Unreal Nature

October 31, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… Discourses are (whatever else they may be) eminently pragmatic affairs: practical, instrumental, ends-oriented, “useful,” “down-to-earth,” governed by participants’ perceptions and expectations, driven by participants’ aims and desires.

This is from ‘Against the Ivory Tower: An Apologia for “Popular” Historical Documentaries’ by Dirk Eitzen (1995) found in the collection New Challenges for Documentary: Second Edition edited by Alan Rosenthal and John Corner (2005):

… It is clear from the public reception of historical documentaries like Claude Lanzmann’s documentary about the Holocaust, Shoah, and Ken Burns’ acclaimed series for American public television, The Civil War, that popular audiences of  historical documentaries are not particularly interested either in the complexity of the past or in explaining it. What they want more than anything (and what they generally find, if a historical documentary is at all “successful”) is a powerful emotional “experience.” This can be a vicarious experience or an aesthetic experience or an experience of belonging to a special group. In many cases, it is all of these. These considerations, in turn, appear to be rather remote from the concerns of academic historians. In other words, it appears that what academic historians “get out of” their studies of the past and what popular audiences mainly “get out of” historical documentaries are two completely different things, judged according to completely different standards.

… Historical documentaries, by and large, are supposed to be popular. This supposition entails a different set of standards — a set of standards that historians tend to dismiss because, as scholars in the academy, they are primarily engaged in a very different kind of discourse. What are we to make of these popular standards? Are they at all good? Or do they deserve to be dismissed?

On questions of good and bad or right and wrong we are all forced, in the end, to base our answers upon opinions. My opinion is that to simply dismiss popular standards, as historians tend to do, is both too pat and too simple. If people say, as many have, that watching Shoah helped them grow, or brought them closer to other people, or did something else that they regard to be beneficial to themselves, who am I — who is anyone — to discount or disparage their claims?

Critic Loudon Wainwright wondered why people bothered to attend Shoah at all, since the movie is so long, so painful, and dwells on so terrible a topic. When he asked, he found that the reasons people gave are varied and complex. Some were simply curious. Others felt somewhat guilty at having escaped the experience by accidents of birth or geography. Others had actually lived through the experience. But the one reason that people gave most often, Wainwright found, is that the film “keeps the memory alive.” The viewers he questioned all seemed to regard this to be a powerful good of the film.

To the extent that people regard such things as good, I think we need to simply accept them as good. That does not mean that is all we need to do. Historians can teach another way of looking at Shoah that is not completely compatible with the way popular audiences tend to look at the film and one that accomplishes different sorts of objective. But they can do this in a way that holds out the possibility of alternative “readings” and enhances the total experience of the movie, without disparaging or diminishing popular readings.

… How should we treat the responses of “ordinary” viewers of historical documentaries, which tend to be predicated upon the notion that documentaries can somehow put us in touch with reality? For example, what are we to respond to the claims of people who feel that Shoah somehow truly reflects the “reality” of the Holocaust and truly keeps it “alive” in memory? Are these viewers being deceived? Are they wrong? In a strict sense, yes, they are deceived and wrong, since both the text and the memories it supposedly keeps alive are merely compelling constructs — creations, representations, “fictions.” Still, it is my opinion that this answer is, again, both too pat and too simple.

William James articulated the potential value of the kind of “knowing” that documentaries can provide — a value that historians and film scholars alike, in their eagerness to point out the legitimate dangers of documentaries, have tended to either ignore or dismiss:

The towering importance for human life of this kind of knowing lies in the fact that an experience that knows another can figure as its representative, not in any quasi-miraculous “epistemological” sense, but in the definite practical sense of being its substitute in various operations, sometimes physical and sometimes mental, which lead us to its associates and results. By experimenting on our ideas of reality, we may save ourselves the trouble of experimenting on the real experience which they severally mean.

Where we have no direct access to the real experience, as in seeking to comprehend the past, this kind of knowing is not only useful, it is indispensable. My conclusion, then, is that we would all do well to devote more attention to what viewers perceive popular historical documentaries to do (like “bringing the past to life”) even if this means paying somewhat less attention to what historical documentaries do not do (like affording a scholarly view of the past) or that viewers do not perceive them to do (like advancing ideologies). It is in what people perceive in historical documentaries that one finds the most immediate and consequential possibilities of harm.

Discourses are (whatever else they may be) eminently pragmatic affairs: practical, instrumental, ends-oriented, “useful,” “down-to-earth,” governed by participants’ perceptions and expectations, driven by participants’ aims and desires. If we wish to understand historical documentaries as actual forms of discourse, we need not only to acknowledge this, we need to study the ways it is so.

… I must agree with [historian Michael] Frisch, in the end, that, to the extent that historical documentaries even appear to put us in touch with a real “living” past, they are “seizing an opportunity not nearly so accessible to conventional academic historical scholarship, whatever its virtues: the opportunity to help liberate for that active remembering all the intelligence [in the way Frisch defines the word] of a people long kept separated from the sense of their own past.” That opportunity can no doubt be exploited for good or for ill, but it is an opportunity nonetheless.

I don’t agree with Eitzen’s argument. I find it interesting for making me think about why I don’t agree with it.



October 30, 2013

The Skilled Liar

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:15 am

… the skilled liar — a person who can make a convincing face — knows he is lying but feels he is telling the truth.

