or sexual behavior.” Similarly Jack Panksepp concludes a long piece on the evolutionary centrality of rough-and-tumble in rodents with the statement, “Perhaps excessive expectations have been generated concerning the long term functions of play. It is worth considering that the main adaptive function of play may be the generation of positive emotional states. In such states animals may be more willing and more likely to behave in flexible and creative ways.”

… [P.K.] Smith does not agree with Martin and Caro’s conclusion that play’s function is of minor importance. He says he finds it implausible that play does not have in important function. It is just that its function has been overemphasized because of what he calls “the play ethos” and what is here called the rhetoric of progress. He says this ethos “has even distorted the direction of research for a while. Rather than providing simple answers, one has to consider issues such as whether play has benefits which can also be provided by other kinds of experience: whether some minimum level or “threshold” value of play is all that is needed; whether the value of playful experiences varies appreciably with culture and individual experience. I think these questions are still substantially unanswered.”

… Is it not possible to think of the adaptive function of play as being quite intrinsic and independent of its usefulness for other more extrinsic forms of survival? Its adaptiveness then might center on what play does for a sense of well-being, as ecstatic play, rather than what play does as work or as adaptation.

… One cannot finish reading this chapter without noting the immense empirical as well as theoretical ambiguity that surrounds the study of play. With or without the progress rhetoric, no one is making great progress in demonstrating adaptation to be play’s main function.

My previous post from Sutton-Smith’s book is here.



June 25, 2013

The Technological Sublime

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:28 am

… Nothing less was at stake than how to make art; nothing more than how to be an artist …

… From the Abstract Expressionist’s flowing heroism, which summoned resources from beyond exhaustion to create works of unparalleled genius, the focus shifted in the 1960s to the hardened nugget of Stella’s semialienated labor, which he later articulated: “I just wanted to do it [make a painting] and get it over with so I could go home and watch TV.”

This is from Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist by Caroline A. Jones (1996):

… Alongside all of these early ’60s essays on American sublimity, in art discourse, Leo Marx was developing his thesis on the contradictions embedded in the American sublime as reflected in American literature, symbolized for Marx by the trope of The Machine in the Garden, his book of 1964. The publication of this work, long in the making, itself points to the renewed fascination that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century concepts of sublimity and Romanticism held for mid-twentieth-century Americans; more important for my argument, in his book Marx articulates the fissures that were then beginning to appear in the nostalgic façade of “the natural paradise.” Marx’s project was to clarify the conflicts “always already” present in the articulation of a virginal American landscape, and to demonstrate their uselessness in present-day culture.

[paragraph break added to make this easier to read online] Briefly reviewing the rural, agrarian, pastoral myths used to sell everything from cigarettes to political programs, Marx argued: “[In] public discourse, at least, this ideal [of the pastoral idyll] has appeared with increasing frequency in the service of a reactionary or false ideology, thereby helping to mask the real problems of the industrial civilization.” In Marx’s redemptive conclusion, we must accept the fate we have created, own the technologies that we have built, confront our dreams as the fantasies that they are and seek resolution to our problems in society — through engagement, not in some mythical escape. Reflecting the optimism of early 1960s liberalism, combined with a sobering sense of the challenges to be faced, Marx wrote: “To change the situation we require new symbols of possibility, and although the creation of those symbols is in some measure the responsibility of artists, it is in greater measure the responsibility of society. The machine’s sudden entrance into the garden presents a problem that ultimately belongs not to art but to politics.”

… I want to suggest that this rhetoric of the technological sublime also characterized much of the 1960s, in which a growing ecology movement paradoxically coexisted with a sometimes utopian, sometimes cynical belief in technology as a pragmatic or aesthetic solution to the problems of the day. The 1960s appearance of the technological sublime was necessarily specific to its time — moon shots, superhighways, and the penetration of the technological into human nature all changed the impact of this discourse dramatically.

