Unreal Nature

July 31, 2013

Scratching the Impassive Face

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

This is from ‘Ja, Bès’ (1994) found in the collection Multiple Arts by Jean-Luc Nancy (2006):

“Our names might be thought to be no more than the reflection of an absence of name,” Jabès once said, and never stopped repeating it.

… The pure pleasure of impatiently scratching the impassive face of being. The childish pleasure of simply being there.

The most serious and the most childish: just to be there. Just imagine Edmond Jabès as a tiny Egyptian baby, just a name, and yet suddenly is already irreplaceable — and at the other end of life a whole history that nobody will ever be able to recapitulate, a line dotted with shimmering pebbles, all marked with the same name leading nowhere except to the echo of the name, now dispersed among several different memories, several different libraries.

… The letter that is the secret of the name is the body, on which the letter is effaced as the extension of its transformations and deformations, its displacements and grafts and mutilations — this integrity being maintained on the basis of a general restlessness contained by nothing other than a space spinning in itself on its axis, by which, from one extremity to the other, one birth to another, it could be said to resemble itself: this body of which not a single grain of skin will have ever remained the same, yet which despite everything is the same skin everywhere, ja, as though naked and unveiled. Him, the selfsame self, like his name.

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



The Pleasure of Being a Cause

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… The hidden transcript as it were, presses against and tests the limits of what may be safely ventured in terms of a reply to the public transcript of deference and conformity.

This is from The Ambiguity of Play by Brian Sutton-Smith (1997). This week’s ‘rhetoric’ is ‘Child Power and Identity’:

… children can have their own autonomous play culture that attempts to be independent of adult cultural forms, insofar as the children are the ones who organize and maintain it through their own interactions, metacommunications, and framings, such as play and games.

[ … ]

Every subordinate group creates, out of its ordeal, a “hidden transcript” that represents a critique of power spoken behind the back of the dominant. The powerful, for their part, also develop a hidden transcript representing the practices and claims of their rule that cannot be openly avowed.

I suggest, along these lines, how we might interpret the rumor, gossip, folktales, songs, gestures, jokes, and theater of the powerless as vehicles by which, among other things, they insinuate a critique of power while hiding behind anonymity or behind innocuous understandings of their conduct. … Together these forms of insubordination might suitably be called the infrapolitics of the powerless. [ James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990)]

For the greater part, children in Western society are no longer serfs, nor are they a race or class set apart. Yet as I have shown, the disjunction of childhood innocence and adult maturity is nevertheless an essential part of modern ideology. Children are a social stratum that is set apart. The public transcript of adults is the rhetoric of progress, which is a justification for educating and disciplining children for their future part in the adult world. The hidden transcript of adults has to do with disguising children’s and adults’ own irrationalities and sexuality. The public transcript of children is their good behavior and their good grades in school. What I wish to investigate is the extent to which their own folklore reveals some part of their hidden transcript.

[ … ]

There is a tremendous desire and will to express publicly what is in the hidden transcript, even if that form of expression must use metaphors and allusions in the interest of safety. The hidden transcript as it were, presses against and tests the limits of what may be safely ventured in terms of a reply to the public transcript of deference and conformity. [Scott, again]

Children love to tell their childlore to sympathetic collectors, at the same time often disclaiming any responsibility for its origins. What is exciting about this rhetorical interpretation of children’s folklore is that it raises the possibility that their traditional play is not just composed of remnants of the past but also often embodies a rhetoric they use to hold off the adult-oriented rhetorics that usually surround them. The players, in these terms, subvert the rhetorics of adults by creating their own play as pragmatic rhetoric against those adults. Is this possible? Can we regard a mixture of pranks, teases, denigratory terms, and antagonistic laughter as a pragmatic child rhetoric? If it is, all of a sudden rhetoric that has so far been presented in this work as infiltrating play from the outside becomes fused with the subversive play itself from the inside. The children’s use of play in this case is not only for enjoyment but also for protest.

… It is because there is an economic, social, cognitive, and affective child identity that is disjunctive with the adult identity that the inevitable struggle between the generations is taking place in Western society. The adult public transcript is to make children progress, the adult private transcript is to deny their sexual and aggressive impulses; the child public transcript is to be successful as family members and schoolchildren, and their private or hidden transcript is their play life, in which they can express both their special identity and their resentment at being a captive population.