… humans are able to absorb and learn behavior so thoroughly that the new “performed” behavior knits seamlessly into ongoing “spontaneous” action.

This is from Performance Theory by Richard Schechner (1988, 2003):

… A depiction not merely of emotions, but of emotions that can easily be recognized, that can be composed and communicated — the raw material of theater wherever it is found — is also the stuff lies are made of. As Ekman points out the face is not only a truth-teller but a liar without peer. And lying, as much as truth-telling, is the stock in trade of theater.

The face appears to be the most skilled nonverbal communicator and perhaps for that reason the best “non-verbal liar,” capable not only of withholding information but of simulating the facial behavior associated with a feeling which the person is in no way experiencing. (Ekman 1972)

Here the Ekman of 1972 does not yet know what the Ekman of 1983 found out: that the “mechanical” construction of a face in the configuration of a “target emotion” elicits an ANS response, i.e. an “experience.” Thus lying is a very complicated business in which the skilled liar — a person who can make a convincing face — knows he is lying but feels he is telling the truth (see Ekman 1985). Exactly Nair’s (and Brecht’s) response. The half actor who “does not forget” himself is the knower; the half who “becomes the character itself” is the feeler.

… This would suggest, even, that a skilled performer has “three halves.” Both the ergotropic and trophotropic systems are aroused, while the “center” of the performer, the “I,” stands outside observing and to some degree controlling both the knower and the feeler. Clearly a complex operation engages both the cognitive and the affective systems simultaneously, without either one washing out the other. A similar “triple state” accompanies some kinds of trance, while in other kinds of trance the feelings may be so powerful that they blot out entirely both the “knowing half” and the “observing / controlling” half of the performer.

… The elephant bowing at the end of “his” act [in the circus] is not saying “thank you” although the spectators receive the elephant’s behavior as such and applaud even louder accordingly. But how is what the elephant does different from what Laurence Olivier did when, in blackface, as Othello, raging “Down strumpet!” he takes up the pillow to murder Desdemona? The difference is that Olivier’s knowing half knows he is just acting and as such controls his gestures so that he does not injure the actress playing Desdemona. Even more, Olivier feels and does not feel rage against that actress. Olivier is absorbed in the task of “performing the actions that communicate to himself and to his audience the emotions required.” The whole bundle is necessary in order to understand this kind of acting. The Balinese dancer in trance is in a middle position. She might not know at the time that she has been dancing, that the dedari (gods) have possessed her. But before and after dancing she knows what trance is (in her culture), what the proper gestures are, what behavior is acceptable while in trance (even how far “out of control” to get).

… Performing artists are forever playing around — not only with the codes, frames, and metaframes of communication — but with their own internal brain states. Although artistic and scientific creativity have long been thought to be similar, there is this decisive difference: scientists focus their work on external phenomena; even a neurobiologist works on somebody else’s brain. Performing artists — and, I would say, mediators, shamans, and trancers too — work on themselves, trying to induce deep psychophysical transformations either of a temporary or of a permanent kind. The external artwork — the performance the spectators see — is the visible result of a trialog among: 1) the conventions or givens of a genre, 2) the stretching, distorting, or invention of new conventions, and 3) brain-centered psychophysical transformations of self.

… Human communication systems are not reducible to the static model of “sender-channel-receiver,” or any variation thereof, that assumes the existence of discrete parts. The human system is an extremely subtle multiplex-feedback one in which the originator of feelings is also affected by the emotions s/he is expressing — even if these emotions are a lie. That is what Ekman’s experiment, and good acting, are saying: the doing of the action of a feeling is enough to arouse the feeling both in the doer and in the receiver. Olivier need not work himself into a jealous rage against the actress playing Desdemona; but neither is he devoid of feelings; performing the actions of Othello will arouse Olivier. The so-called surface of emotion — the look on the face, the tone of the skin, the tilt of the body, the placement and moves of muscles — is also the emotion’s “depth.”

… Performativity — or, commonly, “performance” — is everywhere in life, from ordinary gestures to macrodramas. But theatricality and narrativity are more limited, if only slightly so. Differences in degree of magnitude do lead to differences in kind. Aesthetic genres — theater, dance, music — are framed theatrically, signaling the intentions of their composers to their publics. Other genres are frequently not so clearly marked — but this does not make them any less performative.

… There is a continuity of performance magnitudes, from interior brain events to bits of training and the making of signs and scenes — the deconstruction / reconstruction process of workshops and rehearsals — on to public performances of varying scales — the end point being performances of worldwide or even cosmic dimensions, such as the Olympics, the shooting down of KAL 007, or Lowry Burgess’s Quiet Axis. Some of these are media events, some social dramas, some artworks. We have entered the epoch where a performance can be both a social drama and a media event, for example, the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980. However limited their magnitude at their points and moments of origin — a lone 747 trailed by a single fighter, an artist conceiving an artwork — they soon catch a larger audience. Some net hundreds of millions of people in narrative and symbolic macrodramas unique to our own times and technologies.

… To what degree does our very survival as a species depend on how peoples and their leaders “act,” not only in the sense of comportment but also in the theatrical sense? Exactly how a crisis is “handled” — played out, performed — becomes a matter of extreme importance. This brings me back to a basic paradox: humans are able to absorb and learn behavior so thoroughly that the new “performed” behavior knits seamlessly into ongoing “spontaneous” action. Performance magnitude means not only size and duration but also extension across cultural boundaries and penetration to the deepest strata of historical, personal, and neurological experience.