In comparing previous incarnations of the technological sublime with those I want to define for the 1960s, I choose two axes that will structure my arguments throughout this book. The first I call the iconic: an image, figure, or representation that is somehow indexed to technology, to the industrial order, or to the machine. The second I call the performative: a mode of production that aspires to, or structurally resembles, an industrial process, and/or a self-presentation on the part of the artist that implies a collaboratively generated technological solution or mechanistic goal. I will argue that the American artists of the 1960s reflected a union of the iconic and performative, attempting to offer a kind of sublimity in both the technological look, and the quasi-industrial production, of their art.

… Against Whitman’s lyrical body electric, his “singing the strong light works of engineers,” we place Warhol’s laconic aspirations to “be a machine.”

… Is nothing new then, under this uniquely American sun that shines with the thousand gigawatts of a nation’s harnessed power? Do we see merely another swing of the American pendulum, endlessly oscillating between technological progressivism and pastoral retreat? The answer must be no, for just as the national context anchors these instances of the technological sublime, so the temporal context of 1960s New York localizes them. A little-known Connecticut poet could write in his 1855 ode “The New Pastoral” of the “iron men who build the golden future,” but in Warhol’s world an artist could desire, and functionally succeed in his goal, to “be a machine.” Henry Adams could aspire at the turn of the century to worship the Dynamo rather than the Virgin, but in Stella’s career an artist could conceive of incorporating the Dynamo into his own practice, becoming the executive artist at the heart of the surging industrial workshop. By the end of the decade, such ambitions appeared exhausted in the entropic, desublimating practice of Robert Smithson, who ironized the position of artist and viewer, making the transcendence of sublimation an inaccessible and undesirable goal. The machine in the studio was new in 1960, but it was a configuration dependent on the strength of a booming centralized economy; in Smithson’s “post-studio” practice at the end of the decade, a production disperses to the peripheries of a postindustrial landscape in the throes of economic decline.

… In charting this history, we must move beyond style as a determining factor in periodization — if style is taken merely as a manifestation of formal commitments. We must instead attempt to locate change in a deeper order of beliefs and actions that styles serve simply (and variously) to express.

… I want to argue that the art’s mode of production, and the artists’ way of knowing the world, were what had changed. Nothing less was at stake than how to make art; nothing more than how to be an artist in mid-century America. How the work looked would follow from those choices.

… It is this mythos of the Promethean Abstract Expressionist artist — burning with creative fire, yet eternally doomed to a bitter, self-consuming process of self-scrutiny — that provided a dramatic backdrop for the laconic laborers of the ensuing technological sublime. From the Abstract Expressionist’s flowing heroism, which summoned resources from beyond exhaustion to create works of unparalleled genius, the focus shifted in the 1960s to the hardened nugget of Stella’s semialienated labor, which he later articulated: “I just wanted to do it [make a painting] and get it over with so I could go home and watch TV.”

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




June 24, 2013

To Be Alive In Secret

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:45 am


This is a small part of:


Cedar Waxwing on Scarlet Firethorn
by Stanley Plumly

[ … ]

But to look down the long shaft of the air,
the whole healing silence of the air, fire
and thorn, where we want to be, on the edge
of the advantage, the abrupt green edge
between the flowering pyracantha and
the winded, open field, before the trees —
to be alive in secret, this is what
we wanted, …

[ … ]



The Memory Cabinet of Mrs. K. …. 1960
by Susan Stewart

Top Right Drawer
……… Aspirin and pumice stone; emery board and
peach stone; hourglass, lost its sand; a postcard from
Watkins Glen; piece of quartz; sequined belt; red barrette;
vermilion disc; a diary, January 8 saw R skating in the dark,
a branch in an icy glove . . . that line before, something
breaking; a white shoe buckle; half-knit mitten.

Top Left Drawer
……… Packet of pins with gold foil backing; six grosgrain
ribbons — red, yellow, blue, pink, chartreuse, and candy-striped;
a reel of hem tape; a very straight nail; envelope with a
negative (girl on a tire swing); plug on a brass-beaded chain
for a sink; five keys shaped like spades, diamonds, clubs.

Middle Drawer
……… Hammer and picture wire; flowered pajamas; cross-stitched
dresser scarf; kimono, missing belt; velveteen sandals from
Panama, huts and palm trees carved into the heel; a squirt
gun; detachable collar with lip print; postcard from the
Poconos; pack of cards; a trivet made of popsicle sticks.