… The intrinsic functions of these forms of play have been said to include illicit play, catharsis, hallucinating mastery, the pleasure of being a cause. The play’s extrinsic functions have been defined as hidden transcripts, illicit play, cruel play, mockery, parody, satire, group hegemony, bullying. At this stage these are all social science rhetorics rather than well developed theories of childhood subversion.

Ambiguity is everywhere present in a discussion of the rhetorical area of the hidden and public transcripts of children and adults, and in the play areas of gaming as well as games, of play and play cultures, of gender differences, and, finally, of many of the fusions of rhetoric and subversive play. Such fusions have already been claimed for some contesting (between jingoism and sport) and some festivals (between membership and orgiastic unification). It is most paradoxical that, whereas in the rest of this work the major focus is on the way rhetorics bias play theories, in this chapter, the focus is on generating rhetorics as a step on the way to generating theories. The implication seems to be that rhetorics precede theories, even if both follow forms of play themselves. What the monkeys begin, the folk rhetorize and the theorists make shapely.

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



July 30, 2013

Res Ipsa Loquitur

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:34 am

… In that indistinct moment when photographic representation, scarcely less abstract than the graphic signs of written language, became for the naïve or unreflective citizen (and we are all that person a good part of the time) associated with things as intimately and automatically as their names, our culture had passed an epistemological point of no return.

This is from a lecture ‘A Talk on Photography and History: Time, Space, and Causality’ delivered at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1979; I’m finding it in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Framption edited by Bruce Jenkins (2009):

… About a week ago a preadolescent of my acquaintance gave me a comic book. It was a Disney-family comic book. One of the little short stories or tableaux in it was called “A Photography Contest.” In this tableau, Clarabelle Cow purchases something that looks very much like a Nikon and enters a contest in the photography, mind you, of animals. And there are various misadventures, needless to say, connected with this. She enlists the help of her boyfriend. I forget his name; he’s a bull in any case. And the encounters with animals that she photographs obviously become more and more horrendous until, in one frame, a lion that has escaped from the zoo is pursuing her boyfriend, the bull: and with a big bovine grin she snaps a picture of the lion. As she does so, she says to herself: “Great shot.”

The fact that we have the image of a cow using a camera engaged in a contest to photograph animals reminds me of a moment of vertigo I experienced the first time I ever watched German television. There was an ancient American movie that had Anthony Quinn as Chief Thundercloud, or whoever, and someone else as his young white friend. It’s the plot where the Indian boy and the white boy have been raised together as children, fall out, and are reunited at the end, and so forth. And of course the whole thing is dubbed in German. At the very end of the film, the red and white man are riding along together once more, side by side on their horses. In the original, Quinn had turned to whomever it was and spoken to him in English for the first time, not in Oglala, or something like that; but since this was dubbed in the version I saw, the white man turned back to Anthony Quinn and said, “In all these years I never knew you spoke German.”

Graft then, if you will, onto that ironic vertigo the fact that the comic book I told you about was in fact in Spanish: the name of the tableau was “Concurso de fotografia.” And what Clarabelle Cow said when she snapped the picture of the lion was, “precioso ejemplar,” a great shot.

In that scientific, Latinate diction of a Disney cow taking a picture of a lion, with a Nikon, in the kind of exploded and arrested pseudocinema of a comic book — the pictorial vulgate of Western capitalist childhood, if you will — we have, I think, the rack upon which the not-yet-very-well-formed backbone of photographic theory has been broken before it ever grew straight and strong: namely, that photographs, in their immense number (it’s like overkill, like nerve gas; there’s enough doses of still photography to kill every one of us a hundred times over) have never been seen in any way systematically: they are a virtually infinite collection of preciousos ejemplares, great shots, every one of which of course tends to make all the others temporarily invisible — to arrest the attention so completely that it becomes, as it were, paralyzed.

Watch out for comic books, they’re excessively instructive.

[ … ]

… at this moment … we set ourselves the task of examining, of all things, the history of a practice new to history, a social and intellectual phenomenon so common and old that it seems to share, with written language, a fundamental identity with the method and matter of history itself: the diffuse general practice, I mean, of photography. Not even the illiterate can imagine a world without written language, and a world without photographic imagery is, for us, unthinkable. If it often seems to us, as we think about thinking, that we think in words, it seems as often, when we are not thinking about thinking, that we think not merely in “pictures” but in photographs.