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



October 29, 2013

Fragrant, Yet Sharp

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… Color dissolves all tactile associations, and tactile associations are dissolved in color …

This is from the essay ‘Matisse in 1966’ found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4, edited by John O’Brian (1993):

Matisse is there as no one else is for ambitious painters in this moment: there as a fixed pole of quality as well as a guiding influence. More than any other predecessor, he establishes a relevant and abiding standard of quality; without being the greatest painter of the past, he tells us in our time, more pertinently than any other master can, what the art of painting is fundamentally about.

The personality of the artist fades into the radiance of his art. Matisse cuts no figure. He is not talked about the way Picasso is. There are no myths about him, no apocryphal stories to clear away. From most accounts, he was a cold man, and certainly a sober and posed one. It belongs to the success of his art that it makes the issue of coldness versus warmness irrelevant. In an age of crisis, but also of crisis-mongering, he produced an art that was seldom anything but serene. He was never distracted in his art by current events. Maybe this was a symptom of his coldness, but it was to the benefit of his art, and of art in general.

The course of Matisse’s art was unique in a sense that the course of Picasso’s was not. Picasso’s was carried along in its best years by the unfolding logic of Cubism; Matisse’s was not borne up by anything nearly so self-evident to himself. Fauvism had its own logic, to be sure, but that logic did not seem to be as compelling as that of Cubism was. After 1914, when Matisse came under Cubist influences, Fauvism seemed not just to have been superseded but to have been left unfinished, and it appeared all the more superseded and unfinished after 1917, when he returned to a way of painting much like that of the Impressionists in the early 1870s. Matisse was able, nevertheless, to maintain, and more than maintain, the qualitative continuity of his art without the supporting “logic” of a coherent style. His very best painting, perhaps, comes between 1914 and 1917. And in a way it is “styleless” painting, or at least it does not fall easily into any of the established stylistic categories of the twentieth century. If ever the continuity and coherence of a man’s art were maintained in sheer quality, they were in Matisse’s art in those years and in the years afterward.. The kind of painting he did in the decade after 1917 is not original in a major way; it does not advance the historical front of art. He shades and models with conventional-seeming grays and browns, and pictorial space is not handled differently than in Manet. The lambent, fragrant, yet sharp color in the pictures of this period does make a difference, but the revelation of this kind of color had come to Matisse years before; it was not new in principle. All the same, more than a few of these “unheroic” pictures are works of matchless perfection.

… I see Matisse’s touch as the most constant factor of his style and quality. This may seem paradoxical, because he makes so little case of his touch in the ways in which touch, in painting, is usually exploited. He never uses impasto, he never kneads or mauls his paint, he never makes it juicy. What, however, he does use his touch for, with all the feeling it communicates, is to suppress that which might connote or suggest other attributes of being than visibility. Color is a matter of the eye’s choice, but Matisse’s touch goes a long way to carry out that choice. If his color sings, it’s because his touch sings too. Very much depends on the exact pressure with which he puts brush to canvas and with which he moves it over the canvas. Very much depends on the fact that he soaks his brush with paint rather than loads it. The primed surface is covered with a fluid, not a stuff, and makes itself felt as one with its covering. Matisse knows also how to eploit the seen priming, which he sometimes lets show between his brush strokes in order to breathe air and lightness into his color. As far as I know, he was the first to do this deliberately (with Cézanne the naked priming, as much as it contributes to certain of his pictures, is evidence that the picture was not finished). Always, Matisse minimizes the tactile substance — the paint, the pigment — that bodies color forth; and his color becomes all the more vividly and intensely itself because it declares nothing but its visibility. Color dissolves all tactile associations, and tactile associations are dissolved in color — and yet in flat, not atmospheric, color: color that remains flat even when it is not opaque.



October 28, 2013

Their Particular Character

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:57 am

… The shape of the square confronts the silhouette of the amoeba.

This is from Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) by Alfred H. Barr, who was the first Director of MoMA:

… At the risk of grave oversimplification the impulse towards art during the past fifty years may be divided historically into two main currents, both of which emerged from Impressionism. The first and more important current finds its sources in the art and theories of Cézanne and Seurat, passes through the widening stream of Cubism and finds its delta in the various geometrical and Constructivist movements which developed in Russia and Holland during the War and have since spread throughout the world. This current may be described as intellectual, structural, architectonic, geometrical, rectilinear and classical in its austerity and dependence upon logic and calculation. The second — and, until recently, secondary — current has its principal source in the art and theories of Gauguin and his circle, flows through the Fauvisme of Matisse to the Abstract Expressionism of the pre-War paintings of Kandinsky. After running underground for a few years it reappears vigorously among the masters of abstract art associated with Surrealism. This tradition, by contrast with the first, is intuitional and emotional rather than intellectual; organic or biomorphic rather than geometrical in its forms; curvilinear rather than rectilinear, decorative rather than structural, and romantic rather than classical in its exaltation of the mystical, the spontaneous and the irrational. Apollo, Pythagoras and Descartes watch over the Cézanne-Cubist-geometrical tradition; Dionysus (an Asiatic god), Plotinus and Rousseau over the Gauguin-Expressionist-non-geometrical line.