Bottom Drawer
……… Souvenir pillow from Watkins Glen; presser foot; zipper
foot; flywheel belt; an ink bottle, rubber stopper askew;
inside a bevy of charred wings rising, over a black, but
moonlit pond; extension cord, box of bobbins, belt for
a blue kimono; diploma; certificate of perfect attendance.




What You See Is Not What You See

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:43 am

… It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all.

This is from ‘Philip Guston Talking’ (lecture at the University of Minnesota, March 1978):

… In a recent article which contrasts the work of a color-field painter with mine, the painter is quoted as saying “A painting is made with colored paint on a surface and what you see is what you see.” This popular and melancholy cliché is so remote from my own concern. In my experience a painting is not made with colors and paint at all. I don’t know what a painting is; who knows what sets off even the desire to paint? It might be things, thoughts, a memory, sensations, which have nothing to do directly with painting itself. They can come from anything and anywhere, a trifle, some detail observed, wondered about and, naturally from the previous painting. The painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined. It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see.

… I think that probably the most potent desire for a painter, an image-maker, is to see it. To see what the mind can think and imagine, to realize it for oneself, through oneself, as concretely as possible. I think that’s the most powerful and at the same time the most archaic urge that has endured for about 25,000 years.



June 23, 2013

Men In Windowless Buildings

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:37 am

Dante’s cosmos does indeed look silly, but only until I try to contemplate my own and learn that I don’t effectively have one.

This if from an essay ‘The Dream of Dante’ by Howard Nemerov:

… you might wonder at other of the great changes since Dante’s time, changes having to do with the age of the universe, of the earth, of life, of human life: and changes having to do with the size of the universe, which has grown so exponentially from the little local affair it was to something of a size so unimaginable that it has to be expressed in light years — to give one figure only, our sun and its system lie on the rim of our galaxy 26,000 light years distant from the center, which is to say, being interpreted, the distance covered by light traveling 6,000 billion miles a year multiplied by 26,000 times. … Can you say with utter confidence whether changes of such quality and magnitude take place in the world or in the mind, whether Aristotle himself would be quite clear as to whether they are recognitions or reversals? So it might be with the Copernican Revolution just as that student said: the sun stopped going around the earth and the earth started going around the sun, with consequences, including the demythologizing of knowledge, the dissociation of cosmos and consciousness, physics and faith, which I am sure you are as much and as little familiar with as I. Much has changed.

But when I look up into the night sky – and no matter how much science insists that the direction of my gaze is out, not up, my neck tells me I am looking up — I see not Dante’s neat Ptolemaic universe, nor the elegant Copernican universe that replaced it, still less the vast universe more recently offered us by Harlow Shapley and others; I see, as men always have seen, the appearances which were to be accounted for by these universes; indeed, I don’t see very many of them, owing to smog, which seems to be one of the conditions under which it becomes possible for men in windowless buildings watching television monitors to send travelers to the Moon and Mariners out past Mars. So that although the size of the Milky Way has increased to include an unimaginable and indeed incredible 200 billion stars, it is among the effects of the scientific and technological civilization which makes this and the like assertions that I was unable, at last look — Fourth of July again — to see any Milky Way at all. That’s a bit more of the much that has changed.

So Dante’s cosmos does indeed look silly, but only until I try to contemplate my own and learn that I don’t effectively have one. Not only the smog that prevents me from seeing the stars, but the electric light so effective in demythologizing the world that it shields me from demon and angel alike, and insures that save for the Fourth of July I will not worry enough about the stars to go outdoors and see whether I can see them or not. And not only that, but this: Increased knowledge increases ignorance exponentially, and every triumphant advance in knowing means that millions or us won’t know it.

This, perhaps, is poetically the point. Dante has a small universe, but a full one, and he knows it thoroughly. I have, if I can in any sensible way be said to have it, a vast universe, but it is empty and dark, and compared with what is to be known I do not know it at all.

My most recent previous Nemerov post is here.




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