Habituated to language, we may no longer think of it [language] as a machine — or as the manifestation of a high technology for manipulating and accounting for a universe whose boundaries it obscures in a profusion of centers occupied by ourselves, who speak, understand, write, read — an unspeakably complex automaton that claims every mind as a subassembly, or an interlocking set of algorithms, self-defining and self-extending, that so determines the substance and limits of thought that every proposal to think anew automatically, relentlessly, imposes upon the one who would think the task of extending and redefining language itself. But to attempt to speak or write with conscious exactitude is to find oneself painfully vulnerable to the realization that language, whatever more it may be, is all those things.

But accustomed as we grow to the photographic image, nevertheless its origins seem less past than language’s perfect past, and less “transparent”; in symmetry with the visibility of its artifact, the photographic mode of production and the mechanism of photographic thought retain a certain “opacity.” If this is a sign of its immaturity as countermachine and complement of language, it is contradicted by history’s present readiness to unite, by a process of mutual ingestion, with the photographic image, incorporating it into its method as well as its object. The photographic machine embodies and exercises with effortless precision much of what has ever been discovered about the description and recollection of spaces, their enclosing or imbedded volumes, the surfaces that delimit those volumes, the colors that qualify those surfaces. What was once, and for long, a subject of the most intense experimentation is now simply knowledge, parameterized, quantified, seamlessly indistinguishable from the rest of inherited mother’s-milk culture and thereby all but inaccessible to individual practice within that culture, save through the mediation of photography.

In that indistinct moment when photographic representation, scarcely less abstract than the graphic signs of written language, became for the naïve or unreflective citizen (and we are all that person a good part of the time) associated with things as intimately and automatically as their names, our culture had passed an epistemological point of no return. In an age that has characteristically, in science as in art, preferred retinal to cortical vision, photography has provided an infallible retentive super-retina, more persuasive than a mirror, allegedly value- and language-free (or at least independent of the linguistic and social processes of discourse and evaluation).

… The incontrovertible photographic image, which was to have rescued the sciences from the most irksome of immemorial doubts about the reproducibility of observation and at the same time confirmed their academic curricula in enviable economy, enclosed them all within an impenetrable fortress-prison of image, a panopticon of visibilities — condemned them, in a word, to a long sentence on the basis of no more subtle argument than that of the decrepit legal principle (shared with some of the apologetics of Modernist art) res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself.

My most recent previous post from the Frampton book is here.



July 29, 2013

Full / Of Holes

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am


This is one verse (out of six) from:


Six Winter Privacy Poems
by Robert Bly

[ … ]


My shack has two rooms; I use one.
The lamplight falls on my chair and table,
And I fly into one of my own poems —
I can’t tell you where —
As if I appeared where I am now,
In a wet field, snow falling.

[ … ]



The Egg Boiler
by Gwendolyn Brooks

Being you, you cut your poetry from wood.
The boiling of an egg is heavy art.
You come upon it as an artist should,
With rich-eyed passion, and with straining heart.
We fools, we cut our poems out of air.
Night color, wind soprano, and such stuff.
And sometimes weightlessness is much to bear.
You mock it, though, you name it Not Enough.
The egg, spooned gently to the avid pan,
And left the strict three minutes, or the four,
Is your Enough and art for any man.
We fools give courteous ear — then cut some more,
Shaping a gorgeous Nothingness from cloud.
You watch us, eat your egg, and laugh aloud.



This is one and 2/3 verses (of eight) from the end of:


The Language
by Robert Creeley

[ … ]

I heard words
and words full

of holes
aching. Speech
is a mouth.




Used Paper

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

This first is from ‘Statement’ by Robert Ryman (1971):

In the Fall of 1968 I did my first show in Konrad Fischer’s Gallery in Düsseldorf. The exhibition consisted of six paintings on paper panels, nine panels to a painting. The panels were crated and shipped to Düsseldorf. In the process of getting them through customs (in order to avoid the duty that is to be paid on “Art” arriving in the country), Konrad had listed them as “paper” and not as paintings. But the customs official said, “But? It is expensive paper (handmade) so you will have to pay so much!” “Yes, it is expensive paper,” Konrad said, “but it has been used.” The customs official agreed that it had indeed been used. So the paintings arrived designated as “Used Paper.” Since that time I have wondered about the possibility of paintings being defined as “Used Paint.” Then there could be “Used Bronze,” “Used Canvas,” “Used Steel,” “Used Lead,” …