Often, of course, these two currents intermingle and they may both appear in one man. At their purest the two tendencies may be illustrated by paintings of twenty years ago: a Supremist composition by Malevich and an Improvisation by Kandinsky. The geometrical strain is represented today by the painter Mondrian and the Constructivists Pevsner and Gabo; the non-geometrical by the painter Miro and the sculptor Arp. The shape of the square confronts the silhouette of the amoeba.

Representative of the two opposing strains, I give the following views. First, from ‘Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art’ by Piet Mondrian (1937):

… In removing completely from the work all objects, ‘the world is not separated from the spirit,’ but is on the contrary, put into a balanced opposition with the spirit, since the one and the other are purified. This creates a perfect unity between the two opposites. There are, however, many who imagine that they are too fond of life, particular reality, to be able to suppress figuration, and for that reason they still use in their work the object or figurative fragments which indicate its character. Nevertheless, one is well aware of the fact that in art one cannot hope to represent in the image things as they are, nor even as they manifest themselves in all their living brilliance. The impressionists, divisionists, and pointillists have already recognized that. There are some today who, recognizing the weakness and limitation of the image, attempt to create a work of art through the objects themselves, often by composing them in a more or less transformed manner. This clearly can not lead to an expression of their content nor of their true character. One can more or less remove the conventional appearance of things (surrealism), but they continue nevertheless to show their particular character and to arouse in us individual emotions. To love things in reality is to love them profoundly; it is to see them as a micrososmos in the macrocosmos. Only in this way can one achieve a universal expression of reality. Precisely on account of its profound love for things, non-figurative art does not aim at rendering them in their particular appearance.

Now, from ‘Statements to Tériade’ by Henri Matisse (1936):

… The reaction of each stage is as important as the subject. For this reaction comes from me and not from the subject. It is from the basis of my interpretation that I continually react until my work comes into harmony with me. Like someone writing a sentence, rewrites it, makes new discoveries … At each stage, I reach a balance, a conclusion. At the next sitting, if I find a weakness in the whole, I find my way back into the picture by means of the weakness — I re-enter through the breach — and reconceive the whole.

… At the final stage the painter finds himself freed and his emotion exists complete in his work. He himself, in any case, is relieved of it.



October 27, 2013

Wake Into Real Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… But what a price for this radiance, and how quickly must the debt be paid!

… In writing, which seems totally given over to the joys of its painted rooms, isn’t there a captive who is shaking the door?

This is from the essay ‘Image and Presence’ (1981) in The Act and the Place of Poetry: Selected Essays by Yves Bonnefoy (1989):

… if it is easy enough to verify, in the quiet of a study, that, in the ruins of the cogito, nothing remains but thousands of levels of the fleeting clouds of this language of which, for our passing  moment, we are only a slight ruffling of the structures, a mere crinkle which we cannot pretend to entirely understand, it is nonetheless true that when we speak we say “I,” and we say it in the urgency of our days and in the midst of a condition and of a place which remain, whatever may be their false pretenses or their groundlessness, both a reality and an absolute.

… while we must continue to study how the signifier ceaselessly fluctuates within the signs, it seems to me that we must also search for the way in which this élan that we are can affirm itself, in spite of being adrift in words, as an origin. What must one do, in other words, so that there still may be some sense in saying “I”?

… this excess in words over meaning is precisely what attracted me in my own case, when I came to poetry, in the snares of surrealistic writing. What a call, as if from an unknown heaven, in these clusters of lawless tropes! What energy, it seemed, in this unpredictable bubbling up from the depths of language!  But once the initial fascination was over, I took no joy in these words which I was told were free. I had before my eyes another kind of evidence, nourished by other poets, the evidence of running water, of a fire burning peacefully in our daily existence, and of time and chance of which these realities are made, and it seemed to me fairly soon that the transgressions of automatic writing were less the desired surreality, existing beyond the too superficial realisms of controlled thought whose signifieds remain fixed, than a reluctance to raise the question of the self, whose richest potentiality is perhaps in the life that one takes on day after day, without illusions, in the midst of what is simple. What are all the subtleties of language, after all, even turned upside-down in a thousand different ways, next to the perception one can have, directly, mysteriously, of the movement of the leaves against the sky, or of the noise fruit makes when it falls into the grass?

[line break added to make this easier to read online] And always throughout this whole time I kept in mind, as an encouragement and even as a proof, the moment when the young reader opens passionately a great book and finds words, of course, but also things and people, and the horizon, and the sky: in short, a whole world given all at once to his thirst. Ah, this reader does not read, be it even in Mallarmé, as the theoretician of poetry or as the semiologist asks  him to read! If he understands everything in the polysemies through comprehensive intuition, through the sympathy that one unconscious can have for another, it is in the great burst of flame which delivers to the mind — as formerly the negative theologies rid themselves of symbols, and as, when one raises one’s eye at Tournus, one sees unity spring forth from what is elsewhere only space. Words are there for him, of course; he can feel the vibrations of the signifiers which lead him toward other words in the labyrinths of the signifier, but he knows that there is a signified amongst them, a signified which depends on no one of them in particular and on all of them at once, which is intensity as such. The reader of poetry does not analyze — he pledges to the author, his brother, that he too will remain in intensity. And soon he closes up his book, anxious to go and live out the promise. He has rediscovered a hope. And this is what gives us the right to think that one should not give up hope in poetry.

And yet is it not that I am trying to deny the capacity for self-deception, for spreading unreality which exists in the work of the greatest poets; and, come to this point, I even feel the need to denounce this vanity myself, convinced as I am that true power is found only where weakness also lies, and that power can only grow and have merit if it has first of all recognized this weakness through careful study.

… This impression of a reality at last fully incarnate, which comes to us, paradoxically, through words which have turned away from incarnation, I shall call image. Images, world-images — in the sense it seems to me that Baudelaire meant when he wrote, at the most tormented moment of his poetic intuition: “The cult of images, my great, my unique, my primitive passion.” Images, the radiance which is missing in the grayness of our days, but which is allowed for by language when the unquenchable thirst of dream closes it back upon itself, when it kneads it like a mother’s breast.

But what a price for this radiance, and how quickly must the debt be paid! What has been kept in the literary work is what suits desire, it is what leaves it time to drink; it is therefore an infinite, dreamt of within the very limits of  things, of situations, or of beings — and it is what will be missing when we wake into real life, which has other laws.

… Holes thus appear in the intelligibility which subtends the worlds of speech, blackness in the clear skies of the image, even a complete tearing to shreds, no longer just of the hero in whom the poet is often reflected but of the very stage which had ben erected by his language, as in Phèdre — while words, sounds, rhythms, all the elements of prosody which one had seen working toward the unity of the poem reveal that they can just as easily attach themselves, in the emergence of forms, to what undermines their equilibrium and create a dissonance where one had  believed that one was hearing harmony.

Now who is expressing himself in this way, who can envisage this failure in the midst of the world dreamt of by the literary work, if not someone who, though moved by this dream, yet refuses to consent to its potential for lying? In writing, which seems totally given over to the joys of its painted rooms, isn’t there a captive who is shaking the door?

… In the very heart of writing, there is a questioning of writing. In the midst of this absence, something like a voice which persists.

What is the meaning of this persistence? At the very least that poets carry within themselves another idea of what has importance, or of what is, than the idea which emerges today from the investigations of the semiologist. In the very place where for the latter the writer’s struggle with words reveals nothing but transitory structurations, shadows where the person speaking has nothing but a shadow to inscribe, there precisely the poets find something very different, since we see that they can sacrifice what they had taken for a more intense form of reality — and this in order to bear witness to an existence beyond, to a being, to a plenitude they don’t even know how to name.

… if you have found any merit in my idea of poetry as war against the Image — against the claims of words, against the weight of what is written — you will also have granted me that the poet knows exactly what he is doing, or to put it better, can only be a poet precisely through knowing it. His task, which is to reestablish openness, as Rilke would have said, is necessarily a meditation on what encloses his speech. And this project aims, of course, not at words in a manuscript, but at ideas, at experiences in the practice of life, which commits him to a process of becoming that can be, in the case of the greatest poets, a process of spiritual maturation. At the height of its misgivings, poetry is nothing other than an act of knowing.

… At its highest point, of which one can at least have an intimation, poetry must certainly succeed in understanding that these images which, if made absolutes, would have been its lie are nothing more, once one overcomes them, than the forms, the simply natural forms, of desire, desire which is so fundamental, so insatiable that it constitutes in all of us our very humanity.

… if it is true, as our time believes, that subjectivity is from now on fracturable, and that poetry and a science of signs may be able to unite in a new relationship between the “I’ which is and the “me” which dreams, what unexpected richness for hope all at once!



October 26, 2013

Our Likings

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:18 am

… we have grown all our limbs on the strength of the likings of our ancestors and adopt these without question.

This is from the essay ‘On Knowing what Gives Us Pleasure’ by Samuel Butler (1880):

… if we could solve the difficulty of knowing what gives us pleasure, if we could find its springs, its inception and earliest modus operandi, we should have discovered the secret of life and development, for the same difficulty has attended the development of every sense from touch onwards, and no new sense was ever developed without pains. A man had better stick to known and proved pleasures, but, if he will venture in quest of new ones, he should not do so with a light heart.

One reason why we find  it so hard to know our own likings is because we are so little accustomed to try; we have our likings found for us in respect of by far the greater number of the matters that concern us; thus we have grown all our limbs on the strength of the likings of our ancestors and adopt these without question.

… the most important first principle in this matter is the not lightly thinking you know what you like till you have made sure of your ground. I was nearly forty before I felt how stupid it was to pretend to know things that I did not know and I still often catch myself doing so. Not one of my school-masters taught me this, but altogether otherwise.

… I should like to like Schumann’s music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all.

… To know whether you are enjoying a piece of music or not you must see whether you find yourself looking at the advertisements of Pears’ soap at the end of the programme.



October 25, 2013

Everyman Has Video

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

This is from ‘The Withering Away of the State of the Art’ ((1974) in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton edited by Bruce Jenkins (2009). In this essay he’s talking about the arrival of video, from a filmmaker’s (his) point of view:

… Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, suggests that civilization depends upon the delay of gratification. I might caricature this to mean that by denying myself a hundred million lollipops, I’ll end up with a steam yacht … and go on to envision a perfect civilization entirely devoid of gratification. But every filmmaker must perforce believe in part of this cartoon, since filmmaking involves long delays, during which the work more than once disappears into the dark night of the mind and the laboratory. I remember, on the other hand, the first time I ever used video. I made a piece, a half-hour long, in one continuous take. Then I rewound the notation and saw my work right away. That was three years ago, and to tell the truth, some part of my puritanical filmmaker’s nature remains appalled to this day. The gratification was so intense and immediate that I felt confused. I thought I might be turning into a barbarian … or maybe even a musician.