The following is from ‘The Transformation of Nature through Nature’ by Sam Gilliam, which was the commencement address he gave at Memphis College of Art in May of 1986:

… They tell me that once upon a time in a very mythical land that was filled with small huts there existed a huge volcano. It had an amazing fire that came from within it. This was such a great fire that it kept the valley warm, lighted and always with pleasant weather. What was not known was that behind the volcano was a team of little people armed with bellows and logs fanning the fire and making it blaze higher. These little people formed a long lineage. I will name only a few: Rembrandt, Leonardo, Monet, Van Gogh, Eva Hesse, Cézanne, Pollock, Avery and many others. And now you have been called to join that team. For the illusions, the spaces, the forms that you create will keep your fellow persons warm, lighted and always in good weather.

[ … ]

A little reverse imperialism going on here (Art into Science versus the usual Science into … everything else). I like it! Instead of Science’s Newton, saying “If I see far it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”; in Art we have Gilliam’s “If I stay warm and lit it is because I have huddled in a crater with the little people.”



July 28, 2013

Just to Hear a Little Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

…  this was a saving experience and a sacred and solitary refuge from a milieu not notable for eloquence or subtlety …

This is from The Oak in the Acorn: On Remembrance of Things Past and on Teaching Proust, Who Will Never Learn by Howard Nemerov (1987). Starting in the Preface:

These lectures were given before my class in The Modern Novel at Brandeis University in the winter and spring of 1968. Their being written out in more or less full was owing in the first place to fear. Bennington College had accustomed me for nearly two decades to classes of not more than twenty pupils, often fewer than that, who could be talked with instead of at, and here at Brandeis I now was to face an audience of over a hundred; plainly a situation where works, more than grace, were to be relied on.

… I first read [Proust’s] immense novel not at Harvard as might have been expected, but under the less likely auspices of the Royal Canadian Air Force, at Nr. 2 Service Flying Training School in Uplands outside of Ottawa, where I was being taught to fly an aircraft oddly named the Harvard II (the reader of Proust learns to delight in connections, however trivial).

… Three pieces of good fortune helped me here. First, four years of college had taught me to read. Second, my beautiful boozy Aunt Ruth had given me Proust’s book in English for a graduation present. And third, I was assigned an upper bunk just under one of perhaps only half a dozen ceiling lights. Had I been put in a lower bunk, I couldn’t possibly have read for two or three hours a night without ruining the eyesight indispensable for flying, and my life twenty and forty years later on would have been other than it has been, and poorer.

So after a day of the military life and the life of learning to fly which made things much more bearable than the military life alone would have been, I retired most every evening to Combray, Balbec, Paris, to the continuing company of such persons as Swann, Odette, M. de Charlus, Saint-Loup, and most of all Marcel, to a whole other world built of the enchantments of language, a world which in this world would have been, even supposing it ever to have existed outside Proust’s imagination and now mine, as inaccessible as the Grail Castle, or Kafka’s. Quite apart from its power over my later life, this was a saving experience and a sacred and solitary refuge from a milieu not notable for eloquence or subtlety, a milieu linguistically so barren that one would now and then show up for Church Parade on a Sunday, just to hear a little music, a little speech not limited to (though not always other in intention than) shit and fuck you. It seemed then, and seems now, a way of redeeming the time. But it did not occur to me for a long time, for many years indeed, that there was a curious coincidence in a boy (for I wasn’t much more) lying in bed reading a book about a boy lying in bed. …

In the chapter (class) that follows, Nemerov is orienting his students (describing the book and giving advice on how best to approach his reading assignments); as well as introducing himself. In the text, he uses a numbered list. I join him in number 5:

… I do not like to lecture, and most of the time do it badly; but there seems now to be no other way. And I confess to you, while feeling some helpless gratitude for your kindness in turning out in such numbers to hear me do what I do badly, that I’ve never cared much for the idea of being a popular teacher, especially without being a good one; it gives a man more to live up to than he can possibly do, and makes for nervousness.

Note on nervousness, and the classical Freudian interpretation of it as the speaker’s own hostility projected upon his audience. Would say about this that I am not conscious of feeling this hostility toward my students, save as the unintentional occasions of my having to do a lot of work and hence a damn nuisance; but that’s the way with the Freudian psychology, it’s got you coming and going. If I don’t feel the hostility, that means merely that it is as they say latent. One learns to live, said Merleau-Ponty, with this merciless interpretation.