… We’re all familiar with the parameters of expression: Hue, Saturation, Brightness, Contrast. For the adventurous, there remain the twin deities Vertical Hold and Horizontal Hold … and for those aspiring to the pinnacles, Fine Tuning. Imagine, if you will, the delicious parallel in painting: a canvas by Kenneth Noland, say, sold with a roll of masking tape and cans of spray paint, just in case the perceiver should care to cool the painting off, or warm it up, or juice it up, or tone it down.

The point is obvious. Everyman has video to suit himself, even to turning it off or on, at minimal expense and effort. I am tempted to see, from one household to the next, an adequation of the broadcast image to the families’ several notions of the universe. What a shame it is, we must often suppose, that other people persist in having their furniture so poorly adjusted.

Were we but intelligent enough, we might recognize here a window into the individual mind as unique and valuable as that afforded us by the twenty-one-centimeter radio band into the universe outside our atmosphere.



October 24, 2013

His Eyes and His Ears

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:57 am

… here was a man who did not enjoy reading books for pleasure or instruction, but who was pleased to use his eyes and his ears instead.

This is a two parter, starting with extracts from ‘History on the Public Screen, I’ by historian Donald Watt (1976). I’m finding it in the collection New Challenges for Documentary: Second Edition edited by Alan Rosenthal and John Corner (2005):

A certain experience of going to conferences where historians and professionals of the media — film and television — congregate has taught me that there are a number of fundamental “false problems” that have to be cleared out of the way before any intelligent discussion, let alone cooperation, is possible.

That this process should be undertaken is, I think, self-evident. For, at least on television, history has become big business.

… The first of these false problems (indeed the first two) can best be expressed in opposed propositions, as follows: the historian’s main concern is accuracy; the producer of film and television is concerned with entertainment. The unspoken premise of the first proposition is that to be accurate is to be dull. The unspoken premise of the opposed proposition is that to be entertaining, it is necessary to distort or misrepresent. A good lie, so it is maintained, is always more entertaining than a dull truth.

The second set of propositions, in some sense, complements the first. They may be stated as follows: the historian (or more properly, the academic historian) is concerned only with words. Given his preferences he will lecture, and all the audience will see is a “talking head,” that bogey of producers. The producer, by contrast, is really interested only in what appears on the screen, the visual impact of the medium. Given half a chance he will go after anything — provided that it is “good vision” (or good television) — irrespective of its relevance to the chosen topic. He will always prefer art nouveau “wallpaper” to the plausible, credible, narrative.

To call these “false problems” is not to deny that they can exist. There are always irresponsible ratings-bound producers. Indeed, when collaboration between historians and makers of documentary films for educational or television purposes began, one could collect encyclopedias of horror stories wherever proponents of either camp could be found in Britain. But in the last decade there has grown up, as a result of mutual experience and a sequence of conferences, a convergence of minds and a mutual comprehension of the technical problems, at least at the level of the producer and the historian. The problems the historian faces with the media at the time of writing are usually created by the administrators and policy makers, not by the producers and the cameramen.

… the media are administered by men of considerable sophistication, often highly educated, but of an education that in contemporary and recent history is usually a combination of out-of-date views and prejudices. It is embodied in the phenomenon of the amateur historian whose views were formed by the Left Book Club, an animal not tolerated for a moment in professional circles, who is rendered doubly intolerable by his monopoly access to the viewing audience conferred by the limited choices of television programs.

… The worst curse of the media, however, is the contempt shown by the top brass for the taste and judgment of their audience. Despite the abundant evidence of their own statistics that there exists an enormous television audience for mildly educational material, especially on subjects connected with recent and contemporary history, war history in particular, they are petrified by the fear that if anything intellectually above the children’s history book market is shown on their screens there will be a mass rush of viewers into alternative channels.

This next, in response to the above, is from the ‘History of the Public Screen, II’ by Jerry Kuehl (1976):

… In the previous chapter Donald Watt examined this problem from the standpoint of the professional historian: I write as a producer of historical documentaries for mass audience.

Let me say right at the beginning that what seems to me to be at the heart of the matter is the question of the commentary, which is an integral part of every documentary: who should write it, how should it relate to the film, to whom should it be addressed, and above all, what should it contain?

Most television documentaries are fifty minutes long. So let us consider just how much can be said in fifty minutes. BBC newsreaders, who are professionally trained to speak rapidly and comprehensibly, talk at about 160 words a minute; this means that by talking nonstop they could deliver, in fifty minutes, a text not twice as long as this chapter [which is short]. But in fact, as a rule of thumb, competent documentary producers begin to worry when a commentary takes up more than about a quarter of a program’s length. In other words, a commentary of between one thousand and fifteen hundred words is quite long enough — any more, and the film is liable to become a kind of illustrated radio program. It will appear to viewers as dense, overstuffed. They will be repelled, not informed. The consequence of this may be quite sobering to an academician: that is, whatever the writer wishes to say ought to be said in the equivalent of a single-page New Statesman article or a fifteen-minute lecture. There is no way around this. If he tries to say more, his audiences will understand less. They will, in time, simply switch off — figuratively or literally.