… [now in the conclusion of this chapter] At a faculty meeting in this room, one faction interpreted the rules to mean that a bill could not be voted upon at its first reading; another faction as stubbornly contended that a bill not voted on could not be held to have had a first reading. So it is, in a way, with the reading of Proust. Your first reading of so vast a book should properly, perhaps, go by like a dream, the dream of another life running for three months parallel with your own. It may be only at a second, later reading that you begin to make actual for yourself the instructions of this other life in their application to your own.



July 27, 2013

Imperfect Rationality

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… To the extent that it is possible to understand [organisms] by reflecting on their origins it must be in terms of this [contingent, constrained] history, and this must take seriously the details of history over aeons. A project as simplistic as reverse engineering has no chance of pulling off this trick.

This is from Human Nature and the Limits of Science by John Dupré (2001):

… I suspect that part of the problem here is a very fundamental ambivalence common to many evolutionists. On the one hand evolution is universally seen as a scientific replacement for an earlier mystical view of the origins of life, a perspective with which I have much sympathy. On the other hand, it is quite obviously a historical subject, one that traces the particular vicissitudes of an exceedingly complex process on a particular seemingly insignificant celestial body. It is still common to think of science as showing how things had to happen the way they did by discovering the inexorable laws of nature that made them happen. But history, surely, is not like this.3 Laws may perhaps play a role in connecting specific events, but the view that the whole sequence of historical events is inexorably determined is a thesis in metaphysics not the theory of history. History itself is an indissoluble mixture of processes that seem more or less inevitable once under way, and entirely contingent events. Much misguided evolutionary thought can be seen as the futile attempt to make history necessitate and thereby to make a thoroughly historical study conform to the idea of science as the discourse of natural necessity.

… Organisms are highly complex structures, and aspects of their structures provide them with remarkable capacities to deal effectively with their environments. A paradigm is the eye. The eye, together with the parts of the brain that process information from the eye, is an exquisitely organized device for gathering information about the environment that surrounds an organism, and thereby for facilitating appropriate responses to that environment. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the function of the eye is to gain this information about the surrounding environment or, more simply, to see. Relating this more explicitly to evolution, it is said that the eye is an adaptation for seeing. Philosophical analyses of the concept of adaptation often explicitly include the assumption that an adaptation is a feature of an organism that exists because of the benefits it provided for ancestors.

… I said the eye was an adaptation for seeing. But it was not designed for seeing, since no one went to the trouble of designing it. One very important consequence of this is that it makes problematic a certain kind of atomism that is often assumed in analysing design. When designing the air-conditioning system of a car, say, one takes the rest of the vehicle as fixed and works out how best to cool its interior. This makes plausible the project that might be carried out by a rival car manufacturer of reverse engineering, trying to work out why the first manufacturer has done things the way they have by assuming that they were intelligently, perhaps even optimally, addressing the problem of cooling the interior of an automobile. Dennett considers this strategy, trying ‘to figure out what reason, if any, “Mother Nature” … “discerned” or “discriminated” for doing things one way rather than another,’ to be an ‘extremely fruitful and, in fact unavoidable’ one for dealing with organisms. The attribution of rationality to ‘Mother Nature’ is of course an ingenious way of converting history (natural history) into necessity. For as theologians have long understood, perfect rationality constrains the agent to only one possible action, which is to say that it necessitates an action.

Any design process takes place under constraints. The air-conditioning designer must start with the kinds of refrigeration units available or readily manufacturable, must find somewhere to mount it that is not already occupied by other essential components, and must generally take the shape, airflow, dynamics, and so on of the vehicle as given. But the constraints of ‘design’ facing Mother Nature are different in kind and in degree. Mother Nature does not, for instance, start off with a sightless human and work out the best way of equipping this creature with sight. It may be, as Richard Dawkins speculates, that the eye developed over aeons of time from a patch of light-sensitive cells somewhere on the surface of the body. But the ancient creatures with these patches of light-sensitive cells were nothing remotely like us. (Which is just as well as such a patch would probably not do us much good.) Each of the many stages between this ancient proto-eye and a modern human eye had to serve the particular kind of creature that was its happy possessor. Moreover the transition from, say, a creature with a patch of light-sensitive cells to a creature with a concave indentation filled with light-sensitive cells must have been constrained by the developmental and genetic possibilities of those particular organisms. And, as is well known, making genetic changes to an organism doesn’t typically make one local change, but often generates many changes that ramify through the developmental sequences of the organism.

None of this is supposed to be an argument that natural selection cannot produce adaptations. Natural selection provides by far the best, and perhaps the only, account we have capable of explaining the kind of functionality we find in physiology. But the process is a historical one, constrained at every point by historical contingencies of the moment.

… The fact that organisms originated from a long, complex, and constantly constrained historical process has momentous consequences. To the extent that it is possible to understand them by reflecting on their origins it must be in terms of this history, and this must take seriously the details of history over aeons. A project as simplistic as reverse engineering has no chance of pulling off this trick.

[ 3 Or at least not after the first second or two.]

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



July 26, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:00 am

… If one just sits back and waits for something to be delivered; if one is not open to a sensual, visual adventuring, or is content with just following the structure to its conclusion, the film can be torture.

… The work teases and teaches …

This is from A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers by Scott MacDonald (2006). This is from his interview with Ernie Gehr. In the first bit I’m skimming just to get enough for context in what follows:

[ … ]

Gehr: … I found myself without a source of [8mm] equipment. … I was able to borrow a 16mm Arriflex … I discovered that it was heavy. I couldn’t move it through space as easily as I could move the 8mm cameras … So we placed the camera on a tripod, which made me feel very constricted … I decided I was not able to work with film, and I quit.

I left New York and went back to see my parents in Milwaukee. But I kept thinking about the incident, and I began to ask myself why I really wanted to make films, what exactly it was that I most liked about cinema and what it was that I didn’t like. I traced my experiences of cinema back to early childhood and eventually came to the conclusion that I was interested in aspects of the cinematic experience that are often considered peripheral to the main cinematic event unfolding on the screen. The things that moved me and haunted me, even during childhood, were things other than the ongoing stories depicted on-screen. For example, the beam of light in those old movie palaces: people used to be able to smoke cigarettes in the balcony, and when a movie got boring, I would look up and watch the beam of light and the smoke filtering through it.

I was fascinated with the discrepancies between the illusion on the screen and the reality of where I was: the decor of the theater, the actualities of the projection. I remember on some occasions the film getting stuck in the gate, and a frame suddenly melting away. On one occasion when I was very young, a janitor turned on the lights behind the screen, just when the movie was reaching a climax, and revealed piles of boxes back there. It was such a shock, and I remember thinking, “Hey, wait a minute, you mean this isn’t actually taking place!?” There was also something strange and sometimes wonderful about sitting in the dark cinema for an hour or two, going through all kinds of experiences, and then walking out and realizing that it was still Saturday afternoon, that I was still in the same place and in fact had never left it.

Those are the kinds of experiences that haunted me, and kept me going back to the movies again and again. A seamless illusion of reality wasn’t all that important to me.

What I realized I didn’t like was the emotional and psychological wringing the movies put me through. For example, I loved Chaplin, but I also had problems with some of his films, such as City Lights [1931]: at the end of the movie, as the curtain came down and the lights came up, there I was, in tears. I felt embarrassed and disliked the emotional manipulation. At some point in my early teens, I actually stopped going to the movies because of this.

There was also another factor: occasionally as I watched movies, instead of following the action, I would find myself caught up with some visual occurrence within a scene or a shot that had nothing to do with the ongoing narrative. For example, in one of the movies I recall seeing in my late teens, there was a scene in an alley with characters either fighting or running after one another. There was nothing special about that alley, but instead of following the action, I got caught up with some reflections on a small pool of water. The patterns on the water seemed more interesting to me than the fight or the chase. Perhaps we all have this kind of experience occasionally.

[ … ]

Gehr’s film, Serene Velocity was made in a long basement hallway at Binghamton [SUNY]. See two frames from the movie shown below:


MacDonald: I want you to take me back to that moment when you’re sitting in front of the screen for the first time looking at Serene Velocity. What were the biggest surprises for you?

Gehr: At my first screening, the biggest surprise was how powerfully the experience of filming the footage of Serene Velocity came back to me; it made me nauseous!

I had not expected to take as long as it actually did. I thought if I started as it got dark outside, around eight thirty or nine, I’d be through with most of the filming by midnight. Then I would take a nap — I had an alarm clock with me — and get up early, around four or four thirty, and continue to film until the sun was up. I was interested in the sunrise at the end of the film. As it turned out, I had to film continuously throughout the night, except for a brief break in the early hours of the morning, when I went to the bathroom and held my  head under water for several minutes in order to stay awake. The sun came up more or less where I thought it would, in terms of the overall structure of the work, but that was pure luck.