… Commentaries are intimately related to the images which they accompany, point up, explain, call attention to, make sense of. Because of their brevity, they cannot be in any real sense exhaustive or comprehensive. They need not even be coherent, in the sense that they need not unambiguously argue that one thing or another is the case. They do not lay down the line: they evoke. The one thing they cannot do with any hope of success is to use as their models such literary forms as the learned article, the public lecture, or even the popular journalistic review. They are not an independent literary form.

Moreover, since a great many significant events, processes, decisions, were never, could never, be filmed, the gaps in commentary may be dictated not by the writer’s conscious decision — as would be the case if he or she were writing a brief article for a part-work — but by what is or is not available on film.

… to make a program for a mass audience is to make a program for an audience whose ordinary mode of apprehension is not literary. People who watch a great deal of television do not as a rule read many books; viewing and reading are for them mutually exclusive, not complementary activities.

That means that for most of the audience The World at War was not a complement to the memoirs of Albert Speer, the learned volumes of Captain Liddell Hart, or the speculations of Mr. A.J.P. Taylor; it was all they had. Many of my colleagues are inclined to dismiss or simply not understand those whose education does not equip them for the task, or the pleasure, of translating Alan Taylor’s flights of fancy into sober assessments. They, I believe, fail utterly to understand what their job should be. It is not to furnish pictorial counterparts to the knowledge that their audience has acquired through its reading: it is to tell, and show — in a word, to do history for — people who do not, as a rule, read very much.

I confess that this understanding came late for me. An American ex-serviceman in his fifties told me after a projection of one of our programs how, through it, he had come to understand how his own job as a stoker on an American troop transport in the South Pacific helped shorten the war and so helped save Dutch Jews from extermination. My initial harsh reaction was to think, aghast, that if he had bothered to read even one popular account of the war in the past thirty years he would  not have needed the film to reveal that to him. But a moment’s reflection showed how wrong I was to think that way. The point was precisely that here was a man who did not enjoy reading books for pleasure or instruction, but who was pleased to use his eyes and his ears instead. No book about the war had struck his fancy — our films did. And our films were not made for book lovers who wanted more, they were made for film lovers who had little else.

… There is another, less obvious, point. Historians see one of their principal tasks as that of conveying information (those with literary skill, of course, delight in conveying information pleasurably). But producers of programs for mass audiences — and in this they do differ from producers for adult education programs or for schools — must be more concerned to convey their own enthusiasms. The form that their best efforts take is not “Here are some things you all ought to know about the Battle of Stalingrad” but rather “We are passionately concerned about the Battle of Stalingrad. If you will watch our program, we will try to share with you some of our passion and some of our concern.” this is not a sentiment which, in my experience, informs the pages of the English Historical Review.

I have not said anything so far about the producer’s use of historical evidence, a matter of evergreen concern to academics. This is because I think it is of only peripheral interest. If producers were making films for an audience of professional historians, they would work in quite different ways. But their films are not densely packed arguments, and they neither need nor use the kind of apparatus criticus obligatory in scholarly articles or even textbooks. If there is a literary analogy, it is not the doctoral dissertation but the reflective essay in which nothing is said recklessly but in which the flow of the text is not burdened with a scholarly apparatus either.

… Rather than despising and dismissing popular television for being what it is, still less trying to replace the mass television history of our day with their own mandarin versions, they should concentrate on doing their jobs as historians as well as they can, so that the history they write will be as good as it can be, so that the popular accounts which we provide will be as true as they can be.



October 23, 2013

Where Clarity of Signal Is Needed Most

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… Drama arises where clarity of signal is needed most: where the risk is greatest and the stakes highest, where redundancy of signal is an advantage.

This is from Performance Theory by Richard Schechner (1988, 2003):

… Theatrical performances consist of ritualized gestures and sounds. These may be displays of non-daily behavior as in Kabuki, Kathakali, ballet, or the dances of Australian Aborigines. Or they may be replications of ordinary behavior as in naturalistic theater. Theater trades on recognizable moments and on sequences of behavior that succinctly “tell stories.” I think all kinds of theater — that on show in theaters or churches, that of rites of passage, that of sports, that accompanying official displays of power, and that happening on a microsocial level in play and daily routines — comprise a single system of script, scenarios, disguise, displays, dances, impersonations, and scenes.

… The movie camera has given artists the ability to stop action, examine gesture frame by frame, go forward and backward, repeat, and study compositions as they condense and evaporate; these techniques have reshaped theatrical imagination. … The kind of ritualization [that “human ethologists”] study does not focus on social organization so much as on micro-gestures: glances, eyebrow flashes, smiles, hand gestures, shoulder lurches, pelvic thrusts, etc. To be alive is to dance.

… In my view drama is not a model of all human action, but of the most problematical, difficult, taboo, liminal, and dangerous activities. The theatrical actions vivifying drama are rhythmic, repetitive, exaggerated; the body adornments and physical deeds of theater are spectacular: everything in theater is ritualized, if we understand ritual the way ethologists do. Drama arises where clarity of signal is needed most: where the risk is greatest and the stakes highest, where redundancy of signal is an advantage. Drama, the narrative core of theater, links two basic human actions: 1) misunderstanding, a break in communication, a confusion of messages, a layering of ironies; 2) the violence that results when sexual and political desires collide; such violence (in farce as well as tragedy) often takes the shape of a rebellion against authority and decency.