MacDonald: Was the time-consuming part continually readjusting the zoom lens?

Gehr: In part, yes. I had recalibrated the lens earlier, on a piece of tape, roughly every five millimeters or so — from midrange to the two extreme positions — so I could just go back and forth, from one marking to the next, in a regular manner. But it was the single-frame recording of frames: one, two, three, four, then shifting to the next millimeter position, changing the focus, recording one, two, three, four frames, then shifting the position of the lens again, changing the focus, et. cetera, that after a certain point became a form of torture. And I was racing against time. I couldn’t leave the equipment in the hallway until the following night. Also, I wasn’t using a cable release, so that by the early hours of the morning I had ten swollen fingers, and it became painful to finish the last two or three rolls.

[ … ]

Gehr: … So, as I looked at the film for the first time, that nightmare of filming the footage came back, and it may have been a couple of months before I could gain enough distance from the experience to really enjoy the results. Once that initial memory began to fade, I was more than delighted with the results. I was ecstatic! And let me make this clear: I could never have predicted the range of visual and sensual phenomena that come through the work or all their implications.

MacDonald: Even when I was seeing Serene Velocity the first time, and furious with it, I noticed remarkable changes in the viewing experience. At one point it’s like a sign blinking on and off, and then you’re thrown back into the illusion of three-dimensional space, and then you’re looking at the water fountain on the wall slowly going by …

Gehr: Yes. It all depends on how much effort the viewer is willing to put into a seeing of the work, into the moment-to-moment experience of the work. If one just sits back and waits for something to be delivered; if one is not open to a sensual, visual adventuring, or is content with just following the structure to its conclusion, the film can be torture. When you focus on the pattern of going from a middle position toward the two extreme positions, you miss the real structure and character of the work. The experience of Serene Velocity is something else.

The experience will also change from one viewing to the next, depending on the setup of the theater, the position from which the individual sees the work. In different locations you can have different experiences; something may happen in one space but not in another. Like most optical phenomena, Serene Velocity tends to be ephemeral and variable, even unpredictable. Actually, you could say that there are several movies taking place at the same time. The pulsing and changing image of that hallway is broken up by the geometry of the space into four different areas (left and right walls, floor, and ceiling), and each area goes through a different metamorphosis, offering different but related kinds of visual puzzles and puns for the mind to engage. There are many beautiful, sensual, even humorous developments that take place within what looks like something devoid of any excitement, humor, or sensual interest, including space reversals and the collapse and reemergence of doorways, water fountains, and so forth. The work teases and teaches one something about the nature, character, and plasticity of moving visual images. That’s one of the fun parts of Serene Velocity. Its surface simplicity is deceptive.

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



July 25, 2013

Where’s the Necessity?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:23 am

… For the story to be necessary in my eyes, it has to have an allegorical density: presence of a palimpsest, of another meaning, even if we’re not sure which one.

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 practice of writing is constitutively shot through with hesitation (so let’s broaden and move beyond the hesitation between Book/Album). We call the miraculous absence of indecision by a loaded name: Inspiration — and I’d like to say a word about this, because it falls within the first trial (in truth, co-extensive to the whole labor of writing).

… We usually make a note of something because we see a meaning (that, at the same time, we don’t want to give away), or indeed because it comes to us in the form of a sentence (but what motivates a sentence?). But also, sometimes, and this is hesitation in the strict sense, something is just purely gratuitously, inexplicably, enigmatically noteworthy: for example, waiting for the number 48 bus, Place Saint-Germain, I see a couple go by, the young woman is wearing incredibly high heels; she manages, nevertheless, despite wobbling quite a bit; I wonder: how can women walk like that? In one sense, not interesting at all, but at the same time calls for notation, for this is “life” in all its tenuousness.

Last but not least, on the question of a novel (or a film): why this story and not another? I feel this very keenly when I look at the majority of contemporary novels and films, even the good ones; a depressing feeling; it’s “good,” but I don’t see why it was necessary to tell that story, to have chosen that as the object of a tremendous labor of fabrication → In logical terms: the world presents me with “terms” linked together by the relation of indifference or irrelevance: Vel … vel; but, as a creation, for me the work has to assert the relation Aut … aut, exclusive disjunction, that of Reality. For the story to be necessary in my eyes, it has to have an allegorical density: presence of a palimpsest, of another meaning, even if we’re not sure which one.