… the dramatic event at the core of the performance is itself a ritualized way of presenting to the assembled community, the audience, “difficult” material. In this sense, every drama is a story enacted for those who are, directly or indirectly, the subject of the story they are seeing, who are doubly represented — as characters and as spectators. Or, as Geertz said of the Balinese cockfight, it is “a story they tell themselves about themselves.” It is no accident that Shakespeare’s plays are not only full of metatheatrical plays-within-plays and references to the stage but also thematically return again and again to questions of personal-vs-state interests. Or that nineteenth-twentieth century naturalist dramas focused on the disparity between individual needs (often sexual and creative) and the grinding routine of the socioeconomic order of things. It’s been my experience that the more risky the actions dealt with in performance — the more physical the actions, the more taboos revealed or violated — the stronger the bonds formed among the group making the performance. The limits here are ethical: what the group itself, or its leaders, determine are the boundaries of what will be acted out. Gangs, even political parties, have in “real life” carried such bonding to grisly extremes.

[ … ]

… In humans as in other animals, separating in-groupers from out-groupers gives rise to two complementary conflict systems: 1) aggressive conflict against outsiders (“not my people”): 2) aggressive solidarity for insiders (“my people”). These two systems express themselves everywhere, but especially in war, business, and sports.

… Conflict-resolution systems — mediation, courts, and diplomacy — try to convert the first kind of aggression into the second: widening the circle of insiders. Often the conflict-resolution process is a mirror or reduction-transformation of the conflict to be resolved: a theatrical playing out of the conflict.

In human theater the subject matter and actions include the most horrible deeds; bloody conflicts between people, gods, beasts, and demons; war and murder; atrocities; torture: every violent action imaginable. But all this is acted out as ritual and/or play. This is because redirected behavior and displacement activities in people create complicated sequences of transformations, different in each culture, maybe in each individual, but interculturally recognizable as make-believe. Audiences can enjoy watching/participating and performers can enjoy playing out what otherwise would be dangerous, forbidden, or inhibited. Acting out the troubles of Oedipus, the murders of Macbeth, the adventures of Rama, the crucifixion of Jesus, the struggle of a shaman against the disease-causing demons, the farces or informal courts of the Kogu all yield great pleasure. In serious drama or tragedy as well as farce, the pleasures derive from the excess of energy released when obstacles to seeing/participating in taboo actions are suddenly removed.

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



October 22, 2013

Make Room

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

Caro’s art is original because it changes and expands taste in order to make room for itself.

This is from the essay ‘Contemporary Sculpture: Anthony Caro’ (1965) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4, edited by John O’Brian (1993):

“Breakthrough” is a much-abused word in contemporary art writing, but I don’t hesitate to apply it to the sculpture in steel that Anthony Caro, of London, has been doing since 1960. During the fifties, abstract sculpture seemed to go pretty much where David Smith took it. None of the promises made by other sculptors during that time was really fulfilled; some of them produced good things, but the good things remained isolated, did not add up. Caro is the only sculptor who has definitely emerged from this situation and, in emerging from it, begun to change it. He is the only new sculptor whose sustained quality can bear comparison with Smith’s. With him it has become possible at long last to talk of a generation in sculpture that really comes after Smith’s.

Caro is also the first sculptor to digest Smith’s ideas instead of merely borrowing from them. Precisely by deriving from Smith he has been the better able to establish his own individuality. Unquestionably, he was led to the use of ready-made materials by Smith’s example, which may also have shown him how it was possible to achieve “free” effects with geometrical elements. But Caro’s sculptures invade space in a quite different way — a way that is as different almost from Smith’s as it is from Gonzalez’s — and they are more integrally abstract. Caro is far less interested in contours or profiles than in vectors, lines of force and direction. Rarely does a single shape in Caro’s sculpture give satisfaction in itself; the weight of his art lies preponderantly in what Michael Fried calls its “syntax,” that is, in the relations of its discrete parts. In his catalogue text for the first show of Caro’s post-1959 work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in September and October of 1963, Mr. Fried writes: “Everything in Caro’s art that is worth looking at — except the color — is in its syntax.” This emphasis on syntax is also an emphasis on abstractness, on radical unlikeness, to nature.

No other sculptor has gone as far from the sculptural logic of ordinary ponderable things. Certainly not Calder, whose mobiles so obviously evoke plant forms with their spinal and nodal symmetries. Symmetry enters Caro’s art too, but only at the last moment as it were, surreptitiously and indirectly. Planar and linear shapes of steel (there are no solidly enclosed volumes in Caro’s vocabulary) gather together in what the surprised eye takes at first for mere agglomerations. Seldom is there an enclosing silhouette or internal pattern with readily apparent axes and centers of interest; these, when they emerge, do so tangentially and ex-centrically. That the ground plan will at times echo as well as interlock with the superstructure or elevation (as in the superb Sculpture Two of 1962) only renders the unity of a piece that much harder to grasp at first. Yet just those factors that make for confusion at first make most for unity in the end.

[ … ]

… It ought to be unnecessary to say that Caro’s originality is more than a question of stylistic or formal ingenuity. Were it that it would amount to no more than novelty, and taste would not, in the event, find itself so challenged by it. Caro’s art is original because it changes and expands taste in order to make room for itself. And it is able to do this only because it is the product of a necessity; only because it is compelled by a vision that is unable to make itself known except by changing art.



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