… where’s the Necessity in telling this story rather than that one, in retaining this word over that one, in planning an Album and not a Book? On the one hand, there’s no Necessity but on the other, in the writer, in someone who reads or who wants to write, there’s an invincible demand that what gets written should be grounded in necessity, should be guaranteed (auctor).

… Nevertheless, as readers of certain works, we experience the certainty of their necessity; there’s no way, so we think, that the author could have hesitated, it must have forced itself upon him; it was necessary that that particular story and not some other should have been told, that that word should have been chosen, etc. → This self-evidence of Necessity: even clearer in music than in literature; certain airs, certain melodies (for instance Carmen or the Ode to Joy) are so pleasing to the ear, so “welcome” it’s as if they were created not by the Author but by Nature; it could not have been otherwise: it was Necessary …

… Talent = a limit that can’t be breached without prompting failure, that can’t be overstepped: a limit to your resources.

… In all likelihood what we call a writer’s maturity, the success of his works once the beginnings are out of the way, has nothing to do with an increase in his powers (physiological image) but rather with the precise, subtle discovery, which comes from experience, of how best to apply them; Kafka says that you can “admire the energy with which a man misuses his talent”; this is often the impression given by first manuscripts: a double energy, of language and of misrecognition → “Mastery” would be more like a managed depletion, an Epicurean economy of the pleasures the writer is capable of giving (and of giving himself) through writing.

… you have to choose, and there’s no God (of Writing) to impose or even to guide you in your choice → Writing: vertiginous freedom. This practical freedom comes into conflict with the fantasy of the work, which is the affirmation of desire: the fantasy “initiates” the work by making it “visible,” making it “shimmer” in the distance like a mirage, but, of course, since it’s still only a fantasy, what is made visible is not a real work: it’s a generic image in the distance, a tone, or perhaps some bits of a work, some aspects, some inflections … → the fantasy gets the work going, but it also blocks it: for it keeps repeating a pleasure to-come without getting to the stage of planning out its realization in real terms; it can’t get past the Reality of execution in its essential form, the obligation to choose, to exploit a freedom → the Preparation of the Work can also be a pure, immobile fantasy, of which the writer has only a few fragments (a few notes); this is what Joubert is describing when he says, “I am like … an Aeolian harp which makes some beautiful sounds, but does not play any tunes.”

I disagree strongly with Barthes’s conception of ‘talent.’ I think talent is — even before ability to execute — precisely an ability to intuit and then exploit/inhabit the fluid/fluxing fissures, the interstices, the Deleuze/Guattari “crack,” of what Barthes’ implies is (and what less talented people find to be) an impermeable ‘limit.’

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



July 24, 2013

In Our Turn

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:17 am

This is from ‘In Blanchot’s Company’ (1996/97) found in the collection Multiple Arts by Jean-Luc Nancy (2006):

… With this perpetual risk and extreme fragility accompanying us both, and affirmed as such, Blanchot and I will have been fellow travelers and partners in conversation, necessarily so. Just as I was slowly discovering, while still in school,, literature’s vast riches (as the phrase goes), his was the voice that became interwoven with them, blurring the image and disrupting my attention. Though disorientated at first, I was later to find Blanchot the most familiar and strangest company of all, while also the most secret and hidden, because of the light cast by the singular obscurity that is his.

This company was familiar to me in that, already from Flaubert onward, literature had been worried about itself, as though it had no alternative but to be alone, and alone in turning aside from itself in disgust (it is worth recalling Flaubert’s fearsome confession, “literature as far as I’m concerned, is a dreadful pain, like a dildo stuck up my arse without me even being able to get off on it”), and yet strange in that, appropriately enough, the voice of absolute worry, alone just like any voice, had no alternative but to isolate itself even more, to turn aside and lose itself in its own infinite turmoil. And no one has the task of finding it again any more than they have the task of challenging it. But it restores to each one of us, strangely, the chance and duty of risking ourselves in our turn …

Amidst a world that is made up no longer (at least not immediately) of the violent contrast between fever and shame, but of cares [souci] that is itself uncertain of what it means and hesitates as to whether “literature” still has any sense, even the sense of casting suspicion upon itself, or whether sense does not now run somewhere else (but certainly not through religion, science, or philosophy), given that it always runs somewhere, even if it is against the flow, in its own absence, or furtively.

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




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